Sunday, November 27, 2016

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, December 4.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is President Trump the reincarnation of President Tyler?

Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Tyler & Trump: More alike than different?

The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation's 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump's party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions--prior to his presidential run in 2012--to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.

Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.

Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.

After Tyler's vetoes, the Whigs expelled him from the party. Then, almost all of Tyler's cabinet resigned. Trump is still awaiting his turn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but already there is intraparty turmoil at his transition headquarters in New York City's Trump Tower. Trump has purged some Republican party stalwarts in favor of outsiders and family members as his suspicion grows.

The Whig Party leadership never contemplated that Tyler might become president just as the Republican Party leadership never believed that Trump had a chance at the nomination. Once he had won the nomination, they believed he could not win the presidency.

Tyler was recruited to be Harrison's running mate to balance the ticket by attracting Southern voters. But Tyler's states' rights views ran counter to the Whigs' desire to use to the federal government to modernize the economy and the infrastructure, a program known as the American System. Hence, Tyler's disagreement with the plans of Congressional Whigs. He felt the states should remain responsible for infrastructure.

Of course, in contrast, Trump wants the federal government to engage in a long and costly program of infrastructure improvements, a program not favored by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the other hand, Trump's focus in a globalized economy on "making America great again" is reminiscent of Tyler's focus on states in the era of an emerging national economy.

Those hostile to Tyler nicknamed him "His Accidency." It is fairly clear from the reaction to Trump's victory that few people expected him to become president. While it wasn't an accident, it may have seemed that way to a Republican establishment whose primary system was supposed to crown an establishment choice early on and make that candidate impossible to catch.

In fact, it's possible that Trump did not at first intend to run a serious campaign. In that respect his success may have seemed like an accident to him. Trump may have started out intending only to raise his public profile in order to enhance the Trump brand. Trump nemesis Michael Moore claimed that he had direct confirmation (though the source remained anonymous) that Trump was merely trying to get more money for his reality television show, "The Apprentice." And, an insider from the nominally independent pro-Trump Make America Great Again PAC (which was eventually closed down) said that she was told Trump was merely trying to make a good showing. But then Trump became enamored with his own success.

In the end even statements and actions by Trump which Moore and others characterized as self-destructive only seemed to draw more supporters to him. Was Trump intentionally trying to self-destruct only to be caught off guard by the appeal of his supposedly self-destructive words and behaviors? Only he can tell us.

There is already talk that Trump could be impeached based on possible illegal activities that surface from his past. The standard response to such an assertion is that Republicans control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But the claim is that Congressional Republicans will soon tire of having someone in the presidency who though nominally Republican cannot be counted upon to enact their agenda. The successful removal of Trump from office would, of course, make Vice President Mike Pence president. Pence is a seasoned politician who is aligned with the Republican agenda.

Tyler differs from Trump, of course, in key ways. Tyler was a lawyer who came from a political family and held several elective offices before ascending to the vice presidency and then the presidency. But it's worth noting that the fractiousness of the Tyler presidency was a prelude to the dissolution of the Whigs--which by the early 1850s had disintegrated due not only to internal disagreements over slavery, but also lack of a coherent, unified message.

Republicans face internal divisions among those who voted for them as well. The traditional Republican coalition of business interests, libertarians, and social conservatives was augmented this year by an influx of white working-class voters feeling besieged by economic globalization. Of course, many white working-class voters had already been voting Republican for a long time because of their discomfort with what they perceived as the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party. But it was the new and crossover working-class voters who proved decisive.

Those voters oppose the free trade agenda of the Republican Party and are skeptical of the party's corporate ties. Moreover, social conservatives can hardly find Trump's embrace of same-sex marriage comforting. And, the business lobby hates Trump's opposition to so-called H-1B visas, the kind that allow foreign high-tech workers to work in the United States. Scarier yet for the business-oriented globalist Republicans, Steve Bannon, Trump's closest advisor, is calling for what he dubs "an economic nationalist movement."

Will these internal tensions cause the Republican Party to go the way of Whigs? At the very least, the road ahead for the Republican Party and Donald Trump does not look like a smooth one, and Trump's unpredictable style is likely to keep the public and the pundits guessing every step of the way about what comes next.

Images of John Tyler and Donald Trump sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump: America's pilot-in-chief in the post-ecological age

Many Americans are frightened by the idea of Donald Trump as the country's new pilot-in-chief, fearing he'll crash the airliner of state (including climate and environmental policies) into a mountain or the ground. Clinton, they argued, for all her flaws, knows how to fly this thing called a country using the federal government and at least won't end up crashing it.

But my metaphor assumes that every American believes he or she is on the same plane. And, that understanding is what seems to have clouded the minds of so many when thinking about the U.S. presidential campaign this year. For those living in America's small towns and rural areas and for those in the downwardly mobile working class, their plane has already crashed!

These groups are now dazed and wandering around in the wreckage trying to figure out how to live from day to day. It is no wonder that such voters were immune to cries that Trump would crash the country. The business-as-usual globalism that they believed Hillary Clinton represented seemed to them like it would only make things worse.

Both Donald Trump and Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders told these disaffected groups that a big part of the reason their communities and livelihoods crashed was a set of trade agreements that essentially shipped their jobs overseas. That made sense to them, and for a time they had two competing champions. But only Donald Trump made it to the general election.

Having already seen their lives and livelihoods crash, those disaffected Americans who voted for Trump did so with more than a little glee in the hope that the specially outfitted luxury airliner America's elite flies would crash as well. I think many of these voters were aware of the irony of voting for someone as their champion who really does fly around in his own private luxury airliner. But, they had simply had enough of establishment candidates and wanted to send a message. They certainly got everyone's attention when Trump won.

(As I've written before, Trump attracted most of the traditional Republican voters--business-oriented voters, social conservatives, and libertarians. What tipped the balance were the excess votes coming from those who might have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.)

Whether Trump can or will actually fulfill promises made to those who supported him is unknown. The news out of Washington last week does not bode well for such an outcome as 1) conservatives downplay new infrastructure spending that would help create the jobs Trump promised, 2) Chamber of Commerce Republicans could balk at his levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods that is supposed to protect American workers and 3) Trump considers John Bolton for secretary of state, a man who would certainly try to derail a warming of relations with Russia favored by Trump.

Trump may also face Republican attempts to impeach him to make way for establishment Republican Vice President Mike Pence to become president. Even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks couldn't resist hinting at the possibility in a recent column. Given the coverage of Trump to date, it doesn't seem far-fetched that a determined Republican Congress could build a case against him.

The shock of Trump's victory has been likened to the shock the world felt when British voters narrowly chose to leave the European Union, a move dubbed "Brexit." I detailed then the energy part of the Brexit equation suggesting that Great Britain's declining oil and gas production from the North Sea since 2004 had undermined the prosperity of the country--except for the financial class mostly located in and around London, a major world financial center.

I noted that stagnant wages were a common theme both in Britain and the United States and suggested a link with the high worldwide price of oil from 2010 through most of 2014.

I also noted in another piece that both major U.S. presidential candidates--while differing on environmental issues such as climate change--embraced speeding up economic growth. My conclusion in this much older piece is that what U.S. political parties differ on ecologically speaking is not whether we should protect the long-term habitability of the biosphere for humans, but rather at what pace we should undermine that habitability for short-term gains, both political and economic.

This is what I mean when I say we have a pre-ecological politics in a post-ecological age. The sciences tells us quite grimly what the prognosis is for the climate, the oceans, the rivers, the soil, the forests, and the myriad other species that share the planet with us, but we do not understand. Most of us cling to the what I call the modern myth, the premises of which I'll repeat here:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Those who fret about Trump's climate and environmental policies have reason to be concerned. But, in truth, our trajectory with Clinton would only be somewhat less injurious to the biosphere--though it might have upheld other values such as the importance of maintaining the natural beauty of some public lands. (We should also not overestimate what one person, even the president of the United States, can do good or bad regarding such matters.)

This is not to dismiss the Paris climate agreement from which Trump has pledged to withdraw the United States. The agreement was an important watershed moment in which the world was united at least in saying that climate change was real and an urgent priority. But what we need to do to address climate change goes far beyond what that agreement contains.

Our larger problem is that our political discourse remains pre-ecological. Changing that discourse won't happen just because another party takes the White House in four years.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The most powerful word in politics is 'no'

I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."

It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.

Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)

If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.

More often than not voters seek to vent their spleens when they vote. There is always something to be angry about, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to express anger. We humans are made for it. It is an instinctual response meant to warn others. Expressing it as voters has the added benefit of giving us a feeling of power. Voting is one of few arenas where the average person has the same say as the richest billionaire.

(The corollary to anger in this context is fear. And, while people often vote their fears, the way they tend to articulate their reasons for voting their fears is through the expression of anger.)

America's elites are puzzled about why there is so much anger among the electorate this year. Those elites are out of touch with the damage that the globalizing economy has inflicted on rural and small-town America. They are out of touch with a population whose incomes have stagnated or declined since the Great Recession. They are out of touch with people who have simply given up looking for work and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed.

One might make the case that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee for president, he might be far ahead of Donald Trump given Sanders' consistently high polling numbers versus Trump. But part of Sanders' secret is his ability to harness the power of "no." "No" to big bankers. "No" to barons of industry. "No" to unfair trade deals. Still, Sanders had more than just the word "no." He had a plan for addressing the damage done to middle-class families by the powerful. Sanders had a "yes" as well.

Clinton often seems as removed from the suffering masses as the elites I described above. I understand that her temperament would never have allowed her to growl like Sanders or Trump. But she has not been able to find a definitive "no" in an election that is turning out to be all about "no," either "no" to the establishment or "no" to Donald Trump.

When Chile's implacable dictator, Augusto Pinochet, made himself subject to a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he would continue as president for another eight years, he handed his opposition the most powerful word in politics. The "No" campaign has become famous and has been chronicled in a film of the same name. Pinochet lost, and the "No" campaign effectively ended his rule.

Not every important issue lends itself to "no." The "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign never made much of a dent in illicit drug use. Saying "no" to climate change--that is, telling people how terrible it will be in order to get them to act to prevent and mitigate it--has not been a very fruitful strategy. Instead, climate change deniers have styled climate change as a hoax, and have, in a sense, taken over the "no" position.

In order for "no" to work well in public discourse, it helps to have a villain to whom you are saying "no": rich bankers, dictators, "evil" political opponents, foreigners. "No," when used against an amorphous atmospheric problem such as climate change, falls flat. Vilifying coal and oil company executives works much better. We want to say "no" to somebody specific.

The problem with "no" is that when it is not paired with a "yes" in some form, it leads to nothing more than the politics of anger. Entire political movements can be fueled for a long time on anger. But very little positive change can be accomplished unless there is ultimately something to say "yes" to that will unite the disparate chorus of "no," the members of which don't automatically agree on solutions.

Beware of the "no"-mongers who offer you no comprehensible and feasible path to "yes." They just want to keep your anger alive for their own gain and that of the powerful vested interests they represent.

One more thing: Solving the problems behind the "no" would actually undermine the power of the "no"-mongers. That's why they don't ever actually try to solve them.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Howard Odum, transformities and the urban/rural divide in America

It's hard not to see the urban/rural divide in the United States--unless you just don't look. Perhaps the most iconic image representing that divide is a map of presidential election results by county. The map below is from 2012.

U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS BY COUNTY (2012)
RED = Romney (Republican) BLUE = Obama (Democrat)



Most of the land area of the United States represents Republican territory. But, of course, dense urban areas taking up much less land, but having far more voters per square mile, proved decisive for the incumbant Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

It might seem that this is merely a cultural divide, hicks versus city slickers. But it is also an economic divide. Rural areas have been pummeled economically by the globalizing economy. That economy rewards the innovations and technology invented and deployed in cities more than the commodities that come out of the countryside. Hidden beneath these cultural and economic factors is an energy imbalance that Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, first identified in his work on what he called transformities.

Let me quote from a previous piece of mine in which I explain transformities:

To read the chart below one must know that Odum turned all measurements into equivalent calories of solar energy which he dubbed solar emcalories. Concentration of emcalories leads to their greater and greater usefulness to human society. Diffuse sunlight on a field only warms a person for as long as the sun shines. But the energy concentrated in field crops can be stored until needed for food or fuel. Such is the role of what Odum calls transformities, that is, the transformation of previously concentrated energy into more concentrated, more energy-intense forms. Transforming fossil fuels into electricity is another example.
TYPICAL TRANSFORMITIES
Adapted from "A Prosperous Way Down" by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum

Item
Solar Emcalories Needed Per Calorie Produced
Sunlight energy
1
Wind energy
1,500
Organic matter, wood, soil
4,400
Potential of elevated rainwater
10,000
Chemical energy of rainwater
18,000
Mechanical energy
20,000
Large river energy
40,000
Fossil fuels
50,000
Foods
100,000
Electric power
170,000
Protein foods
1,000,000
Human services
100,000,000
Information
1 X 1011
Species Formation
1 X 1015


Transformities reveal the amount of energy embodied in things central to the well-being of human societies. Rural areas have long been servants to cities which simply do not have the land area to provide all their needs. Rural areas essentially concentrate the sunlight in the form of crops before shipping them off to cities.

The problem for rural producers is that they do not get all the value which is embodied in the things they grow. They especially do not get credit for the concentration of energy. Most of that valuable work is done for free by nature. But, the farmer typically receives only the cost of inputs and perhaps a small profit to grow and deliver crops for further processing, mostly to cities. Sometimes the farmer gets paid less than the cost of inputs, selling at a loss.

Cities add value to those crops by milling, cooking, combining, and packaging, in short, by creating foods for the marketplace. Those foods are then shipped not only to city residents, but also back to rural residents and with a significant markup for the value added.

The marketplace assigns a far higher value to the value added by urban workers than that added by farmers (due in part to the energy component of the value added). This accounts for the higher incomes of city dwellers and for the perennial economic imbalance between city and countryside.

The same is true for mining. Though some miners and landowners strike it rich, they do so because nature has done practically all the work for them by concentrating minerals in deposits accessible to humans (and often because prevailing legal and social arrangements allow them to claim the minerals as their own property). Again, most of the value added is done by refiners and then manufacturers who fashion the minerals into products--and then sell some of them back to the miners and landowners.

Miners and other owners of minerals can face the same economic deprivation as farmers do. Although we don't often think of oil as a mineral, it is--though the means to mine it are different from those used to mine copper and zinc. The boom experienced by such places as North Dakota and Texas when oil prices were high has been followed by a punishing bust brought on by a price collapse. City dwellers don't much care whether oil producers are being paid enough to cover their costs. In fact, these city dwellers rejoice when fuel prices fall.

Of course, most of the value added to oil comes from refining it into the products we require such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil. Integrated oil companies reap some of this reward while companies that focus only on exploration and development do not. And, of course, major refineries--and the jobs and taxes that go with them--are near their greatest concentration of customers, namely, cities.

There is one very important difference today from the past regarding the urban/rural divide. In the past, the vast majority of humans lived on farms; only a tiny minority lived in cities. Today, the productivity of modern farming techniques has shrunk the ranks of farmers in the United States to about 3.2 million in a country of 324 million or about one percent.

Mining has never employed a large percentage of the population, but even that percentage has fallen as huge machines have taken over tasks once performed by miners with pick axes.

The urban population of the United States now accounts for more than 80 percent of the total U.S. population. Rural residents have long ceded much of their economic power to cities--something that has been true from the beginning of civilization. But, rural residents who used to constitute a large majority are now vastly outnumbered, and their political power is seriously diminished.

It is no wonder that rural populations are feeling ignored and even threatened. It is harder and harder to make a living in rural locations. And, with the advent of 24/7 communications, it is harder and harder to maintain a rural culture that is distinct from that of most cities. Rural populations face a double attack on both their livelihoods and their "way of life."

Redressing the imbalance between city and countryside could take the form of investing in value-added processes closer to farms and mines. That would require huge capital investments. Small-scale investments have already allowed some farms to expand operations to process and package their own products for sale.

Perhaps just as important would be a rise in public investment in rural communities, the tax bases of which have been eroded by the exodus of industry and people. Though Republicans know how to speak to the cultural anxieties of those in rural communities, both major U.S. political parties have de facto adopted the view that the decline of rural life is an inevitable result of globalization, and that there is little anyone can or should do about it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the political party that awakens to the upside inherent in once again embracing rural lives and livelihoods as important to the country as a whole.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Campaign melodrama: As the world burns

In the melodrama that passes for the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump got practically all the post-debate headlines last week when he hedged on whether he would accept the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. But for those most concerned about genuine sustainability, what both candidates agreed on should be far more troubling. And yet, it elicits nothing more than a yawn these days in political discourse.

The candidates agreed that the U.S. economy needs to grow more rapidly. What they argued over is whose economic plan will make it grow faster.

The push for economic growth has become sacrosanct in modern political discourse. Growth is the elixir that heals all social and economic divisions and makes possible the solidarity that comes from the feeling that the path to wealth is open to everyone.

For the vast majority of people on the planet that path was never really open. And, since the so-called Great Recession, it has been closed off completely for all but those at the top of the income scale.

There are many explanations. But most of them are financial and political. The world's economists and political leaders are ready with both diagnoses and prescriptions for lackluster growth throughout the world. However, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology never enter their heads.

Growth is supposedly something that comes from the "minds of men." (Pardon me, women, for it is men who mostly say this.) While there is truth to the idea that the cleverness of humans has accounted in part for the astonishing growth of the world economy in the last three centuries, it is more true that humans have leveraged increasingly available fossil fuel energy to achieve that growth.

Without fossil fuels, we as a species would not appear so clever. And we must keep in mind that we did not invent coal, natural gas or oil. In fact, our extraction and use of them more closely resembles the pattern of a hunter-gatherer society than of a modern agricultural one.

We know that on our current growth trajectory we will cause irreparable damage to the climate and the biosphere upon which we depend. The hope is that somehow we can prevent this damage with technology that won't require giving up on economic growth. While anything is possible, the odds are stacked gravely against such an outcome.

We are pursuing incommensurable goals by saying that we must lift all those still in poverty out of it--with little or no redistribution of wealth--while preserving the biosphere and the climate. We are not taking the second part of this proposition seriously or we would understand that the first part--under current definitions of wealth (meaning increased use of energy and resources)--will necessarily destroy the world in which we hope to enjoy this wealth.

Some may say that this is not a sure thing, that we can't really know this. In a very narrow sense, they are right. If only the risks were trivial, we could wait to see. But the risks are monumental and, in fact, existential. Under such circumstances, we should not ask for absolute certainty, but rather inquire about the weight of the evidence from our observations and the models of Earth systems as we understand them.

However imperfect our understanding, the evidence and models are all flashing major warning signs. This is not a one-alarm fire; this is a million-alarm fire. We have vast areas of agreement from disparate disciplines that something is seriously wrong with planet Earth from the coral reefs all the way up to the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

We are too many people consuming too much per person and creating waste in the form of greenhouse gases that are overwhelming the Earth's natural thermostat. The solution to our problems cannot be to do more of the same.

And yet, that is precisely what both major U.S. presidential candidates champion. It is, of course, political suicide to propose a downsizing of American life to something commensurate with the survival of advanced human societies. Such a downsizing would have to coincide with much greater redistribution of existing wealth in order to insure social peace--which is why politicians of all kinds avoid the issue.

Yet, the issue remains, and from here on out it can be framed as follows: Will ignoring the imperative to redefine completely what makes our lives good--that is, beyond more resources--lead to suicide that is of an entirely different order?

In the past we've had the luxury of pretending that we could grow our economy forever. We don't have that luxury any more. Continued exponential growth will extract heavy costs. In fact, it already has.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Deepwater Horizon and our emerging 'normal' catastrophes

While watching the recently released film "Deepwater Horizon" about the catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history, I remembered the term "fail-dangerous," a term I first encountered in correspondence with a risk consultant for the oil and gas industry.

We've all heard the term "fail-safe" before. Fail-safe systems are designed to shut down benignly in case of failure. Fail-dangerous systems include airliners which don't merely halt in place benignly when their engines fail, but crash on the ground in a ball of fire.

For fail-dangerous systems, we believe that failure is either unlikely or that the redundancy that we've build into the system will be sufficient to avert failure or at least minimize damage. Hence, the large amount of money spent on airline safety. This all seems very rational.

But in a highly complex technical society made up of highly complex subsystems such as the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, we should not be so sanguine about our ability to judge risk. On the day the offshore rig blew up, executives from both oil giant BP and Transocean (which owned and operated the rig on behalf of BP) were aboard to celebrate seven years without a lost time incident, an exemplary record. They assumed that this record was the product of vigilance rather than luck.

And, contrary to what the film portrays, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was years in the making as BP and Transocean created a culture that normalized behaviors and decision-making which brought about not an unavoidable tragedy, but rather what is now termed a "normal accident"--a product of normal decisions by people who were following accepted procedures and routines.

Today, we live in a society full of "normal accidents" waiting to happen that will be far more catastrophic than the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. One of those "accidents" is already in progress, and it's called climate change.

People in societies around the globe are doing what they are supposed to be doing, what they routinely do, to stay alive, produce and enjoy what they produce. They do not think of themselves as doing something which is bringing about the biggest "accident" of our time, climate change. No one set out to change the climate. And yet, this is the result of our normalized behavior.

Climate change still appears to many to be building slowly. This summer was hotter than last summer and the one before that. But we've coped. We stay inside in air-conditioning on especially hot days--ironically so, as the fossil fuels making the electricity for the air-conditioner are adding to the warming itself.

It is as if we are all on the Deepwater Horizon just doing our jobs. We notice there are a few things wrong. But, we've dealt with them before, and we can deal with them again. The failures and the breakdowns are accepted as just part of how we do business. And we've managed to avoid anything truly bad up to now. So, we conclude, we must be doing things safely.

Part of the normalization of our response to climate change is the spread of renewable power sources. I have long supported the rapid deployment of renewable power, suggesting that we need the equivalent of a warlike footing to deploy enough to bring about serious declines in fossil fuel use. And, while renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, it is not growing nearly fast enough to meet the challenges of climate change.

And yet, society at large has relaxed into the idea--promoted by the industry--that renewable energy is well on its way to creating a renewable energy society despite the fact that more than 80 percent of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. We have normalized this response as adequate in the public mind. There remains no generalized alarm about climate change.

Certainly, there are scientists, activists and others who are genuinely alarmed and believe we are not moving nearly fast enough. But this alarm has not translated into aggressive policy responses.

The argument that things have worked just fine in the past so there is no reason to believe they won't work out in the future is a well-worn one. And, it seems to be valid because so many people say it is. (Steven Colbert might even say that this assertion has a certain "truthiness" to it.)

But there is a reason that financial prospectuses say that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Likewise, no bad accidents in the past are not a guarantee of no bad accidents in the future. It is in the structure of how we behave that the risks build. The tipping point finally reveals that we have been doing risky things all along.

If you play Russian roulette with a gun having 100 chambers, you won't think that skill had anything to do with the fact that you aren't dead after five pulls. But if you don't know you are playing Russian roulette (hidden dangers with hidden connections), then the fact that you aren't dead after 50 pulls (50 repetitions of the hidden dangerous conduct) won't seem like luck, but simply the result of sound procedure.

Climate change, of course, isn't the only place where we have normalized procedures which appear to be reducing risk, when, in fact, we are increasing it. Our monocrop farms and the small variety of major crops grown on them using modern industrial farming methods are supposed to reduce the risk of major crop losses and thus of famine. In fact, these methods are depleting the soil and undermining its fertility in ways that will ultimately lower farm productivity. And monocrop farming is an invitation to widespread crop loss. Polyculture tends to prevent the spread of devastating plant diseases while monoculture tends to promote that spread.

We can talk about the normalization of industrial fishing as well. It is designed to increase our harvest of food to feed growing human populations thereby reducing our risk of food shortages and giving us another source of nutrition. In fact, industrial fishing practices are threatening the viability of practically every fishery around the world.

In addition, temporarily cheap oil and natural gas are lulling us into a complacency about our energy supplies. Energy depletion that just two years ago seemed to be indicated by high prices is rarely discussed now. We are projecting the current moment into the future and believing that the rising energy price trend of the last 15 years is meaningless.

Practically everything we do to reduce risks to human populations now creates broader, longer term risks that could turn catastrophic. The Slate article linked above references the "high-reliability organization." Such organizations which seek to avoid catastrophic failures share certain common characteristics:

1) Preoccupation with failure: To avoid failure we must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure.
2) Reluctance to simplify: Labels and clich├ęs can stop one from looking further into the events.
3) Sensitivity to operations: Systems are not static and linear but rather dynamic and nonlinear in nature. As a result it becomes difficult to know how one area of the organization’s operations will act compared to another part.

For our global system as a whole to act like a high-reliability organization, we would have to turn away from technopian narratives that tell us we will always come up with a new technology that will solve our problems including climate change--while forcing us to change our lives very little.

Instead, we would anticipate and scan for possible failure, no matter how small, to give us warning about perils to our survival. There are plenty of signs flashing warnings to us, but we have not fully comprehended their gravity.

When it comes to energy supplies, we are often faced with the simplifying assertions as mentioned above that are designed to prevent us from examining the topic. People in the oil industry like to say that the "resource is huge." They don't tell you that "resource" simply refers to what is thought--on sketchy evidence--to be in the ground. What is actually available to us is a tiny fraction of the resource at today's prices and level of technology.

The effects of the recent bankruptcy of one of the world's largest ocean freight companies have given us a window into the outsized effects of a failure of just a small portion of our complex system of worldwide logistics.

If we had run our society as a high-reliability organization, we would have heeded warnings made decades ago. I like to tell people that the American public first learned that oil was a finite resource when Clark Gable told them so near the end of the 1940 film "Boom Town," a remarkable speech for the time.

American leadership found out that we would have to make a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy way back in 1954 in Harrison Brown's widely read The Challenge of Man's Future--and, that such a transition would be fraught with peril if not begun early enough.

Other warnings included Limits to Growth in 1972, a book widely misunderstood as predicting rather than modeling our predicament. More recently there was Jared Diamond's Collapse.

In general, what we as a society have chosen to do is to create narratives of invincibility, rather than heed these warnings. We are, in effect, normalizing highly risky behavior.

Perhaps our biggest failure is noted in item three above. We think of the world we live in as static and linear rather than dynamic and nonlinear. That has given us a false sense that things move gradually and predictably in our world, the same false sense that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.


Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.