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Politically viable solutions for peak oil and global climate change

Sat, Jan 9, 2010

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As I’ve written and said many times, I see no politically viable solutions to peak oil or global climate change. There is simply no way to tell the masses the truth about economic contraction and then get re-elected. Ditto for declining accessibility to fossil fuels even as the human population continues to grow, with every one of those new bodies wanting the current version of the latest toys. And, of course, there is no telling the citizens of the planet to cut back on emissions because our persistence as a species depends upon it. Admitting either of these predicaments might, after all, cause stock markets to crash. And as we all know by now, the property and money of the rich are more important than the lives of the rest of us. Both parties in our two-party, one-ideology political system agree about that.

On the other hand, I keep getting asked to come up with politically viable solutions to both predicaments. Some people think such an activity is worthwhile, and I’ll give it a shot with this post.

With respect to energy decline, totalitarian socialism worked for Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba experienced 90% decline in crude oil supply essentially overnight. The Cubans muddled through, shoulders to the wheel, with no measurable loss of human life. Even today, two decades later, their standard of living exceeds ours for every measure that counts (and no, GDP doesn’t count). With respect to emissions that drive climate change, the Cuban model is far superior to the leading economies in the industrialized world. If there is a viable political model to deal with both sides of the fossil-fuel coin, it’s found in Cuba and perhaps other countries characterized by totalitarian socialism.

Here in the United States of Advertising, in sharp contrast to the Cuban model, a 0.5% decline in world oil supply nearly brought the military-industrial complex to its knees. Thanks to heavy doses of Keynesian-style bailouts to corporations, the republic was saved, but it still teeters on the brink. It looks like the federal government will continue to function for a few more years, even with a 3% annual decline in world crude oil supply (cf. Cuba, with its 90% decline). And, lest you think the system isn’t working, think again. The system is working exactly as it was designed to work: capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich. If it’s not working for you, it’s only because you’re not financially wealthy enough to matter.

I seriously doubt we can switch to totalitarian socialism in time to save lives in this country. We’re already too deep into fascism to switch horses. At this point, the sheeple probably would go along, but the corporations would not. Ours is a command economy, and the commands come from the corporations: If they tell legislators to vote for an initial $700 billion bailout package, you can bet how it will turn out: “in no time the taxpayers ended up with more than eighteen times that, $12.8 trillion in loans, spending, and guarantees.”

For those who do not believe we’ve yet reached the point of fascism in the U.S., consider these tidbits:

JP Morgan has taken over the U.S. food-stamp program, and has created jobs along the way. The jobs are in their call center in India.

The federal government has assumed a controlling interest in GMAC, after buying the nation’s largest car company.

The Federal Reserve is seriously considering the purchase of more (toxic) assets from Fannie and Freddie.

Your favorite Treasury Secretary told AIG to withhold details from the public about the bailed-out insurer’s payments to banks during the depths of the financial crisis. Meanwhile, he repeated the administration’s commitment to economic growth at all costs, including runaway climate change: “There is no greater priority for this administration than getting Americans back to work.”

It’s a quick trip to jail for blowing the whistle on the criminals at UBS, which happens to throw big money in the direction of Obama.

The list goes on. These are merely the most recent examples of an essentially endless list.

Will fascism work? Only for the fascists, I’m afraid. After all, you cannot even land a job in the OBusha administration unless you’re willing to kill the right people. Hopefully, this system will work only for a very short time. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario by which it lasts as long as the Cuban solution.

Further evidence the American economic system is working as planned is found in projections for this year. If you think 2009 was punishingly bad for the American middle class, think again: economic black swans will be the least of our problems, according to a dozen mainstream economists. For starters, social security goes bankrupt this year, with no politically viable solution except printing money (the one-size-fits-all plan for the current administration). Meanwhile, bonuses are up — way up — on Wall Street. And although the last decade was characterized by a decline in stock markets and a net loss of jobs, the next 10 years has us headed straight for the post-industrial Stone Age. This likely will bring back to a decent sense of community, which marked Stone-Age cultures for the first couple million years of the human experience.

The U.S. economy is still shedding jobs, after setting records for the percentage of Americans out of work for an extended period (and, no, those jobs aren’t coming back). A few criminals continue to profit from the ongoing economic implosion, and the harbinger of hope appears to be among the scoundrels. No wonder his administration changes the rules every time they think nobody’s watching.

Meanwhile, a steady rise in the price of oil, hence gas, threatens to further strangle out-of-breath consumers. And speaking of gas, the public and their politicians seem completely disinterested in the huge methane flux coming from beneath Arctic seas, even though: (1) ongoing global warming threatens to thaw Siberia’s subsea permafrost, (2) the amount of carbon trapped in shelf permafrost is in the range of 1,600 billion tonnes – roughly twice as much carbon as in the atmosphere now, and (3) the release of this once-captive carbon would have catastrophic effect on our climate and life on Earth.

Not to worry. It’s merely life on Earth. It’s not as if the release of methane poses a threat to the vaunted industrial economy of the United States, or causes something as dire as childhood goat trauma.

___________________

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18 Responses to “Politically viable solutions for peak oil and global climate change”

  1. Frank Mezek Says:

    Right on ProfEmGuy !!!

    Double D

  2. Cindy Winkelman Says:

    Indeed ~ RIGHT ON! Beautiful. I’m passing this along for sure. Thanks for sharing your wonderful insight. I found the goat trauma to be particularly fascinating. Who knew? WOW

  3. Michael Irving Says:

    Guy,

    I am in the midst of a novel “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood published in 2003 and she commented on the release of methane from the permafrost back then. I’m guessing that this is a problem that has been on the radar of scientists for at least 15 years. She knew about this problem way before I did, I might add. Anyway, I bring this up to just affirm what you are saying about governments hiding information from the people in order to enrich the economic “elite.”

    Regarding the Cuba/US comparison, I am stuck by your totalitarian socialism/fascism dichotomy. First, I would point out that I am amazed by what Cuba did and I agree that by almost every measure (other than GDP) it surpasses the US. You regard Cuba as an example of what could be done in the face of peak oil but as an example of what the US will not be able to do because of its fascist system. Here’s a thought that I’d like your take on. If the “elites” continue to play the “the one who dies with the most toys wins” game don’t we finally end up with only one winner, or a small clique of winners, who control everything. That seems to be the definition of totalitarianism. So, here’s the question, how would the response of the corporatist totalitarianism differ from the socialist totalitarianism. Another way to put it is do you think the Cuban government cared/cares more about the individual on the street than the Wall Street boys do? Oooops, I guess I answered my own question.

    Michael Irving

  4. Colin C Says:

    Please, correct me if I’m wrong as it seems I’ve read that you propose “totalitarian socialism” as a “politically viable” solution. You then state some evidence of how such a system “worked” in Cuba and, since I don’t really know much about Cuba, I am unable to remark on those points. Next you put forth facts that, rightly so, indicate that the USA has, in fact, become more of fascist state than anything else. My only “quibble” with that is it seems more socialistic if one happens to be part of the “ultra-wealthy club” and fascist for everyone else.

    I can’t, and won’t, argue that the system you propose may indeed be a “better” arrangement than what we presently have and _may_ actually pose some amelioration of the coming catastrophe. However, I do not think it to be “politically viable.” First, I don’t believe that there are any socialistic-leaning politicians anywhere in the country that have the spine or the balls to propose anything remotely close to “totalitarian socialism.” Certainly, Bernie Sanders has moxie, but I doubt his nuts are _that_ big. Secondly, just as Bernie Madoff did not perpetrate his crime(s) all by his lonesome, any such politician will need others for “support.” Again, I don’t see the “numbers.”

    Moreover, when way too many people get their “news” and “information” exclusively from the syphilitic, spouting sphincters on Faux Noise (Fox News), how could such a proposal have any “hope” of being sold to the masses? Of course, it may only need to be “sold” to the barbaric neanderthals which comprise our armed services but I don’t see that having and ice-cube’s chance in hell, either.

    Nonetheless, nice try and I’ll give you an “E” for effort. Alas, I’m pretty sure the only “real solution” _is_ the coming cataclysm which is only gaining momentum with each passing second. Thanks for the link to Farrell’s “12 Doctor Dooms…” article, which was “pretty good” but the comments, not so much.

  5. Guy McPherson Says:

    Thanks for weighing in, everybody.

    Michael Irving, the current U.S. fascist system benefits a few (of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations). But it’s nowhere close to totalitarian, and that’ll be its downfall. There are too many oligarchs trying to get an increasingly large chunk of the pie.

    Colin C, thanks for the “E.” I was being a bit tongue in cheek … I guess I’ve got to develop that sarcasm code :) Totalitarian socialism “worked” in Cuba, and I think it stands the best chance of mitigating for economic collapse and ecological collapse, with the right ruler. But it won’t work here, for the many reasons I’ve outlined.

    I strongly suspect we’re headed over a cliff of our own making, and the only solutions will be highly localized. And even then, there’ll be a lot of luck involved.

  6. Colin C Says:

    Thanks for the “clarification,” Guy! I’ll have to re-score your work to an “E++”! :D I guess I’ll also have to do some work on my sarcasm-detector, despite having been told too many times how sarcastic I am. I also missed the facetiousness of a post on Blog on The Universe a couple weeks ago but that “teaching moment” article hit “too close” to one of my major peeves. (That is, how mathematics is “taught” in our “education system,” which is abysmal to say the least.)

  7. Danny Bloom Says:

    Guy
    great post as usual…..GOOGLE: new term SOLASTALGIA coined by Dr Albreceht in Perth OZ, solace + nostalgia, see his entry at Wikipedia and this new book review about futute climate chaos:

    Hope for the best and prepare for the worst

    In Hamish MacDonald’s ‘Finitude,’ humankind teeters on the brink of
    extinction after failing to clean up its environmental act and save
    the planet

    reviwed By Bradley Winterton
    Sunday, Jan 10, 2010, Page 14

    Over the past few months Taiwan-based journalist Dan Bloom has become
    more and more concerned with climate-change issues, notably the
    prospect of humanity retreating to ”polar cities” built in the polar
    regions to escape rising temperatures elsewhere. So when he strongly
    urged me to read a new novel, published online and set in an
    environmentally devastated future, I felt duty-bound to take a look.

    Finitude is set at an unspecified time in the future. Two men, Jeremy
    and Victor, are heading for somewhere called Iktyault in search of
    Jeremy’s parents. On the road they encounter other travelers, plus
    whole societies, that have responded in different ways to the horrors
    brought on or threatened by climate change. “Terraists” roam the land,
    frozen ground is thawing and releasing methane that’s waiting to
    ignite, there are Non-Reproduction Benefits, compressed air cars (now
    obsolete), something intended to be edible called Mete (“no amount of
    cooking was going to make it better”), a city of the blind, a sea of
    plastic, gangs, looting and, needless to say, wars over resources.

    This is essentially a novel of ideas. None of the characters is
    particularly memorable, and you wouldn’t lose much sleep if one of the
    major players disappeared in a flash of light — an ever-present
    possibility. But the ideas are strong — sometimes ingenious, but more
    often just humane. Others had “spent the wealth of the world,” says a
    warlord, Tydial Lupercus, in a memorable phrase; once a farmer, he
    began to move north as his topsoil turned to dust. Disaster struck
    because people debated the science of the situation rather than simply
    caring for the planet, argues another. And carbon trading was intended
    to help poorer nations, but when one of them didn’t play ball the
    world government (the “International Coalition”) simply invaded, and
    so on.

    There’s some grim humor, too. The pair arrive at one destination and a
    character offers a toast to “the ultimate survivors.” Jeremy, however,
    “wasn’t sure if he was referring to them or the cockroaches.” And the
    permafrost is thawing, the ice in the oceans melting, and if the
    trapped methane suddenly erupts the planet is going to become “a big,
    lifeless rock.” To which a character replies: “Suddenly the fact that
    I’m feeling hungry doesn’t seem so important.”

    The government and its efforts are viewed with considerable
    skepticism. It had announced a “VC (Victory over the Climate) Day,”
    and was now planning to launch a rocket to block the sun’s rays and so
    reduce the Earth’s temperature. Little goes according to plan,
    however. Yet the book ends on a slightly optimistic note, with any
    final collapse at least temporarily delayed, and the now reunited
    family setting off by boat towards some sort of viable future. The
    author doesn’t give many credible grounds for their optimism — someone
    mentions the possibility of a 50-year reprieve — and you feel that
    this ending was adopted in preference to a bleak one of total
    collapse, or an ecological equivalent to Orwell’s Room 101.

    Finitude stands in the tradition of dystopian novels like Aldous
    Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. These offered
    visions of nightmarish futures with the implicit message that this was
    how things might turn out if we didn’t take action to change our ways.
    Huxley warned of eugenics, or tampering with the genes of our
    descendents, and Orwell of the totalitarianism that was inseparable,
    as he saw it, from communism. In the place of these fears, Finitude
    offers unchecked global warming, the danger almost everyone is now
    focusing on. The strange thing is that we haven’t been deluged with
    novels on this theme already.

    This book reads more like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy
    than the science fiction it would have been classified as 10 years
    ago. Science fiction is supposed to deal with future events that are,
    from a rational viewpoint, never likely to happen. Finitude, by
    contrast, feels more like ecological prophecy.

    This is a coherent, lively and fast-moving attempt to put a widely
    feared future into imaginative, fictional form.

  8. Greg Breneman Says:

    In case everyone has forgotten it or never new it in the first place I will refresh everyones memory including Guys. October of 1962 when the russians secretly placed nuclear missiles in cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Fidel Castro attempted to talk the russians into launching an attack on the U.S and was willing to sacrifice the cuban people to do it. He is not the only totalitarian in history to be ready to sacrifice everything for nothing. Mao Zedong of china after killing 30+ million chinese in his cultural purges tried to convince the russians to start a nuclear war with the U.S. and the west. The russians declined the offer and relations between them and the chinese went rapidly down hill leading to a border war along the amur river in 1968. The chinese and Mao were hard core communists and true believers while the russians were more practical after having suffered the terrible ravages of Joseph Stalin . They simply were not interested in dying for nothing. A world full of totalitarian governments and true believers armed with nuclear weapons would already be dead taking everyone one and every higher organism with it. The U.S. may indeed be fascist but it has an interest in not blowing up the world and living to see another day even if it does not want to see the problems discussed in this forum. I challenge anyone to refute the above as I grew up during the cold war with air raid sirens going off outside my grade school as we rushed to the basement during drills. We are all lucky to be here. Whales and polar bears included.

  9. bubbleboy Says:

    >Glad to_now_it.

    But, Obama’s way of ‘dealing’ with climate change (or most anything) is no different.

    -Sacrifice of everything for nothing.

    (I think that is the point of this post.)

    Life involves suffering for individuals and some triumphs for species.

  10. tribeseeker13 Says:

    Greg, I’ll refute the above. You may have grown up “during” the cold war; however, I grew up “on the front lines” of the cold war. There was NO cold war without the US. My parents were spy’s, responsible for fomenting the cold war. I know all about the US cold war. The “Cuban” Missile Crisis (which is more accurately called the “US Missile Crisis”) was only averted because Kennedy went AGAINST standard US military policy. He had a knack for doing that kind of thing. He wasn’t an accurate representation of the US policy pusher and suffered the consequences. And if Russia “was not simply interested in dying for nothing” that puts them leagues ahead of the US and its policies. “The US has in interest…in not blowing up the world…” is probably an unpopular statement in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden,… It’s not because the US system of governance is altruistic that we’re all lucky to be here. The US is a corporation, and a corporation, like it’s cousin in the “medical” world, is a cancer: mass production of identical units that feed off of its host and give nothing back in return. We’re only lucky to be here still because the cancer hasn’t finished its course yet. Now, ponder how cancer is treated in the “western medical” paradigm. It’s either with radiation or surgical removal. Let me remind you that radiation is also the fall-out from nuclear bombs. Let’s hope we have the foresight and courage to choose the latter “cure”, because, unfortunately, the actual healing method that we need does not even exist in the ‘western” paradigm. By the way, great article, Guy.

  11. Colin C Says:

    Outstanding comment, tribeseeker13! Being in my “late” 50’s and a diligent observer and reader, I concur absolutely with your retrospection. Alas, watching how the events taking place in south-central and south-east Asia are “evolving” and given that 2 of those involved nations already possess nuclear weapons and share no “love-loss,” I see “radiation therapy” coming within the next decade. After all, will food and water shortages, and the resulting “climate refugees,” induce Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to be _more_ amicable toward each other? Will China willingly “suffer” the fallout that the winds will surely take over vast areas of that country? Will the USA stand idly by while our “allies” and “trading partners” nuke-it-out? Certainly Russia and the EU won’t be “appreciative” of seeing their “interests” in that region go up in smoke. At least the “nuclear winter” will abate rising global temperatures, a bit, for a decade or so. Then the dust will settle and, if anyone takes a measurement, GHG concentrations could very well be approaching, if not beyond, 1000ppm and whatever is left of “civilization” will cease shortly thereafter.

  12. Michael Irving Says:

    Greg Breneman,

    Regarding Castro’s attempt to persuade the Russians to launch a nuclear first strike against the US, I think you have misstated the situation somewhat. Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba to deter a possible US attack. That we would do such a thing was made clear by the Bay of Pigs. Castro’s letter of October 27, 1962 calls for a nuclear first strike if he is attacked, an attack he felt was more and more certain as the missile crisis continued. Khrushchev then worked a deal with the US to guarantee no invasion of Cuba by the US or its allies in response to which the Russians would remove their missiles. Part of the deal also included the US removing missiles from Turkey and Italy that the Russians viewed the same way we viewed the missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev then wrote to Castro on October 30 to review the results of the US/Russian deal and to state that it had been a good thing to not have a thermonuclear war in which many millions of people would have died along with the total destruction of Cuba. So I think a better way to look at it might be that the entire episode was one of international brinkmanship on the part of all the players (Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro) that came very close to the ultimate disaster. Castro can be viewed as being caught between a rock and a hard place.

    It has been suggested often on this site that the collapse of industrial civilization might be a good thing for the other (non-human) creatures of the earth. A bit of nuclear winter might have been just the thing to knock humans back to pre-industrial levels and could have been a really good thing for whales and polar bears. Certainly allowing western civilization to run unchecked for the last 50 years has not helped them.

    Of course, I’ve really enjoyed the last four plus decades so I’m really glad it did not come to nuclear war. However, I am unhappy about the polar bears.

    Michael Irving

  13. Cesar Lopez Says:

    Very interesting post professor, but I most disagree about Cuba. I would like to bring a few facts to your attention regarding Cuba and the way they dealt with the decline in crude oil caused by the Soviet collapse. I am myself Cuban and have many family members and friends that lived through it. The situation is not as simple as you put it in your post. First, the fact that Cuba is a totalitarian socialist country is what led to them being in the situation in the first place to suffer a 90% decline in crude oil. With the decline Cuba was forced to take many non-socialist actions in order to bring foreign money into the country to purchase crude. Cuba opened up to tourism, mainly from Europe, and made other capitalistic changes. Cuba encouraged families of Cubans living in the US and other countries to travel to Cuba and to increase the amount of money they could send back into the island. This is just a sampling of the things the Cuban government did in order to bring needed foreign currency into the country.
    During this period several human tragedies occurred in addition to the already existing human rights abuses inherent in a totalitarian state. One was the explosion of prostitution, especially among teen age girls, from sex tourism, which would lead to serious AIDS issues. The other was the rafter phenomenon. During the early 1990s 10s of thousands of Cubans fled the island in makeshift rafts. It is estimated that the death toll in the 15 to 20 thousand Cubans lost their lives (so much for “no measurable loss of human life”). Cuba allows citizens to leave the country as a form of population control. When things get bad they just open the door (think freedom flights, Mariel boatlift, and the rafters).
    Today, Cuba relies on Hugo Chavez to provide it with the Oil the country needs. Foreign currency still comes in from tourism, families and other enterprises. Cuba would not have survived their Peak oil collapse if it was not able to bring in enough foreign money. It was good old capitalism with a socialist twist that saved Cuba. No your totalitarian socialism solution is not the answer either.

  14. Guy McPherson Says:

    Cesar Lopez, thanks very much for this first-person insight. If I understand you correctly, much of Cuba’s “solution” matches the contemporary approach used by Obama: flood the system with fiat currency. It doesn’t seem like such a durable solution, when you put it that way.

  15. Cesar Lopez Says:

    I have very little faith in any of the current government and political systems. The Cuban government solution was to do everything it could or had to do to maintain control of the country. This is what every government in the world will do. Government action will only grow more extreme as the crisis grows. The solution may only come after the collapse of the current nation/state government systems that feed of off the modern economic paradigms. I see local and tribal forms of government as the only viable stop measures as we eventually and hopefully decline back to the Stone Age.

  16. Michael Irving Says:

    Guy,

    I didn’t read Cesar’s comment the way you did. I think he said that Cuba would do anything to bring in hard currency from elsewhere so that it could buy oil. I don’t think he was equating it to the US system of just printing more and more money.

    Cesar does point out that when the USSR collapsed Cuba lost its main source of ready cash. The USSR was no longer a buyer for its sugar. Without that income Cuba was unable to buy oil. There are quite a few countries around the world right now, especially in Africa, that can’t generate enough foreign capital from their exports to purchase a sufficient quantity of oil. They are pretty much in the same shape as Cuba except their response has not been nearly as good and many of them are falling apart. Most of this is due to IMF loan repayment policies and outfits like Monsanto.

    Cesar also points out that Cuba relies on Venezuela for its oil now, as if that were a negative thing. I would point out that we are dependant on several countries for the bulk of our oil. Of those, number 4 on the list is Venezuela just slightly below Saudi Arabia (where the 9/11 guys came from). Number two is Mexico projected to stop exporting within three years. We should be asking ourselves, “Then what?” It is clear that a small reduction caused a virtual meltdown for the US (and world) economy so what will happen when we lose the 5% Mexico contributes to our daily consumption? Getting oil from Venezuela may not be such a bad thing although they are running out of oil too.

    Great post, Guy. I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments it’s been generating too.

    Michael Irving

  17. jaime lopez Says:

    Lots of ex-Cubans, especially from those who owned real estate there, never lose an opportunity to slander that island country, in hopes to discredit the Castro regime.

    The undeniable truth is that Cuba has weathered the crisis better than the Colossus of North America, and the ex-Cubans are very upset about that.

  18. Cesar Lopez Says:

    If any of us are going to survive the coming crisis we must move beyond the current political and economic paradigms. No existing government system, whether socialist, totalitarian, democratic, royal, or religious, will do anything more than attempt to hold on to power as the world declines further. Every current political leader, no matter who (Obama, Castro, Putin, Hu Jintao, Ahmadinejad, etc), must do all he can for the perpetuation of their particular system and maintenance of the status quo. Some may be less harmful than others but in the end there actions will be more similar than different.
    Just for the record my family did not own much of anything in Cuba. We were poor subsistence farmers living with no electricity, running water, or any other modern convenience. The Cuban Revolution did little to change our way of life. We left Cuba and migrated to the US because my father was extremely independent and did not agree with the limits placed upon him by the new government. Because of this I have a unique perspective. I know what it is to live without electricity, cars, oil, plastics, and most other modern gadget. Currently I am preparing my family to eventually live that way again. Politics will do little to help use survive. On the contrary I believe it will be the breakdown of political systems that will ultimately give us any chance at survival.