Friday, June 29, 2007

The Age of Limits, Limits, Limits

Suppose it was discovered tomorrow that the greenhouse effects has been way underestimated, and that the catastrophic effects are actually going to set in 10 years from now, and not 100 years from now or something.

Well, given the state of the popular movements we have today, we'd probably have a fascist takeover - with everybody agreeing to it, because that would be the only method for survival that anyone could think of. I'd even agree to it, because there's just no other alternatives right now

Noam Chomsky

It's a remarkable coincidence that we should be approaching the crisis of the decline of cheap oil just as we approach the crisis of decelerating the production of greenhouse gases prior to being tipped into an unstoppable warming cycle.

Leaving aside the rather sterile debate of the true extent - or actual imminence - of either, what interests me is the other, largely unrecognised, limit we have simultaneously reached.

While any rational assessment of our situation demands that we should be acting swiftly and decisively to mitigate the negative consequences of either crisis - we have much to gain and very little to lose by doing so - this is decidedly not what's happening. Burning less oil is the obvious first step to resolving either crisis - and yet oil consumption continues to climb. In fact, we are consistently told that any moderation of what is now routinised, 'normal', fossil-fuel-based hyper-consumption is the road to economic ruin. But the development of a post-oil economy is inevitable; the oil must run out at some stage in this century, even by the most 'optimistic' assessments, with the Uranium to follow a couple of decades later! And we need the cheap energy that remains to build the new 'scarcity' economy if it's still going to be something that's recognisably 'modern'.

I submit that we've reached another limit; this is the limit of the capacity of democracy to function as a tool that will serve the greater good in the face of constraints that neither the dominant elites, nor the great mass of the population, wish to accept as realities.

The hysteria surrounding the idea that any economy may ever have to contract is all-pervasive.

For, we are told, to step off the path of fossil-fuel hyper-consumption is to raise the spectre of the end of the associated hyper-production and hyper-accumulation. The days before international air travel and limitless gew-gaws became available to the western working class are now presented as some sort of dark age, never to be suffered to return. The hysteria surrounding the idea that any economy may ever have to contract is all-pervasive. And yet consumer-capitalism is doomed, along with the oil that supports it, whether we also bake the planet or not. This is the elephant in the living room of global politics.

So, lets consider that most definitively modern of extravagances; air travel. (Many readers will even be taking umbrage at my describing it so; lefties and greenies included!) How far did you travel by air last year? Your friends? (In fact, think of all of these questions in light of your friends, too; just in case you really are altruistic and/or don't like flying!) Where's your/their next holiday planned for? If, as is likely, you.they intend to travel by air, would you even consider going to that place if you couldn't fly there, if you had to drive, ride, or even walk?

In the West 'community' has been largely replaced by mutual associations of the self-interested. The ability of citizens who take a rationalist, longer term, less selfish view to influence debate and their peers is extremely limited, even in the face of the explosion of information technologies. Individuals who make choices that benefit the whole community and future generations are routine targets of extreme skepticism and derision. Ironically they are generally presented as anti-social misfits in the squawkier regions of talkbackia and tabloidia. They may end up feeling that their sacrifices are pointless gestures (scarcely an irrational view, in the circumstances.

We will never get out of this situation through voluntarism. Big bad government needs to return - and it will, if not now then - as a direct consequence - even more brutally in the future. The softest landing involves us developing a crisis-management strategy that transcends the partisan, and then consistently returning it to office for the next few decades.

But thinking westerners have become sadly accustomed to watching their fellow nationals voting consistently against the interests of their own living
grandchildren. The notion of seriously considering those overseas who haven't reached our level of prosperity, those about to be starved or deluged, and that other most exotic group of foreigners -future generations - is present only in rhetoric, if at all.

Bugger kids and women in third world factories - give me cheap shoes!

The prevalent mantra runs more-or-less as follows: Cut education and healthcare if it cuts my taxes; spend public money to build bigger freeways for my ludicrously over-powered SUV to roll along rather than public-transport networks; allow teenagers to be herded into exploitative McJobs if that keeps costs down at the big department stores; deride unions and the whole concept of working-class solidarity as old-fashioned because that will remind me that I've 'made it'; bugger kids and women in third world factories - give me cheap shoes!; herd inconvenient refugees and 'illegal' immigrants into squalid concentration camps because they're not 'real' people like us. These are vote-winning policies in every western nation. This is 'reform'.

I acknowledge that this has been facilitated by the corporate media and a relentless propaganda barrage, whether it be in the form of news, advertising, movies, books, magazines, video games, whatever - the whole dreary array. They all sing the praises of the one true remaining creed; being in it for Me, Me, Me. Propaganda is real; more well-funded, brilliantly manipulative, and generally overwhelming than ever. But is the general population really a sad victim of this propaganda, likely to behave itself better the moment it's better informed? It would be nice to believe, as many on the left seem (or profess) to, that this is the case. For many, doubtlessly, this is true. For me it seems that for many, many more it is not. How does this sit with your experience?

Many analysts discuss the politics of this era in the light of Fascism, to the point that the term has become invested with such an air of the histrionic that it's often best avoided altogether. However, there are important similarities between now and the classic Fascist era.

Firstly we have the super-powerful elites atop vertiginous hierarchies. There is brutality or callous indifference to foreign populations should they choose to misbehave, or simply be in the way. The domestic population is fed carefully managed information, or kept dazzled by spectacle.

But one cannot ignore the compliant nature of these populations. Real Fascism (as opposed to the unpopular Third-World dictatorships propped up by great powers that were frequently mis-labelled as such) was hugely popular. While it was winning!

False consciousness this may all be. But if we accept that we now have unprecedentedly powerful elites capable of utilizing the most sophisticated propaganda systems ever developed to play on the fears and manipulate the worst instincts of an ill-informed, selfish, willingly-hypnotised or rather uninterested population, where does that leave democracy?

When it comes to coping with crises of the kind we currently face; nowhere. The Good Times Party - the one that promises guilt-free business-as-usual with giant plasma screens and SUV's for all - has a huge advantage. The demagogracy of infotainment current affairs and talkback radio will back them. And 'the people', when it comes down to it, will also back them.

'I think we should do more for the environment'

'I think we should do more for the environment', 'I'm very concerned about global warming', 'I'm in favour of fair trade', responses are handed out easily enough in surveys. But try asking people to actually get out of their cars and into the buses, pay fuel prices that reflect the actual cost of cleaning up the appalling mess we're in, pay a fair price for sportswear or mobile phones, or buy more expensive green electricity. They may go so far as to say they will do any of these things, but they probably won't. And, crucially, they'll most likely vote for something else.

In fact, it's a reliance on polling - and the sure knowledge that the world's media barons will accept nothing less than strict adherence to neo-liberal party-line - that ultimately shapes all parties into the Good-Times Party. This has been a fairly easy fit for the grotesquely mis-named 'conservative' parties; an uncomfortable and ultimately self-destructive transition for the formerly social-democratic ones.

I despise talk of 'human nature'. Not because I doubt it exists, but because it's almost invariably raised as justification for acting like an utter turd. It's just as much part of human nature to decide that selfishness is ultimately self-defeating as it is to be selfish. Maybe this could become the majority view. Hooray if it does. Perhaps it has been a majority view in some - even many - human societies in the past. Hooray if that's the case. But in the here and now we're dealing with millions of consumers who, when it comes to the crunch, are most-likely going to be happy to damn many more millions, now and in the future, if that means they don't have to sacrifice the lifestyle they feel they're entitled to. 'The American (Australian/Western) way of life is not negotiable' is a chilling and direct statement of intent. Ignore it at your peril!

Turbulence; Alexander Cockburn, George Monbiot and the Weakest Links

In a couple of hundred years, historians will be comparing the frenzies over our supposed human contribution to global warming to the tumults at the latter end of the tenth century as the Christian millennium approached. Then, as now, the doomsters identified human sinfulness as the propulsive factor in the planet's rapid downward slide.

With these trenchant lines Alexander Cockburn, editor of the online journal CounterPunch, long-time journalist and contributor to The Nation, threw himself again into the greenhouse debate in April this year. Cockburn cast himself as a rationalist defender of the enlightenment out to free the world from the oppressive superstitions put about by that latest enclave of religious backwardness; global-warming advocates.
There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution. Devoid of any sustaining scientific basis, carbon trafficking is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed…

Having persisted in this hyperbolic vein Cockburn reveals that he is able to refute the evidence of the world’s climate scientists via a Dr. Martin Hertzberg, “a combustion research scientist for most of his career” (meaning he used to blow things up for mining companies – he’s now retired) who was a naval meteorologist for 3 years or so at some stage, and who Cockburn met on a cruise. Apparently this one source is sufficient to refute the entire greenhouse consensus, as further notes and citations are not provided! But we are to understand that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists - and their fellow-travellers - are underqualified, fearful for their grants, liars, and/or dupes to a person.

Although George Monbiot was not specifically mentioned in this opening epistle, the editors of ZNet asked him to do so in his role as a prominent global warming activist. (You can follow this exchange for yourself at

information that is Cherry-picked to fit theories

Monbiot rightly pointed out that Cockburn seemed to have reversed the position he had taken on the 9-11 conspiracy theories. He was able to quote Cockburn complaining about unqualified ‘experts’, information that is cherry-picked to fit theories, and counter-evidence that is simply ignored. He also pointed out that since this was a science debate, Cockburn might need to provide some credible sources. He asks for references.

If he was looking for a more considered response, he didn’t get it. “No response is more predictable than the reflexive squawk of the Greenhouse fearmongers,” wrote Cockburn on the weekend of May 12th and 13th. He refers readers to his previous article as sufficient rebuttal of the whole global warming argument, and then lapses into abuse. Plain and simple abuse, of a kind that would sit comfortably on Fox. Or in Pravda. “James Lovelock, the Rasputin of Gaia-dom” sets the tone. Al Gore is “the world's best known hysteric and self promoter”. Michael Mann, a real-live climate scientist who had written a scientific rebuttal of Cockburn’s first piece, is a “climate alarmist” and “reigning weather bureaucrat at the IPCC."
More histrionic comparisons are drawn to the misguided theories of the past…

To identify either the government-funded climate modelers or their political shock troops, the IPCC's panelists, with scientific rigor and objectivity is as unrealistic as detecting the same attributes in a craniologist financed by Lombroso studying a murderer's head in a nineteenth-century prison for the criminally insane.

…but no additional evidence is provided to prove the global warming theory belongs with Lombroso’s. In conclusion - all Greenhousers are witting or unwitting stooges of the nuclear industry.

Monbiot, noting that Cockburn had failed to respond to Mann’s detailed criticisms, again asked for references;

Scientists in the United Kingdom sometimes satirise people who claim to know more about their own subjects than they do by imagining how they would respond if asked to provide their references. "Man I Met in a Bar, A. 2006. Why I am Right and Everyone Else is Wrong. Proceedings of the Inebriate Society, Vol 9991524, no4." So far, Alexander Cockburn's references amount to "Man I Met on a Ship, A. 2001." If he has better sources than that, why won't he reveal them?

Cockburn’s next response began with an anticipation of his own martyrdom (noteworthy in one accusing others of retrograde religious fervour)

In the Middle Ages they burned heretics, and after reading through the hefty pile of abusive comments and supposed refutations of my initial article on global warming I'm fairly sure that the critics would be only to happy to cash in whatever carbon credits they have and torch me without further ado.

It’s also notable that when it comes to 'abusive comments' he’s blithely unaware of the beams in his own eyes when decrying the motes in the eyes of others (though no evidence of this is provided, either.) He targets Monbiot specifically as the ‘honorary chairman of the King Canute Action Committee’.

He quotes a Dr. Goldberg quoting a Professor Seitz on the alleged political corruption of the IPCC process back in 1996. But he gives a complex rebuttal on carbon isotopes to Dr. Michael Mann in his own voice. So, are we to understand that Cockburn is well versed in these high-falutin’ brainy-science-guy matters? Or is he, as seems more likely, passing someone else’s argument off as his own? Again, where are his listed scientific sources?

Monbiot’s reply points out that Professor Seitz had been the head of institutes funded by ExxonMobil, prior to which he had been – literally – a tobacco scientist! I suppose he would know a lot about turning evidence around to suit your case. He then asks, again, for sources.

the Weakest Links

Cockburn did finally – 4 articles later in the June 12th weekend edition of CounterPunch - yield a list of references. How do these stand up? I clicked the active web-links he offered and found the following;

  1. 1. J. A. Glassman, "The Acquittal of Carbon Dioxide", posted in
    A private site 'under construction' that hosts a paper that denies that CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere causing warming - a position most global-warming deniers have moved on from.

  2. 2. R. Essenhigh, Chemical Innovation, May 2001, Vol 31, No.5 pp 44-46, available
    on line at

    'Page not found.' After eventually finding 'Chemical Innovation' had ceased publication I did find the article listed as having been a 'Viewpoint' column (i.e. it's an Opinion piece rather than a scientific article as such), but it still wasn't available.

  3. 3. Z. Jaworowski, "Ice Core Data Show No Carbon Dioxide Increase",
    21st Century Science & Technology, Spring 1997, available on line at

    This leads to the homepage of the creepy, far-right LaRouche Science Journal (interesting, allies who i note are rather pro-nuclear, Alexander!) where I could also browse articles on building 6000 nuclear plants by 2050 and some truly bizarre economics texts related to the miraculous properties of electricity. A paper by another author proves that there's no global climate change, because there's no global climate! Things cool down in one place, warm in another, and average increases or decreases in the system overall appear to be ruled out!

    And there's an additional paper where the self-same good Dr. Jaworowski warns us that not only is global warming not true, but we must beware of an impending Ice Age, which, sadly even burning all the available oil won't save us from. But, not to worry; "The present technology of nuclear power, based on the nuclear fission of uranium and thorium, would secure heat and electricity supplies for 5 billion people for about 10,000 years." And "However, I think that in the next centuries we shall learn to control sea currents and clouds, and this could be sufficient to govern the climate of our planet."

    Wonderful, not at all nutty, stuff. Dr. Jaworowski is to be congratulated for having attained a realm beyond the reach of satire!

  4. 4. R. Lindzen, "Is There a Basis for Global Warming Alarm?", Oct
    12, 2005, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, on line at:

    We've reached an extreme neo-liberal think-tank (if you try browsing some of the material about Venezuela and Che Guevara you may feel Cockburn has again found himself in some strange company given his own politics) hosting a genuine scientist, at least, in the form of Dr. Lindzen. (And oil companies' friend? See It's to be noted that Lindzen now accepts the reality of anthropogenic warming, he just doesn't think it will be a problem.

  5. + 6. 7. and 8.

    The remaining links lead to John Daly's self-published website. John lists his own qualifications as follows "Climate and climate change has been a lifelong study of mine since my early days as a ship's officer in the British Merchant Navy. I have lived through and traced the progress of the `ice age' scare of the 1970's, the `nuclear winter' scare of the 1980s, and now the `global warming' scare of the present."

    Firstly John himself goes over his own take on the 'Middle Ages were warmer than today' argument. The remaining links on his site are technical pieces by other authors. I am no more qualified to refute all this than Cockburn is to endorse it.

But other qualified persons handle all these arguments - convincingly to my mind - at . I assume that if these papers had ever been published in more prestigious journals Cockburn would have revealed them.

So, even where there really is substance at the end of a link, we're back at the familiar 'who is credible' point. Personally, I was underwhelmed by Cockburn's case. If it's to be the IPCC and versus John Daly's website; well, while I'm all for siding with an underdog, in this instance it would appear to be a rather reckless strategy!

Additionally Cockburn promised us more links and references from the papers of the good Dr. Martin Hertzberg, his first source (the man he met on a cruise ship). One might have thought this should have been produced in the first instance!

The 16th and 17th of June edition of CounterPunch arrived, and, curiously, Cockburn's next salvo was tucked below a diary piece entitled 'Was Tony Soprano the Teacher or the Taught? The Psychopathology of Shrinks'. Cockburn had now taken to decrying the whole process of peer-review. Doubtlessly one can crtiticise the institution, but for a dissenting idea like Global-Warming - one that threatens the power of major players in the global economy, after all - to have made it through the proof/peer-review process seems rather like an endorsement of it, to me. It's a bit like democracy - the worst political system we have, apart from all the others.

Cockburn to keep dog from homework?

None of the promised Dr. Hertzberg material had arrived, though. We were to understand that “Martin Hertzberg's papers, incidentally, are being scanned by CounterPunch business manager Becky Grant, a task postponed last week because Becky was in Utah with her family attending the wedding of her sister.” I suggest he best keep the dog away from his other homework! But a letter from the good Doctor that Cockburn finds amusing has. Hertzberg likens his own persecution to Einstein's at the hands of Nazi Science. Now, there's a modest and instructive simile!

In the absence of these soon-to-be forthcoming proofs Cockburn busies himself defending, in an overblown and really rather silly way, Dr. Jaworowski - he of the impending Ice Age and 10 000 years of nuclear fission - from derision. Some had the temerity to see him as a 'crank', apparently! Frankly, on the strength of his two articles referred to above, the good Doctor might best consider not publishing to avoid this. Particularly not on websites of the lunar-right.

What's most disturbing in all this is that in constructing his conspiracy between willing governments and Greenhouse scientists Cockburn - a progressive writer I have hitherto admired - blithely turns history on its head. When it comes to the issue governments - particularly in the US and my own country, Australia - have generally stood firm in denial with the true vested interests, the large oil and coal companies that are producing the bulk of CO2 pollution. In reality they were forced reluctantly to acknowledge the reality of global warming by the often courageous efforts of frequently-derided atmospheric scientists. Even after this grudging acceptance, for the most part rhetoric has been high, and action low, on most governments' agendas. Cockburn also chooses not to notice that many global-warming proponents are fully alert to the dangers of greenwashing; such as Carbon Trading being just another investment bubble unlikely to really mitigate atmospheric carbon, or bio-fuels spelling chaos for third-world small-farmers, or the US wanting to use greenhouse as an excuse to slow the Chinese economy. And, yes, the Nuclear lobby is exploiting the issue. No matter; all are just lackeys of The Man!

CounterPunch remains a great journal of progressive issues and politics. But on the issue of the science of Global Warming - I'm going to have to make the obvious pun - Alexander Cockburn is just a source of hot air!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The cup really is Half-Empty

To deny the essence of rationality - causality - for the sake of being ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’ is to embrace the return of superstition and the supernatural to public discourse.

To be an optimistic soul with a ‘positive outlook’ is held to be one of the great virtues of the age, particularly in a country as sunny and philistine as this one. Accordingly, we are continually admonished that the correct attitude to life is to see the symbolic glass as half-full, rather than half empty. This observation is frequently accompanied by an irritating aura of smugness, the speaker (or writer) oozing palpable self-satisfaction at having offered some profound philosophical insight, rather than a tired old cliché best left on a bus ticket!

Well, I’ll be positive here and acknowledge that the cranial cavities of many of the people who regularly cite this little homily are also half full!

Beyond being a version of the agreeably banal truism that it’s best to look on the bright side, what does this observation have to offer us? One: it's a key tenet of aggressors and totalitarians everywhere, and two: it often embraces a logical refusal to acknowledge both causality and our responsibility to be skeptical and cautious.

The Nazis were an optimistic bunch. They used to regularly upbraid the German populace to brighten up and get with the program. A Good German should not dwell on the negative side bemoaning street-thuggery, tyranny, racism, concentration camps, and the likely consequences of large-scale war - but instead should focus on the glories of the coming Reich and the bright opportunities afforded by the lebensraum it was affording itself by force. Cue unprecedented violence and disaster.

It’s kind of democratic (‘a Coalition’) with a bit of Nietzsche thrown in...

Fast-forward a few decades to ‘The Coalition of the Willing'; now, there’s a positive kind of name! It’s kind of democratic (‘a Coalition’) with a bit of Nietzsche thrown in (‘of the Will’). It’s the Can-Do team! And what could they do? Save the world, bring Democracy to the Middle-East, and be home by lunch time. Only the moaning minnies and the ratbags doubted it. Even hitherto-lefties like Christopher Hitchens wanted to be Can-Do guys. And did they all do it? Well, no - the ratbags were right, as it happened!

Let’s think of some other Can-Do teams - Enron comes to mind. If ever there was an institution that could have benefited from a little old-fashioned, skepticism, this was the one. These forward-thinking giants were consistently lionized by the corporate media until they inevitably disappeared up their own fundamentals. But the Enron philosophy was really a triumph of infantilism - if you really believe hard enough, you can fly! -and this notion still has a disturbingly tenacious grip on the corporate world.

Let’s go back and look at the glass question another way. Imagine I’m standing by the banks of the Darling River here in Australia, holding a glass that is half full (or empty) of water in the midst of the worst drought in our history. Surely if I’m in any way entitled to see myself as a rational manager of limited resources I must insist that the glass is half empty! To do otherwise is to deny the direct causal link between our history of overly-optimistic consumption and the disaster we now stare in the face.

To deny the essence of rationality - causality - for the sake of being ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’ is to embrace the return of superstition and the supernatural to public discourse.

We might hold, for instance, to the chipper notion that we can continue to extravagantly burn fossil fuels, and then make the transition to a nuclear economy because at some unspecified date human ingenuity will enable us to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere, or find a way to dispose of millions of tonnes of long-lived toxic waste. This is nothing less than a species of idiocy! To hold that technology must evolve to fix our ills as required is a faith, not a science. Faith says "We’ll find a way out, let’s keep going, our hope will light our way forward!Boring old Rationality says "When on a dark night and the very brink of disaster, until such time as a route to safety can be clearly illuminated we should stop treading the path!"

One of the most blackly amusing features of the age is that these insuperably reckless ideas are put forward by people who claim to be conservatives!

Indeed, one of the most blackly amusing features of the age is that these insuperably reckless ideas are put forward by people who claim to be conservatives! When the glass is raised the true conservatives say that if it’s already half-way it’s only going to continue to go down. We need to be sure of how long what we’ve got will have to last, and where any next top-up (if any) is going to come from - before we down the remainder.

True conservatives say that the environment is an irreplaceable resource that, when clearly under threat - as it clearly is now - must be stewarded with the utmost caution. And in this country these conservatives are much more likely to be found in the Greens - and amongst the greenies - than in the Liberal Cabinet!

Try taking a step back and conceiving how truly, breathtakingly stupid it is to be conducting a radical experiment with the only atmosphere we possess. Or to cling to the nonsense spewed by a handful of professional spoilers funded by the oil-majors rather than listen to the majority of the world's actual scientists. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerously radical notion.

Ladies and Gentlemen, raise your glasses. Let’s take a cautious sip - to pessimism!