Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part III: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

28 09 2019

Kim Hill

Kim Hill, Sep 26 · 13 min read

Part I of this series investigated the corporate interests and fossil fuel companies behind the rebellion’s goal for net-zero emissions. In Part II we looked at XR’s goals, tactics and proposed solutions to the climate crisis, which are all serving capital at the expense of the natural world. In Part III, we dive in to the history of the climate movement, the tactics being used by the elites to co-opt activist movements into supporting corporate agendas, and what those agendas entail.

This article is largely a synthesis of the extensive research of Cory Morningstar into the manipulations of the climate movement by corporations and nonprofits, which is well worth reading, at Wrong Kind of Green, to get a deeper understanding of the actors involved and their elaborate marketing strategies.

Manufacturing Consent

The corporate sector, with its network of think-tanks, lobby groups, business associations, philanthropic foundations, global forums and summits, and co-opted environment groups, has been directing the climate movement towards its own goals for more than ten years. As this video puts it, “idealistic youth are simply being herded into pre-approved movements to create the illusion of a popular mandate for what the ruling classes have already determined to be the best course of action for preserving their dominance and control.”

Corporate power manufactures consent for its neoliberal agenda with a range of tactics:

· Advertising products as ‘green’ to appeal to concerned citizens, directing their energy into lifestyle actions and consumer choices rather than organising collectively to dismantle the global economy.

· Advocating market-based solutions to problems caused by the market itself, such as fossil fuel divestment schemes, that make no difference to the underlying economic system, as it is entirely powered by fossil fuels.

· Promoting over-hyped books and documentaries that offer lifestyle changes, new technologies and neoliberal reforms as solutions, and don’t mention the possibility of direct action or systemic political change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and the recent Ice on Fire are the lead culprits, but there are dozens of these.

· Providing training to activists, to direct them to campaign in ways that are beneficial to corporate interests. Al Gore, who sees the climate crisis as “the biggest investor opportunity ever writ in history” has been doing this for years with the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

· Installing their own leaders into environmental movements, especially young people who have had no experience in grassroots organising. Climate Reality again, and Sunrise Movement, 350, the Youth Climate Coalitions, Zero Hour and others, through youth leadership training programs that offer careers and in some cases opportunities to meet world leaders at global summits.

· Inviting prominent activists to attend and speak at corporate events, to make it look like they really care. The celebrity status of Greta Thunberg is a recent example of this approach. I’m definitely not making a judgement of her choice to accept the invitations, as I probably would have done the same if I was in her position. The point here is that the motives for inviting her are to detract attention away from their underlying agenda of promoting economic growth.

· Providing favourable media coverage to symbolic actions and non-confrontational movements. The BBC and The Guardian have been consistently enthusiastic in their reporting of the XR protests.

· Offering jobs in their foundations and NGOs to effective activists, to direct their energy away from radical change and into reform. Even Big Oil is recruiting, wanting to “harness the power” of young activists, and bring the fossil fuel industry into the movement.

· Recruiting concerned citizens into supporting corporate-endorsed Big Green NGOs, such as Greenpeace, Avaaz, WWF and 350, and soliciting donations for these organisations, while starving legitimate grassroots groups of support, media and funding.

· Isolating people working towards systemic change from the movement, so they can’t be effective. Extinction Rebellion training specifically includes strategies on how to do this.

· Directing activists into electoral politics, to work within the current system. The UK Labour Party supports the rebellion, and in the US the Democrats are supporting climate activist groups. Rebels are then distracted from their goals by party politics, and drawn into compromises for the sake of the party.

· Offering grants and sponsorship, on the condition that the recipients align their goals with those of the sponsor. The Guardian reported on July 12: “A group of wealthy US philanthropists and investors have donated almost half a million pounds to support the grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion and school strike groups — with the promise of tens of millions more in the months ahead.” All on the condition of non-confrontational and corporate-friendly campaigning methods, of course. And among those wealthy philanthropists are oil tycoons.

· Offering support for the movement, and conceding to demands, but using this tactic for self-promotion, to market themselves as sustainable and green without making any real change to their business or governance practices. This brings activists over to their side, and activism becomes an advertising campaign for business.

· Dividing movements into those who accept the promises of green business, and those who see through the greenwash. In this way the movement is undermined by directing energy into infighting, rather than working together towards a clear goal of ending corporate power and control. It leads those who buy in to the promises of green growth to directly campaign against the activists who are defending the natural world.

The goal of the climate movement has become to sustain and expand the system of corporate dominance, in direct opposition to the environmental movement’s goals of dismantling this economic system, to protect and regenerate wild nature. Rebels have become unpaid corporate lobbyists. Big business has seized on popular anger at their abusive practices, and redirected it to prop up the very system that needs to be torn down.

Corporate leadership

In XR’s core leadership team are long-time corporate lobbyists Gail Bradbrook and Farhana Yamin.

Bradbrook works for Citizens Online, a telecommunications industry lobby group that campaigns for ‘digital inclusion’ to get as many people as possible to use their products, and to compel councils to accept the rollout of 5G networks. She has used her leadership position in XR to launch XR Business, a network of corporations who see the climate crisis as — you guessed it — a great business opportunity. The Astroturfing the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution series of articles explores Bradbrook’s corporate connections and their influence on the rebellion.

Yamin is the CEO of Track 0, a non-profit that supports the goals of the Paris Agreement (a plan for continued economic growth that is completely out of touch with reality) and declares “Getting on track to net zero is an economic imperative as much as a scientific one. The prize is innovation opportunities, and an abundance of technologies and ideas that fuel economic growth, create jobs and fuel the track to a bright economic future”. According to her bio “She is widely credited with getting the goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century into the Paris Agreement.” She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Climate Change at the World Economic Forum, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a think tank on international affairs.

Who put the fox in charge of the henhouse? That these people are in leadership shows that the rebellion has not been co-opted by corporate interests along the way, but has been wholly contrived from the beginning as a propaganda campaign. The very definition of an astroturf movement. The good intentions and hard work of many thousands of rebels count for nothing when these are the people running the show.

The goal of the corporate backers of the rebellion is to facilitate the transfer of trillions of dollars of government money into corporate profits. It’s a bailout for a global economy that is falling into recession. After the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, people are unlikely to support another bailout, so this time it is being presented as necessary to save us from supposedly catastrophic climate change. The money required is taken from working people in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes and climate emergency levies. It’s all being invested in the energy industry and infrastructure, thereby accelerating the process of genuinely catastrophic ecological collapse.

The Climate Markets and Investment Association states: “Much has been written about the nature and the scale of this economic opportunity. Most recently, the New Climate Economy estimated that bold action on climate change would result in incremental economic opportunities of $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs, that wouldn’t exist with a business as usual approach, between now and 2030.” Interesting how the potential profits are of the same order of magnitude as the amount governments are asked to invest.

For the capitalists, the crisis is that the economy is failing and ‘climate action’ can be used to save it. For the natural world, including any humans who identify as living beings rather than economic production units, the crisis is that capitalism is destroying us, and climate action to keep it going will cause total annihilation. Pick your crisis.

From anti-globalisation to inclusive capitalism

In the 1990s and 2000s, there were massive protests all around the world, against the World Economic Forum, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, which all exist to advance the interests of powerful corporations at the expense of the commons and the third world. These bodies, which are all unelected and have no popular mandate for their existence, spent millions on security and policing to protect their events from overwhelming opposition. The protesters demanded that these bodies be disbanded, and replaced by organisations that represent the people. Instead of conceding, the elites infiltrated, funded, and co-opted the resistance, and built their own mass movement, one that they could control and lead.

Protest has become a commodity, a marketable product that the corporate sector can buy, and the nonprofits are happy to sell for some funding, media attention and good feelings. The protesters themselves are both a disposable product, and consumer of the protest message, sold on feelings of guilt, fear, virtue, and their need to take action.

In the lead up to the school strikes in March, the World Economic Forum released this video advertisement, encouraging young people to join the strikes. As if the strikes are a product, and the youth the target market. Think about that. The very institution that was the target of a massive international protest movement not long ago, due to its promotion of unjust and environmentally destructive practices on a global scale, is now directly advertising a protest movement that appears to have exactly the same concerns.

Instead of identifying the corporate-controlled economic system as the cause of ecological collapse, this new movement is guided to direct their protest at some nebulous ideas about changing atmospheric conditions. A massive, international movement is quite literally protesting against a load of hot air. And somehow, the story that the corporate sector are the saviours, who can fix everything if only we demand our governments bail out the collapsing economy, and give them a few trillion dollars to invest in new infrastructure and energy sources, is rarely questioned. It’s all wrapped up in the innocuous and undefined term Climate Action, which is widely accepted as a worthy and necessary goal, with barely any inquiry into what it actually means.

The World Economic Forum aims for ‘inclusive capitalism’, and as capitalism is an economic system that sees everyone and everything as resources to be exploited, being included in the scheme isn’t likely to be on anyone’s wish list. Our imagination, creativity, skills and wishes to make the world better are turned into innovation, entrepreneurship, and human resources. Our insecurities, ambitions, and basic needs are a resource to be extracted and sold back to us as products, services, and experiences. Every living being, every natural feature, and everything the world needs to survive and live well, is all included in capitalism.

In an economy that sees all of nature and all of human experience as a resource to be traded, even protest movements can have their energy extracted. People power is just another energy source to be harnessed and used to fuel economic growth.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Just as carbon dioxide is captured and used as a resource to suck the last drops of oil from the planet, so too is resistance (a useful waste product of the destructive economic system) captured and used to extract every last drop of our human resources. And the corporate elites have a specific plan for what they want to do with these human resources.

According to their website, “The World Economic Forum provides a platform for the world’s 1,000 leading companies to shape a better future.” I really don’t want to imagine what kind of future a thousand multi-national corporations might envision when they get together. And I don’t have to, as they’ve laid it all out in gruesome detail. It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

“The revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor,” meaning the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And “governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure.” And “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, affecting both the probability and the nature of conflict… As this process takes place and new technologies such as autonomous or biological weapons become easier to use, individuals and small groups will increasingly join states in being capable of causing mass harm… the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to ‘robotize’ humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul.”

That’s quite a sales pitch. Extreme poverty, war, surveillance, government and corporate control, and soullessness. These are the people promoting the climate strikes, and using Greta’s message to advance their goals.

The definition of fascism as “a merger of state and corporate power” has been attributed to Mussolini, and is an accurate description of this latest phase of globalization.

Another event promoting the Fourth Industrial Revolution was the Global Climate Action Summit, held in September 2018. Involving a lot of the same corporations as the WEF, and sponsored by Google, Facebook and Amazon, it states in its Exponential Climate Action Roadmap:

“To halve emissions by 2030 requires the implementation and scaling of a set of technologies which are at different levels of development. Mobile internet, cloud computing, big data, apps, smart devices and first-generation industrial automation are mature technologies and can serve as a foundation for big efficiency gains in all industries by providing connectivity and computing. The next technologies down the ramp are artificial intelligence, 5G networks, digital fabrication, smart sensors, the large-scale deployment of the internet of things and drones. These will enable a further level of emissions cuts before 2030. Finally come the technologies which are in a relatively early phase at the time of writing — blockchain, immersive user experiences like virtual- and augmented-reality, 3D printing, gene editing, advanced robotics, and digital assistants. At this stage it’s impossible to quantify their potential impact on emissions, but it can be assumed to be substantial.”

Note the word exponential in the title. Exponential growth. Exponential climate action. Exponential rate of extinction. All this new technology is predicted to use up to one fifth of global electricity by 2025, mooting any claims of efficiency gains. And another thing: most of these things are weapons and surveillance technologies. This plan has nothing to do with scaling back any polluting or life-destroying industries, and everything to do with going to war, and monitoring, manipulating and controlling the population. I feel I need to repeat, in capitals, that THESE THINGS ARE WEAPONS. And all being passed off as climate action.

Now making weapons would be an entirely appropriate response to ongoing environmental devastation, if the weapons were to be used by living beings acting in self-defence, to drive out the industrialists destroying the land that provides our food, water and shelter. But here the opposite is happening: the industrialists are using the weapons to repress the very essence of our human nature, and control our actions and thoughts, and even our genes. This is the ultimate panopticon: smart cities, smart meters, smart grids, smart appliances, facial recognition, all monitoring our every move, every interaction and every transaction. A world where we talk to machines more often than we talk with other people, and we definitely don’t speak with trees or spirits. Where even lampposts chat with you, and trees are replaced with smart trees. No possibility of dissent or resistance. We’ve been led into demanding our own subjugation and oppression.

If this happened in the real world, the one where people get to think for themselves and act in their own self-interest, the population would rise up and burn down every one of these 1000 corporations, and destroy all their assets and infrastructure. But here in the screen-mediated propaganda-sedated techno-fantasy world, where the only thoughts on offer in the marketplace of ideas are mass-produced corporate-branded delusions, we’re presented with a kid whose script says “I want you to panic” so we do that instead.

I’ll end this section with a quote from Cory Morningstar: “What better way to create a demand for something detrimental to both the environment and the populace, than to package it under climate change solutions, with the lovely and innocent face of Greta. With reality turned on its head, industry doesn’t have to impose its will on the people — the people will impose it on themselves, via Avaaz et al. The people are thus engineered to demand the very false solutions that the corporations have had up their sleeves for years and even decades.”

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Part IV will look at ways the rebellion might be turned around to serve life instead of profit, and offer some principles for effective action.





Rethinking Renewable Mandates

1 08 2019

Posted on July 31, 2019, another terrific post by Gail Tverberg

Powering the world’s economy with wind, water and solar, and perhaps a little wood sounds like a good idea until a person looks at the details. The economy can use small amounts of wind, water and solar, but adding these types of energy in large quantities is not necessarily beneficial to the system.

While a change to renewables may, in theory, help save world ecosystems, it will also tend to make the electric grid increasingly unstable. To prevent grid failure, electrical systems will need to pay substantial subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear electricity providers that can offer backup generation when intermittent generation is not available. Modelers have tended to overlook these difficulties. As a result, the models they provide offer an unrealistically favorable view of the benefit (energy payback) of wind and solar.

If the approach of mandating wind, water, and solar were carried far enough, it might have the unfortunate effect of saving the world’s ecosystem by wiping out most of the people living within the ecosystem. It is almost certain that this was not the intended impact when legislators initially passed the mandates.

[1] History suggests that in the past, wind and water never provided a very large percentage of total energy supply.

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per person (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Tony Wrigley, Cambridge University.

Figure 1 shows that before and during the Industrial Revolution, wind and water energy provided 1% to 3% of total energy consumption.

For an energy source to work well, it needs to be able to produce an adequate “return” for the effort that is put into gathering it and putting it to use. Wind and water seemed to produce an adequate return for a few specialized tasks that could be done intermittently and that didn’t require heat energy.

When I visited Holland a few years ago, I saw windmills from the 17th and 18th centuries. These windmills pumped water out of low areas in Holland, when needed. A family would live inside each windmill. The family would regulate the level of pumping desired by adding or removing cloths over the blades of the windmill. To earn much of their income, they would also till a nearby plot of land.

This overall arrangement seems to have provided adequate income for the family. We might conclude, from the inability of wind and water energy to spread farther than 1% -3% of total energy consumption, that the energy return from the windmills was not very high. It was adequate for the arrangement I described, but it didn’t provide enough extra energy to encourage greatly expanded use of the devices.

[2] At the time of the Industrial Revolution, coal worked vastly better for most tasks of the economy than did wind or water.

Economic historian Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, discusses the differences between an organic economy (one whose energy sources are human labor, energy from draft animals such as oxen and horses, and wind and water energy) and an energy-rich economy (one that also has the benefit of coal and perhaps other energy sources). Wrigley notes the following benefits of a coal-based energy-rich economy during the period shown in Figure 1:

  • Deforestation could be reduced. Before coal was added, there was huge demand for wood for heating homes and businesses, cooking food, and for making charcoal, with which metals could be smelted. When coal became available, it was inexpensive enough that it reduced the use of wood, benefiting the environment.
  • The quantity of metals and tools was greatly increased using coal. As long as the source of heat for making metals was charcoal from trees, the total quantity of metals that could be produced was capped at a very low level.
  • Roads to mines were greatly improved, to accommodate coal movement. These better roads benefitted the rest of the economy as well.
  • Farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800.
  • The Malthusian limit on population could be avoided. England’s population grew from 4.2 million to 16.7 million between 1600 and 1850. Without the addition of coal to make the economy energy-rich, the population would have been capped by the low food output from the organic economy.

[3] Today’s wind, water, and solar are not part of what Wrigley called the organic economy. Instead, they are utterly dependent on the fossil fuel system.

The name renewables reflects the fact that wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels in their capture of energy from the environment.

Modern hydroelectric dams are constructed with concrete and steel. They are built and repaired using fossil fuels. Wind turbines and solar panels use somewhat different materials, but these too are available only thanks to the use of fossil fuels. If we have difficulty with the fossil fuel system, we will not be able to maintain and repair any of these devices or the electricity transmission system used for distributing the energy that they capture.

[4] With the 7.7 billion people in the world today, adequate energy supplies are an absolute requirement if we do not want population to fall to a very low level. 

There is a myth that the world can get along without fossil fuels. Wrigley writes that in a purely organic economy, the vast majority of roads were deeply rutted dirt roads that could not be traversed by wheeled vehicles. This made overland transport very difficult. Canals were used to provide water transport at that time, but we have virtually no canals available today that would serve the same purpose.

It is true that buildings for homes and businesses can be built with wood, but such buildings tend to burn down frequently. Buildings of stone or brick can also be used. But with only the use of human and animal labor, and having few roads that would accommodate wheeled carts, brick or stone homes tend to be very labor-intensive. So, except for the very wealthy, most homes will be made of wood or of other locally available materials such as sod.

Wrigley’s analysis shows that before coal was added to the economy, human labor productivity was very low. If, today, we were to try to operate the world economy using only human labor, draft animals, and wind and water energy, we likely could not grow food for very many people. World population in 1650 was only about 550 million, or about 7% of today’s population. It would not be possible to provide for the basic needs of today’s population with an organic economy as described by Wrigley.

(Note that organic here has a different meaning than in “organic agriculture.” Today’s organic agriculture is also powered by fossil fuel energy. Organic agriculture brings soil amendments by truck, irrigates land and makes “organic sprays” for fruit, all using fossil fuels.)

[5] Wind, water and solar only provided about 11% of the world’s total energy consumption for the year 2018. Trying to ramp up the 11% production to come anywhere close to 100% of total energy consumption seems like an impossible task.

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Fuel, based on data of 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Let’s look at what it would take to ramp up the current renewables percentage from 11% to 100%. The average growth rate over the past five years of the combined group that might be considered renewable (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar) has been 5.8%. Maintaining such a high growth rate in the future is likely to be difficult because new locations for hydroelectric dams are hard to find and because biomass supply is limited. Let’s suppose that despite these difficulties, this 5.8% growth rate can be maintained going forward.

To increase the quantity from 2018’s low level of renewable supply to the 2018 total energy supply at a 5.8% growth rate would take 39 years. If population grows between 2018 and 2057, even more energy supply would likely be required. Based on this analysis, increasing the use of renewables from a 11% base to close to a 100% level does not look like an approach that has any reasonable chance of fixing our energy problems in a timeframe shorter than “generations.”

The situation is not quite as bad if we look at the task of producing an amount of electricity equal to the world’s current total electricity generation with renewables (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar); renewables in this case provided 26% of the world’s electricity supply in 2018.

Figure 3. World electricity production by type, based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The catch with replacing electricity (Figure 3) but not energy supplies is the fact that electricity is only a portion of the world’s energy supply. Different calculations give different percentages, with electricity varying between 19% to 43% of total energy consumption.1 Either way, substituting wind, water and solar in electricity production alone does not seem to be sufficient to make the desired reduction in carbon emissions.

[6] A major drawback of wind and solar energy is its variability from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Water energy has season-to-season variability as well, with spring or wet seasons providing the most electricity.

Back when modelers first looked at the variability of electricity produced by wind, solar and water, they hoped that as an increasing quantity of these electricity sources were added, the variability would tend to offset. This happens a little, but not nearly as much as one would like. Instead, the variability becomes an increasing problem as more is added to the electric grid.

When an area first adds a small percentage of wind and/or solar electricity to the electric grid (perhaps 10%), the electrical system’s usual operating reserves are able to handle the variability. These were put in place to handle small fluctuations in supply or demand, such as a major coal plant needing to be taken off line for repairs, or a major industrial client reducing its demand.

But once the quantity of wind and/or solar increases materially, different strategies are needed. At times, production of wind and/or solar may need to be curtailed, to prevent overburdening the electric grid. Batteries are likely to be needed to help ease the abrupt transition that occurs when the sun goes down at the end of the day while electricity demand is still high. These same batteries can also help ease abrupt transitions in wind supply during wind storms.

Apart from brief intermittencies, there is an even more serious problem with seasonal fluctuations in supply that do not match up with seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, in winter, electricity from solar panels is likely to be low. This may not be a problem in a warm country, but if a country is cold and using electricity for heat, it could be a major issue.

The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid. Somehow, they need to be paid for the service of standing by, to offset the inevitable seasonal variability of wind, solar and water.

[7] The pricing system for electricity tends to produce rates that are too low for those electricity providers offering backup services to the electric grid.

As a little background, the economy is a self-organizing system that operates through the laws of physics. Under normal conditions (without mandates or subsidies) it sends signals through prices and profitability regarding which types of energy supply will “work” in the economy and which kinds will simply produce too much distortion or create problems for the system.

If legislators mandate that intermittent wind and solar will be allowed to “go first,” this mandate is by itself a substantial subsidy. Allowing wind and solar to go first tends to send prices too low for other producers because it tends to reduce prices below what those producers with high fixed costs require.2

If energy officials decide to add wind and solar to the electric grid when the grid does not really need these supplies, this action will also tend to push other suppliers off the grid through low rates. Nuclear power plants, which have already been built and are adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere, are particularly at risk because of the low rates. The Ohio legislature recently passed a $1.1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants because of this issue.

If a mandate produces a market distortion, it is quite possible (in fact, likely) that the distortion will get worse and worse, as more wind and solar is added to the grid. With more mandated (inefficient) electricity, customers will find themselves needing to subsidize essentially all electricity providers if they want to continue to have electricity.

The physics-based economic system without mandates and subsidies provides incentives to efficient electricity providers and disincentives to inefficient electricity suppliers. But once legislators start tinkering with the system, they are likely to find a system dominated by very inefficient production. As the costs of handling intermittency explode and the pricing system gets increasingly distorted, customers are likely to become more and more unhappy.

[8] Modelers of how the system might work did not understand how a system with significant wind and solar would work. Instead, they modeled the most benign initial situation, in which the operating reserves would handle variability, and curtailment of supply would not be an issue. 

Various modelers attempted to figure out whether the return from wind and solar would be adequate, to justify all of the costs of supporting it. Their models were very simple: Energy Out compared to Energy In, over the lifetime of a device. Or, they would calculate Energy Payback Periods. But the situation they modeled did not correspond well to the real world. They tended to model a situation that was close to the best possible situation, one in which variability, batteries and backup electricity providers were not considerations. Thus, these models tended to give a far too optimistic estimates of the expected benefit of intermittent wind and solar devices.

Furthermore, another type of model, the Levelized Cost of Electricity model, also provides distorted results because it does not consider the subsidies needed for backup providers if the system is to work. The modelers likely also leave out the need for backup batteries.

In the engineering world, I am told that computer models of expected costs and income are not considered to be nearly enough. Real-world tests of proposed new designs are first tested on a small scale and then at progressively larger scales, to see whether they will work in practice. The idea of pushing “renewables” sounded so good that no one thought about the idea of testing the plan before it was put into practice.

Unfortunately, the real-world tests that Germany and other countries have tried have shown that intermittent renewables are a very expensive way to produce electricity when all costs are considered. Neighboring countries become unhappy when excess electricity is simply dumped on the grid. Total CO2 emissions don’t necessarily go down either.

[9] Long distance transmission lines are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Early models suggested that long-distance transmission lines might be used to smooth out variability, but this has not worked well in practice. This happens partly because wind conditions tend to be similar over wide areas, and partly because a broad East-West mixture is needed to even-out the rapid ramp-down problem in the evening, when families are still cooking dinner and the sun goes down.

Also, long distance transmission lines tend to take many years to permit and install, partly because many landowners do not want them crossing their property. In some cases, the lines need to be buried underground. Reports indicate that an underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times what a comparable overhead line costs. The life expectancy of underground cables seems to be shorter, as well.

Once long-distance transmission lines are in place, maintenance is very fossil fuel dependent. If storms are in the area, repairs are often needed. If roads are not available in the area, helicopters may need to be used to help make the repairs.

An issue that most people are not aware of is the fact that above ground long-distance transmission lines often cause fires, especially when they pass through hot, dry areas. The Northern California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy because of fires caused by its transmission lines. Furthermore, at least one of Venezuela’s major outages seems to have been related to sparks from transmission lines from its largest hydroelectric plant causing fires. These fire costs should also be part of any analysis of whether a transition to renewables makes sense, either in terms of cost or of energy returns.

[10] If wind turbines and solar panels are truly providing a major net benefit to the economy, they should not need subsidies, even the subsidy of going first.

To make wind and solar electricity producers able to compete with other electricity providers without the subsidy of going first, these providers need a substantial amount of battery backup. For example, wind turbines and solar panels might be required to provide enough backup batteries (perhaps 8 to 12 hours’ worth) so that they can compete with other grid members, without the subsidy of going first. If it really makes sense to use such intermittent energy, these providers should be able to still make a profit even with battery usage. They should also be able to pay taxes on the income they receive, to pay for the government services that they are receiving and hopefully pay some extra taxes to help out the rest of the system.

In Item [2] above, I mentioned that when coal mines were added in England, roads to the mines were substantially improved, befitting the economy as a whole. A true source of energy (one whose investment cost is not too high relative to it output) is supposed to be generating “surplus energy” that assists the economy as a whole. We can observe an impact of this type in the improved roads that benefited England’s economy as a whole. Any so-called energy provider that cannot even pay its own fair share of taxes acts more like a leech, sucking energy and resources from others, than a provider of surplus energy to the rest of the economy.

Recommendations

In my opinion, it is time to eliminate renewable energy mandates. There will be some instances where renewable energy will make sense, but this will be obvious to everyone involved. For example, an island with its electricity generation from oil may want to use some wind or solar generation to try to reduce its total costs. This cost saving occurs because of the high price of oil as fuel to make electricity.

Regulators, in locations where substantial wind and/or solar has already been installed, need to be aware of the likely need to provide subsidies to backup providers, in order to keep the electrical system operating. Otherwise, the grid will likely fail from lack of adequate backup electricity supply.

Intermittent electricity, because of its tendency to drive other providers to bankruptcy, will tend to make the grid fail more quickly than it would otherwise. The big danger ahead seems to be bankruptcy of electricity providers and of fossil fuel producers, rather than running out of a fuel such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, I see little reason for the belief by many that electricity will “last longer” than oil. It is a question of which group is most affected by bankruptcies first.

I do not see any real reason to use subsidies to encourage the use of electric cars. The problem we have today with oil prices is that they are too low for oil producers. If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible. Generally, this will mean producing cars that operate using petroleum products.

(I recognize that my view is the opposite one from what many Peak Oilers have. But I see the limit ahead as being one of too low prices for producers, rather than too high prices for consumers. The CO2 issue tends to disappear as parts of the system collapse.)

Notes:

[1] BP bases its count on the equivalent fossil fuel energy needed to create the electricity; IEA counts the heat energy of the resulting electrical output. Using BP’s way of counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to 43% of total energy consumption. Using the International Energy Agency’s approach to counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to only about 19% of world energy consumption.

[2] In some locations, “utility pricing” is used. In these cases, pricing is set in a way needed to provide a fair return to all providers. With utility pricing, intermittent renewables would not be expected to cause low prices for backup producers.





Richard Flanagan: ‘Our politics is a dreadful black comedy’ – press club speech in full

10 08 2018

I know this is a bit off topic for this blog, but it is such a great speech I thought you’d all like to read it…. the truth is always so much more interesting.

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Indigenous Australia, Anzac Day, the descent of democracy – in a National Press Club address Flanagan examines a divided Australia which he says can be free only if it faces up to its past.

 

Richard Flanagan
 Richard Flanagan: ‘Since the marriage equality vote it’s clear that Australians are not the mean and pinched people we had been persuaded and bluffed for so many years that we were.’ Photograph: Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse

told a friend the other day I was to be speaking here in Canberra today and she told me a joke. A man is doubled over at the front of Parliament House throwing up. A stranger comes up and puts an arm around the vomiting man. I know how you feel, the stranger says.

It’s not a bad joke. But it felt familiar. I went searching my book shelves, and finally found a variation of it in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, set in communist Czechoslovakia in the dark years after the Prague Spring. In Kundera’s version the two men are standing in Wenceslas Square.

Both jokes are about failing regimes that have lost the essential moral legitimacy governments need to govern. We don’t have to like or agree with a government but we still accept it has the right to make decisions in our name. Until, that is, we don’t. And it occurred to me that in both jokes it’s not just those in immediate power but a whole system that is beginning to lose its moral legitimacy.

As a young man I was studying in England, which I didn’t much enjoy, and spent most of my time in Yugoslavia, which I got to know through my wife’s family, who were Slovene, and which I enjoyed very much. Yugoslavia was then a communist dictatorship, but it occupied a curious place, halfway between the Soviet and capitalist system.

Yugoslavs were a well-educated, cultured people. But the system, like that of the Czechs, lost its legitimacy after Tito’s death in the mid 80s. A credit crisis became a full blown economic and then political crisis. Opportunistic politicians, devoid of solutions to the nation’s problems, instead pitched neighbour against neighbour. And suddenly nothing held.

I witnessed a country slide into inexplicable nationalisms and ethnic hatreds, and in the space of a very short time, into genocidal madness.

It made me realise at a young age that the veneer of civilised societies is very thin, a fragile thing that once broken brings forth monsters.

Czechoslovakia took a different route. After the final toppling of the system with the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the revolution’s leader, Vaclav Havel, wrote presciently of how the west should not gloat over the fall of the old Soviet states. Eastern Europe was, he observed, simply a twisted mirror reflecting back a slightly more distorted image of what might come to prevail in the west. If the west only gloated and did not learn from what that image portended of its future, it too might find itself one day facing a similar existential crisis.

In the heady 1990s Havel’s warnings sounded absurd and overwrought. And yet it came to pass as Havel warned: the west did gloat, declaring the end of history, and in its triumphalism dangerous new forces were allowed to fester unchecked, their scale and threat only becoming fully apparent in the past few years.

Now in Russia, in Turkey, in Poland, in Hungary and the Czech Republic we see the rise of the strongman leader, some like Putin, already effectively dictators, others like Erdogan and Orban well on the way. In Slovakia a leading journalist was recently murdered after exposing links between leading Slovakian politicians and the Italian Mafia.

There are no saviours of democracy on the horizon. Rather, around the world we see a new authoritarianism that is always anti-democratic in practice, populist in appeal, nationalist in sentiment, fascist in sympathy, criminal in disposition, tending to spew a poisonous rhetoric aimed against refugees, Muslims, and increasingly Jews, and hostile to truth and those who speak it, most particularly journalists to the point, sometimes, of murder.

And yet this new authoritarianism is resonant with so many, acting as it does as a justification for rule by a few wealthy oligarchs and corporations, and as an explanation for the growing immiseration of the many.

In Australia though we feel ourselves, as ever, a long way away. We feel we are somehow immune from these dangerous currents. After all, we have had routine forays into populist extremism from the mid 1990s with the likes of Hansonism without it ever threatening our democracy. Our politics may be dreadful, a black comedy pregnant with collapse, its actors exhausted, without imagination or courage or principle, solely obsessed with pillaging the tawdry jewels of office and fleeing into distant sinecures as ambassadors or high commissioners, or with paid up Chinese board posts, while outside the city burns. But it is all very far from a dictatorship.

Leadership nowhere to be found

Our society grows increasingly more unequal, more disenfranchised, angrier, more fearful. Even in my home town of Hobart, as snow settles on the mountain, there is the deeply shameful spectacle of a tent village of the homeless, the number of which increase daily. We sense the rightful discontent of the growing numbers locked out from a future. From hope.

Instead of public debate, scapegoats are offered up – the boatperson, the queue jumper, the Muslim – a xenophobia both parties have been guilty of playing on for electoral benefit for two decades. Instead of new ideas and new visions we are made wallow in threadbare absurdities and convenient fictions: Australia Day, the world’s most liveable cities, secure borders.

Our institutions are frayed. Our polity is discredited, and almost daily discredits itself further. The many problems that confront us, from housing to infrastructure to climate change, are routinely evaded. Our screens are filled with a preening peloton of potential leaders, but nowhere is there to be found leadership.

Holderlin, the great 19th century poet, wrote of the “mysterious yearning toward the chasm” that can overtake nations. Increasingly, one can sense that yearning in the overly heated rhetoric of some Australian politicians and commentators. That yearning can overtake Australia as easily as it has many other countries, damaging our democratic institutions, our freedoms and our values.

Politics, which ought to have as its highest calling the task of holding society together, of keeping us away from the chasm, has retreated to repeating divisive myths that have no foundation in the truth of what we are as a nation, and so, finally only serve to contribute to the forces that could yet destroy us. Or worse yet, openly stoking needless fear and, with the refugee issue, a xenophobia for short-term electoral advantage.

The consequence is a time bomb which simply needs as a detonator what every other country has had and we have not: hard times. But hard times will return. And when they do what defence will we have should a populist movement that trades on the established scapegoats arises? An authoritarian party with a charismatic leader that uses the poison with which the old myths are increasingly pregnant to deliver itself power?

The challenge that faces us, the grave and terrifying challenge, is to transform ourselves as a people. This fundamental challenge is not policy, it is not franking credits nor is it tax giveaways or rail links, necessary or not as these things may be. It is to realise that if we don’t create for ourselves a liberating vision founded in the full truth of who we are as a people, we will find ourselves, in a moment of crisis, suddenly entrapped in a new authoritarianism wearing the motley of the old lies.

For we are a people of astonishing perversity.

We are an ancient country that insists on thinking itself new. We are a modern nation that insists our recent arrangements are so time honoured that none of them can ever be changed. We are a complex country that insists on being simple minded. We regard simplicity as a national virtue, and when coupled with language unimpeded by the necessity for thought, is regarded as strong character. Which may explain our treasurer Scott Morrison, but little else.

And for the past two decades we have doubled down and doubled down again on old myths – lies – that become more dangerous the longer we allow them to go unchallenged.

Six days from now, on the eve of Anzac Day, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will launch a war memorial-cum-museum in France. Costing an extraordinary $100m, the Monash Centre is reportedly the most expensive museum built in France for many years. It will honour those Australians who so tragically lost their lives on the western front in world war one and, more generally, the 62,000 Australians who died in world war one.

Would that someone might whisper into the prime minister’s ear the last lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem about those same fatal trenches:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen’s last Latin phrase – the old lie, as he puts it – is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Except the Australians didn’t even die for Australia. They died for Britain. For their empire. Not our country. A double lie then: a lie within a lie.

But, as Tony Abbott asked when, as prime minister, he announced the building of the museum, what was the alternative in Britain’s time of need?

Well, we might answer, staying home for one thing, and not dying in other people’s wars.

And yet the horrific suffering of so many Australians for distant empires has now become not a terrible warning, not a salient story of the blood-sacrifice that must be paid by nations lacking independence, not the unhappy beginning of an unbroken habit, but, bizarrely, the purported origin story of us as an independent people.

The growing state-funded cult of Anzac will see $1.1bn spent by the Australian government on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Those who lost their lives deserve honour – I know from my father’s experience how meaningful that can be. But when veterans struggle for recognition and support for war-related suffering, you begin to wonder what justifies this expense, this growing militarisation of national memory or, to be more precise, a forgetting of anything other than an official version of war as the official version of our country’s history, establishing dying in other people’s wars as our foundation story.

And so, the Monash Centre, for all its good intentions, for all the honour it does the dead, is at heart a centre for forgetting. It leads us to forget that the 62,000 young men who died in world war one died far from their country in service of one distant empire fighting other distant empires. It leads us to forget that not one of those deaths it commemorates was necessary. Not 62,000. Not even one.

Lest we forget we will all chant next week, as we have all chanted for a century now. And yet it is as if all that chanting only ensures we remember nothing. If we remembered would we 100 years later still allow our young men to be sent off to kill or be killed in distant conflicts defending yet again not our country, but another distant empire, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If all that chanting simply reinforces such forgetting, then what hope have we now in negotiating some independent, safe path for our country between the growing tension of another dying empire, the American, and the rising new empire of the Chinese? Because instead of learning from the tragedies of our past, we are ensuring that we will learn nothing.

The forgetting extends to the horrific suffering of war. The prime minister who will, no doubt, speak sincerely and movingly of the torn bodies and broken lives of the Australians who fell in France, is also the same prime minister who wants to see the Australian arms industry become one of the world’s top 10 defence exporters, seeking to boost exports to several countries, including what was described as “the rapidly growing markets in Asia and the Middle East”, in particular the United Arab Emirates, a country accused of war crimes in Yemen.

Anzac Day, which is a very important day for my family, was always a day to remember all my father’s mates who didn’t make it home. But it was also a moment to ponder the horror of war more generally. But of late Anzac Day has become enshrouded in cant and entangled in dangerous myth. If this seems overstated ponder the bigoted bile that attended Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s tweet last Anzac Day in which she posted “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …)”

I read this as a plea for compassion drawing on the memory of a national trauma.

Most refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are fleeing war, Syria has half a million dead and more than 11 million people exiled internally and externally because of war, and Palestinians, whatever position one takes, suffer greatly from ongoing conflict.

And yet as the attacks on Abdel-Magied showed, some were seeking to transform Anzac Day into a stalking horse for racism, misogyny and anti-Islamic sentiment. For hate, intolerance and bigotry. For all those very forces that create war. The great disrespect to Anzac Day wasn’t the original tweet but the perverted attacks made on it, in, of all things, the name of the dead. Those who think they honour Anzac Day by forgetting contemporary victims of war only serve to make a tragic mockery of all that it should be.

Freedom means Australia facing up to the truth of its past

We should, of course, question these things more. We could ask why – if we were actually genuine about remembering patriots who have died for this country – why would we not first spend $100m on a museum honouring the at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous dead who so tragically lost their lives defending their country here in Australia in the frontier wars of the 1800s? Why is there nowhere in Australia telling the stories of the massacres, the dispossession, and the courageous resistance of these patriots?

The figure of 65,000, I should add, is one arrived at by two academics at the University of Queensland and applies only to Indigenous deaths in Queensland. If their methodology is correct, the numbers for the Indigenous fallen nationally must be extraordinarily large.

As one prominent commentator noted, “Individually and collectively, it was sacrifice on a stupendous scale. We should be a nation of memory, not just of memorials, for these are our foundation stories. They should be as important to us as the ride of Paul Revere, or the last stand of King Harold at Hastings, or the incarceration of Nelson Mandela might be to others.”

The commentator was Tony Abbott, announcing the French museum, speaking of the dead of world war one.

And yet how can his argument be said not to also hold for the Indigenous dead? After all, Sir John Monash became a great military leader in spite of considerable prejudice. And so too Pemulwuy and Jundamurra.

Of course, such a reasonable and necessary proposal as a museum for the Indigenous fallen would at first be greeted with ridicule and contempt. Because in the deepest, most fundamental way we are not free of our colonial past. Freedom exists in the shadow of memory. For Australia to find out what freedom means it has to face up to the truth of its past. And it’s time we decided to accept what we are and where we come from, because only in that truth can we finally be free as a people.

Sixty years ago, the scientific consensus was that Indigenous Australians had been in Australia for only 6,000 years. But through a series of breath-taking discoveries, science has confirmed what Indigenous people always knew: that they have been here for at least 60,000 years.

It makes you wonder if the $500m earmarked for renovating the Australian War Memorial would not be more wisely spent on a world class national Indigenous museum that honours a past unparalleled in human history? Surely, when we have the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth, is not such a major institution central to our understanding of ourselves as a people? Is it not necessary, and fundamental to us as a nation?

It is, after all, extraordinary, and beyond a disgrace that there is in the 21stcentury no museum telling that extraordinary story, so that all Australians might know it, so that the world might share in it, and so that we might learn something of the struggle and achievement, the culture and unique civilisations that were and are Indigenous Australia.

We have turned our back on this profound truth again and again, because to acknowledge it is also to acknowledge the other great truth of Australia: that the prosperity of contemporary Australia was built on the destruction of countless Indigenous lives up to the present day, and with them dreamings, songlines, languages, alternative ways of comprehending not only our extraordinary country but the very cosmos.

And yet if we were to have the courage and largeness to acknowledge as a nation both truths about our past, we would discover a third truth, an extraordinary and liberating truth for our future, about who we are and where we might go.

We would discover that though this land and its people were colonised, a 60,000-year-old civilisation is not so easily snuffed out. And the new people who came to Australia, in their dealings with black Australia, were also indigenised, and, in the mash up, Indigenous values of land, of country, of time, of family, of space and story, became strong among non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous ways, forms, understandings permeated our mentality in everything from Australian rules football to our sense of humour.

As much as there was a process of colonisation, there was also a history of indigenisation – a frequently repressed, often violent process in which a white underclass took on many black ways of living and sometimes, more fundamentally, thinking and feeling, in which may be traced continuities that extend back into deep time.

We would discover that we are not Europeans nor are we Asians. That we are not a new country. We are in the first instance a society that begins in deep time. That is the bedrock of our civilisation as Australians, our birthright, and if we would accept it, rather than spurn it, we might discover so many new possibilities for ourselves as a people.

A war of extermination

My own island is a good example of both processes. There took place there what was described, not by a contemporary left-wing academic, but an 1830s Van Diemonian attorney general, as “a war of extermination” of the Tasmanian Aborigines. A terrible war of which fewer than 100 people survived, the forebears of today’s 25,000-strong Palawa population.

To this day Tasmanian society is shaped by the tragedy of a land where the English, as a ship’s captain’s wife, Rosalie O’Hare, confided in her diary in 1828, “consider the massacre of these people an honour”.

But it was, for a critical time, also a land where many ex-convicts, to quote a contemporary witness, “dress in kangaroo skins without linen and wear sandals made of seal skins. They smell like foxes.” They live in “bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines”. In coming to understand how to live in this strange new world, they took on Aboriginal partners, ways of life and thinking.

No less an authority than John West, the first official editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote in 1856 that whites living outside of the two major Van Diemonian settlements “had a way of life somewhat resembling that of the Aborigines”.

The bush became freedom, and for a time the Van Diemonian authorities feared a jacquerie in which the ex-convicts would make common cause with the Aboriginal population.

It was a messy, often brutal, inescapably human response to extraordinary times and places, out of which emerged a new people. It was a revolution of sense and sensibilities so extraordinary it is even now hard to fully compass its liberating dimensions.

If this history is frequently terrible, it is also finally a history of hope for us all. For it shows we are not dispossessed Europeans, but a muddy wash of peoples made anew in the meeting of a pre-industrial, pre-modern European culture with a remarkable Indigenous culture and an extraordinary natural world

George Orwell once said that the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your face.

This is what is in front of ours.

We became our own people, not a poor imitation of elsewhere.

We pretend that our national identity is a fixed, frozen thing, but Australia is a molten idea. We have only begun to think of ourselves as Australians within living memory. There was no legal concept of an Australian citizen until 1948. Twenty years later, the Australian population was still divided into three official categories by the ABS in its official year book: British: born in Australia; British: born overseas, and foreign.

Indigenous Australia wasn’t even recorded as a general category.

Indigenous Australia has, after great thought and wide discussion, asked that it be heard, and that this take the form of an advisory body to parliament – a body that would be recognised in the constitution.

“What a gift this is that we give you,” Galarrwuy Yunupingu has said, “if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

The gift we are being offered is vast; the patrimony of 60,000 years, and with it the possibilities for the future that it opens up to us. We can choose to have our beginning and our centre in Indigenous culture. Or we can choose to walk away, into a misty world of lies and evasions, pregnant with the possibility of future catastrophe.

But this gift needs honouring in what Yunupingu calls a “meaningful way”. It needs honouring with institutions, with monuments, with this profound history being made central in our account of ourselves and, above all, with what the Indigenous people have asked for repeatedly: constitutional recognition.

In truth, we can no longer go forward without addressing this matter. We cannot hope to be a republic if this is not at the republic’s core, because otherwise we are only repeating the error of the colonialists and the federationists before us.

At a moment when democracy around the world is imperilled we are being offered, with the Uluru statement, the chance to complete our democracy, to make it stronger, more inclusive, and more robust.

And we would be foolish to turn that offer down.

That saying the things that I have said today might be deemed unreasonable, or shrill, or farfetched, should remind us all of how intolerable the situation remains in this country for Indigenous people, how unbearable it must be for Indigenous people to know that their patrimony, their 60-millennia-old culture, which they are willing to share, which has shaped and continues to shape much of what is best in Australia, will, however, continue to be treated as marginal, and they, again, humiliated.

I know these are large ideas. But perhaps they are the ideas for these times. None of these things are easy. None will be quickly arrived at.

But the alternative is worse; the alternative is the slow collapse, it is the many cracks which are already appearing; the inequality; the grounds for an authoritarian revolt, for a hopelessly divided country. It is Holderlin’s yearning for the chasm.

Definitions belong to the definer not the defined. For 20 years Australians lived with the definition that they were selfish, xenophobic, self-interested and incapable of being roused on larger issues.

But the marriage equality debate proved it was not so. Since the marriage equality vote it’s clear that Australians are not the mean and pinched people we had been persuaded and bluffed for so many years that we were.

We are not small-minded bigots. We are, as it turns out, people who care. We are people who feel and who think. Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather the invitation to dream, and this country – our country – belongs to its dreamers.

And if after more than 20 years of groundhog day we are finally ready to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold, and with them Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s great gift of the Australian dreaming.





The Price of Oil

10 02 2018

Another excellent article by Dave Pollard over at How to Save the World…..  my only criticism of this article is that he’s not factoring in collapsing ERoEI will have on the production side…..


The clueless gamblers that speculate on stock and commodity prices have been having a field day recently. Desperately chasing profits, like high-rollers who keep increasing their casino bets every time they lose, they have wiped billions out of share and pension values in a lemming-like panic about whether and when the colossally overpriced stock market is going to crash. And they have also pushed the price of oil up to near $70/bbl for the first time in several years. These speculators, who contribute nothing of any value to our economy, are some of the most destructive individuals on the planet, destabilizing markets on which many depend for their lives and livelihoods. (They also wreak havoc on land, real estate, food, and currency prices.) And many of them make millions in commissions and bonuses just rolling the dice for their employers and clients and praying that their lucky bets (mostly on prices rising perpetually) will continue.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the price of oil, explaining that the issue we’re going to face in the 21st century isn’t one of energy running out, but of affordableenergy running out. Just as, during great depressions and famines, masses of food is left rotting in the ground because no one can afford to buy it (or even retrieve it and give it away), having oil in the ground that costs $80/bbl to get to market (especially if governments run out of money for subsidies, or, god forbid, decide that oil companies should start to pay the huge external costs of their activities) is not especially useful when you can only afford, in an economy ruined by overexploitation, environmental degradation, excessive debt, inequality and waste, $30/bbl for it.

Before I go further, if you’re one of the many who have been persuaded that “peak oil is over” and that renewables and new technology will soon save us from energy collapse, you might as well not read this article. Instead, I’d suggest you read this, or this, or this, or any of the many other articles written by people who understand the laws of thermodynamics and how the economy actually works.

This time I thought I’d start with a review of oil prices in the past. The chart above plots the course of oil prices (in inflation-adjusted dollars) back to 1946. Green lines show supply curves; red lines demand curves, and the dots at intersections are annual average oil prices for those years. Follow the dots:

  1. 1946-72. Oil prices were remarkably stable at about $25/bbl (in current dollars) during this entire period. The world became dependent on OPEC. Virtually all global growth in real terms since 1946 is attributable to increasing use of oil. Almost none of it is ascribable to new technology (other than energy extraction technology) or “efficiencies” or “innovation” or “economies of scale”. That’s it. If you’re a believer in GDP or that growth is essential to the economy you might want to keep that in mind (and if you are invested in stocks or land or any other industrial resource, you’d better believe, because their “value” is all computed in terms of future growth in exchange value, production and profits). Between 1946 and 1972 the OPEC nations were in bed with the western corporatists (as they still are today, supporting them politically and militarily), fixing the price of oil at that price to ensure the economy could continue to grow, as required, endlessly.
  2. 1973-80. OPEC fights back, realizing that although they can make money at $25/bbl because of the size and ease of tapping their reserves, they have already pumped out more than half of it, and they have only a few decades’ worth left and nothing to support their economy when it runs out. So they constrain production, driving the price up to $60/bbl (1975) and then $110/bbl (1980). At that price they can set money aside for when their oil runs out, and avoid the massive humanitarian crises that the end of oil spells for them. But for the western corporatists, this is disastrous: their economies are in a shambles, with double-digit inflation ruining profits, and line-ups at the pumps.
  3. 1981-85. The western corporatists “convince” OPEC to turn the pumps back on, persuading them that there is a happy medium price for oil (more than the $25-30/bbl that makes exploration for new sources uneconomic, but less than the $75/bbl threshold beyond which the global economy cannot pay for it and hence cannot survive. By 1985, OPEC has increased supply so that, despite the new demand from expanding Asian countries, the price has settled back in the perfect $50-60/bbl range. Remember here that the amount of production and consumption of oil is so close (there’s no place to put much excess once it’s pumped, and there’s no margin for error if there’s a serious shortage) that any changes in production, intentional or not, have a huge impact on price.
  4. 1986-2002. At $60/bbl, there’s an incentive to put more into the market than you can sustainably continue to produce, and also an incentive to find new sources — and remember, a small increase in supply has a big impact on lowering price. From the late 1980s to 2002, the lingering effects of the early-1980s crash kept demand from increasing as it had been, and a number of (heavily subsidized, environmentally catastrophically damaging) new sources of “dirty” and “tight” (harder to extract) oil were found. As a consequence, prices tumbled back to the $30/bbl level. OPEC was not happy, but some of their own short-term-thinking members were opening the taps to try to bolster their struggling economies, and the new sources meant OPEC as a whole had less oligopoly power over supplies and hence prices.
  5. 2003-08. The low prices were unsustainable to many producers, especially those with higher production costs that ceased or curtailed exploring, and that, combined with increasing demand from third-world countries, began pushing prices up again, to $60/bbl in 2005 and $90/bbl in 2008. You remember 2008, the bubble year, right? Over-exuberance had enabled speculators to push the price of everything up to ridiculous levels, and oil was not spared. The crash of 2008 also weakened demand, as many people could not afford to pay for anything, including fuel. But everyone knew the $90/bbl couldn’t last, just as they knew it in 1980.
  6. 2009-17. Banking on continuing high oil prices, speculators jumped into fracking and other high-risk, costly (and heavily-subsidized) smaller-scale oil ventures. For the first time, people who can’t think further ahead than the next quarter’s profit report were saying that there was more than enough oil, and that peak oil was dead. More reasoned experts argued that the danger to our planet from climate change caused by burning oil now exceeded the danger of running out of it (we may well experience both in the years to come). But many of the new ventures depended on sustained high oil prices, and as supply rose, price inevitably dropped. This was exacerbated by a chronic global recession that (despite what you might read in the Wall Street press) has left 90% of the population with massively higher debts and less disposable income than they had back in the 1980s. That recession curtailed demand and added to the price slump that saw oil drop from $90/bbl in 2008 to $60/bbl in 2015 and then back to a near-ruinous (for producers) $40/bbl in 2016-17. Many of the new operators declared bankruptcy, but in the mean-time they (and the ongoing recession for all but the super-rich) had created a short-term oil glut. More people came to believe that oil would be abundant forever, at reasonable prices. Many OPEC countries’ governments, already struggling with unruly political movements, and a permanently unemployed youth workforce, were getting antsy.
  7. 2018. Surprise, surprise, the oil price has risen again, to as high as $70/bbl, though it seems to be hovering mostly around the ‘ideal’ (for producers and consumers) $60/bbl level. The problem is, that’s not quite as ideal as it used to be. The cost of bringing new oil to market has risen from very low-levels (near $15/bbl in the mid-20th-century OPEC countries, to $45/bbl for much “tight” oil extraction). So a very volatile $50-60/bbl price doesn’t provide much margin for producers in an economy that demands significantly increasing profits every year. And it’s expensive for consumers, who start to reduce consumption and turn to alternative sources of energy (where available) when prices move into that $50-60/bbl range.

So what does this mean for the future? The second chart, below, describes what I think we’ll see by the middle of this century. Here we go:

  1. 2018-2025: Just a guess, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling short-term trend in supply or demand one way or another, so I’m guessing that we’ll have a few years of relative stability, with prices ranging from $40-80/bbl depending on producer actions, politics, climate change proclivities, carbon taxes and regulations, and the strange whims and misconceptions of speculators (damn I’d like to see a huge speculation tax on every do-nothing transaction gamblers put through).
  2. 2025-2050: In the medium term, all bets are off. I can see, as conventional sources of oil get depleted and new ones cost more and more, the cost of getting oil to market rising enough that any price under $70/bbl won’t be worth the risk. And I can see, as the real economy (not the economy-of-the-elite the NYT and WSJ reports on) continues to struggle and inequality widens to become a political and even military issue in many parts of the world, the affordable ceiling price for oil dropping to $40/bbl. So that means there is no “happy medium” that works for both producers and consumers — any price is either too low for producers (keeping/driving them out of the market) or too high for consumers (leading to hoarding, involuntary reductions in use (ie repo’d cars and foreclosed homes) — or both. So I see prices whipsawing between $30/bbl or less (when the economy is in especially bad shape) and $100/bbl or more during speculative frenzies, rationing (in black markets), severe shortages and short-lived “is the long depression over yet?” economic recoveries.
  3. 2050-2100: This is the period in which I’ve forecast economic and/or energy collapse and the onset of chronic serious climate change trends and events. I don’t think the US dollar will survive this, so it’s hard to set a price on anything in that currency. I do see it as a long era of scavenging, re-use, rationing, nationalization (until national governments collapse and leave energy management to struggling local communities), hoarding, black markets, and yes, even conservation at last.

Not a very rosy picture, but those who’ve studied the economy and have been following oil prices for a while tend to support much of this hypothesis. Ultimately, it’s the economy, (not so) stupid. The economy is the tail that wags the energy dog, but ultimately the global industrial economy is founded entirely on the preposterous and untenable requirement that growth must continue forever, and the only thing that has provided sustained growth for the past couple of centuries has been cheap hydrocarbons.

And I understand oil doesn’t keep very well.





Final Warning Limits to Growth

24 11 2016

Just when I thought I knew it all regarding Limits to Growth, along comes this one year old little doco produced by DW. What I particularly liked about this one is its historical perspective on the complete lack of action during the past forty years…..

In 1972, the study ‘Limits to Growth’ warned against the impact of capitalism. Did anyone act on it? It shows that Capitalism lies at the root of problems such as overpopulation and environmental pollution, yet few seem to be aware of the connection.

After its publication in 1972, the Club of Rome’s study, “Limits to Growth,” came to epitomize a historical turning point. The book calls into question the fundamental principle of the American economic ideology of capitalism, with its insatiable pursuit of growth. However, the work did not just pillory contemporary practices. It also warned of the extremely diverse and massive consequences for all of humanity. Although there is scarcely any doubt as to the validity of the study and its 1992 successor, “Beyond the Limits,” governments worldwide have done very little to solve the major problems. Topics such as overpopulation, environmental pollution, depletion of resources, and consumption are now familiar to everyone, but few people are aware of the impact they can have in the context of exponential growth on Earth, and therefore on all of humanity. This documentary sheds light on the effect the work has had on public perceptions in the past four decades.

Date 25.11.2015 Duration 42:30 mins.





The Myth of Human Progress

5 06 2016

After reading this excellent article, you will know why I admire Chris Hedges so much……

Posted on Jan 13, 2013 on the Truthdig website

 

 

 

 

By Chris Hedges

chrishedgesClive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel “A Scientific Romance” paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.

 





Moi aussi, je suis Charlie…..

28 01 2015

I’ve refrained from commenting on the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, partly because I’ve been frankly very busy, and partly because I got burnt out arguing with people on FB about what they do not understand about French culture.  Yes, it can be construed that as I have been away more than 50 years – dotted with one brief return in 1980 – I am no longer French, and I agree I certainly feel a lot more Australian than French these days, but if there is one thing I miss about this great country, it is culture.  French culture of course.  I’m not in the least being critical of Australia, there’s no way I’m going to live anywhere else, but throwing prawns on the barbie and watching cricket or footy on the tube is not culture………!

There seems to be a misconception all over the internet that Charlie Hebdo is “anti-Islam”. In fact it is anti-religion, anti-censorship, and anti-authority generally. Like me, really…  Many of its past covers have depicted beloved religious, political, and cultural figures saying or doing obscene things, and would be considered far outside the rules of dignified discourse by basically any Western media. Unless of course, it’s French….

In France (and Belgium where I was actually born) it is par for the course in adult cartooning to “take the piss”.  These obscene cartoons are in no way meant to inspire anger or to convert people to the cartoonist’s preferred ideology; they are meant to tear down the walls of your ego.  Not to mention all the things that you believe make you a good person because you hold them so sacred. They are meant to drag you down to the cartoonist’s level and laugh alongside him or her. A bit like Meister Eckhart’s enigmatic saying, “He who blasphemes praises God.”

This intentional testing of the limits of freedom of speech is one of France’s great accomplishments, in my opinion. After all, ‘Freedom of Speech’ was invented there after the Revolution that destroyed the elites’ wish to not have any such freedom.  Compared to Russia, where it seems the overwhelming cultural consensus is that no one benefits from such obscenity and blasphemy, and blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed or the Orthodox Church is even illegal;  Pussy Riot broke this law and paid the price.  There was international outcry over this, but somehow the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is now that they went too far.  Not in France of course…..  In America, where blasphemy is considered distasteful, plenty of people do it anyway simply to be mean to others and apparently prove how cultured and intelligent they think they are. The tradition of French cartooning does not try to be particularly clever or prove a political point: it merely looks upon all of the world’s attempts to establish order and narrative with the scorn I believe it deserves.

Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopédie are where it all started, but there is much more to the story.  During the reign of Louis XVI, peddlers of porn would gather in the royal court square where due to some archaic law they were free from all censorship, and sell slanderous erotica about Marie Antoinette.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…  Parisians at this time were naive (no internet, remember?), and believed the slander being published.  Marie Antoinette became so hated due to this, the monarchy of 1789 dissolved into violence.  The rest, as they say, is history, and freedom of speech was born.  The maturity needed for all of society to accept obscene fictions as part of the national character was hard-won. An attack on this culture is an attack on France itself.

France is the most feared nation for Islamic extremists precisely because of this cultural freedom; the French demand that sacred cows be allowed to burn, and high and mighty egos set aside, for the shared goals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.  This is a clear repudiation of ignorant, barbaric, and ego-driven terrorism.  The centerpiece of this culture is Charlie Hebdo.  This is why I too join all of France to say “Je suis Charlie” today…….

I’ve lifted some images for your pleasure that show CH is much more than taking the piss from Muslims.  As you can see, the French love bum jokes.  The C word is used constantly in colloquial French, no one ever bats an eyelid….  Irreverance rules, and if Muslims really don’t like it, they can always go back or go some place else.  Like Russia.

 

 

 

UPDATE:
Through reading this very interesting article, I found these two cartoons…..