Monday, March 26, 2018

Climate change basics

Because I have immersed myself in the interesting details of the progress in climate science, I sometimes forget how confusing the subject really is. In spite of the mostly unreasonable criticisms, most climate science research is reasonable, thorough, and in some cases, brilliant. But since those who run Big Media barely report on science at all and run the other direction at the slightest controversy, climate change is most certainly not covered like something "important" like whether a porn star should be able to disrupt the people's business.

Spend a couple of hours every day chasing a subject for many years tends to distort the assumptions of what people should know about the subject. So when climate change goes to court, the culture has attempted to move the understanding of how this works from scientists (who probably understood the concept of greenhouse gasses in 7th grade) to lawyers (who probably went to law school because they weren't very good in science.) So California judge William Alsup asks some good basic questions and Oliver Milman came up with accurate and concise answers.

This should probably be considered the minimum level of awareness of climate change. Thanks Oliver.

A judge asks basic questions about climate change. We answer them

California judge William Alsup put out a list of questions for a climate change �tutorial� in a global warming case

Oliver Milman@olliemilman, 21 Mar 2018

California is a hotbed of climate change activism, so it perhaps wasn�t a surprise to see the cities of San Francisco and Oakland sue the world�s largest oil companies last year for allegedly knowing about the dire consequences of global warming while seeking to downplay or deny it.

More striking is the approach of the judge in the case, the unorthodox William Alsup. The judge, who previously learned coding techniques for a Silicon Valley lawsuit, has set out a list of questions for a climate change �tutorial� on the floor of the courtroom on Wednesday.

We�ve sought to help out the judge by answering his queries.

What caused the various ice ages (including the �little ice age� and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise?
The onset and decline of ice ages on Earth over the past few million years have been primarily influenced by slight changes in the Earth�s orbit around the sun, which alters the amount of sunlight bombarding the polar regions.

The last ice age started melting away around 19,000 years ago, which raised the global sea level by around 120 metres. The �little ice age� wasn�t a true ice age � rather a period of relative cooling in the northern hemisphere up until the 19thcentury, probably to do with volcanic eruptions and reduced solar activity. Since then, there has been a sharp decline in glaciers and sea ice driven by human-caused warming, rather than any other factor.

What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not?
It�s rather complex, but basically the molecules of gases such as carbon dioxide are able to bend and slow down solar radiation bouncing off the Earth and returning to space. Nitrogen and oxygen aren�t able to do this and so do not have the same greenhouse impact upon the planet.

What is the mechanism by which infrared radiation trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere is turned into heat and finds its way back to sea level?
Infrared radiation from the sun hits the Earth and reflects back off the surface. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere intervene by trapping this heat and preventing it from escaping.

As the world�s factories, vehicles and farms pump out tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, this has caused the Earth to warm by around 1C (1.8F) over the past century.

Does CO2 in the atmosphere reflect any sunlight back into space such that the reflected sunlight never penetrates the atmosphere in the first place?
A bit, but not enough to really matter.

Apart from CO2, what happens to the collective heat from tailpipe exhausts, engine radiators, and all other heat from combustion of fossil fuels? How, if at all, does this collective heat contribute to warming of the atmosphere?
All that human activity does give off heat, although it�s dwarfed by the heating caused by greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeestimates this direct heat is around one hundredth the size of greenhouse gas-driven heat. The equation is slightly different in some large cities, however, due to the urban heat island phenomenon.

In grade school, many of us were taught that humans exhale CO2 but plants absorb CO2 and return oxygen to the air (keeping the carbon for fiber). Is this still valid? If so, why hasn�t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen? Given the increase in human population on Earth (four billion), is human respiration a contributing factor to the buildup of CO2?
Alsup�s grade school was right � humans (and other animals) breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. But this expulsion of CO2 is in balance with the world around us.

Say you eat a potato. In the months before you ate it, the potato grew by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Your meal provides you with some energy and you then breathe back out the CO2. So the process is essentially carbon neutral.

Extra carbon is being released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, which have been buried in rocks for hundreds of millions of years. Plants and oceans are sucking up a huge amount of this extra CO2, but not all of it. The result is a warmer atmosphere and a warmer ocean.

What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
The burning of huge amounts of coal, oil and gas to power our homes, vehicles and factories.

Losing an area of world�s forests equivalent to the size of New Zealand each year through cutting and fire isn�t helping either.

What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?
The US Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, is also puzzled by this one, but the scientific community has been clear � the primary cause of recent warming has been the emission of carbon dioxide, along with other gases such as methane.

Human activity is the �dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century� according to the US government�s latest climate assessment, with industrialization likely responsible for 0.6C to 0.8C in warming since the early 1950s. more

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Germany's dirty little coal secret

The other day, I went looking for some images / video of brown coal mining in Germany. Turns out Germany mines about 170,000,000 tons of the stuff every year to supply around 25% of her electric power. Ironically it seems to hang on because it is the only energy source for generating electricity cheaper than solar / wind. I mean, what else do you do with brown coal but burn it? It's not like you could turn it into the coke necessary to make high-grade steel.

Anyway, I found some video taken at 4K by a drone. Germans are often efficient because they love to build BIG things. This also explains why Germany, which has led the charge on renewables, still has one of highest per capita carbon footprints. Brown coal is dirty stuff but if you can scoop up thousands of tons per day with a few skilled operators, it makes "economic" sense to scoop.

The following article is from Australia. That country is providing China with a LOT of coal. So there is a whiff of "see, we are no worse than the Germans." But only a whiff. And I'll bet there are many Germans who hate the burning of brown coal as much as her neighbors.

Germany's dirty little coal secret

Germany's reputation as a pioneer of clean, green energy seems a far cry from the reality on the ground in the village of Atterwasch.

By Tom Morton, 13 Sep 2016

It's been called one of the greatest social experiments in German history, comparable with the process of reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That social experiment � known as Energiewende, or "energy transition" � is a living reality in the centuries-old village of Atterwasch, in the eastern German region of Lusatia, close to the Polish border.

Next to the village church, which dates back to 1294, the rectory roof sports an impressive rack of solar panels. The solar array recently won an "Ecumenical Environmental Award" from the Ecumenical Council of Berlin-Brandenburg.

Wind turbines turn over the low hills that rise above the village, and the surrounding countryside is dotted with small-scale wind farms and solar parks amidst fields of maize, apple orchards, and vineyards.

The "energy transition" is an ambitious set of policy measures introduced by Angela Merkel's government in 2011. In the short term, Germany aims to generate 35 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

By 2050, that figure will reach 80 per cent, and according to Felix Christian Matthes, of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Berlin, Europe's largest economy will be approaching full decarbonisation.

Germany seems well on track to reaching that target. Already, 30 per cent of its electricity comes from renewables.

But the energy transition has a dirty secret. Renewables have been so successful that the only energy source that is still cheaper is brown coal.

Since 2007, Atterwasch and four other villages have been facing demolition to make way for new open-cut brown coal mining operations in Lusatia.

In May this year, 3,500 protesters occupied the Welzow-S�d open-cut brown coal mine in Lusatia, stopping diggers, conveyor belts and train tracks and forcing the owner of the mine, the Swedish state-owned company Vattenfall, to halt operations there for a weekend.

The protest, known as Ende Gel�nde, was one of a number of simultaneous actions around the world � including a blockade of the Newcastle coal terminal on Australia's east coast � with one simple aim: to keep coal in the ground.

Coal is responsible for 46 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Research published last year in the journal Nature by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins of University College London showed that more than 80 per cent of the world's remaining coal reserves have to stay in the ground if we're to keep average global temperature rise below two degrees � the figure agreed on at the Paris Climate Summit.

At the protests in Lusatia, 52 organisations, including Friends of the Earth, and Oxfam joined forces with local people from the nearby villages of Proschim and Spremberg, who have been fighting since 2007 to prevent their homes being bulldozed.

A group of around 300 protestors pulled down fences around the Schwarze Pumpe coal-fired power plant adjacent to the mine and attempted to occupy the plant. Police arrested 120 people and charged them with breach of the peace.

Also taking part were people from the villages of Atterwasch, Kerkwitz and Grabko, around 100 km away. The villages are facing demolition to allow for an extension of the J�nschwalde North open-cut brown coal mine � also owned, until recently, by Vattenfall.

"For me personally, that's not the way I'd choose to protest," says Monika Schulz-H�pfner, former mayor of the village of Atterwasch, and member of the Brandenburg state parliament for 20 years, "but in these tense times, and considering the situation we're all in, civil disobedience of this kind is absolutely acceptable."

Ms Schulz-H�pfner, who was dropped from preselection by her own Christian Democrat party because of her strong opposition to coal mining, refused to distance herself from the protests.

"It's a great feeling to be here," she says. "We feel we're connected to people all over the world who are coming together to do something about climate change and support the goals of the Paris summit."

One of Ms Schulz-H�pfner's neighbours in Atterwasch is Ulrich Schulz, whose family have been farming land there since the time of the Thirty Years War.

Mr Schulz carries on this long tradition, growing crops � mostly for feed � and breeding cattle, pigs, and chickens. Alongside his barn is a biogas plant, which generates 160 kilowatts of electricity and heats the poutry pens in winter. All that could come to an end if the mine extension goes ahead.

"This sword of Damocles has been hanging over us for years," Mr Schulz told me when I first visited him in September 2014.

"The whole farm is sitting on top of a coal seam. Where we're standing would be a gaping hole. What it would mean for us financially, I don't even want to think about. What it would mean for our morale? Well, it'd be just be a disaster."

Of course, not everyone thinks the coal mines are a bad thing.

"Coal means a lot to me," says Marco Bedrich, a 22-year-old electronics technician at the J�nschwalde power plant, Germany's largest brown-coal-fired power plant.

"It means being able to stay here in my home. It means I can build a house here with the money that I've earned. Without brown coal we'd lose most of the jobs in this region."

Like much of eastern Germany after reunification, Lusatia experienced rapid de-industrialisation. The textile and glass industries were decimated, and 80 per cent of the coal mines and power plants closed down.

"The number of jobs in the coal industry in eastern Germany has shrunk from 100,000 to 17,000," says Wolfgang Rupieper, a former judge and spokesman for Pro Lausitzer Braunkohle, an organisation set up to promote the future of the coal industry.

"Brown coal production has already been dramatically reduced. We don't want skilled workers leaving the region, and we don't want to lose all of our young people.

"Every year Vattenfall takes on 250 to 300 apprentices in the coal industry. They learn a range of trades, and they earn good money when they're finished. Sure, they could leave and find jobs elsewhere in Germany, but then our region would be depopulated."

Earlier this year, Vattenfall sold all of its coal mines and power plants in Lusatia to the Czech company EPH. It's not clear yet what this means for the threatened villages.

But both Mr Schulz and Ms Schulz-H�pfner believe coal mining is out of step with Germany's "energy transition" .

While the number of jobs in coal mining across the whole country has shrunk to 50,000, the renewable energy sector employs more than 400,000 people.

Ms Schulz-H�pfner wants the state governments of Brandenburg and Saxony to get opponents and supporters of the coal industry together around one table to plan a structural transformation which will boost investment in renewables and move the region towards a future beyond coal.

"We're living the energy transition already," says Ms Schulz-H�pfner.

"We have solar cells on our roof, wind turbines in the fields, we drive an electric car. We don't just talk about it, we live it.

"[But] the energy transition won't just happen here in Germany. It will have to happen throughout the world." more

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Protectionism flickers to life

There are times when the conventional disgust with "protectionism" rises to the level of the outrage over pedophilia. Which is strange when you think about it. From Ben Franklin to Abe Lincoln to H. Ross Perot, there have been strong supporters of many of the ideas that the high tariff folks believed in so strongly. When a country is developing a sophisticated manufacturing base, the protectionists usually triumph. It is only when a country gets rich and imperial do the "free" traders win the day. The traders are a fraction of overall economic activity but when the dominant economic strategy favor traders over manufacturing, they get to write the rules in their favor.

Hudson is pretty good on trade issues. He's a ways from Lincoln but he's way better than your typical cable business talking head. So I thought he might celebrate the fact that Trump has at least moved the needle away from the free trade extremism as practiced since the late 1970s. Well, I was wrong. Hudson instead faults Trump for not having a coherent trade policy to back his Twitter outbursts on trade. Fair enough.

Me, I am happy that someone is reopening the Free Trade debate�which has been pretty dormant since the Battle for Seattle in 1999. Free trade has been such an unmitigated disaster there is barely time to count the ways. As someone who comes from the Naomi Klein wing of the DFL when it comes to trade issues, I find it a bit odd to hear some of our best arguments come from the mouth of Trump. I only hope he understands that by even questioning the free trade establishment, he has committed an unspeakable heresy and the the race is on among those who author papers glorifying the conventional economic wisdom to see who can denounce this sin with the greatest fervor.

Trump�s Travesty of Protectionism


Trump�s series of threats this week was a one-two punch. First, he threatened to impose national security tariffs on steel and aluminum, primarily against Canada and Mexico (along with Korea and Japan). Then, he suggested an alternative: He would exempt these countries if they agree to certain U.S. demands.

But these demands make so little economic sense that they should be viewed as an exercise in what academia used to call power politics. Or in Trump�s world, Us versus Them, a zero-sum game in which he has to show that America wins, they lose.

It won�t work. Trump�s diplomatic ploy with Mexico is to say that he�ll be willing to exempt them from the steel and aluminum tariffs if they agree to (1) build the wall that he promised to make them build, and (2) give other special favors to the United States. He can then go to American voters and say, �See, we won; Mexico lost.�

This is unlikely to elicit a Mexican surrender. Its president already has said that building a wall makes no sense, and cancelled the planned diplomatic visit to Washington last week. Giving in to Trump�s election promise to American voters (or more to the point, indulging in his own ego trip about the wall) would be political suicide. Trump would crow that he made Mexico bow to his bidding.

Matters aren�t much better in Canada. While some Pennsylvania and Ohio steel companies probably will try to make Trump look good by hiring back a few hundred workers if and when the tariffs are announced, Canada and other suppliers would have to be laid off. Canadian resentment already has been building up for decades, ever since the auto agreement of the 1960s and �70s that favored U.S. suppliers.

But the real economic problem comes from within the United States itself. If new steel workers are hired, they may be laid off in a few months. Most important is the bigger economy-wide picture: The Chamber of Commerce and other groups have calculated that the loss of jobs in steel- and aluminum-using industries will far outnumber the new hiring of steel and aluminum workers.

NPR on Wednesday had a maker of beer kegs explain that if the cost of steel goes up, he can�t afford to match the prices of foreign keg manufacturers who buy their raw materials cheaper � and do NOT have tariffs raised on higher manufactures.

There are many good arguments for protectionism. These arguments are in fact much better than the free-trade patter talk used to indoctrinate college economics students. Of all the branches of today�s mainstream economics, free-trade theory is the most unrealistic. If it were realistic, Britain, the United States and Germany never would have risen to world industrial powers. (I review the fallacies of free-trade theory in Trade, Development and Foreign Debt.)

Economic history provides a long and excellent successful pedigree of good arguments for protective tariffs. Britain created its empire by protectionism, stifling manufactures in the United States as long as it pursued free trade. After the Civil War ended, America built up its industry and agriculture by protectionism, as did Germany and France. (I discuss the strategy in America�s Protectionist Takeoff: 1815-1914.)

But as each of these nations became world leaders, they sought to pull up the ladder and prevent other countries from protecting their own industry and agriculture. So they changed to �free trade imperialism.� The aim of industrial leaders is to convince other countries not to regulate or plan their own markets, but to let the United States engineer an asymmetrical trade policy whose aim is to make other countries dependent on its food exports and monopoly exports, while opening their markets to U.S. companies.

Since the 1920s the protectionist economies that came to support free trade have rewritten of history to white out how they got rich. The strategy of protectionism has been forgotten. Trump�s so-called protective tariffs against steel and aluminum are the antithesis to every principle of protectionism. That is why they are so self-destructive.

A really nationalistic trade strategy is to buy raw materials cheaply, and sell finished manufactured goods at a high value-added price.

The idea of industrial protectionism, from British free trade in the 19thcentury to U.S. trade strategy in the 20th century, was to obtain raw materials in the cheapest places � by making other countries compete to supply them � and protect your high-technology manufactures where the major capital investment, profits and monopoly rents are.

Trump is doing the reverse: He�s increasing the cost of steel and aluminum raw materials inputs. This will squeeze the profits of industrial companies using steel and aluminum � without protecting their markets.

In fact, other countries are now able to legally raise their tariffs to protect their highest-technology sectors that might be most threatened by U.S. exports. Harley Davidson motorcycles have been singled out. They also can block U.S. monopoly exports, such as bourbon and Levi blue jeans, or pharmaceuticals. Or, China can block whatever U.S. technology it decides it wants to compete with.

Trump�s tariff threats caused short-term aluminum prices to jump by 40 percent, and steel prices by about 33 percent. This raises the price of these materials to U.S. manufacturers, squeezing their profits. Foreign manufacturers will not have their materials prices increased, and so can out-compete with U.S. steel- or aluminum-using rivals. The global oversupply in fact may make the price of steel and aluminum decline in foreign markets. So foreign industry will gain a cost advantage.

On top of that, foreign countries can legally raise tariffs in their own markets � for whatever industries they deem will best gain from this advantage.

Trump�s tariffs will not induce new capital investment in steel or aluminum

America�s logic behind protective tariffs after the Civil War ended the Southern free-trade policies was that tariff protection would create a price umbrella enabling U.S. manufacturers to invest in plant and equipment. Britain already had made these sunk costs, so the United States had to include the cost of capital in its revenue.

That�s how America built up its steel industry, chemical industry and other manufacturing industry.

But no steel or aluminum company is likely to invest more or hire more U.S. labor as a result of higher tariff revenues. These companies may raise their prices, but neither investment nor trickle-down effects are likely.

For one thing, aluminum is made out of electricity, and America is a high-cost producer. Alcan � America�s largest supplier � has a rip-off deal with Iceland getting electricity almost for nothing.

For steel, it takes a long time to build a modern steel mill. No company will do this without an assured market. Trump�s tariff increases do not guarantee that.

America�s policy of breaking international agreements (we�re the �indispensable nation�)

Few companies, labor groups or banks in New York City have been willing to trust Mr. Trump in recent years. He should have called his book �The Art of BREAKING THE deal.� That�s how he made his money. He would sign an agreement with suppliers to his hotels or other buildings, and then offer only 80 cents (or less) on the dollar. He�d tell them, in effect: �You want to sue? That will cost you $50,000 to get into court, and then wait three or four years, by which time we�ll have made enough money to pay you on the cheap.�

Bank lenders had as much trouble getting paid as did Trump�s hapless suppliers. He made his fortune this way � so successfully that he seems to believe that he can use the same strategy in international diplomacy, just as he�s threatening to break the Iran agreement.

Will this work? Or are foreign economies coming to view the United States as �not agreement-capable�? In fact, will U.S. companies themselves believe that agreements signed today will still be honored tomorrow?

Trump�s national security ploy to bypass Congressional authority over trade policy

This is not the first time the United States has raised tariffs unilaterally. George W. Bush did it. And my 1979 book, Global Fracture, describes U.S. protectionism in the 1970s against other countries. America did it again and again.

But Trump has introduced some new twists. First of all, former U.S. protectionism had Congressional backing. But Trump has bypassed Congress, no doubt aware that steel-using and aluminum-using industries can mobilize Congressional support against Trump.

So Trump has used the one play available to the Executive Branch: the National Security umbrella. In a great mind-expansion exercise he claims that it would be a loss of national security to depend on neighboring Canada, Mexico, or allies such as South Korea and Japan for steel and aluminum. If he can convince a kangaroo trade court, this loophole is indeed allowed under WTO rules (GATT Article XXI). The idea was to apply to times of war or other great crisis. But U.S. steel and aluminum production has been steady for over a decade, and there seems to be no military or economic crisis affecting national security.

Suppose Trump gets away with it. Other countries can play this �national security� game. Any economic activity can be deemed national security, because every economy is an overall system, with every given part affecting all the others. So Trump has opened the door for overall asymmetrical jockeying for position. The most likely arena may be high-technology and military-related sectors.

Back in the 1980s this was called �Uncle Sucker� patter talk � acting as if the United States was the exploited party, not the exploiting actor in international trade and investment. Ultimately at issue is how much policy asymmetry the rest of the world is willing to tolerate. Can the United States still push other countries around as it has done for so many years? How far can America push its one-sided agreements before other countries break away?

Each foreign country threatened with loss of steel or aluminum exports has a more high-tech industry that it would like to protect against U.S. competition. The response is likely to be asymmetrical.

And here at home, how long will higher manufacturing industries back Mr. Trump and his policy that makes a travesty of �smart� protectionism? more

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Even the Paris 2015 climate accords won't solve the problem

Robert Hunziker is perhaps the politician that best understands climate change�and has for some time. He is running for a seat in Washington's 8th Congressional District. I certainly hope he wins.

Whenever I stumble across someone who has a profound and deep understanding of a subject, I am immediately curious as to how he came to be that way. I am especially curious if that person is young. His campaign literature sort of explains his enlightened worldview. Turns out that there CAN be some significant advantages to learning a society from the bottom up. So here's to someone who has had enough exposure to Producing Class virtue to understand that no matter how enlightened a Leisure Class actor, that person cannot build the sustainable future.

Fixing Global Warming is Bigger Than Paris �15


The worldwide effort to harness, slow down, lessen, reduce, remove the threat of global warming is epitomized by the Paris �15 climate accord. This agreement calls for nations of the world to implement plans to slow down greenhouse gas emissions, specifically CO2 from fossil fuels, and to take other remedial actions necessary to hold global temps below 2�C but preferably 1.5�C relative to the start of the industrial revolution over 200 years ago.

That task may be an overwhelming one, more so than realized, due to the simple fact that, according to YaleEnvironment360: �Frighteningly, this modern rise of CO2 is also accelerating at an unusual rate. In the late 1950s, the annual rate of increase was about 0.7 ppm per year; from 2005-2014 it was about 2.1 ppm per year.� (Source: Nicola Jones, How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters, YaleEnvironment360, January 26, 2017).

�If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted� CO2 will need to be reduced� to at most 350 ppm,� according to Columbia University climate guru James Hansen. We sailed past that target in about 1990, and it will take a gargantuan effort to turn back the clock,� Ibid.

Meanwhile, year-over-year CO2 numbers continue a relentless march upwards, unimpeded.

Monthly average CO2 Readings in Parts Per Million (�PPM�)
1850 (Ice Core Data) 285.20
1959 (Mauna Loa readings start) 316.18
February 2017 406.42
February 2018 408.35
March 2018 409.97
A return to 350 ppm is looking very distant.

For perspective on the challenge ahead, Wally Broecker (Columbia) aka: the Grandfather of Climate Science, discussed the outlook in a July 2017 interview:

�In 1950s, when I was in graduate school, we got 15 percent of our energy from renewables and nuclear, and 85 percent from fossil fuels. Today it�s the same. Both of them have been increasing at 3 percent a year.� (Source: David Wallace-Wells, The Man Who Coined the Term �Global Warming� on the Worst-Case Scenario for Planet Earth, Daily Intelligencer, July 10, 2017).

Remarkably, according to Broecker, the ratio of renewable-to-fossil fuel energy has not changed one iota in almost 70 years. That�s all the more remarkable because, since the 1980s, global warming has been pinpointed as an existential threat. Yet, the renewable-to-fossil fuel energy ratio stays the same. According to Broecker, that ratio needs to change or all bets are off.

�Renewables and nuclear are not changing in their percentage share. And in order to stop the CO2 from rising we have to go to a factor-of-ten reduction in fossil fuel burning � at least a factor of ten. And that means changing all the world�s infrastructure,� Ibid.

The world relies upon trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure to source, create, and deliver energy. However, if renewables take over as the primary source of energy creation, a lot of fossil fuel infrastructure will be worth zero. So far, based upon the record over the past seven decades, fossil fuel infrastructure looks solidly in place, in fact, growing in size, and there are some powerful forces in the world that want to keep it that way, which, in turn, makes it doubly difficult to achieve Paris �15.

One problem in confronting the global warming issue is participation, by whom and to what extent? Scientists such as James G. Anderson of Harvard states it takes a WWII type of effort to overcome the global warming problem, which implies all hands on deck, as well as within 5 years in a substantive way.

But, there are major obstacles: One year ago President Sauli Niinist� of the Republic of Finland met with President Putin of Russia at the International Arctic forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia, March 29-31, 2017.

In his opening remarks, President Niinist� stated: �My starting point today is the growing threat of climate change. Tackling this challenge is crucial if we want to ensure that the Arctic remains the place it is today. But the issue is of global significance: If we lose the Arctic, we lose the whole world.� (Source: Opening Remarks by the President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinist� at �The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue� Forum, Arkhangelsk, 30th March 2017).

He continued: �This catastrophe will not be limited to the Arctic. There will be enormous consequences worldwide. As the ice melts, sea levels will rise. As the ice melts, solar radiation will not be reflected back � instead, its energy will further warm the water and accelerate global warming,� Ibid.

He mentioned Russia�s 7,000 methane-infused pingos that have suddenly popped up throughout Siberia, in his words: �A further concern is the recent report made by Russian scientists that in Siberia there are some 7,000 methane-filled pockets waiting to release content. This will create danger and disruption to infrastructure and humans in the area. What is worse, once released, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,� Ibid.

At latitude 66�33'47.1? N, the Arctic Circle intersects Finland at its midpoint. President Sauli Niinist� knows the Arctic. He lives it.

Thereafter, President Putin�s speech at the same forum emphasized: �Russia, which makes up almost a third of the Arctic zone� includes over 150 projects with estimated investment of trillions of roubles� and creation of so-called development support zones� and the development of offshore deposits� we devoted special attention to the Northern Sea Route� almost a year-round artery�.� (Source: Vladimir Putin�s Speech at the �Arctic: Territory of Dialogue� International Arctic Forum, About the Forum, International Arctic Forum, March 2017).

No mention of global warming. However, Russia can�t wait for open blue waters in the Arctic for development of fossil fuels and open sea routes over the North Pole for transportation purposes.

Furthermore, in interviews following the forum, Putin stated his opinion that humans are not responsible for climate change: �Icebergs have been melting for decades, started in the 1930s� when, according to him, �there were no serious anthropological factors at work.� He says global warming cannot be stopped because �it�s tied to global cycles on Earth. The issue is to adapt to it.�

Russia adapts by spending trillions of rubles to explore for fossil fuels. Similarly, the United States follows in lockstep by opening up national parks all across the country to big oil, including Arctic Wilderness refuges.

Climate change deniers lead the world�s largest economy (United States) and Russia, the sixth largest. They are at the top of the pyramid of fossil fuel production at the very moment when the infrastructure of the Arctic, i.e., multi-year ice, is crumbling apart right before everybody�s eyes. Therefore, the question is whether a disintegrating Arctic is good or bad. Obviously, by their actions alone, both America and Russia want collapsing Arctic infrastructure. They are banking on it!

President Niinist� succinctly summed up the risks of a collapsing Arctic, on January 2nd 2018 when he was sworn in for a second six-year term, after a landslide victory at the polls: �Combating climate change is the most important issue in the coming years. That�s just how it must be, so that humankind won�t have to endure the destruction of the planet.� (Source: President Niinist� Emphasizes Climate Change at Inauguration, UUTISET News Jan. 2nd, 2018).

At that swearing-in ceremony, Maria Lohela, Speaker of the Parliament, praised President Niinist��s first-term and specifically mentioned his initiatives to combat the use of coal, which accelerates the melting of polar ice caps.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration�s frantic delirium over coal, oil and gas exploration/production is only surpassed in exuberance by an historical event, John D. Rockefeller�s heartfelt passion for turning nature�s bounty into a fortune, growing Standard Oil Company from the world�s largest refinery in 1870 into the world�s first and largest multinational in 1911, indeed, a record pace for capitalistic development.

But, with America�s national parks opening up carte blanche to big oil, Trump has a shot at exceeding Rockefeller�s record pace. His emphasis, like Rockefeller of 100 years ago, is drill everywhere, far and wide, pole to pole.

Meanwhile, it�s nearly unimaginable/unbelievable contrasting Middle Eastern ethos to American and Russian, all major oil producers. As for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia�s biggest solar farm currently in operation covers the parking lot of the National Oil Company, Saudi Aramco.

�The Saudi government wants not just to reshape its energy mix at home but also to emerge as a global force in clean power. (Source: Stanley Reed, From Oil to Solar: Saudi Arabia Plots a Shift to Renewables, The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2018).

By the end of the year, Saudi Arabia aims to invest up to $7 billion to develop seven new solar plants and a big wind farm.

In September 2017, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched plans for the world�s largest Concentrated Solar Power project, including the world�s tallest solar tower.

In August 2017 Kuwait launched a $1.2B solar power plant project.

As of January 2018, Oman completed its feasibility plan for a huge solar park of 500MW.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is making plans to build a 100MW solar plant as part of its renewable energy agenda.

OPEC is turning green for practical purposes, but more importantly, they�re demonstrating an intellect and foresightedness above and beyond boorish accretion of oil as a way of life. They see the future.

Meantime, similar to John D. Rockefeller�s race to oil glory 100 years ago, the U.S. and Russia are in a trillion-dollar race competing for newly exposed riches of oil and gas but in frigid waters sans ice and in Arctic wildlife refuges, pounding on the door of the final frontier where a mistake magnifies ten-fold. It�s a dicey future.

Back in the day Rockefeller was a visionary. Today, the Rockefeller Family Fund is divesting all of its holdings of fossil fuel companies. more

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Infrastructure funding

Whenever I discuss possible solutions to climate change, it isn't long before someone demands, "How much will this cost??!! And how do you propose we pay for it?" These are in fact excellent questions because the MAIN reason why this civilization-threatening problem doesn't get seriously addressed is the sticker shock that occurs whenever someone gives a realistic estimate for a fix.

Then there's Ellen Brown who reminds us that the problem of not enough money should be the easiest problem to solve of all.  Then she gives us historical examples of why democratic money creation suggest the perfect solutions to the funding problems. Unfortunately, folks who saw the world like Ellen does mostly disappeared by the early 1950s so she has become an almost lone voice for a sane monetary and banking organization.

Which is all the more reason why she should be read.

Funding Infrastructure: Why China Is Running Circles Around America

Posted on February 27, 2018 by Ellen Brown

�One Belt, One Road,� China�s $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, is a massive undertaking of highways, pipelines, transmission lines, ports, power stations, fiber optics, and railroads connecting China to Central Asia, Europe and Africa. According to Dan Slane, a former advisor in President Trump�s transition team, �It is the largest infrastructure project initiated by one nation in the history of the world and is designed to enable China to become the dominant economic power in the world.� In a January 29th article titled �Trump�s Plan a Recipe for Failure, Former Infrastructure Advisor Says,� he added, �If we don�t get our act together very soon, we should all be brushing up on our Mandarin.�

On Monday, February 12th, President Trump�s own infrastructure initiative was finally unveiled. Perhaps to trump China�s $1 trillion mega-project, the Administration has now upped the ante from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion, or at least so the initiative is billed. But as Donald Cohen observes in The American Prospect, it�s really only $200 billion, the sole sum that is to come from federal funding; and it�s not even that after factoring in the billions in tax cuts in infrastructure-related projects. The rest of the $1.5 trillion is to come from cities, states, and private investors; and since city and state coffers are depleted, that chiefly means private investors. The focus of the Administration�s plan is on public-private partnerships, which as Slane notes are not suitable for many of the most critical infrastructure projects, since they lack the sort of ongoing funding stream such as a toll or fee that would attract private investors. Public-private partnerships also drive up costs compared to financing with municipal bonds.

In any case, as Yves Smith observes, private equity firms are not much interested in public assets; and to the extent that they are, they are more interested in privatizing existing infrastructure than in funding the new development that is at the heart of the president�s plan. Moreover, local officials and local businessmen are now leery of privatization deals. They know the price of quick cash is to be bled dry with user charges and profit guarantees.

The White House says its initiative is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposal but is the start of a negotiation, and that the president is �open to new sources of funding.� But no one in Congress seems to have a viable proposal. Perhaps it is time to look more closely at how China does it . . . .

China�s Secret Funding Source: The Deep Pocket of Its State-owned Banks

While American politicians argue endlessly about where to find the money, China has been forging full steam ahead with its mega-projects. A case in point is its 12,000 miles of high-speed rail, built in a mere decade while American politicians were still trying to fund much more modest rail projects. The money largely came from loans from China�s state-owned banks. The country�s five largest banks are majority-owned by the central government, and they lend principally to large, state-owned enterprises.

Where do the banks get the money? Basically, they print it. Not directly. Not obviously. But as the Bank of England has acknowledged, banks do not merely recycle existing deposits but actually create the money they lend by writing it into their borrowers� deposit accounts. Incoming deposits are needed to balance the books, but at some point these deposits originated in the deposit accounts of other banks; and since the Chinese government owns most of the country�s banks, it can aim this funding fire hose at its most pressing national needs.

China�s central bank, the People�s Bank of China, issues money for infrastructure in an even more direct way. It has turned to an innovative form of quantitative easing in which liquidity is directed not at propping up the biggest banks but at �surgical strikes� into the most productive sectors of the economy. Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter calls this �qualitative easing� to distinguish it from the quantitative easing engaged in by Western central banks. According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article:
In China�s context, such so-called qualitative easing happens when the People�s Bank of China adds riskier assets to its balance sheet � such as by relending to the agriculture sector and small businesses and offering cheap loans for low-return infrastructure projects � while maintaining a normal pace of balance-sheet expansion [loan creation]. . . .

The purpose of China�s qualitative easing is to provide affordable financing to select sectors, and it reflects Beijing�s intention to dictate interest rates for some sectors, Citigroup�s economists said. They added that while such a policy would also put inflationary pressure on the economy, the impact is less pronounced than the U.S.-style quantitative easing.
Among the targets of these surgical strikes with central bank financing is the One Belt, One Road initiative. According to a May 2015 article in Bloomberg:
Instead of turning the liquidity sprinkler on full-throttle for the whole garden, the PBOC is aiming its hose at specific parts. The latest innovations include plans to bolster the market for local government bonds and the recapitalisation of policy banks so they can boost lending to government-favoured projects. . . .

Policymakers have sought to bolster credit for small and medium-sized enterprises, and borrowers supporting the goals of the communist leadership, such as the One Belt, One Road initiative developing infrastructure along China�s old Silk Road trade routes.
�Non-Performing Loans� or �Helicopter Money for Infrastructure�? Money that Need Not Be Repaid

Critics say China has a dangerously high debt-to-GDP ratio and a �bad debt� problem, meaning its banks have too many �non-performing� loans. But according to financial research strategist Chen Zhao in a Harvard review called �China: A Bullish Case,� these factors are being misinterpreted and need not be cause for alarm. China has a high debt to GDP ratio because most Chinese businesses are funded through loans rather than through the stock market, as in the US; and China�s banks are able to engage in massive lending because the Chinese chiefly save their money in banks rather than investing it in the stock market, providing the deposit base to back this extensive lending. As for China�s public �debt,� most of it is money created on bank balance sheets for economic stimulus. Zhao writes:
During the 2008-09 financial crisis, the U.S. government deficit shot up to about 10 percent of GDP due to bail-out programs like the TARP. In contrast, the Chinese government deficit during that period didn�t change much. However, Chinese bank loan growth shot up to 40 percent while loan growth in the U.S. collapsed. These contrasting pictures suggest that most of China�s four trillion RMB stimulus package was carried out by its state-owned banks. . . . The so-called �bad debt problem� is effectively a consequence of Beijing�s fiscal projects and thus should be treated as such.
China calls this government bank financing �lending� rather than �money printing,� but the effect is very similar to what European central bankers are calling �helicopter money� for infrastructure � central bank-generated money that does not need to be repaid. If the Chinese loans get repaid, great; but if they don�t, it�s not considered a problem. Like helicopter money, the non-performing loans merely leave extra money circulating in the marketplace, creating the extra �demand� needed to fill the gap between GDP and consumer purchasing power, something that is particularly necessary in an economy that is contracting due to shrinking global markets following the 2008-09 crisis.

In a December 2017 article in the Financial Times called �Stop Worrying about Chinese Debt, a Crisis Is Not Brewing�, Zhao expanded on these concepts, writing:
[S]o-called credit risk in China is, in fact, sovereign risk. The Chinese government often relies on bank credit to finance government stimulus programmes. . . . China�s sovereign risk is extremely low. Importantly, the balance sheets of the Chinese state-owned banks, the government and the People�s Bank of China are all interconnected. Under these circumstances, a debt crisis in China is almost impossible.
Chinese state-owned banks are not going to need a Wall Street-style bailout from the government. They are the government, and the Chinese government has a massive global account surplus. It is not going bankrupt any time soon.

What about the risk of inflation? As noted by the Citigroup economists, Chinese-style �qualitative easing� is actually less inflationary than the bank-focused �quantitative easing� engaged in by Western central banks. And Western-style QE has barely succeeded in reaching the Fed�s 2 percent inflation target. For 2017, the Chinese inflation rate was a modest 1.8 percent.

What to Do When Congress Won�t Act

Rather than regarding China as a national security threat and putting our resources into rebuilding our military defenses, we might be further ahead studying its successful economic policies and adapting them to rebuilding our own crumbling roads and bridges before it is too late. The US government could set up a national infrastructure bank that lends just as China�s big public banks do, or the Federal Reserve could do qualitative easing for infrastructure as the PBOC does. The main roadblock to those solutions seems to be political. They would kill the privatization cash cow of the vested interests calling the shots behind the scenes.

What alternatives are left for cash-strapped state and local governments? Unlike the Fed, they cannot issue money directly; but they can establish their own banks. Fifty percent of the cost of infrastructure is financing, so having their own banks would allow them to cut the cost of infrastructure nearly in half. The savings on infrastructure projects with an income stream could then be used to fund those critically necessary projects that lack an income stream.

For a model, they can look to the century-old Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the nation�s only publicly-owned depository bank. The BND makes 2 percent loans to local communities for infrastructure, far below the 12 percent average sought by private equity firms. Yet as noted in a November 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the BND is more profitable than Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Before submitting to exploitation by public-private partnerships, state and local governments would do well to give the BND model further study. more

Friday, March 9, 2018

Climate Tipping Points

Like many college students, there has been a sense when the subject was climate change that we could always "cram for the final" when things got really serious. Now I feel a shift in tone�there is a sense of urgency. Below are two short pieces that address why this may be so. The first addresses the new and truly frightening data the great scientific measurements can provide. While second talks about the disappearing paradise that was Santa Barbara California. Two different looks at impending doom and how close it may be.

The Current Onset of Climate Tipping Points


As extreme temperatures, the rate of sea ice melt, the collapse of Greenland glaciers, the thawing of Siberian and Canadian permafrost and increased evaporation in the Arctic drive cold snow storms into Europe and North America, and as hurricanes and wild fires affect tropical and semi-tropical parts of the globe, it is becoming clear Earth is entering a shift in state of the atmosphere-ocean system associated with destructive climate tipping points. As Arctic permafrost is thawing an analogy with geological methane-release events such as the 56 million years-old Paleocene-Eocene boundary thermal maximum (PETM) event is becoming more likely.

As is well known to students of the history of the climate, once a temperature threshold is breached, abrupt weather events ensue amplified by feedbacks such as decreased reflectivity of the Earth surface and enhanced release of greenhouse gases, often within short time frames.

Figure 1. 1880-2018 annual mean temperatures and 5-years smoothing.

Such abrupt changes are occurring at present. As mean global temperature has exceeded 1.2 degrees Celsius above 1880 temperatures (Figure 1), sharp reductions occur in Arctic sea ice from 45 percent in 1985 to 21 percent in 2017[i], when the ice cover was 8.5 percent lower than the average of 1981-2010[ii].

As the ice melts the near-total reflection (high albedo) of solar radiation from the ice is replaced by absorption of infrared radiation by open water; The flow of ice-melt water from the Greenland glaciers creates a large pool of cold water in the North Atlantic Ocean. The cold water region south of Greenland slows-down to aborts northward flow of the thermohaline Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC), leading to cooling of the North Atlantic and adjacent North America and Europe[iii].

Rising temperature and evaporation over the warming Arctic Ocean results in build-up of masses of cold vapor-laden air, intermittently penetrating into lower latitudes through the weakened undulating boundary of the high-altitude polar vortex, which allows penetration of snow storms southward through Siberia and North America[iv](Figure 2).

Figure 2. Arctic air temperatures in January 2018 in degrees Celsius relative to the average (Arctic sea � 3-9 degrees, yellow to red; Greenland and Siberia (-1 to -3 degrees C, blue to magenta) Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division.

In 2006 the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets experienced a combined mass loss of 475�158 Gt/yr (billion ton/year), equivalent to 1.3�0.4 mm/year sea level rise. The acceleration in ice sheet loss over the last 18 years was 21.9�1 Gt/year2 for Greenland and 14.5 � 2 Gt/year2.

The slow-down to collapse of the northward flow of warm water from tropical regions, namely the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC), originating from the Gulf of Mexico, and further warming of the tropical ocean pools, produce in temperature polarities with cool northern ocean regions. This ensues in storms and hurricanes in regions such as the Caribbean islands. Warming of the west Pacific Ocean leads to cyclones such as have affected the Philippines, Fiji and Samoa,

Polar warming is leading to the release of large amounts of methane from frozen organic matter stored in the permafrost and from methane hydrates in lakes, the sea and sediments. This has already raised atmospheric methane levels during 1960-2017 from ~1600 parts per billion to 1860 ppb. The bubbling of methane is locally leading to collapse and cratering of the permafrost. The total mass of methane on land of ~2050 GtC (billion tons) and methane hydrates at sea of ~16,000 GtC (Global Carbon Project) is some 30 times greater than the >600 GtC which has been produced by anthropogenic emissions since the onset of the industrial age. Even a release of 10 percent of Arctic-stored carbon would raise atmospheric greenhouse levels by a factor of about three.

The current warming of Earth manifest in the Arctic Sea, the melting of polar ice sheets, penetration of snow storms into mid-latitudes, permafrost thaw, hurricanes and wildfires and the rise in extreme weather events, manifesting a shift in state of the atmosphere-ocean system, constitutes an existential threat to humanity and much of nature.

Apart from sharp reduction in carbon emissions, there appears to be one chance to save the biosphere as we know it, namely CO2 down-draw using every available method (cf. basalt dust application of soils, carbon cultivation of soils (biochar), CO2 removal by air streaming through basalt, extensive sea weed farms, �sodium trees� sequestering CO2 using sodium hydroxide in pipe systems). This would require funds on the $trillions-scale currently allocated for the military and for wars, humanity�s choice being between ongoing wars and defense of the Planet.







Southern Californians know: climate change is real, it is deadly and it is here

An earthly paradise is ravaged by inferno and flood, the earth itself rising to proclaim a horrifying and deadly new normal
Nora Gallagher, 3 Mar 2018

When people ask me where I live and I say, �Santa Barbara,� I wait for the inevitable reply, �Paradise,� and the quizzical look that says, how does one live there, rather than vacation. It�s as if I had replied, Disneyland.

People who visit from colder climates have been complaining lately. Last year, when it finally rained after six years of drought, and we were practically on our knees with gratitude, a woman from New England remarked, �I didn�t come here for the rain.� I almost said, �Well, then, why don�t you go back home?� Another pestered a friend: when was her club in Montecito going to open? My friend replied, �I think it�s under eight feet of mud.� She wanted to add, �And they�re still looking for the bodies.�

It�s always been a struggle here to have a normal life, to hold on to reality.

In December, we got a mega-dose of reality when the biggest fire in California�s history burned more than 270,000 acres. Seven cities were evacuated.

When the air was labeled �hazardous� for three days running, we made plans to leave. On Sunday morning, my phone pinged a mandatory evacuation for Montecito. I called a friend who lives there. �Packing,� she said. The fire was less than a mile away. I drove through the brown air and falling ash to a gas station and when I got there, my credit card wouldn�t work; the power was out. I stood in the zombie snow as others lined up behind me. Finally, we drove north to a hotel on the coast, where, with evacuated friends, we hiked and walked together along the shore.

After we�d been there a few days, I woke up at 3am and thought of a movie I�d watched years ago. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck waiting for the fallout from a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere to float on the wind to them in Australia. They were going to die, and everyone and everything they cared about was already dead or was going to be. I remembered a lot of drinking and dancing, fruitless searching by submarine along the coasts of the United States for survivors and Fred Astaire fixing up his sports car so he could rev it up in his garage and commit suicide.

I thought, we are On the Beach.

Like them, we were hardly refugees. We hadn�t walked out of our houses not knowing where we were going or who would take us in. But still, hanging over our hikes, was dread.

And what was coming toward us? Immediately, it was the fire. The fire at that point was burning so hot it was basically gas. Because of the long drought, the lack of rain this season, and Santa Ana winds in December.

But we were waiting for something else, too.

And then, the firefighters, all 8,549 of them, stopped the fire and we went home for Christmas.

In early January, a tropical storm from the south hit the newly burned mountains above Montecito between two and three in the morning, and dropped a half-inch of rain in five minutes. A force of water and ash and soil no longer secured by plants picked up boulders on its way down the mountain and swept into the town. My friends in Montecito were just too tired to evacuate ahead of this storm. A firefighter told them the day before. �If you hear a sound like a freight train, get up on the second story or the roof.� They woke up at three under a red sky from houses exploding over severed gas lines and they heard it: �A terrible grinding roar.� It buried houses and cars and people. It buried the freeway and the train tracks. All the way to the ocean. A body of a man was found on the beach. Not far from him was the body of a bear.

Broken houses line mud-caked streets, and two people are still missing including a two-year-old. We are no longer a pretty backdrop, and our hearts aren�t pretty, either.

And we know now what the dread was we felt in December. Call it climate change or climate collapse, that was the Big Dread behind the smaller ones. Climate believers, climate deniers, deep in our hearts we think it will happen somewhere else. Or, in some other time, in 2025 or 2040 or next year. But we are here to tell you, in this postcard from the former paradise, that it won�t happen next year, or somewhere else. It will happen right where you live and it could happen today. No one will be spared.

So, if you are driving around and flying on airplanes and ordering things to be shipped by truck and making money off oil stock the way so many of us are � like there�s no tomorrow? We are here to tell you there is a tomorrow and we are living in it.

If you visit, talk to us as if our dose of mega-reality is not some singular string of bad luck or an inconvenience to you. Help tether us to the reality we are � all of us � living in now and that we in southern California don�t want to forget in the face of returning to �normal�. Give us the one gift that will help us: please, let�s not go back to business as usual. more

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The power of conventional wisdom

One of the smartest men I know once assured me that the "Zeitgeist cannot be changed�that's what makes it the Zeitgeist." OK. Except I know better. I grew up in the world created by the Keynesians of the Ken Galbraith variety. I watched it just disappear in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo to be replaced by people who believed in ideas that supposedly had been forever discredited by the Great Depression. I still gasp at the sheer audacity of it all. It helped immeasurably that we had become a land of historical illiterates (The United States of Amnesia--Gore Vidal) so forgetting economic history was a trivial problem. And so the Zeitgeist changed from the Keynesians to the Monetarists in an historical eye-blink. Maoists become central bankers. And no, I most certainly do NOT believe all this happened by accident.

Even so, this was much easier than anyone could have imagined (or at least me.) The family business was running a church where I learned just how difficult it is to get folks to change their minds. Turns out well-funded think tanks can change quite a few minds. Jason Hirthler lays out a believable explanation for how and why this happened. Interesting reading.

Colonizing the Western Mind


In Christopher Nolan�s captivating and visually dazzling film Inception, a practitioner of psychic corporate espionage must plant and idea inside a CEO�s head. The process is called inception, and it represents the frontier of corporate influence, in which mind spies no longer just �extract� ideas from the dreams of others, but seed useful ideas in a target�s subconscious. Inception is a well-crafted piece of futuristic sci-fi drama, but some of the ideas it imparts are already deeply embedded in the American subconscious. The notion of inception, of hatching an idea in the mind of a man or woman without his or her knowledge, is the kernel of propaganda, a black art practiced in the States since the First World War. Today we live beneath an invisible cultural hegemony, a set of ideas implanted in the mass mind by the U.S. state and its corporate media over decades. Invisibility seems to happen when something is either obscure or ubiquitous. In a propaganda system, an overarching objective is to render the messaging invisible by universalizing it within the culture. Difference is known by contrast. If there are no contrasting views in your field of vision, it�s easier to accept the ubiquitous explanation. The good news is that the ideology is well-known to some who have, for one lucky reason or another, found themselves outside the hegemonic field and are thus able to contrast the dominant worldview with alternative opinions. On the left, the ruling ideology might be described as neoliberalism, a particularly vicious form of imperial capitalism that, as would be expected, is camouflaged in the lineaments of humanitarian aid and succor.

Inception 1971

In a short span of time in the 1970s, dozens of think tanks were established across the western world and billions of dollars were spent proselytizing the tenets of the Powell Memo in 1971, which galvanized a counter-revolution to the liberal upswing of the Sixties. The neoliberal economic model of deregulation, downsizing, and privatization was preached by the Reagan-Thatcher junta, liberalized by the Clinton regime, temporarily given a bad name by the unhinged Bush administration, and saved by telegenic restoration of the Obama years. The ideology that underlay the model saturated academia, notably at the University of Chicago, and the mainstream media, principally at The New York Times. Since then it has trickled down to the general populace, to whom it now feels second nature. Today think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute, Stratfor, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment, the Open Society Foundation, and the Atlantic Council, among many others, funnel millions of dollars in donations into cementing neoliberal attitudes in the American mind.

The ideological assumptions, which serve to justify what you could call neocolonial tactics, are relatively clear: the rights of the individual to be free of overreach from monolithic institutions like the state. Activist governments are inherently inefficient and lead directly to totalitarianism. Markets must be free and individuals must be free to act in those markets. People must be free to choose, both politically and commercially, in the voting booth and at the cash register. This conception of markets and individuals is most often formulated as �free-market democracy,� a misleading conceit that conflates individual freedom with the economic freedom of capital to exploit labor. So when it comes to foreign relations, American and western aid would only be given on the condition that the borrowers accepted the tenets of an (highly manipulable) electoral system and vowed to establish the institutions and legal structures required to fully realize a western market economy. These demands were supplemented with notions of the individual right to be free of oppression, some fine rhetoric about women and minorities, and somewhat more quietly, a judicial understanding that corporations were people, too. Together, an unshackled economy and an unfettered populace, newly equipped with individual rights, would produce the same flourishing and nourishing demos of mid-century America that had been the envy of humanity.

A False Promise

This �Washington Consensus� is the false promise promoted by the West. The reality is quite different. The crux of neoliberalism is to eliminate democratic government by downsizing, privatizing, and deregulating it. Proponents of neoliberalism recognize that the state is the last bulwark of protection for the common people against the predations of capital. Remove the state and they�ll be left defenseless. Think about it. Deregulation eliminates the laws. Downsizing eliminates departments and their funding. Privatizing eliminates the very purpose of the state by having the private sector take over its traditional responsibilities. Ultimately, nation-states would dissolve except perhaps for armies and tax systems. A large, open-border global free market would be left, not subject to popular control but managed by a globally dispersed, transnational one percent. And the whole process of making this happen would be camouflaged beneath the altruistic stylings of a benign humanitarianism.

Globalists, as neoliberal capitalists are often called, also understood that democracy, defined by a smattering of individual rights and a voting booth, was the ideal vehicle to usher neoliberalism into the emerging world. Namely because democracy, as commonly practiced, makes no demands in the economic sphere. Socialism does. Communism does. These models directly address ownership of the means of production. Not so democratic capitalism. This permits the globalists to continue to own the means of production while proclaiming human rights triumphant in nations where interventions are staged. The enduring lie is that there is no democracy without economic democracy.

What matters to the one percent and the media conglomerates that disseminate their worldview is that the official definitions are accepted by the masses. The real effects need never be known. The neoliberal ideology (theory) thus conceals the neoliberal reality (practice). And for the masses to accept it, it must be mass produced. Then it becomes more or less invisible by virtue of its universality.

A Pretext for Pillage

Thanks to this artful disguise, the West can stage interventions in nations reluctant to adopt its platform of exploitation, knowing that on top of the depredations of an exploitative economic model, they will be asked to call it progress and celebrate it.

Washington, the metropolitan heart of neoliberal hegemony, has numerous methods of convincing reluctant developing nations to accept its neighborly advice. To be sure, the goal of modern colonialism is to find a pretext to intervene in a country, to restore by other means the extractive relations that first brought wealth to the colonial north. The most common pretexts for intervention depict the target nation in three distinct fashions.

First, as an economic basket case, a condition often engineered by the West in what is sometimes called, �creating facts on the ground.� By sanctioning the target economy, Washington can �make the economy scream,� to using war criminal Henry Kissinger�s elegant phrasing. Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are relevant examples here. Second, the West funds violent opposition to the government, producing unrest, often violent riots of the kind witnessed in Dara, Kiev, and Caracas. The goal is either to capsize a tottering administration or provoke a violent crackdown, at which point western embassies and institutions will send up simultaneously cries of tyranny and brutality and insist the leader step aside. Libya, Syria, and Venezuela are instructive in this regard. Third, the country will be pressured to accept some sort of military fettering thanks to either a false flag or manufactured hysteria over some domestic program, such as the WMD restrictions on Iraq, chemical weapons restrictions on Syria, or the civilian nuclear energy restrictions on Iran. Given that the U.S. traffics in WMDs, bioweapons, and nuclear energy itself, insisting others forsake all of these is perhaps little more than racially motivated despotry. But significant fear mongering in the international media will provide sufficient moral momentum to ram through sanctions, resolutions, and inspection regimes with little fanfare.

Schooling the Savages

Once the pretext is established, the appropriate intervention is made. There�s no lack of latent racism embedded in each intervention. Something of Edward Said�s Orientalism is surely at play here; the West is often responding to a crude caricature rather than a living people. One writer, Robert Dale Parker, described western views of Asia as little more than, �a sink of despotism on the margins of the world.� Iran is incessantly lensed through a fearful distrust of the �other�, those abyssal Persians. Likewise, North Korea is mythologized as a kingdom of miniature madmen, possessed of a curious psychosis that surely bears no relation to the genocidal cleansing of 20 percent of its population in the Fifties, itself an imperial coda to the madness of Hiroshima.

The interventions, then, are little different than the missionary work of early colonizers, who sought to entrap the minds of men in order to ensnare the soul. Salvation is the order of the day. The mission worker felt the same sense of superiority and exceptionalism that inhabits the mind of the neoliberal. Two zealots of the age peddling different editions of a common book. One must carry the gospel of the invisible hand to the unlettered minions. But the gifts of the enlightened interloper are consistently dubious.

It might be the loan package that effectively transfers economic control out of the hands of political officials and into the hands of loan officers, those mealy-mouthed creditors referred to earlier. It may be the sanctions that prevent the country from engaging in dollar transactions and trade with numberless nations on which it depends for goods and services. Or it might be that controversial UNSC resolution that leads to a comprehensive agreement to ban certain weapons from a country. Stipulations of the agreement will often include a byzantine inspections regime full of consciously-inserted trip wires designed to catch the country out of compliance and leverage that miscue to intensify confrontational rhetoric and implement even more far-reaching inspections.

Cracking the Shell

The benign-sounding structural adjustments of the West have fairly predictable results: cultural and economic chaos, rapid impoverishment, resource extraction with its attendant ecological ruin, transfer of ownership from local hands to foreign entities, and death from a thousand causes. We are currently sanctioning around 30 nations in some fashion; dozens of countries have fallen into �protracted arrears� with western creditors; and entire continents are witnessing huge outflows of capital�on the order of $100B annually�to the global north as debt service. The profiteering colonialists of the West make out like bandits. The usual suspects include Washington and its loyal lapdogs, the IMF, World Bank, EU, NATO, and other international institutions, and the energy and defense multinationals whose shareholders and executive class effectively run the show.

So why aren�t Americans more aware of this complicated web of neocolonial domination? Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who pioneered the concept of cultural hegemony, suggested that the ruling ideologies of the bourgeoisie were so deeply embedded in popular consciousness that the working classes often supported leaders and ideas that were antithetical to their own interests. Today, that cultural hegemony is neoliberalism. Few can slip its grasp long enough to see the world from an uncolored vantage point. You�ll very rarely encounter arguments like this leafing through the Times or related broadsheets. They don�t fit the ruling dogma, the Weltanschauung (worldview) that keeps the public mind in its sleepy repose.

But French-Algerian philosopher Louis Althusser, following Gramsci, believed that, unlike the militarized state, the ideologies of the ruling class were penetrable. He felt that the comparatively fluid zones of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) were contexts of class struggle. Within them, groups might attain a kind of �relative autonomy�, by which they could step outside of the monolithic cultural ideology. The scales would fall. Then, equipped with new knowledge, people might stage an inception of their own, cracking open the cultural hegemony and reshaping its mythos in a more humane direction. This seems like an imperative for modern American culture, buried as it is beneath the hegemonic heft of the neoliberal credo. These articles of false faith, this ideology of deceit, ought to be replaced with new declarations of independence, of the mind if not the mainstream. more

Jason Hirthler can be reached at

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