world pop
Red line: carrying capacity of Earth with wilderness and non-human life sacrificed; Green line: carrying capacity of Earth with some wilderness and non-human life retained, at historical and forecast average consumption and agricultural productivity levels.

My friend Jon Husband has an astounding ability to harvest the most important writing on the Internet and route it selectively through to his very substantial networks, mostly in person (he really gets around) or by personal e-mail rather than through his excellent blog. In the past week he’s sent me four articles I missed, each of which has significantly radicalized my thinking. So today, I’m going to pass on the favour to my readers, with a tip of the hat to Jon.

#1: The Coming Energy Crisis: Stan Goff

In this very long article, Goff deconstructs the myth that solar and wind energy, the ‘hydrogen economy’, biomass and nuclear power all combined are capable of staving off economic collapse as the availability of hydrocarbons peaks around 2010 (or shortly thereafter, if we allow the oil companies to ravage the rest of earth’s wilderness to extend the peak a couple of years) just as the demand for them, especially by the exploding Asian economies, is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Goff tilts rather unseemingly at John Kerry and the Sierra Club for not ‘getting it’, and some of his sources (e.g. Pimentel’s arguments about the efficiency of alternative energy) are somewhat dubious, but for the most part Goff’s arguments are sound and compelling. The lessons from history that Goff draws from the work of the late (and invisible on the Internet) British historian Mark Jones are particularly striking. By 2030, Goff argues, per capita energy consumption, as a result of rapidly diminishing supply and continued population growth, will have inevitably declined to 1930 levels, followed by a continued downward spiral over the succeeding century to ‘stone age’ levels. At the same time the initial effects of catastrophic global warming — weather disasters, damage from desertification and floods, crop failures and more — will be ramping up. Goff describes the massive inefficiency of our current urban agricultural-industrial model (use of 90 calories of energy in the US to produce one calorie of food, for example), and the inevitable acceleration of costly and destructive imperialist military adventures to hoard the remaining oil for the countries most dependent on it, at precisely the time when conservation and collaboration to solve this massive problem and try to minimize its effects — mostly through conservation (rationing) — are most desperately needed. Modern agriculture, which, as Richard Manning has pointed out, consumes more oil energy (in fertilizers etc.) than it produces, will be critically affected, and will itself exacerbate the water shortages, deforestation, ocean life depletion and desertification produced by global warming. After some rambling, Goff gets to the bottom line: (a) The third world cannot be developed, nor can its ‘standard of living’ (consumption) be raised to first-world levels: There just isn’t enough energy and other resources to go around — it’s a zero-sum game, and that means the longer the first-world continues consuming the way it is, the greater the suffering and misery of the third world, and the greater the eco-catastrophe produced by the first-world’s extravagant effluent, and (b) The only answer is massive conservation enabled by a social-political revolution, because the powers that be aren’t going to give up their power peacefully or willingly.

#2: War Crimes and Imperial Fantasies: Noam Chomsky

In an interview for Alternative Radio, the always-provocative (and sometimes annoyingly condescending) Chomsky suggests that the ideological, imperialist, neoconservative, corporatist agenda that Bush has followed in the past four years, and promises to accelerate in the next four, is nothing new in America. Indeed, he says, it has been the basis of US foreign policy without interruption since the end of WW2, under both Republican and Democratic regimes. It’s just that before we weren’t told about it. In dozens of countries around the world, the US has tortured and killed thousands, toppled democratic governments, destroyed economies and wrecked social systems. He argues that there has been a decades-long media-supported campaign of disinformation, denial and cover-up to conceal news of America’s murderous and anti-democratic adventures abroad — but just from Americans. No surprise, then, that the rest of the world ‘hates’ America and Americans don’t understand why. He goes on to argue that what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” — in his surprising and oft-quoted warning about his fears of its dangerous influence over political affairs — is the “core of the modern economy”, and that most government programs are designed to “socialize costs” — to let taxpayers pay for them and take the risks if they fail, and corporations reap the benefits. There will be no significant change in US foreign policy no matter who is elected in November, he says, but the election will have important ramifications for domestic policy. “They [the Bush people] want to destroy the whole array of progressive achievements of the past century. They’ve already more or less gotten rid of progressive income tax. They’re trying to destroy the limited medical care system. The new pharmaceutical bill is a step towards that. They’re going after Social Security. They probably will go after schools. They do not want a small government, any more than Reagan did. They want a huge government, and massively intrusive. They hate free markets. But they want it to work for the rich. The Kerry people will do something not fantastically different, but less so. They have a different constituency to appeal to, and they are much more likely to protect some limited form of benefits for the general population.” So Chomsky says it’s important to get out and support Kerry, as a first essential step towards a longer-term and more fundamental reform of the US political and economic system to restore democracy, end imperialism, and repair America’s reputation in the world.

#3: The Death of Progressive Values: George Lakoff

In a lengthy interview, Lakoff urges progressives to wake up and see what’s happening before the well-oiled and well-orchestrated neocon propaganda machine wins an inexorable share of the hearts and minds of Americans. You can’t persuade people who have bought into the compelling conservative mindset by arguing within their ‘frames’, he says. You need to ‘reframe’ the discussion to appeal to people’s values by showing and teaching that it is progressive values, principles, and policy directions that have made America great. (A policy direction is something like “Let’s have a sustainable environment” and “Working people shouldn’t be living in poverty” and “Everybody should have health care.”) These principles, not programs and platforms, are what people, including most conservatives, buy into, and if progressives talked about them they would reframe political discourse to their advantage, instead of getting hopelessly mired in conservative frames around ‘family values’, good vs evil, etc. And progressives need to go on the attack, not against conservative principles, but against the legacy of conservative administrations that have failed to deliver what they promised: “When they have a case to be made on the basis of a pattern of behavior, progressives don’t tend to use a grammar that really nails the message, like ‘We’re weaker in education, and here’s why. We’re weaker in security, and here’s why.’ You could write this argument in half a page.” Likewise, the discussion on tax cuts should be reframed as a discussion on cuts to investment in our future. People, he says, also need to be educated that business gets far more benefits from government infrastructure and investment than they’re paying for in corporate taxes, and that simply isn’t fair. And progressives should not even talk about the “war on terror” or other purely metaphorical, unwinnable wars, but should reframe the discussion around how the actions of conservative administrations have weakened the country, made people more vulnerable, destroyed global alliances, endangering troops, and mired the country in costly, damaging, needless wars.

#4: A Time to Weep: Theodore Sorensen

In this brief commencement address, the former JFK aide, laments the “mean-spirited mediocrity” of an America that has begun to decline, and which has destroyed its moral authority — its greatest weapon against terrorism. Thanks to incompetent, ideologically-driven leaders, he says, the world no longer trusts America to be honest, to keep its word, to respect global values of peace, caring for others, justice, truth, human rights, fair-mindedness, civility. “We are no longer the world’s leaders on matters of international law and peace. After we stopped listening to others, they stopped listening to us. A nation without credibility and moral authority cannot lead, because no one will follow”, he says. He points out the irony of being accused, and with good reason, both of reckless and imperialist interventionism (in Iraq) and of isolationism (in Sudan and elsewhere) — Evidence, he says, of atrociously immoral judgement. He concludes with a reminder that the Islamic world had universities and observatories long before the West had railroads, an unsubtle reminder of the dangers of ignorance of the lessons of history. It’s an interesting speech in the context of Lakoff’s comments, above. Despite its eloquence, Sorensen’s speech is largely preaching to the progressive choir, and unlikely to move conservatives who, not understanding his frames, won’t even understand where he’s coming from.


All of this is very discouraging. It is easy at times to yield to the temptation to wallow in despair, to succumb to the seduction of hopelessness and depression that at least briefly relieves us of the awful responsibility for fixing this horrendous mess. As someone who has dealt with depression all my life, I don’t blame those who give up the fight — they tried their best, and that’s all you can ask from anyone. For the rest of us, we can and must fight on. Nothing less than the survival of our planet is at stake. And while our success is far from certain, there is reason for optimism. And as TS Eliot said in Four Quartets:

So each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Most important — Be good to yourself. We all need to stay healthy for the hard work ahead.


Jon is looking for beta testers for his organization’s new information aggregation and publishing tool, which appears to have some of the functionality I was calling for in my Personal Knowledge Management post. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

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4 Responses to A TIME TO WEEP

  1. Derek says:

    What I don’t understand from the graphs, is according to when the population crossed the red line, all life on the planet should have been wiped out somewhere around 1980. So what happened?On the energy crisis front: does anybody have any idea how much food we’ll be able to produce without significant quantities of oil? 25%? 10%? Are we going to be facing starvation rather quickly?On the progressive values front: can you point us at anyone (blog/web) that is framing these arguments in a useful fashion? I’d really like some framed arguments with a healthy side of facts and history to start throwing in my friend’s faces.Democracy is frustrating sometimes. Its fighting the same fight against tyranny, corruption, and fascism over and over, decade after decade, century after century. Perhaps this is why we are on such slippery ground in Iraq–we’re handing them a form of government that requires constant vigilance and they are not ready to start paying the price.

  2. Ahmed says:

    Derek: while the western world is (literally) getting fatter more people in the rest of the world than ever are starving or living on subsitence levels. We ARE being wiped out. Just because they’re not starving in Illinois and Vancouver does mean we’re not living on borrowed time. Similarly the west relies on petrochemicals for food production to a much much greater degree than the rest of the world. Most of the world consumption is still dominated by the US, the EU, China and Japan. That’s FIVE governments we have to convince. Many commentators seem to suggest we may be falling into a state of moral or ethical decline which makes the fight impossible- I disagree. The expansion of the NGO sector, the protests against the Iraq war and the WTO give me hope. This helps too:http://www.hallmundur.com/goodle/goodle.htmA dose of scepticism, decency to our fellow [wo]man, hope, shedloads of energy and a good sense of humour will save the world. Get up and DO something.For a neat potted (and simplified) exposition of the state of the world look athttp://www.thesustainablevillage.com/miniature_earth/miniature_earth.htmCopy and paste the links into a new browser window for the best effect…and have a great world changing day.

  3. Ahmed says:

    oops, US+EU+China+Japan is not equal to five, even if you count the EU as one government. sorry. Changing the world starts with mathematics :-)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Derek: What has happened since 1980 is we’ve started using up more and more of future generations’ share of natural resources. On your second question, it depends on what you mean by ‘we’. The experts seem to think (a) prices will soar, meaning the urban poor will starve first, and (b) diet will worsen (more carbs, less protein and minerals) so that before people actually starve, we’ll see massive signs of malnutrition. I think the wars over food, water and oil will likely take more lives than starvation.Ahmed: Thanks for the excellent links.

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