Carbon Delirium: The Last Stage of Fossil-Fuel Addiction

Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com

By Michael Klare

Of all the preposterous, irresponsible headlines that have appeared on the front page of the New York Times in recent years, few have exceeded the inanity of this one from early March: “U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin.”  The article by normally reliable reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger suggested that, by sending our surplus natural gas to Europe and Ukraine in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the United States could help reduce the region’s heavy reliance on Russian gas and thereby stiffen its resistance to Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior.

Forget that the United States currently lacks a capacity to export LNG to Europe, and will not be able to do so on a significant scale until the 2020s.  Forget that Ukraine lacks any LNG receiving facilities and is unlikely to acquire any, as its only coastline is on the Black Sea, in areas dominated by Russian speakers with loyalties to Moscow.  Forget as well that any future U.S. exports will be funneled into the international marketplace, and so will favor sales to Asia where gas prices are 50% higher than in Europe.  Just focus on the article’s central reportorial flaw: it fails to identify a single reason why future American LNG exports (which could wind up anywhere) would have any influence whatsoever on the Russian president’s behavior.

The only way to understand the strangeness of this is to assume that the editors of the Times, like senior politicians in both parties, have become so intoxicated by the idea of an American surge in oil and gas production that they have lost their senses.

As domestic output of oil and gas has increased in recent years — largely through the use of fracking to exploit hitherto impenetrable shale deposits — many policymakers have concluded that the United States is better positioned to throw its weight around in the world.  “Increasing U.S. energy supplies,” said then-presidential security adviser Tom Donilon in April 2013, “affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”  Leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle have voiced similar views.

The impression one gets from all this balderdash is that increased oil and gas output — like an extra dose of testosterone — will somehow bolster the will and confidence of American officials when confronting their foreign counterparts.  One former White House official cited by Davenport and Erlanger caught the mood of the moment perfectly: “We’re engaging from a different position [with respect to Russia] because we’re a much larger energy producer.”

It should be obvious to anyone who has followed recent events in the Crimea and Ukraine that increased U.S. oil and gas output have provided White House officials with no particular advantage in their efforts to counter Putin’s aggressive moves — and that the prospect of future U.S. gas exports to Europe is unlikely to alter his strategic calculations.  It seems, however, that senior U.S. officials beguiled by the mesmerizing image of a future “Saudi America” have simply lost touch with reality.

For anyone familiar with addictive behavior, this sort of delusional thinking would be a sign of an advanced stage of fossil fuel addiction.  As the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality evaporates, the addict persists in the belief that relief for all problems lies just ahead — when, in fact, the very opposite is true.

The analogy is hardly new, of course, especially when it comes to America’s reliance on imported petroleum.  “America is addicted to oil,” President George W. Bush typically declared in his 2006 State of the Union address (and he was hardly the first president to do so).  Such statements have often been accompanied in the media by cartoons of Uncle Sam as a junkie, desperately injecting his next petroleum “fix.”  But few analysts have carried the analogy further, exploring the ways our growing dependence on oil has generated increasingly erratic and self-destructive behavior.  Yet it is becoming evident that the world’s addiction to fossil fuels has reached a point at which we should expect the judgment of senior leaders to become impaired, as seems to be happening.

The most persuasive evidence that fossil fuel addiction has reached a critical stage may be found in official U.S. data on carbon dioxide emissions.  The world is now emitting one and a half times as much CO2 as it did in 1988, when James Hansen, then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned Congress that the planet was getting warmer as a result of the “greenhouse effect,” and that human activity — largely in the form of carbon emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels — was almost certainly the cause.

If a reasonable concern over the fate of the planet were stronger than our reliance on fossil fuels, we would expect to see, if not a reduction in carbon emissions, then a decline at least in the rate of increase of emissions over time.  Instead, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that global emissions will continue to rise at a torrid pace over the next quarter century, reaching 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 — more than double the amount recorded in 1998 and enough, in the view of most scientists, to turn our planet into a living hell.  Though seldom recognized as such, this is the definition of addiction-induced self-destruction, writ large.

For many of us, the addiction to petroleum is embedded in our everyday lives in ways over which we exercise limited control.  Because of the systematic dismantling and defunding of public transportation (along with the colossal subsidization of highways), for instance, we have become highly reliant on oil-powered vehicles, and it is very hard for most of us living outside big cities to envision a practical alternative to driving.  More and more people are admittedly trying to kick this habit at an individual level by acquiring hybrid or all-electric cars, by using public transit where available, or by bicycling, but that remains a drop in the bucket.  It will take a colossal future effort to reconstruct our transportation system along climate-friendly lines.

For what might be thought of as the Big Energy equivalent of the 1%, the addiction to fossils fuels is derived from the thrill of riches and power — something that is far more difficult to resist or deconstruct.  Oil is the world’s most lucrative commodity on the planet, and a source of great wealth and influence for ruling groups in the countries that produce it, notably Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.  The leaders of these “petro-states” may not always benefit personally from the accumulation of oil revenues, but they certainly recognize that their capacity to govern, or even remain in power, rests on their responsiveness to entrenched energy interests and their skill in deploying the nation’s energy resources for political and strategic advantage.  This is just as true for Barack Obama, who has championed the energy industry’s drive to increase domestic oil and gas output, as it is for Vladimir Putin, who has sought toboost Russia’s international clout through increased fossil fuel exports.

Top officials in these countries know better than most of us that severe climate change is coming our way, and that only a sharp reduction in carbon emissions can prevent its most destructive effects.  But government and corporate officials are so wedded to fossil fuel profits — or to the political advantages that derive from controlling oil’s flow — that they are quite incapable of overcoming their craving for ever greater levels of production.  As a result, while President Obama speaks often enough of his desire to increase the nation’s reliance on renewable energy, he has embraced an “all of the above” energy plan that is underwriting a boom in oil and gas output.  The same is true for virtually every other major government figure.  Obeisance is routinely paid to the need for increased green technology, but a priority continues to be placed on increases in oil, gas, and coal production.  Even in 2040, according to EIA predictions, these fuels may still be supplying four-fifths of the world’s total energy supply.

This bias in favor of fossil fuels over other forms of energy — despite all we know about climate change — can only be viewed as a kind of carbon delirium.  You can find evidence of this pathology worldwide and in myriad ways, but here are three unmistakable examples of our advanced stage of addiction.

1. The Obama administration’s decision to allow BP to resume oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

After energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum) pleaded guilty to criminal negligence in the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which resulted in the death of 11 people and a colossal oil spill, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended the company’s right to acquire new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.  The ban was widely viewed as a major setback for the company, which had long sought to dominate production in the Gulf’s deep waters.  To regain access to the Gulf, BP sued the EPA and brought other pressures to bear on the Obama administration.  Finally, on March 13th, after months of lobbying and negotiations, the agency announced that BP would be allowed to resume bidding for new leases, as long as it adhered to a list of supposedly tight restrictions

BP officials viewed the announcement as an enormous victory, allowing the company to resume a frenetic search for new oil deposits in the Gulf’s deep waters.  “Today’s agreement will allow America’s largest investor to compete again for federal contracts and leases,” said BP America Chairman and President John Mingé.  Observers in the oil industry predict that the company will now acquire many additional leases in the Gulf, adding to its already substantial presence there.  “With this agreement, it’s realistic to expect that the Gulf of Mexico can be a key asset for BP’s operations not only for this decade but potentially for decades to come,” commented Stephen Simko, an oil specialist at Morningstar investment analysts.  (Six days after the EPA announced its decision, BP bid $42 million to acquire 24 new leases in the Gulf.)

So BP’s interest is clear enough, but what is the national interest in all this?  Yes, President Obama can claim that increased drilling might add a few hundred thousand barrels per day to domestic oil output, plus a few thousand new jobs.  But can he really assure our children or grandchildren that, in allowing increased drilling in the Gulf, he is doing all he can to reduce the threat of climate change as he promised to do in his most recent State of the Union address?  If he truly sought a simple and straightforward way to renew that pledge, this would have been a good place to start: plenty of people remember the damage inflicted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the indifference BP’s top officials displayed toward many of its victims, so choosing to maintain the ban on its access to new drilling leases on environmental and climate grounds would certainly have attracted public support.  The fact that Obama chose not to do so suggests instead a further surrender to the power of oil and gas interests — and to the effects of carbon delirium.

2. The Republican drive to promote construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as a response to the Ukrainian crisis

If Obama administration dreams about pressuring Putin by exporting LNG to Europe fail to pass the credibility test, a related drive by key Republicans to secure approval for the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline defies any notion of sanity.  Keystone, as you may recall, is intended to carry carbon-dense, highly corrosive diluted bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  Its construction has been held up by concerns that it will pose a threat to water supplies along its route and help increase global carbon dioxide emissions.

Because Keystone crosses an international boundary, its construction must receive approval not just from the State Department, but from the president himself.  The Republicans and their conservative backers have long favored the pipeline as a repudiation of what they view as excessive governmental deference to environmental concerns.  Now, in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, they are suddenly depicting pipeline approval as a signal of U.S. determination to resist Putin’s aggressive moves in the Crimea and Ukraine.

“Putin is playing for the long haul, cleverly exploiting every opening he sees.  So must we,” wrote former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a recentWashington Post op-ed.  “Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that.”

Does anyone truly believe that Vladimir Putin will be influenced by a White House announcement that it will allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline?  Putin’s government is already facing significant economic sanctions and other punitive moves, yet none of this has swayed him from pursuing what he appears to believe are Russia’s core interests.  Why, then, would the possibility that the U.S. might acquire more of its oil from Canada and less from Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, and other foreign suppliers even register on his consciousness?

In addition, to suggest that approving Keystone XL would somehow stiffen Obama’s resolve, inspiring him to adopt tougher measures against Moscow, is to engage in what psychologists call “magical thinking.”  Were Keystone to transport any other substance than oil, the claim that its construction would somehow affect presidential decision-making or events on Russia’s borders would be laughable. So great is our reverence for petroleum, however, that we allow ourselves to believe in such miracles.  This, too, is carbon delirium.

3. The Case of the Missing $20 Billion

Finally, consider the missing $20 billion in oil revenues from the Nigerian treasury.  In Nigeria, where the average income is less than $2.00 per day and many millions live in extreme poverty, the disappearance of that much money is a cause for extreme concern.  If used for the public good, that $20 billion might have provided basic education and health care for millions, helped alleviate the AIDS epidemic, and jump-started development in poor rural areas.  But in all likelihood, much of that money has already found its way into the overseas bank accounts of well-connected Nigerian officials.

Its disappearance was first revealed in February when the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, told a parliamentary investigating committee that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to transfer the proceeds from oil sales to the national treasury as required by law. Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer and the proceeds from its petroleum output not claimed by the NNPC’s foreign partners are supposed to wind up in the state’s coffers.  With oil prices hovering at around $100 per barrel, Nigeria should theoretically be accumulating tens of billions of dollars per year from export sales.  Sanusi was immediately fired by President Goodluck Jonathan for conveying the news that the NNPC has been reporting suspiciously low oil revenues to the central bank, depriving the state of vital income and threatening the stability of the nation’s currency.  The only plausible explanation, he suggested, is that the company’s officials are skimming off the difference.  “A substantial amount of money has gone,” he told the New York Times.  “I wasn’t just talking about numbers.  I showed it was a scam.”

While the magnitude of the scam may be eye-catching, its existence is hardly surprising.  Ever since Nigeria began producing oil some 60 years ago, a small coterie of business and government oligarchs has controlled the allocation of petroleum revenues, using them to buy political patronage and secure their own private fortunes.  The NNPC has been an especially fertile site for corruption, as its operations are largely immune from public inspection and the opportunities for swindles are mammoth.  Sanusi is only one of a series of well-intentioned civil servants who have attempted to plumb the depths of the thievery.  A 2012 report by former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu reported the disappearance of a hardly less staggering $29 billion from the NNPC between 2001 and 2011.

Here, then, is another, equally egregious form of carbon delirium: addiction to illicit oil wealth so profound as to place the solvency and well-being of 175 million people at risk.  President Jonathan has now promised to investigate Sanusi’s charges, but it is unlikely that any significant portion of the missing $20 billion will ever make it into Nigeria’s treasury.

Curing Addiction

These examples of carbon delirium indicate just how deeply entrenched it is in global culture.  In the U.S., addiction to carbon is present at all levels of society, but the higher one rises in corporate and government circles, the more advanced the process.

Slowing the pace of climate change will only be possible once this affliction is identified, addressed, and neutralized.  Overcoming individual addiction to narcotic substances is never an easy task; resisting our addiction to carbon will prove no easier.  However, the sooner we recast the climate issue as a public health problem, akin to drug addiction, the sooner we will be able to fashion effective strategies for averting its worst effects.  This means, for example, providing programs and incentives for those of us who seek to reduce our reliance on petroleum, and imposing penalties on those who resist such a transition or actively promote addiction to fossil fuels.

Divesting from fossil fuel stocks is certainly one way to go cold turkey.  It involves sacrificing expectations of future rewards from the possession of such stocks, while depriving the fossil fuel companies of our investment funds and, by extension, our consent for their activities.

But a more far-ranging kind of carbon detoxification must come in time.  As with all addictions, the first and most crucial step is to acknowledge that our addiction to fossil fuels has reached such an advanced stage as to pose a direct danger to all humanity.  If we are to have any hope of averting the worst effects of climate change, we must fashion a 12-step program for universal carbon renunciation and impose penalties on those who aid and abet our continuing addiction.


Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left.  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oilis available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book,  Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2014 Michael T. Klare


City Needs Comprehensive Development Plan Centered Around the “Real Gold in Grass Valley”

By Bruce Herring

Much ado lately in local press and other spheres concerning the future of Grass Valley. Citizens, elected officials, print journalists, bloggers, and other characters have bandied about a variety of notions. At issue: What is, what has, and what will really revitalize Grass Valley? It has been suggested the new Dorsey interchange is the true “silver bullet.” It has been suggested a new “Lifestyle Mall” at the interchange is the key to our future, complete with a big or at least a medium box. “It’s what the people want.”

Not long ago the buzz was the re-opening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine. Before that it was Loma Rica, other annexations, the shopping malls, and heck even the freeway itself. Brilliant idea that freeway, and convenient. Of course great swaths of private and commercial property were condemned, Nevada City lost the old gazebo, and Wolf Creek sentenced to run underground through tunnels and culverts for much of its downtown reach. A bit further back are the mines themselves, the mills, Lake Olympia, the Narrow Gauge Railroad, and …

Except for a portion of the original Loma Rica plan, these ideas and “improvements” – while visionary to varying degrees – are all based on quite conventional nineteenth or twentieth century thought. All have brought, or will bring some gain. All have tradeoffs. Everything does.

Several recent comments aim to push the conversation toward a 21st century framework. One suggests we are leaving history out of the equation. Others call for a comprehensive outlook instead of the usual piece-meal strategy. Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council goes one step further to suggest folks today “Want to live, work, shop and be entertained in the place they live; they want to walk and ride bikes; they want access to trails and open space; they want affordable starter housing for working people because young people can’t afford the single family residential American dream anymore; people crave authenticity and a sense of place.”

Two things. One, the City of Grass Valley has secured a grant to pursue a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. I am told by high level city staffers that a multi-year series of public meetings will commence sometime later this year to do just that. Fabulous.

Two. Yes, a comprehensive outlook with a broad perspective is indeed a welcome idea. But the discourse must also include the age-old concept of the Commons. To be sure Grass Valley and Western Nevada County need to continue moving forward economically. But as Mr. Frisch suggests, we should do so authentically and with a renewed sense of “place.”

The common thread through Grass Valley is Wolf Creek. Like most “commons” it has been virtually invisible, neglected, used, and abused since the get-go in the 1850s. Commons in general are taken for granted and not valued in the complex accounting of GDP and “economic growth.” And yet in their wisdom the Grass Valley City Council unanimously approved a Conceptual Plan for a Wolf Creek Parkway in 2006. A Wolf Creek Trail is mentioned in city documents as early as 1999 and is included in the Downtown Strategic Plan.

Little or nothing has happened in the last eight years to move the concept forward. The time to do so is now. The Wolf Creek Parkway can and should stand as the centerpiece of any Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. Yes for the creek’s sake, but more importantly for OURS. We need a healthy visible accessible creek to revitalize ourselves. A place to walk, a place to bike, a place to just sit by moving water will provide a profound sense of place and connection to the natural world. It will help each of us feel good about our town. Citizens and visitors alike will benefit from the shared values derived from Wolf Creek, the “Real Gold in Grass Valley.”

Urban river and creek restoration has boosted property values and economic vitality in San Luis Obispo, Napa, Santa Rosa, and Tempe, AZ. Plans are underway for a major rehabilitation of the Los Angeles River. Freeway interchanges, bridges, and places to shop locally are indeed essential to our vitality, as would be high speed internet access. But the Wolf Creek Parkway will make a statement and put Grass Valley “on the map.” The Parkway epitomizes a bold move into 21st Century thinking.

Let the conversation continue. For additional information please visit the website of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance.


Bruce_Herring_thumbBruce Herring is a former whitewater rafting guide for O.A.R.S., running in the 70s and 80s on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, American, Rogue, San Juan, Tatshenshini, and Grand Canyon. He spent ten years teaching and as Principal of Bitney Springs High School in Grass Valley, stepping aside in 2013. He currently serves as the Managing Director for A&B Associates, and volunteers for the Wolf Creek Community Alliance. See his blog at “Steward’s Log.”


The Golden Age of Journalism?

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author.

Your Newspaper, Your Choice 

By Tom Engelhardt

It was 1949.  My mother — known in the gossip columns of that era as “New York’s girl caricaturist” — was freelancing theatrical sketches to a number of New York’s newspapers and magazines, including the Brooklyn Eagle.  That paper, then more than a century old, had just a few years of life left in it.  From 1846 to 1848, its editor had been the poet Walt Whitman.  In later years, my mother used to enjoy telling a story about the Eagle editor she dealt with who, on learning that I was being sent to Walt Whitman kindergarten, responded in the classically gruff newspaper manner memorialized in movies like His Girl Friday: “Are they still naming things after that old bastard?”

In my childhood, New York City was, you might say, papered with newspapers.  The Daily News, the Daily Mirror, the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal… there were perhaps nine or 10 significant ones on newsstands every day and, though that might bring to mind some golden age of journalism, it’s worth remembering that a number of them were already amalgams.  The Journal-American, for instance, had once been the Evening Journal and the American, just as the World-Telegram & Sun had been a threesome, the World, the Evening Telegram, and the Sun.  In my own household, we got the New York Times (disappointingly comic-strip-less), the New York Post(then a liberal, not a right-wing, rag that ran Pogo and Herblock’s political cartoons) and sometimes the Journal-American (Believe It or Not and The Phantom).

Then there were always the magazines: in our house, Life, the Saturday Evening PostLook, theNew Yorker – my mother worked for some of them, too — and who knows what else in a roiling mass of print.  It was a paper universe all the way to the horizon, though change and competition were in the air.  After all, the screen (the TV screen, that is) was entering the American home like gangbusters. Mine arrived in 1953 when the Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings, which — something new under the sun — were to be televised live by ABC.

Still, at least in my hometown, it seemed distinctly like a golden age of print news, if not of journalism.  Some might reserve that label for the shake-up, breakdown era of the 1960s, that moment when the New Journalism arose, an alternative press burst onto the scene, and for a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the old journalism put its mind to uncovering massacres, revealing the worst of American war, reporting on Washington-style scandal, and taking down a president.  In the meantime, magazines like Esquire and Harper’s came to specialize in the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder, stylish voicey-ness that would, one day, become the hallmark of the online world and the age of the Internet.  (I still remember the thrill of first reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” on the world of custom cars.  It put thevrrrooom into writing in a dazzling way.)

However, it took the arrival of the twenty-first century to turn the journalistic world of the 1950s upside down and point it toward the trash heap of history.  I’m talking about the years that shrank the screen, and put it first on your desk, then in your hand, next in your pocket, and one day soonon your eyeglasses, made it the way you connected with everyone on Earth and they — whether as friends, enemies, the curious, voyeurs, corporate sellers and buyers, or the NSA — with you.  Only then did it became apparent that, throughout the print era, all those years of paper running off presses and newsboys and newsstands, from Walt Whitman to Woodward and Bernstein, thenewspaper had been misnamed.

Journalism’s amour propre had overridden a clear-eyed assessment of what exactly the paper really was.  Only then would it be fully apparent that it always should have been called the “adpaper.”  When the corporation and the “Mad Men” who worked for it spied the Internet and saw how conveniently it gathered audiences and what you could learn about their lives, preferences, and most intimate buying habits, the ways you could slice and dice demographics and sidle up to potential customers just behind the ever-present screen, the ad began to flee print for the online world.  It was then, of course, that papers (as well as magazines) — left with overworked, ever-smaller staffs, evaporating funding, and the ad-less news — began to shudder, shrink, and in some cases collapse (as they might not have done if the news had been what fled).

New York still has four dailies (Murdoch’s Post, the Daily News, the New York Times, and theWall Street Journal).  However, in recent years, many two-paper towns like Denver and Seattlemorphed into far shakier one-paper towns as papers like the Rocky Mountain News and theSeattle Post-Intelligencer passed out of existence (or into only digital existence).  Meanwhile, theDetroit News and Detroit Free Press went over to a three-day-a-week home delivery print edition, and the Times Picayune of New Orleans went down to a three-day-a-week schedule (before returning as a four-day Picayune and a three-day-a-week tabloid in 2013).  The Christian Science Monitor stopped publishing a weekday paper altogether.  And so it went.  In those years, newspaper advertising took a terrible hit, circulation declined, sometimes precipitously, andbankruptcies were the order of the day.

The least self-supporting sections like book reviews simply evaporated and in the one place of significance that a book review remained, the New York Timesshrank.  Sunday magazines shriveled up.  Billionaires began to buy papers at bargain-basement prices as, in essence, vanity projects.  Jobs and staffs were radically cut (as were the TV versions of the same so that, for example, if you tune in to NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, you often have the feeling that the estimable Richard Engel, with the job title of chief foreign correspondent, is the only “foreign correspondent” still on the job, flown eternally from hot spot to hot spot around the globe).

No question about it, if you were an established reporter of a certain age or anyone who worked in a newsroom, this was proving to be the aluminum age of journalism.  Your job might be in jeopardy, along with maybe your pension, too.  In these years, stunned by what was suddenly happening to them, the management of papers stood for a time frozen in place like the proverbial deer in the headlights as the voicey-ness of the Internet broke over them, turning their op-ed pages into the grey sisters of the reading world.  Then, in a blinding rush to save what could be saved, recapture the missing ad, or find any other path to a new model of profitability from digital advertising (disappointing) to pay walls (a mixed bag), papers rushed online.  In the process, they doubled the work of the remaining journalists and editors, who were now to service both the new newspaper and the old.

The Worst of Times, the Best of Times

In so many ways, it’s been, and continues to be, a sad, even horrific, tale of loss.  (A similar tale of woe involves the printed book.  It’s only advantage: there were no ads to flee the premises, but it suffered nonetheless — already largely crowded out of the newspaper as a non-revenue producer and out of consciousness by a blitz of new ways of reading and being entertained. And I say that as someone who has spent most of his life as an editor of print books.)  The keening and mourningabout the fall of print journalism has gone on for years.  It’s a development that represents — depending on who’s telling the story — the end of an age, the fall of all standards, or the loss of civic spirit and the sort of investigative coverage that might keep a few more politicians and corporate heads honest, and so forth and so on.

Let’s admit that the sins of the Internet are legion and well-known: the massive programs of government surveillance it enables; the corporate surveillance it ensures; the loss of privacy it encourages; the flamers and trolls it births; the conspiracy theorists, angry men, and strange characters to whom it gives a seemingly endless moment in the sun; and the way, among other things, it tends to sort like and like together in a self-reinforcing loop of opinion.  Yes, yes, it’s all true, all unnerving, all terrible.

As the editor of TomDispatch.com, I’ve spent the last decade-plus plunged into just that world, often with people half my age or younger.  I don’t tweet.  I don’t have a Kindle or the equivalent.  I don’t even have a smart phone or a tablet of any sort.  When something — anything — goes wrong with my computer I feel like a doomed figure in an alien universe, wish for the last machine I understood (a typewriter), and then throw myself on the mercy of my daughter.

I’ve been overwhelmed, especially at the height of the Bush years, by cookie-cutter hate email — sometimes scores or hundreds of them at a time — of a sort that would make your skin crawl.  I’ve been threatened.  I’ve repeatedly received “critical” (and abusive) emails, blasts of red hot anger that would startle anyone, because the Internet, so my experience tells me, loosens inhibitions, wipes out taboos, and encourages a sense of anonymity that in the older world of print, letters, or face-to-face meetings would have been far less likely to take center stage.  I’ve seen plenty that’s disturbed me. So you’d think, given my age, my background, and my present life, that I, too, might be in mourning for everything that’s going, going, gone, everything we’ve lost.

But I have to admit it: I have another feeling that, at a purely personal level, outweighs all of the above.  In terms of journalism, of expression, of voice, of fine reporting and superb writing, of a range of news, thoughts, views, perspectives, and opinions about places, worlds, and phenomena that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about, there has never been an experimental moment like this.  I’m in awe.  Despite everything, despite every malign purpose to which the Internet is being put, I consider it a wonder of our age.  Yes, perhaps it is the age from hell for traditional reporters (and editors) working double-time, online and off, for newspapers that are crumbling, but for readers, can there be any doubt that now, not the 1840s or the 1930s or the 1960s, is the golden age of journalism?

Think of it as the upbeat twin of NSA surveillance.  Just as the NSA can reach anyone, so in a different sense can you.  Which also means, if you’re a website, anyone can, at least theoretically, find and read you.  (And in my experience, I’m often amazed at who can and does!)  And you, the reader, have in remarkable profusion the finest writing on the planet at your fingertips.  You can read around the world almost without limit, follow your favorite writers to the ends of the Earth.

The problem of this moment isn’t too little.  It’s not a collapsing world.  It’s way too much.  These days, in a way that was never previously imaginable, it’s possible to drown in provocative and illuminating writing and reporting, framing and opining.  In fact, I challenge you in 2014, whatever the subject and whatever your expertise, simply to keep up.

The Rise of the Reader

In the “golden age of journalism,” here’s what I could once do.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, I read the New York Times (as I still do in print daily), various magazines ranging from the New Yorker and Ramparts to “underground” papers like the Great Speckled Bird when they happened to fall into my hands, and I.F. Stone’s Weekly (to which I subscribed), as well as James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind’s Hard Times, among other publications of the moment.  Somewhere in those years or thereafter, I also subscribed to a once-a-week paper that had the best of theGuardian, the Washington Post, and Le Monde in it.  For the time, that covered a fair amount of ground.

Still, the limits of that “golden” moment couldn’t be more obvious now.  Today, after all, if I care to, I can read online every word of the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Le Monde (though my French is way too rusty to tackle it). And that’s every single day – and that, in turn, is nothing.

It’s all out there for you.  Most of the major dailies and magazines of the globe, trade publications, propaganda outfits, Pentagon handouts, the voiciest of blogs, specialist websites, the websites ofindividual experts with a great deal to say, websites, in fact, for just about anyone from historians, theologians, and philosophers to techiesbook lovers, and yes, those fascinated with journalism.  You can read your way through the American press and the world press.  You can read whole papers as their editors put them together or — at least in your mind — you can become the editor of your own op-ed page every day of the week, three times, six times a day if you like (and odds are that it will be more interesting to you, and perhaps others, than the op-ed offerings of any specific paper you might care to mention).

You can essentially curate your own newspaper (or magazine) once a day, twice a day, six times a day.  Or — a particular blessing in the present ocean of words — you can rely on a new set of people out there who have superb collection and curating abilities, as well as fascinating editorial eyes.  I’m talking about teams of people at what I like to call “riot sites” — for the wild profusion of headlines they sport — like Antiwar.com (where no story worth reading about conflict on our planet seems to go unnoticed) or Real Clear Politics (Real Clear World/Technology/Energy/etc., etc., etc.).  You can subscribe to an almost endless range of curated online newsletters targeted to specific subjects, like the “morning brief” that comes to me every weekday filled with recommended pieces on cyberwar, terrorism, surveillance, and the like from the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.  And I’m not even mentioning the online versions of your favorite print magazine, or purely online magazines like Salon.com, or the many websites I visit like TruthoutAlternetCommondreams, and Truthdig with their own pieces and picks.  And in mentioning all of this, I’m barely scratching the surface of the world of writing that interests me.

There has, in fact, never been a DIY moment like this when it comes to journalism and coverage of the world.  Period.  For the first time in history, you and I have been put in the position of the newspaper editor.  We’re no longer simply passive readers at the mercy of someone else’s idea of how to “cover” or organize this planet and its many moving parts.  To one degree or another, to the extent that any of us have the time, curiosity, or energy, all of us can have a hand in shaping, reimagining, and understanding our world in new ways.

Yes, it is a journalistic universe from hell, a genuine nightmare; and yet, for a reader, it’s also an experimental world, something thrillingly, unexpectedly new under the sun.  For that reader, a strangely democratic and egalitarian Era of the Word has emerged.  It’s chaotic; it’s too much; and make no mistake, it’s also an unstable brew likely to morph into god knows what.  Still, perhaps someday, amid its inanities and horrors, it will also be remembered, at least for a brief historical moment, as a golden age of the reader, a time when all the words you could ever have needed were freely offered up for you to curate as you wish.  Don’t dismiss it.  Don’t forget it.

Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt


How Wall Street Has Turned Housing Into a Dangerous Get-Rich-Quick Scheme — Again

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

The Empire Strikes Back 
How Wall Street Has Turned Housing Into a Dangerous Get-Rich-Quick Scheme — Again 

By Laura Gottesdiener

You can hardly turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about the nation’s impressive, much celebrated housing recovery. Home prices are rising! New construction has started! The crisis is over! Yet beneath the fanfare, a whole new get-rich-quick scheme is brewing.

Over the last year and a half, Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms have quietly amassed an unprecedented rental empire, snapping up Queen Anne Victorians in Atlanta, brick-faced bungalows in Chicago, Spanish revivals in Phoenix. In total, these deep-pocketed investors have bought more than 200,000 cheap, mostly foreclosed houses in cities hardest hit by the economic meltdown.

Wall Street’s foreclosure crisis, which began in late 2007 and forced more than 10 million people from their homes, has created a paradoxical problem. Millions of evicted Americans need a safe place to live, even as millions of vacant, bank-owned houses are blighting neighborhoods and spurring a rise in crime. Lucky for us, Wall Street has devised a solution: It’s going to rent these foreclosed houses back to us. In the process, it’s devised a new form of securitization that could cause this whole plan to blow up — again.

Since the buying frenzy began, no company has picked up more houses than the Blackstone Group, the largest private equity firm in the world. Using a subsidiary company, Invitation Homes, Blackstone has grabbed houses at foreclosure auctions, through local brokers, and in bulk purchases directly from banks the same way a regular person might stock up on toilet paper from Costco.

In one move, it bought 1,400 houses in Atlanta in a single day. As of November, Blackstone had spent $7.5 billion to buy 40,000 mostly foreclosed houses across the country. That’s a spending rate of $100 million a week since October 2012. It recently announced plans to take the business international, beginning in foreclosure-ravaged Spain.

Few outside the finance industry have heard of Blackstone. Yet today, it’s the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the nation — and of a whole lot of other things, too. It owns part or all of the Hilton Hotel chain, Southern Cross Healthcare, Houghton Mifflin publishing house, the Weather Channel, Sea World, the arts and crafts chain Michael’s, Orangina, and dozens of other companies.

Blackstone manages more than $210 billion in assets, according to its 2012 Securities and Exchange Commission annual filing. It’s also a public company with a list of institutional owners that reads like a who’s who of companies recently implicated in lawsuits over the mortgage crisis, including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and of course JP Morgan Chase, which just settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over its risky and often illegal mortgage practices, agreeing to pay an unprecedented $13 billion fine.

In other words, if Blackstone makes money by capitalizing on the housing crisis, all these other Wall Street banks — generally regarded as the main culprits in creating the conditions that led to the foreclosure crisis in the first place — make money too.

An All-Cash Goliath

In neighborhoods across the country, many residents didn’t have to know what Blackstone was to realize that things were going seriously wrong.

Last year, Mark Alston, a real estate broker in Los Angeles, began noticing something strange happening. Home prices were rising. And they were rising fast — up 20% between October 2012 and the same month this year. In a normal market, rising home prices would mean increased demand from homebuyers. But here was the unnerving thing: the homeownership rate was dropping, the first sign for Alston that the market was somehow out of whack.

The second sign was the buyers themselves.

Click here to see a larger version

About 5% of Blackstone’s properties, approximately 2,000 houses, are located in the Charlotte metro area. Of those, just under 1,000 (pictured above) are in Mecklenberg County, the city’s center. (Map by Anthony Giancatarino, research by Symone New.)

“I went two years without selling to a black family, and that wasn’t for lack of trying,” says Alston, whose business is concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are African American and Hispanic. Instead, all his buyers — every last one of them — were besuited businessmen. And weirder yet, they were all paying in cash.

Between 2005 and 2009, the mortgage crisis, fueled by racially discriminatorylending practices, destroyed 53% of African American wealth and 66% of Hispanic wealth, figures that stagger the imagination. As a result, it’s safe to say that few blacks or Hispanics today are buying homes outright, in cash. Blackstone, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem fronting the money, given its $3.6 billion credit line arranged by Deutsche Bank. This money has allowed it to outbid families who have to secure traditional financing. It’s also paved the way for the company to purchase a lot of homes very quickly, shocking local markets and driving prices up in a way that pushes even more families out of the game.

“You can’t compete with a company that’s betting on speculative future value when they’re playing with cash,” says Alston. “It’s almost like they planned this.”

In hindsight, it’s clear that the Great Recession fueled a terrific wealth and asset transfer away from ordinary Americans and to financial institutions. During that crisis, Americans lost trillions of dollars of household wealth when housing prices crashed, while banks seized about five million homes. But what’s just beginning to emerge is how, as in the recession years, the recovery itself continues to drive the process of transferring wealth and power from the bottom to the top.

From 2009-2012, the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of income gains. Now, as the housing market rebounds, billions of dollars in recovered housing wealth are flowing straight to Wall Street instead of to families and communities. Since spring 2012, just at the time when Blackstone began buying foreclosed homes in bulk, an estimated $88 billion of housing wealth accumulation has gone straight to banks or institutional investors as a result of their residential property holdings, according to an analysis by TomDispatch. And it’s a number that’s likely to just keep growing.

“Institutional investors are siphoning the wealth and the ability for wealth accumulation out of underserved communities,” says Henry Wade, founder of the Arizona Association of Real Estate Brokers.

But buying homes cheap and then waiting for them to appreciate in value isn’t the only way Blackstone is making money on this deal. It wants your rental payment, too.

Securitizing Rentals

Wall Street’s rental empire is entirely new. The single-family rental industry used to be the bailiwick of small-time mom-and-pop operations. But what makes this moment unprecedented is the financial alchemy that Blackstone added. In November, after many months of hype, Blackstone released history’s first rated bond backed by securitized rental payments. And once investors tripped over themselves in a rush to get it, Blackstone’s competitors announced that they, too, would develop similar securities as soon as possible.

Depending on whom you ask, the idea of bundling rental payments and selling them off to investors is either a natural evolution of the finance industry or a fire-breathing chimera.

“This is a new frontier,” comments Ted Weinstein, a consultant in the real-estate-owned homes industry for 30 years. “It’s something I never really would have dreamt of.”

However, to anyone who went through the 2008 mortgage-backed-security crisis, this new territory will sound strangely familiar.

“It’s just like a residential mortgage-backed security,” said one hedge-fund investor whose company does business with Blackstone. When asked why the public should expect these securities to be safe, given the fact that risky mortgage-backed securities caused the 2008 collapse, he responded, “Trust me.”

For Blackstone, at least, the logic is simple. The company wants money upfront to purchase more cheap, foreclosed homes before prices rise. So it’s joined forces with JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, and Deutsche Bank to bundle the rental payments of 3,207 single-family houses and sell this bond to investors with mortgages on the underlying houses offered as collateral. This is, of course, just a test case for what could become a whole new industry of rental-backed securities.

Many major Wall Street banks are involved in the deal, according to a copy of the private pitch documents Blackstone sent to potential investors on October 31st, which was reviewed by TomDispatch. Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, and Credit Suisse are helping market the bond. Wells Fargo is the certificate administrator. Midland Loan Services, a subsidiary of PNC Bank, is the loan servicer. (By the way, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and PNC Bank are all members of another clique: the list of banks foreclosing on the most families in 2013.)

According to interviews with economists, industry insiders, and housing activists, people are more or less holding their collective breath, hoping that what looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck won’t crash the economy the same way the last flock of ducks did.

“You kind of just hope they know what they’re doing,” says Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “That they have provisions for turnover and vacancies. But have they done that? Have they taken the appropriate care? I certainly wouldn’t count on it.” The cash flow analysis in the documents sent to investors assumes that 95% of these homes will be rented at all times, at an average monthly rent of $1,312. It’s an occupancy rate that real estate professionals describe as ambitious.

There’s one significant way, however, in which this kind of security differs from its mortgage-backed counterpart. When banks repossess mortgaged homes as collateral, there is at least the assumption (often incorrect due to botched or falsified paperwork from the banks) that the homeowner has, indeed, defaulted on her mortgage. In this case, however, if a single home-rental bond blows up, thousands of families could be evicted, whether or not they ever missed a single rental payment.

“We could well end up in that situation where you get a lot of people getting evicted… not because the tenants have fallen behind but because the landlordshave fallen behind,” says Baker.

Bugs in Blackstone’s Housing Dreams

Whether these new securities are safe may boil down to the simple question of whether Blackstone proves to be a good property manager. Decent management practices will ensure high occupancy rates, predictable turnover, and increased investor confidence. Bad management will create complaints, investigations, and vacancies, all of which will increase the likelihood that Blackstone won’t have the cash flow to pay investors back.

If you ask CaDonna Porter, a tenant in one of Blackstone’s Invitation Homes properties in a suburb outside Atlanta, property management is exactly the skill that Blackstone lacks. “If I could shorten my lease — I signed a two-year lease — I definitely would,” says Porter.

The cockroaches and fat water bugs were the first problem in the Invitation Homes rental that she and her children moved into in September. Porter repeatedly filed online maintenance requests that were canceled without anyone coming to investigate the infestation. She called the company’s repairs hotline. No one answered.

The second problem arrived in an email with the subject line marked “URGENT.” Invitation Homes had failed to withdraw part of Porter’s November payment from her bank account, prompting the company to demand that she deliver the remaining payment in person, via certified funds, by five p.m. the following day or incur “the additional legal fee of $200 and dispossessory,” according to email correspondences reviewed by TomDispatch.

Porter took off from work to deliver the money order in person, only to receive an email saying that the payment had been rejected because it didn’t include the $200 late fee and an additional $75 insufficient funds fee. What followed were a maddening string of emails that recall the fraught and often fraudulent interactions between homeowners and mortgage-servicing companies. Invitation Homes repeatedly threatened to file for eviction unless Porter paid various penalty fees. She repeatedly asked the company to simply accept her month’s payment and leave her alone.

“I felt really harassed. I felt it was very unjust,” says Porter. She ultimately wrote that she would seek legal counsel, which caused Invitation Homes to immediately agree to accept the payment as “a one-time courtesy.”

Porter is still frustrated by the experience — and by the continued presence of the cockroaches. (“I put in another request today about the bugs, which will probably be canceled again.”)

A recent Huffington Post investigation and dozens of online reviews written by Invitation Homes tenants echo Porter’s frustrations. Many said maintenance requests went unanswered, while others complained that their spiffed-up houses actually had underlying structural issues.

There’s also at least one documented case of Blackstone moving into murkier legal territory. This fall, the Orlando, Florida, branch of Invitation Homes appeared to mail forged eviction notices to a homeowner named Francisco Molina, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Delivered in letter-sized manila envelopes, the fake notices claimed that an eviction had been filed against Molina in court, although the city confirmed otherwise. The kicker is that Invitation Homes didn’t even have the right to evict Molina, legally or otherwise. Blackstone’s purchase of the house had been reversed months earlier, but the company had lost track of that information.

The Great Recession of 2016?

These anecdotal stories about Invitation Homes being quick to evict tenants may prove to be the trend rather than the exception, given Blackstone’s underlying business model. Securitizing rental payments creates an intense pressure on the company to ensure that the monthly checks keep flowing. For renters, that may mean you either pay on the first of the month every month, or you’re out.

Although Blackstone has issued only one rental-payment security so far, it already seems to be putting this strict protocol into place. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the company has filed eviction proceedings against a full 10% of its renters, according to a report by the Charlotte Observer.

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About 9% of Blackstone’s properties, approximately 3,600 houses, are located in the Phoenix metro area. Most are in low- to middle-income neighborhoods. (Map by Anthony Giancatarino, research by Jose Taveras.)

Forty thousand homes add up to only a small percentage of the total national housing stock. Yet in the cities Blackstone has targeted most aggressively, the concentration of its properties is staggering. In Phoenix, Arizona, some neighborhoods have at least one, if not two or three, Blackstone-owned homes on just about every block.

This inundation has some concerned that the private equity giant, perhaps in conjunction with other institutional investors, will exercise undue influence over regional markets, pushing up rental prices because of a lack of competition. The biggest concern among many ordinary Americans, however, should be that, not too many years from now, this whole rental empire and its hot new class of securities might fail, sending the economy into an all-too-familiar tailspin.

“You’re allowing Wall Street to control a significant sector of single-family housing,” said Michael Donley, a resident of Chicago who has been investigating Blackstone’s rapidly expanding presence in his neighborhood. “But is it sustainable?” he wondered. “It could all collapse in 2016, and you’ll be worse off than in 2008.”


Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, published in August by Zuccotti Park Press. She is an editor for Waging Nonviolence and has written for Rolling StoneMs., Playboy, the Huffington Post, and other publications. She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park. This is her second TomDispatch piece.

[Note: Special thanks to Symone New and Jose Taveras for conducting the difficult research to locate Blackstone-owned properties. Special thanks also to Anthony Giancatarino for turning this data into beautiful maps.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Laura Gottesdiener


Obama’s Washington is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East

Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com

By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.

Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted U.S. wishes.

Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.

This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. “We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”

In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more modest strategy” in the region.

Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.

Debacle in Syria

Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded that Assad step down.  There was only one problem: short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would come to their aid.

A year later, Obama drew a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.

The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support, Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League. At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on Syria.

When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it. Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that country’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad rebels, have flatly refused to go.

Laughingstock in Egypt

Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.

Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with Washington over Syria.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. IgnoringWashington’s entreaties, it has also allowed Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer — to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)

Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt, where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless.  In a rare feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.

As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash into the country’s near-empty coffers.  In the end, making no one happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue, including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.

Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag

The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic behavior may result from a growing awareness among its ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new bookAfter the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.

One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson, is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United States is friend or foe.

Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In 2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak government in Egypt.

Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria,” reported Reuters, “members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”

That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a “major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. [It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down [from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn. Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more shrill. In a September speechto the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.

Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, Israelwants that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium, abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium, permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.

In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran, for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed. Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional powers to stabilize Iraq.

More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.

Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are determined to prevent it.

Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.  At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House — and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.


Bob Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling StoneMother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author ofDevil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss

 


Gulf of Mexico: “There is no life out there”

Reprinted from Transition Voice under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

By Tom Lewis

Gulf-Oil

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge Manager Jereme Phillips reports oil on a refuge beach in Alabama in June of 2010. Three years later, the hits just keep on coming. (Photo: Jennifer Strickland USFWS)

The Gulf Oil spill is old news, right? 2010? Over and done with. The seafood industry has recovered. tourists are back, BP has kept its promises to make things right.

We know that because that’s what the incessant BP commercials on television are telling us. BP seems to believe its own commercials, because it announced in June that it and the Coast Guard were ending regular patrols of the Gulf Coast (except for Louisiana) looking for washed up oil. It did this, it said in its exuberant announcement, because of its “extraordinary progress in cleaning up the Gulf,” which, it declared, is almost back to normal. Who you gonna believe? BP’s commercials, or your lyin’ eyes?

In June a 20-ton mat of “oiled material” was found off Louisiana, and another two-ton mat was discovered a week ago.  Tarballs are a daily sight on the curve of beaches from Louisiana to Key West. Almost all of the oil in these materials appears to have come from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. And before BP virtually shut down its cleanup operations in June, nearly three million pounds of the gunk had been collected — in just six months, off the Louisiana coast alone. That’s the bad news. Now for the really bad news.

The ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico appears to be collapsing. The top end of that system — crabs, oysters, shrimp, finfish — provides food for humans and raw material for an enormous complex of industries, all of which are in serious, perhaps mortal, decline. Some of the evidence:

  • The oyster season opened in Louisiana on October 15th.  Veteran oysterman Brad Robin says that 70 per cent the harvest grounds are “dead or mostly dead.” He’s only using two of the ten boats in his fleet, he says, because “there is no life out there.” And it’s not just the oysters, he adds: “We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before.”
  • Mississippi oystermen, who used to harvest 30 sacks a day, routinely, this year are struggling to find six.
  • Grouper fishing takes are sharply down all along the Florida west coast, and many grouper caught have tar balls in their stomachs.
  • The crab harvest is far below pre-blowout norms, and many crabs taken have deformities such as holes in their shells.
  • Substantial numbers of shrimp taken are not marketable because they have large tumors or other deformities, such as a lack of eyes.
  • 212 dolphins and other marine mammals have died this year in the northern Gulf. BP oil is a prime suspect.

There’s much more, of course, as any logical person would expect in the aftermath of a dump of 200 million gallons of crude oil into a pristine estuarine ecosystem. Numerous studies have chronicled the harm to corals, micro-organisms, and various species of fish — toxic, carcinogenic and genetic harm.

But in the happy TV world of BP — which is vigorously down-playing the size of the spill, rejecting claims for compensation, shutting down its cleanup, and arguing in Federal court that it should not even be fined for the spill — all is well along the Gulf Coast. No scenes of oiled feet, cancerous crabs, eyeless shrimp, dead dolphins. No interviews with bankrupt fishermen or desperate seafood wholesalers. Not here, on BPTV.

But so far, only Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana seems to have been offended by the fact that BP is “spending more money on television commercials [$500 million last year} than they have on actually restoring the natural resources they impacted.” But as Governor Jindal understands very well when campaigning on his own behalf, perception beats reality every time.

Hear the podcast version.



On this Labor Day, Let’s Remember What Unions Have Done for America

Reprinted from Fabius Maximus (under Creative Commons License)

by 

Summary: On this Labor Day let’s revisit the lost history of the union movement, and its vital contribution to building the middle class.

Union: bargain or beg

To remember the loneliness, the fear and the insecurity of men who once had to walk alone in huge factories, beside huge machines. To realize that labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen. To be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father. To know these things is to understand what American labor means.

— Adlai Stevenson, in a speech to the American Federation of Labor, New York City on 22 September 1952

Contents

  1. Rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class seen in graphs
  2. Throwing away a 150 years of effort
  3. For More Information
  4. A note from our past

(1)  Rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class seen in graphs

Since 1990 wages are falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI); profits are rising. The reasons are complex, the result has  by now become unmistakable: a shift of our national income from return on labor to return on capital. Since the nation’s wealth is so highly concentrated, the result is rising inequality of income.

Wages as a share of Gross Domestic Income: down and falling.

FRED: wages/GDI

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Profits as a share of Gross Domestic Income: up.

 

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FRED: Profits/GDI

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(3)  Throwing away a 150 years of effort

The middle class was not a gift of the Blue Fairy. Instead of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” there was 150 years of worker working together, mobilizing against their employers — who organized cartels to fight their employees and raise prices for their customers.

It was a long bloody struggle, The victory of unions was foundational for the growth of America’s middle class. The fall of the unions was a major factor undermining the middle class. It had many causes: corruption, greed, stupidity, infiltration by organized crime — and the long successful counter-revolution by corporations, now eroding away the middle class.

For a blow-by-blow of unions rise see this series by Erik Loomis (Asst Prof of History, U RI). The toll these people paid is as much a cost of building America as much as that paid by our the members of our armed forces.

For More Information

Posts about the conflict between labor and capital:

About the New America, now under construction:

  1. Origins of what may become the 3rd American Republic (a plutocracy), 8 April 2011
  2. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there, 13 December 2011
  3. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society, 27 April 2012
  4. The voice of plutocrats yearning for dominance and control, 16 September 2012
  5. We’ve worked through all 5 stages of grief for the Republic. Now, on to The New America!, 8 January 2013
  6. Compare our New America to the America-that-once-was (a great nation), 12 June 2013
  7. Glimpses of the New America being born now, 18 June 2013
  8. Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor could your daughter., 12 July 2013
  9. Watch as plutocrats mold us into a New America, a nation more pleasing to their sight, 18 July 2013
  10. Billionaires mold our schools to produce better help in a New America, 20 July 2013

(4)  A note from our past

.Union poster

.


Fracking Boom Slouching Toward Bust

Reprinted from Common Dreams (under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License)

By Richard Heinberg

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. What’s an obscenity that starts with “f” and ends with “ck”?

Oh wait, sorry, this is supposed to be a serious article about fracking. That’s right, we’re talking about The Biggest Development in the energy world since the birth of the sun, the Revolution that is freeing America forever from bondage to oil imports.

But here’s the thing: though this revolution is only a few years old, it’s already losing steam. There are two big reasons why.

The first has to do with environmental problems that can’t be swept under the carpet any longer. The image of a homeowner lighting his tap water on fire in Josh Fox’s documentary film “Gasland” has become a cliché; still, for a while the industry was successfully able to argue that adverse impacts from fracking to water, air, soil, wildlife, livestock, and human health are negligible. Industry-funded studies declared the practice safe, and the EPA appeared to back them up.

Drilling companies tended to target economically depressed regions, where poverty forced most townsfolk to take whatever short-term jobs and production royalties were offered, while stuffing their concerns about nosebleeds, headaches, dying pets, intolerable noise, and tainted water. Meanwhile, citizens who suffered the worst health effects or property damage were led to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to receive settlement payoffs (including two children ages 7 and 10 who have been given lifetime bans from speaking about fracking), thus keeping their plight out of public view.

But the bad news just keeps leaking, like methane through a bad well casing. Former Mobil Oil VP Louis W. Allstadt, who spent his career running oil production operations and company mergers, now speaks on behalf of anti-fracking resistance groups,  pointing to studies revealing that compromised casings (and resulting instances of water contamination) are far more common than the industry claims.

Meanwhile Los Angeles Times has uncovered documents showing that the EPA has systematically ignored evidence of environmental harms from fracking, choosing not to publicize or act on data collected by its own staff.

A few years ago fracking for shale gas or tight oil was still novel and confined to small regions, but now tens of thousands of wells have been drilled and millions of Americans have personal experience with the noise, truck traffic, fumes, and local political turmoil that seem inevitably to follow in fracking’s wake. Hundreds of anti-fracking citizen groups have formed, public sentiment is turning, and communities have begun seeking bans or moratoria on the practice. The industry is on the defensive: Wayne County, PA activists are currently celebrating the cancellation of 1500 drilling leases covering 100,000 acres of land.

Americans are being subjected to a massive PR assault attempting to persuade them that shale gas and tight oil have brightened America’s energy future. The problem? It’s simply not true.

New York State’s moratorium on fracking remains in effect, despite massive industry efforts to end it. Meanwhile the Colorado city of Longmont has voted to ban fracking altogether, and the State of Colorado is suing the city.

Fracking’s second problem is actually a bigger one, though less publicized: its production potential was over-sold. Everyone who pays attention to energy issues has heard that America has a hundred years or more of natural gas thanks to the application of fracking to shale reservoirs, and that the US is on track to out-produce Saudi Arabia now that oil is flowing from fracked fields in North Dakota and Texas. To most, the news at first sounded hopeful and reassuring. Yet as actual production numbers accumulate, it appears that claims made for fracking were simply too good to be true.

It turns out there are only a few “plays” or geological formations in the US from which shale gas is being produced; in virtually all of them, except the Marcellus (in Pennsylvania and West Virginia), production rates are already either in plateau or decline.

Why so soon? A major challenge bedeviling drillers is the high variability within shale plays. Each tight oil or shale gas-bearing geologic formation tends to be characterized by a small core area (usually a few counties) where production is profitable and plentiful, surrounded by a much larger region where per-well production rates are lower to start with and drop fast—often falling 60 percent during the first year. Given the expense of horizontal drilling and fracking, it’s hard to make money in non-core areas unless oil and gas prices are stratospheric. As the “sweet spots” get drilled to capacity, producers are being forced to the fringes, taking on more debt because sales of product don’t cover operating expenses.

With decline rates so high, promised production volumes are turning out to be so much hype. America’s hundred years of natural gas, heralded by President Obama as a national energy game-changer, actually amounts to a mere 24 years by official estimates, even less according to unofficial but well-informed calculations.

Oil analyst Rune Likvern says shale gas and tight oil suffer from the “Red Queen” syndrome, citing a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the story, the fictional Red Queen jogs along at top speed but never gets anywhere; as she tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Similarly, with worsening well decline rates, it will soon take all the drilling the industry can do just to keep production steady; then, as all the best drilling sites are exhausted, the Red Queen will start falling behind. Before 2020, shale gas and tight oil production will top out and start to decline. Americans will wonder what happened to the lavish economic benefits the industry promised.

Recently Shell took a $2 billion write-down on its liquids-rich shale assets in North America. While no details were released, it’s likely the company was simply acknowledging the unprofitability of leases in non-core regions, purchased back when shale plays were being advertised as “manufacturing operations” in which companies could successfully sink a drill bit virtually anywhere.

The oil industry itself is starting to learn that the shale revolution just ain’t all it was fracked up to be.

Despite continuing profits, the oil-and-gas industry as a whole appears to have entered its sunset years. Major oil companies have seen production decline by over 25% in the last decade. Both the number of wells drilled and the amount of inflation-adjusted capital invested in exploration and production have doubled, with negligible results. Raymond Pierrehumbert, Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, recently summarized the situation with crystalline brevity: “Oil production technology is giving us ever more expensive oil with ever-diminishing returns for the ever-increasing effort that needs to be invested.”

Which brings us to the bottom line. Americans are being subjected to a massive PR assault attempting to persuade them that shale gas and tight oil have brightened America’s energy future. What has really changed is the nation’s energy conversation: until recently, it was about how we should reduce our dependency on depleting, climate-changing fossil fuels. Now our “conversation” has become a one-sided harangue about the energy, jobs, and tax revenues the industry insists will flow from fracking from now ’til kingdom come, and how these outweigh environmental concerns.

The data do not support these claims. Therefore it is critically important that we return America’s energy focus to the most critical imperative of our time—the necessary and inevitable transition away from our current dependence on fossil fuels.


AUTHOR_Richard_HeinbergRichard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of eleven books, most recently Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. Previous books include The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.


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19 ways climate change is now feeding itself

Reprinted under a Creative Commons license from Transition Voice

By Guy McPherson

This essay updates my earlier effort to tally and describe self-reinforcing feedback loops with respect to climate change. At that time, seven months ago, we had strong evidence of nine such catastrophic phenomena. The nineteen I currently know about are described below. Only the final one is reversible over a temporal span relevant to humanity.

  1. Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010). According to NASA’s CARVE project, these plumes were up to 150 kilometers across as of mid-July 2013. Whereas Malcolm Light’s 9 February 2012 forecast of extinction of all life on Earth by the middle of this century appears premature because his conclusion of exponential methane release during summer 2011 was based on data subsequently revised and smoothed by U.S. government agencies, subsequent information — most notably from NASA’s CARVE project — indicates the grave potential for catastrophic release of methane. Catastrophically rapid release of methane in the Arctic is further supported by Nafeez Ahmed’s thorough analysis in the 5 August 2013 issue of the Guardian.
  2. Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011).
  3. Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011).
  4. Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011).
  5. Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011).
  6. Invasion of tall shrubs warms the soil, hence destabilizes the permafrost (Environmental Research Letters, March 2012).
  7. Greenland ice is darkening (The Cryosphere, June 2012).
  8. Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012). According to a paper in the 24 July 2013 issue of Scientific Reports, melt rate in the Antarctic has caught up to the Arctic.
  9. Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012), a phenomenon consequently apparent throughout the northern hemisphere (Nature Communications, July 2013). The New York Timesreports hotter, drier conditions leading to huge fires in western North America as the “new normal” in their 1 July 2013 issue. A paper in the 22 July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates boreal forests are burning at a rate exceeding that of the last 10,000 years.
  10. Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012).
  11. The Beaufort Gyre apparently has reversed course (U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, October 2012).
  12. Exposure to sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon, thus accelerating thawing of the permafrost(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2013).
  13. The microbes have joined the party, too, according to a paper in the 23 February 2013 issue of New Scientist.
  14. Summer ice melt in Antarctica is at its highest level in a thousand years: Summer ice in the Antarctic is melting 10 times quicker than it was 600 years ago, with the most rapid melt occurring in the last 50 years (Nature Geoscience, April 2013).
  15. Floods in Canada are sending pulses of silty water out through the Mackenzie Delta and into the Beaufort Sea, thus painting brown a wide section of the Arctic Ocean near the Mackenzie Delta brown (NASA, June 2013).
  16. Surface meltwater draining through cracks in an ice sheet can warm the sheet from the inside, softening the ice and letting it flow faster, according to a study accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface (July 2013). It appears a Heinrich Event has been triggered in Greenland. Consider the description of such an event asprovided by Robert Scribbler on 8 August 2013:

    In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice damns (sic) may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast floatillas (sic) of ice burgs (sic), greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere.

  17. Breakdown of the thermohaline conveyor belt is happening in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic, thus leading to melting of Antarctic permafrost (Scientific Reports, July 2013).
  18. Loss of Arctic sea ice is reducing the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator, thus causing the jet stream to slow and meander. One result is the creation of weather blocks such as the recent very high temperatures in Alaska. As a result, boreal peat dries and catches fire like a coal seam. The resulting soot enters the atmosphere to fall again, coating the ice surface elsewhere, thus reducing albedo and hastening the melting of ice. Each of these individual phenomena has been reported, albeit rarely, but to my knowledge the dots have not been connected beyond this space. The inability or unwillingness of the media to connect two dots is not surprising, and has been routinely reported (recently including here with respect to climate change and wildfires) (July 2013).
  19. Arctic ice is growing darker, hence less reflective (Nature Climate Change, August 2013).

Meanwhile, Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012.


Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He’s written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at grm@ag.arizona.edu.


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