Requiem for the American Century

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author

Turning 70, Paragraph by Paragraph

By Tom Engelhardt

First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was

* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.”  Luce died in 1967 at age 69.  Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self.  No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s.  Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans.  The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades.  Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.

* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students.  What he said aged me instantly.  They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War.  For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us.  He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses.  We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy.  And now, it seems, I’m them.

* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch.  If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future.  On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.

* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old.  Now, I feel my age.  Still, my life at 70 is a luxury.  Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin.  That’s a crime against humanity.  So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.

* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born.  From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos.  Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war.  (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.)  Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears.  So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness.  I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth.  What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories.  And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?

* There are so many futures and so few of them happen.  On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”  In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzillato Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood.  At that moment, I looked directly into the future — and there was none.  We were, I believed, toast.  My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it.  Yet here I am 52 years later.  As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.

* If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable.  And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance.  It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.

* If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towerscollapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call “World War IV” (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or thepromotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.

* Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness.  Now, you know that you’re catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day.  Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.

* If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams.  I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country.  And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.

* In my youth, I lived in the future.  Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems.  At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.

* I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction.  Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them).  As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself.  The only problem is that we’re terrible at it.  The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding myjetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood.  Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed.  Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.

Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century

* It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington.  Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse.  Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…?  Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troopsdrones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups.  And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and theweaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land — even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington.  Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.

* Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it?  Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts.  Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaderswasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm.  Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country.  The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry.  Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in.  A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive.  Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage.  If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.

* Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break?  You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing.  So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels.  He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration.  Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph.  Consider him the waning American Century personified.

* Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline.  It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory.  Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating.  The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry.  Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed.  This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.”  Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups.  It brings instability and disaster in its wake.  It constantly kills bad guys — and constantly creates more of them.  And even as thenegative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.

Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)

* The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic.  Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself.  Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice.  In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.”  In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description.  Now, with 1% elections, an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.

* Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker.  Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before.  Empires rise and fall.  They always have.  People are desperately oppressed.  It’s an old story.  Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives.  Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result.  You know the tale.  Hope and despair, the worst and the best — it’s us.  But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun.  Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment.  This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that thedrive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality.  Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet.  Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine.  But us?  Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.

* Let me put my cards on the table.  I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature.  I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife.  In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body.  Still, I do care in some way that I can’t begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too.  Go figure.

* My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99.  To my regret, I was no longer in touch.  It nonetheless felt like an archive closing.  The fog of the past now envelops much of his life.  There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth.  Not a soul.  And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them.  My mother’s childhood album is another matter.  Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell.  It’s all fog.  We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.

* Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment?  I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see.  So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?

* Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us.  Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow.  And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope.  Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage?  And who knows when I won’t be there to find out.  Not I.

* By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.


Tom Engelhardt is 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. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in September, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt


Incredible Time-Lapse Video of Severe Thunderstorms

“Feb. 19, 2014—The menacing, magnificent storm clouds of Wyoming come to swirling life in this time-lapse, ‘Stormscapes,’ by photographer Nicolaus Wegner. He braved lightning and the erratic fury of supercell storms to capture these images in the summer of 2013.” (National Geographic).


Gasland Update: “Video of the Week”

Here’s Josh Fox’s latest update on Gasland. He lays out some more evidence for — among other things — the connection between fracking and the pollution of wells.


The Worst of Nevada County in National News, Again

Why is that only the worst of Nevada County — in this case another right-wing gun nut — makes the national news?

Esteemed journalist and historian Rick Perlstein, writing in Salon, found occasion to notice this Nevada County event (while gently chiding the New York Times for failing to cover it):

Here is a truth so fundamental that it should be self-evident: When legitimately constituted state authority stands down in the face of armed threats, the very foundation of the republic is in danger. And yet that is exactly what happened at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch this spring: An alleged criminal defeated the cops, because the forces of lawlessness came at them with guns — then Bureau of Land Management officials further surrendered by removing the government markings from their vehicles to prevent violence against them.

What should be judged a watershed in American history instead became a story about one man’s racist rants. Even as two more Nevada lunatics, inspired by their stint at Cliven Bundy’s ranch, allegedly ambushed and mowed down two police officers and killed a bystander after crying, “This is the start of a revolution.” And now, an antigovernment conspiracy theorist named Douglas Cole recently shot at two police officers in Nevada County, California (though you may not have heard about that, because the New York Times hasn’t found the news yet fit to print).

From “Gun Nuts Are Terrorizing America: The Watershed Moment Everyone Missed

Ah, but here’s some Nevada County news that the New York Times did find “fit to print.” But wait, it’s also bad news!

Nevada County

Nevada County ranks 58th of 58 in diversity in California.

Students, in 2006 15,446
White 13,496 87%
Black 142 1%
Hispanic 1,336 9%
Asian 240 2%
Native American 232 2%

Some might consider Nevada County’s connection to the founding of the Tea Party Patriots good news. But there’s hardly a consensus about that.

I look  forward to the day when we get into the national news for integrating our local economic and environmental interests, for our understanding of the economic importance of restoring local watersheds, for our leadership in bridging the urban/rural divide. and for our creative reconciliation of liberal and conservative values.

The fact that this all sounds very idealistic and touchy-feely is an indication of how far we have to go in making it a reality.

But why else should we be here, if not to work for that?


Short Video: Wolf Creek, Beauty and Community

By Don Pelton

Here’s a short (4+ minute) video loop Jane and I made for the Wolf Creek Community Alliance non-profit display table being featured at the Grass Valley Center for the Arts for the month of June. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the WCCA Board).


” … a Hannity-shaped hole in the studio wall at Fox News.”

I’ve read William Rivers Pitt’s writing before, but never anything as remotely entertaining as this inspired article. Excerpt:

“Every right-wing media personality and politician who had rushed to publicly embrace Cliven Bundy immediately fled his presence as if he was covered in Goliath tarantulas. I think there still may be a Hannity-shaped hole in the studio wall at Fox News.”

More fun — and good sense — here:

               William Rivers Pitt | Cliven Bundy: Clown Car or Trojan Horse?


A Creek Runs Under It — Part 2

A large group of students, teachers and parents from Grass Valley Charter School arrived this afternoon with tons of colored chalk and drew (above ground) the path (under ground) that Wolf Creek follows beneath the parking lot at Holiday Inn Express in downtown Grass Valley, before it emerges again into daylight beyond Safeway a couple of blocks away.

Spirits were high among the Charter School artists, and among the onlookers, who included Parkway Steward Bruce Herring, WCCA president Jonathan Keehn, District 3 Supervisor Terry Lamphier, Sierra Fund’s Izzie Martin and many others, including officials from the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce, who were also there for a ribbon cutting ceremony welcoming the Wolf Creek Community Alliance as a new member of the Chamber.

It would be wonderful if all those young chalk artists could now become Wolf Creek ambassadors to the rest of the community, carrying the message that the Creek is an important – though neglected — part of the environment, and could be — if the Wolf Creek Parkway were completed — an important part of the economic life of Nevada County.

Below is a photo of the design schematic used by the artists, and a photo of the chalk work in progress.

Virtual_Wolf_Creek_Design


Virtual_Wolf_Creek_in_Progress


OTHER IMAGES FROM TODAY’S EVENT:

IMG_0004 IMG_0009 IMG_0012 IMG_0016 IMG_0024 IMG_0031


Nevada County Board of Supervisors Delays Decision on Blue Lead Mine

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors was surprisingly receptive to those appealing the recent decision of the Planning Commission to grant Blue Lead Mine a “mitigated negative declaration” in lieu of a full EIR (environmental impact report).

After a full afternoon  (1:30 to 7:30) of testimony and deliberations before a completely packed chamber, the Board voted 3-2 to delay the decision on the appeal until after further study of the water issue (the Blue Lead project plans to use 20,000 gallons of water per day in its mining activities, with impacts on local wells completely uncertain).

My impression is that most of the pro-mine comments came from owner Robert White and his family, Blue Lead employees/consultants and recreational miners.

Most of the comments critical of the proposed mining project came from people living in the vicinity of the mine, whose arguments in favor of the appeal and in favor of an EIR, were compelling, The process  could still (after some months of further study?) end up in an EIR, depending on the results of the water study.

More details can be found here on Yubanet (the first to report on this BOS meeting):

Red Flags for Blue Lead Mine – Decision Postponed

 


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.”


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