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Powering the Future: A Nobel-Prize Winner Takes a Look Deep into the Future

Paul SanGiorgio, Triple Pundit
Have we hit peak oil? How long can we rely on cheap coal for power generation? Is hydro-fracking worth the environmental impact? To each of these pressing and controversial questions, Nobel-prize winner and Stanford physics professor Robert Laughlin would respond that, in the long run, what’s the difference?

“Powering the Future: How we will (eventually) solve the energy crisis and fuel the civilization of tomorrow” is Laughlin’s audacious attempt to look past the haze and uncertainty of short-term political and technical questions and predict how we’ll power our civilization in the centuries to come.

He starts with the seemingly irrefutable idea that although there are many varieties of fossil fuel, from natural gas to coal to oil, in the ground right now, eventually we will dig them all up, use them one way or another, and that’ll be that. Although whether we do this over the next 20 years or next 200 years might have important consequences for the environment, eventually the supply of fossil fuels will be exhausted and we will be left considering other options.

… Unable to hide the professor within, though, Laughlin’s tone can occasionally be pedantic and lecturing. Things just are what he says they are and any misconception you might have is probably due to naïve ignorance. This attitude is especially frustrating when it reflects Laughlin’s pessimism with regard to human nature, government intervention, and the possibility of socially conscious action in general, but for the most part, his authoritative tone begs the reader to argue and proceed critically, becoming an active participant in the book.
(2 December 2011)
Another review, this one from The Curious Wave Funcion. -BA

Global warming, population growth, and food supplies: When will Americans finally “get it”?

Gary Peters, Guy McPherson’s Blog
To borrow a line from Pete Seeger, “When will we ever learn?” If Karl Marx were alive today he would quickly see that television has become the opium of the people, dulling our senses and keeping our minds focused on trivial matters even as the world around us careens further out of control every day. What passes for national news media today is all corporate owned and dedicated to telling us as little as possible, placing virtually nothing in context, and talking to “experts” in thirty second sound bites. What they don’t tell us is often the stuff we really need to know.

My wife and I were having breakfast recently in a small local café. Near us two men were talking loudly enough to be overheard. Their conversation was focused on guns and the main theme was this: “Nobody is going to take my guns away.” One of them stated that he now had more than one thousand rounds of ammunition and was ready for anything. I still can’t imagine what he was getting ready for that would require a thousand rounds of ammunition, but at least in his own mind he was planning for the future as he perceived it. That is more than most Americans are doing! Our nation is suffering through a period of leadership failure that we can no longer ignore.

It may not be possible to predict the future, but we are going to get nowhere until most Americans realize that there are threats out there that we are not only not preparing for but our leaders are trying to keep us as ignorant as possible of. One of these is global warming, which is guaranteed to affect virtually all of us, not just in the United States but virtually everywhere.

… It is not too late for us to act, but each year that we do nothing or remain in denial about the trends that are all around us we are guilty of putting ourselves above posterity. We are headed toward becoming ancestors that future generations will speak ill of, a generation who kept practicing business as usual in the face of overwhelming evidence that it would be disastrous for the planet, for humanity, and for the world’s various ecosystems.

Gary Peters is a retired geography professor who specialized in population geography. He has taught and written about population and related issues for four decades, during which time the world has added more than three billion people. He also taught economic and physical geography, which gives him a relatively broad perspective on what is going on in our world. Unlike most economists, Peters sees our planet as finite and incapable of sustaining any process that involves physical growth of anything.
(28 November 2011)

Feminism, Finance and the Future of #Occupy – An interview with Silvia Federici

Max Haiven and Silvia Federici, ZNet
Occupations and the Struggle over Reproduction

Silvia Federici is a veteran activist and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Born and raised in Italy, Federici has taught in Italy, Nigeria, and the United States, where she has been involved in many movements, including feminist, education, and anti-death penalty struggles. … With other members of the Wages for Housework campaign, … Federici has been instrumental in developing the idea of “reproduction” as a key way to understand global and local power relations. Reproduction, in this sense, doesn’t only mean how humans reproduce biologically, it is a broad concept that encompasses how we care for one another, how we reproduce our physical bodies depending on our access to food and shelter, how culture and ideology are reproduced, how communities are built and rebuilt, and how resistance and struggle can be sustained and expanded. …

… Silvia Federici: This movement appears spontaneous but its spontaneity is quite organized, as it can be seen from the languages and practices it has adopted and the maturity it has shown in response to the brutal attacks by the authorities and the police. It reflects a new way of doing politics that has grown out of the crisis of the anti-globalization and antiwar movements of the last decade, one that emerges from the confluence between the feminist movement and the movement for the commons. For years now people have expressed the need for a politics that is not just antagonistic, and does not separate the personal from the political, but instead places the creation of more cooperative and egalitarian forms of reproducing human, social and economic relationships at the center of political work.

In New York, for instance, a broad discussion has been taking place for some years now among people in the movement on the need to create “communities of care” and, more generally, collective forms of reproduction whereby we can address issues that “flow from our everyday life (as Craig Hughes and Kevin Van Meter of the Team Colors Collective have put it [1]). We have begun to recognize that for our movements to work and thrive, we need to be able to socialize our experiences of grief, illness, pain, death, things that now are often relegated to the margins or the outside of our political work. We agree that movements that do not place on their agendas the reproduction of both their members and the broader community are movements that cannot survive, they are not “self-reproducing,” especially in these times when so many people are daily confronting crises in their lives.

… In recent years, this merging of feminism and political ‘commoning’ has generated a great number of local initiatives – community gardens, solidarity economies, time banks, as well as attempts to create ‘accountability structures’ at the grassroots level to deal with abuses within the movement without resorting to the police. Often these initiatives seemed to remain confined at the local level and lack the power to link up to confront the status quo. The Occupy movements show us that this need not be the case.

… MH: Many people have criticized the Occupations for having a relatively narrow focus on the crimes of finance, rather than the broader systems of power of which finance is just a part. What do you make of the movement’s general orientation?

SF: I do not think that this movement is exclusively concerned with the crimes of the finance world. A visit to OWS or some of the other occupations spreading across the country would demonstrate the great variety of issues discussed and the diversity of organizing going on, as well as the diverse composition of this movement. Occupations are becoming a point of convergence for all kinds of struggles: opposition to the war, opposition to the prison system, support for healthcare and education reforms.

… Occupations, in this context, are sites for the construction of a non-capitalist conception of society and a coming together of the practices that, in recent years, have begun to concretize this project. A sign of the broad scope of this movement and its capacity to resonate beyond downtown Manhattan is that in Egypt the people of the squares have recognized the commonality between their movement and that of OWS or Oakland.

As some have put it, the Occupy movement is the first worldwide anti-capitalist movement to appear in a long time in the US. It is the first movement in this country to give expression to the growing revolt against the present economic and political order, which is the reason why it has spread so rapidly and has excited the collective imagination to such a degree.

MH: Where do you see the Occupations going? What will be critical for their success?

SF: There are already two encouraging developments under way. On one side, the Occupations are organizing a network that is circulating experiences, information, forms of mutual support, and articulating a perspective for the construction of nationwide and worldwide mobilizations. There is now a plan to hold a general assembly on July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia that will be a test of the ‘constituent’ power of this movement, by which I mean the ability of the movement to create new models of social cooperation.

I agree with Mike Davis, however, that the movement should not be too eager to produce programmatic demands and should concentrate, instead, on making its presence more visible, on reaching out to other communities, and on ‘reclaiming the commons.’ This is beginning to happen with the migration of the occupations into the neighborhoods, which is essential to reconstruct a social fabric that has been dismantled through years of neoliberal restructuring and the gentrification and suburbanization of space.”

The most crucial test, however, will be whether the Occupy movement has the capacity to address the divisions that have structured the history of this continent.

… I am also convinced that the Occupy movement has much to learn both from the egalitarian vision of society that the feminist movement developed in its radical phase — which was also an inspiration for the queer and the ecological movements. Consensus-based decision-making, the distrust of leaders (formal or charismatic) and the idea that you need to prefigure the world you want to create through your actions and organization, these were all developed by radical feminist movements. Most importantly, like the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the radical feminist movement began to address the question of unequal power relations in the movement and in society by, for instance, creating autonomous spaces in which women could articulate the problems specific to their conditions. Feminism has also promoted an ethics of care and sisterhood and a respect for animals and nature that is crucial for the Occupy movement and, I believe, has already shaped its practice. I have been impressed by the tolerance and patience people demonstrate to one another in the general assemblies, a great achievement in comparison with the often truculent forms of behavior that were typical in the movements of the ‘60s.
(25 November 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor Luane Todd. -BA

The Tailor of Ulm
– a look at the Italian Communist Party
Lucio Magri, New Left Review
How should the Left think about the Communist experience today? A founding theorist of Il Manifesto reflects on the need for critical examination of the past—and the lessons to be drawn for the future from the PCI’s trajectory.

… the ‘haunting spectre’ [of communism] seems finally to have been buried: with honours by some, with undying hatred by others, with indifference by most, because it has nothing more to say to them.

… Anyone who did believe in what Communism was attempting, and took part in it, has a duty to account for it—if only to ask whether this burial was not too hasty, and whether a different death certificate might be required…. I ask myself once again: are there rational, compelling reasons for taking a stance against denial and amnesia? Are there good grounds and suitable conditions for re-opening a critical discussion of Communism today, rather than abandoning it? In my view, there are.

Altered landscape

Since that fateful year of 1989, much turbulent water has flowed under the bridge. … A new configuration of the world order, of society and consciousness is emerging. A victorious capitalism was left holding the field and its triumph allowed it to reassert its foundational values and mechanisms, now freed of all restraint. Technological revolution and globalization seemed to offer the prospect of impetuous economic expansion and stable international relations, under the leadership—shared or endured—of a single overweening power. During the 1990s, the contributions to democracy and progress made by the competition between the two systems could still be discussed, as could the toll they took on individual lives. Correctives that might reduce the worst social consequences of the new dispensation could be debated, either to improve transparency in the re-established market or to temper the unilateralism of the dominant power. But from now on, this was the system. It was not to be contested but supported, in good faith and in line with its own principles. If the distant day were to come when it too had outlived its usefulness and must be superseded, this would have nothing to do with anything the Left had done or thought. Such was the reality that any sensible politician had to recognize—or howl at the moon.

In the space of a few years, the scene has changed profoundly. Inequalities in income, power, quality of life, both among and within the various regions of the world, are re-emerging and continue to deepen. The new functioning of the economic system is demonstrably incompatible with the preservation of long-standing social gains: universal welfare, full and stable employment, participatory democracy in the most advanced societies; the right to national independence and some protection from armed intervention, in the case of underdeveloped regions and smaller nations. New problems are looming: the accelerating degradation of the natural environment; a moral decay in which individualism and consumerism, rather than filling the vacuum of values created by the crisis of millennial institutions, instead deepen it into a dichotomy between dissipation and neo-clericalism …

… How should we assess the forces ranged against the system? The outlook is not a comforting one. It is certainly important that the new social movements remain on the scene, and that in some cases they have expanded to new regions or contributed to a replenishment of political energies. They have, at any rate, drawn attention to critical problems that had previously been dismissed: water, climate, defence of cultural identities; civil liberties for minorities such as immigrants or gays. It would be wrong to speak of a regression or crisis—but equally so to point towards a ‘second world power’, either existing or in gestation. For in the major battles in which these movements were involved as a unit—peace and disarmament, abolition of the wto and imf, the Tobin Tax, alternative energy sources—the results have been trifling, and initiative has declined. Pluralism has proved to be a limitation as well as a resource. Organization can be rethought as much as one likes, but it cannot forever be reduced to the internet or re-runs of world forums. Refusal of politics, power from below, making revolution without taking power—rather than being stages of a journey, partial truths which should not be renounced, these risk becoming elements of a fossilized subculture, a repetitive rhetoric that prevents self-reflection or an exacting definition of priorities. Finally, alongside the new movements—although through no fault of theirs—a different type of radical opposition has emerged, inspired by religious or ethnic fundamentalism, whose most extreme form is terrorism, but which influences and involves significant numbers of people. …

… If we avoid reflections of this kind, and regard the twentieth century as a pile of ashes; if we delete from the record the great revolutions, the bitter class struggles, the major cultural conflicts that traversed it, and the Socialism and Communism that animated these; or if we simply reduce everything to a clash between ‘totalitarianisms’ and ‘democracy’—without distinguishing the disparate origins and goals of the ‘totalitarianisms’, or the concrete politics of ‘democracy’—we not only tamper with history, but deprive politics of the passions and arguments needed to confront both dramatic old problems that have resurfaced and new ones that are emerging; and which demand profound changes and a rational debate.


The type of investigation I am proposing here is tremendously difficult—and the motivations that should guide it no less so. Firstly, because the ‘short twentieth century’ is a large and complicated period, shot through with dramatic and closely interlinked contradictions, demanding an overview of the context. Second, because it is still so fresh in the collective memory that it is hard to attain the requisite critical distance. Further, such an investigation runs counter to the prevalent consensus of today, which not only considers this chapter closed, but in general denies that history can be deciphered, as a whole and in the long term—and therefore sees no value in situating the present within that history …

Today there are two prevalent readings of Italian Communism, mutually opposed for a variety of reasons. The first argues, in more or less crude form, that from the end of the Second World War at least, the pci was always in substance a social-democratic party, albeit without wanting to admit as much, and perhaps without realizing it. Its history was one of a long, excessively slow but steady march to self-recognition; the delay cost it a prolonged exclusion from government, but the party’s substantive identity gave it strength and ensured its survival. The second reading holds that, on the contrary, despite the Resistance, the republican constitution, the party’s role in extending democracy, despite some evidence of autonomy, and its hostility to the idea of insurrection, the pci was ultimately an articulation of Soviet policy, and its aim was always the imposition of the Soviet model. Only towards the end was it forced to surrender and change its identity.

Yet both readings are contradicted by innumerable historical facts, and they also erase what was most original and interesting about the Communist experience. The thesis I would like to put to the test is that the pci represented, intermittently and without ever fully developing it, one of the most serious attempts to open up a Socialist ‘third way’; that is, to combine on the one hand partial reforms, pursuit of broad social and political alliances, commitment to parliamentary democratic means and, on the other, bitter social struggles and an explicit, shared critique of capitalist society; to construct a highly cohesive, militant party, with ideologically trained cadres, but a mass party nonetheless; to reaffirm its affiliation to a world revolutionary camp, enduring the constraints of the latter but still winning a relative autonomy. This was not a matter of mere duplicity: the unifying strategic idea was that the consolidation and further evolution of ‘actually existing socialism’ did not constitute a model that could one day be implemented in the West, but rather the necessary background for realizing a different type of socialism in the West, that respected liberties.
(May-June 2008)
The author, journalist and political activist Lucio Magri died a few days ago: Suicidio assistito per Lucio Magri. Also see: Wikipedia entry.

I think Italian Communist Party (PCI) is the most interesting example of leftism in the 20th century. It was a mass party, unlike the smaller communist parties in other countries. It was close to gaining national power through elections, and it formed the governments of many cities in Italy. The leadership was gifted, and much more independent than that of other communist parties. One of the founders of the PCI, Antonio Gramsci, is one of the most influential of the political theoreticians. He emphasized cultural forces (e.g ideas and instituions) more than most Marxists. I’ve even run across his influence among neo-conservatives.

If economic turmoil continues, as seems likely, I think we will see the re-emergence of political parties like the PCI. Lucio Magri’s essay is a good first step in coming to terms with the PCI’s mixed heritage.