Deep thought headlines

September 12, 2013

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The Fossil Fuels War

John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review

The Rise of the Unconventionals

Only a few years ago governments, corporations, and energy analysts were fixated on the problem of “the end of cheap oil” or “peak oil,” pointing to growing shortages of conventional crude oil due to the depletion of known reserves. The International Energy Agency’s 2010 report devoted a whole section to peak oil.1 Some climate scientists saw the peaking of conventional crude oil as a silver-lining opportunity to stabilize the climate—provided that countries did not turn to dirtier forms of energy such as coal and “unconventional fossil fuels.”2

Today all of this has changed radically with the advent of what some are calling a new energy revolution based on the production of unconventional fossil fuels.3 The emergence in North America—but increasingly elsewhere as well—of what is now termed the “Unconventionals Era” has meant that suddenly the world is awash in new and prospective fossil-fuel supplies.4 As journalist and climate activist Bill McKibben warns,

Right now the fossil-fuel industry is mostly winning. In the past few years, they’ve proved “peak-oil” theorists wrong—as the price rose for hydrocarbons, companies found a lot of new sources, though mostly by scraping the bottom of the barrel, spending even more money to get even-cruddier energy. They’ve learned to frack (in essence, explode a pipe bomb a few thousand feet beneath the surface, fracturing the surrounding rock). They’ve figured out how to take the sludgy tar sands and heat them with natural gas till the oil flows. They’ve managed to drill miles beneath the ocean’s surface.5

The new phase of environmental struggle that the Unconventionals Era has engendered is symbolized above all today by the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, extending from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, designed to deliver up to 830,000 barrels of tar-sands oil (diluted bitumen or dilbit) a day. The proposed pipeline has two legs. The northern leg, which has not yet been approved in Washington, is to be 1,179 miles long and will cross the border from Canada to the United States. The southern leg runs 484 miles from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, and is already largely completed.6 Tar-sands-oil production and processing generates roughly 14 percent more emissions than the average oil consumed in the United States, and leaves large pools of polluted water.7 Failure to halt the burning of tar-sands oil would mean “game over” with respect to climate change, in the words of James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most renowned U.S. climatologist.8

…The United States witnessed its biggest climate demonstrations yet in February 2013, with upward of 40,000 people protesting in front of the White House and more than a thousand arrested in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.11 In Canada, meanwhile, the indigenous-led Idle No More has utilized a variety of strategies and tactics in fighting tar-sands production, such as: a hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence; rail blockades; flashmobs in malls; a giant circle dance in a large intersection in Winnipeg; and the legal defense of First Nations sovereignty rights with respect to land, water, and resources. Idle No More protests have targeted oil transport by both rail and pipeline, with the latter including opposition to Keystone XL and to the planned Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project—designed to extend around 730 miles from the Alberta tar sands to a marine terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia.12…

…In the face of the rush by capital to extract unconventional fossil fuels in ever-greater amounts, climate activists are seeking new means of resistance. The “Do the Math” strategy of is focused on the necessary divestment in fossil fuels, to be replaced by clean energy sources. Some financial analysts have been sounding the alarm with respect to the carbon budget imposed by the red line of a 2°C increase in global average temperature—referred to as a planetary tipping point or “point of no return” with respect to climate change. Climate scientists fear that once this point is reached processes will be set in motion that will make climate change irreversible and out of human control.20 It will no longer be possible to stop the progression to an ice-free world. Staying within the global carbon budget means that further carbon emissions are limited to considerably less than 500 billion metric tons (of actual carbon), according to Oxford climatologist Myles Allen and scientists associated with This means that most of the world’s current proven fossil-fuel reserves cannot be exploited without initiating extremely dangerous—even irreversible—levels of climate change. And this limitation in turn threatens trillions of dollars of potential financial losses in what are now accounted as fossil-fuel assets—a phenomenon known as the “carbon bubble.”21

While capital in the last few years has been triumphantly celebrating its increased ability to tap fossil fuels for decades to come, climate change has continued to accelerate—symbolized by the melting of Arctic sea ice to its lowest level ever recorded in summer 2012, with the total ice area receding to less than half the average level of the 1970s. The vanishing Arctic ice, which is melting far faster than scientists had predicted, suggests that the sensitivity of the earth system to small increases in global average temperatures is greater than was previously thought. The ice loss is of particular concern since it represents a positive feedback loop to climate change, accelerating the rate of global warming as the reflectivity of the earth declines—due to the replacement of white ice with dark seawater. The melting of Arctic sea ice, and the resulting “arctic amplification” (temperature increases in the Arctic exceeding that of the earth as a whole) is generating extreme weather events in the Northern hemisphere and worldwide through the “jamming” and redirection of the jet stream. As Walt Meier, a research scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center put it, “the Arctic is the earth’s air conditioner. We’re losing that.”22…

(4 September 2013)

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber, Strike
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber.

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

(17 August 2013)

Big Data, Disaster Resilience and Lord of the Rings

Patrick Meier, IRevolution
The Shire is a local community of Hobbits seemingly disconnected from the systemic changes taking place in Middle Earth. They are a quiet, self-sufficient community with high levels of social capital. Hobbits are not interested in “Big Data”; their world is populated by “Small Data” and gentle action. This doesn’t stop the “Eye of Sauron” from sensing this small harmless hamlet, however. During Gandalf’s visit, the Hobbits learn that all is not well in the world outside the Shire. The changing climate, deforestation and land degradation is wholly unnatural and ultimately threatens their own way of life.

Gandalf leads a small band of Hobbits (bonding social capital) out of the Shire to join forces with other peoples of Middle Earth (bridging social capital) in what he calls “The Fellowship of the Ring” (resilience in diversity). Together, they must overcome personal and collective adversity and travel to Mordor to destroy the one ring that rules them all. Only then will Sauron’s “All Seeing Eye” cease sensing and oppressing the world of Middle Earth.

I’m definitely no expert on J. R. R Tolken or The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve found that literature and indeed mythology often hold up important mirrors to our modern societies and remind us that the perils we face may not be entirely new. This implies that cautionary tales of the past may still bear some relevance today. The hero’s journey speaks to the human condition, and mythology serves as a evidence of human resilience. These narratives carry deep truths about the human condition, our shortcomings and redeeming qualities. Mythologies, analogies and metaphors help us make sense of our world; we ignore them at our own risk.

…So when we say that we have more data than ever before in human history, it behooves us to ask “Who is we? And to what end?” Does the Shire have access to greater data than ever before thanks to Sauron? Hardly. Is this data used by Sauron to support community resilience? Fat chance. Local communities are excluded; they are observers, unwilling participants in a centralized system that ultimately undermines trust and their own resilience. Hobbits deserve the right not to be sensed. This should be a non-negotiable. They also deserve the right to own and manage their own “Small Data” themselves; that is, data generated by the community, for the community. We need respectful, people-centered data protection protocols like those developed by Open Paths. Community resilience ought to be ethical community resilience….

(28 August 2013)

Dreaming of Uncivilisation
Charlotte Du Cann, Charlotte Du Cann blog
I will wait for a dream, I said to myself, as I went to meetings, swept the stage, ferried boxes of books, chopped vegetables, stacked the fire, and drank a glass of cider called Heart of Hampshire at the end of the day. I was giving a workshop called Rewilding the Self – The Earth Dreaming Bank. I had no idea what I was going to say. Every time I tried to prepare the session in between the cracks of the programme, the words slipped out of my hands.

This was the fourth and last Uncivilisation Festival, held on a warm, rainy and windy weekend in mid-August amid the beech trees of the Sustainability Centre. It was the third time I had pitched my small tent on this grassy meadow beside sweet marjoram and blackberry and my fellow explorers on the Dark Mountain. Each time I found myself in a different position. At the first as a reporter, writing a story for the Independent and for a collective Transition blog, at the second as a writer, reading out loud from my book about flowers, at the third as a co-curator of the literary stage.

Each year I found myself at an edge. I’ll think of the questions during the interview, I’ll notice a plant, I’ll have a dream, and then I’ll know what to do. Some things you learn when you play close to the edge. It’s not comfortable, you can make a fool of yourself. But unexpected riffs burst out and harmonies happen between you that would not otherwise be allowed in a tightly orchestrated world.

…How can I describe a festival when there are 77 sessions in the programme, where I am co-curating a stage and giving a performance I haven’t prepared, and so can only go to a few? How can I say how it feels, sitting by a stream on a summer’s day with people you hardly know and yet you feel you know more deeply and more urgently than people you were born amongst? Where you can sit, at home in each other’s company, without the agitation of the world demanding you explain and justify who you are.

It feels impossible: as if I had to run in all directions and split myself into a thousand pieces, as if I had to stop time. But I don’t: I go and sweep the Woodland Stage and sit in the children’s yurt in front of an empty notebook and draw the dream with a borrowed pen.

…When you stand on the edge of the society you have been taught is everything, and plunge into an unknown territory, you feel you know everything in parts of your self you did not know existed. That’s a paradox. The interview which starts the literary programme is, I realise, as sit in the audience on a wooden bench, a form which makes sense of everything. If we don’t ask key questions of each other, we won’t find any answers. When she gave all her artworks away, Dutton tells Gablik, her life became her art, and that the real function of the artist is to host and gather the people.

…The key to dreaming is speaking, feeling and remembering. You need the skills of a tracker to do this. The artist-who-was-once an-artist tells the critic-who-was-once- a-critic that tracking requires a certain kind of seeing: one that can both survey a whole forest, and perceive tiny signs of changes in the bush. Tracking dreams is a matter of attention. Civilisation is held together by attention, to an agreed way of seeing reality, bathed in the artificial glow of street lights and computer screens. You could see Uncivilisation individualistically, as just another festival – recognise the familiar elements of tent, solar shower, street food, workshop, music and yoga practice. Or you could see it in another light entirely, as a way a whole group of people configure a change of direction.

To navigate the wild world, and to navigate the realms of the imagination means you can’t stay in the tight blinkered form society has trained you to live in. You need to break out and move in all directions in space and time: up into the realm of sky, into the underworld, from the left to the right hemisphere of the brain, back into the past, forward into the future. Writers learn by their art to make these shifts. They know it is not enough to experience phenomena, what you see in the dark has to be brought into the light and articulated, grounded in our everyday lives. That’s the work. It is our function as creative beings to give words to everything we see.

Tags: big data, climate change, Consumerism, dark mountain, fossil fuel dependence, unconventional oil