Re: New article at TomDispatch by Bill McKibben


The Great American Carbon Bomb
by Bill McKibben

Will North America Be the New Middle East?
It’s Yes or No For a Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline — and Obama Gets to Make the Call
By Bill McKibben

The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months. Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire. First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s flooding at historic levels.

The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States. Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history. Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.

Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”

There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010. These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations. They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.

Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so — for the moment anyway — the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!

Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta. We set up a new website,, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.

Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline. It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)

There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb. Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.

If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature. It won’t happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was “essentially game over” for the climate of this planet.

Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar sands problems. The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least, would be a start. Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way. The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.” There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration. Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department’s “energy envoy” was already instructing Alberta’s fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their “oil sands messaging,” including “increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.” This is the government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.

Still, the president can say no. If he does, then no pipeline — and in the words of Alberta’s oil minister, his province will be “landlocked in bitumen” (the basic substance from which tar-sands oil is extracted). Even energy-hungry China, eager as it is for new sources of fossil fuels, may not be able to save him, since native tribes are doing a remarkable job of blocking another proposed pipeline to the Canadian Pacific. Oil, oil everywhere, and nary a drop to sell. (Unfortunately that’s not quite true, but at least there won’t be a big new straw in this milkshake.)

An Obama thumbs-down on the pipeline could change the economics of the tar sands in striking ways. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary.

Faced with that prospect, Canada’s oilmen are growing desperate. Earlier this month, in a classic sleight of hand, they announced plans for a giant “carbon capture and sequestration” scheme at the tar sands. That’s because when it comes to global warming, tar sands oil is even worse than, say, Saudi oil because it’s a tarry muck, not a liquid, and so you have to burn a lot of natural gas to make it flow in the first place.

Now, the oil industry is proposing to capture some of the extra carbon from that cooking process and store it underground. This is an untested method, and the accounting scheme Alberta has adopted for it may actually increase the province’s emmissions. Even if it turns out to work perfectly and captures the carbon from that natural gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere, the oil they’re proposing to ship south for use in our gas tanks would still be exactly as bad for the atmosphere as Saudi crude. In other words, in the long run it would still be “essentially game over” for the climate.

The Saudis, of course, built their oil empire long before we knew that there was anything wrong with burning oil. The Canadians — with American help, if Obama obliges the oil lobby — are building theirs in the teeth of the greatest threat the world has ever faced. We can’t unbuild those Saudi Arabian fields, though happily their supplies are starting to slowly dwindle. What we can still do, though, is prevent North America from becoming the next Middle East.

So there will be a battle, and there will be nothing complicated or abstract about it. It will be based on one question: Does that carbon stay in the earth, or does it pour into the atmosphere? Given the trillions of dollars at stake it will be a hard fight, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But at least there’s no fog here, no maze of technicalities.

The last climate bill, the one the Senate punted on, was thousands of pages long. This time there’s a single sheet of paper, which Obama signs… or not.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben

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NBA Financial Troubles?–What the Numbers REALL say

Long-term professional sports don’t look to fare well as it looks like the economy is entering a long-term and protracted decline. Nevertheless, it appears that NBA owners are using accounting tricks to turn profits into losses—all to squeeze player salaries. NBA owners may claim that they are overpaying for poor performing players–but nobody put guns to their heads to overpay for the likes of Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas, Rashard Lewis, and Elton Brand (to name a few)…

Zach Lowe of the NBA Point Forward blog has the details at CNN/SI.
On Tuesday, Nate Silver of The New York Times wrote a crucial piece claiming that publicly available estimates, via Forbes and other sources, show the NBA has been moderately profitable over the last few years — and the profits that big-market teams typically earn are more than enough to compensate for the losses of their small-market brethren. Such a finding would bolster the union’s long-held claim that the NBA has exaggerated its losses, and that increased revenue sharing would be enough to stabilize the league.

In the big picture, this is not news. This argument has gone on for years, and it’s a testament to the complexity of accounting that no one can actually agree whether the NBA has lost or made money overall during the last half-decade or so. It is important to note that even the most optimistic analyses, like Silver’s (based on the Forbes estimates) concede that about half of the NBA’s 30 teams have lost money over the last couple of years, and that the league is not nearly as profitable as Major League Baseball or the NFL. Heck, the Celtics barely made a profit in 2009-10, when they made the Finals, according to Forbes.

But Silver’s piece and the NBA’s response to it Tuesday night have focused the debate on one broad issue: Are the league and its teams creating paper losses by using (perfectly legal) accounting tricks that allow them to factor in costs, depreciation and other expenses associated with the purchase of teams into their annual balance sheets? Silver and others claim that they are, and that those “losses” mask the reality that the value of an NBA franchise continues to rise each year.

Here’s a key excerpt from Silver’s piece:

There are several reasons to be skeptical of the N.B.A.’s figures. First, many of the purported losses – perhaps about $250 million – result from an unusual accounting treatment related to depreciation and amortization when a team is sold. While the accounting treatment is legal, these paper losses would have no impact on a team’s cash flow.

And here are two excerpts from this must-read piece by Larry Coon, a contributor to and author of the most comprehensive guide to the league’s salary cap:

[Union executive director Billy] Hunter was referring to the accounting practice of amortizing certain assets related to the purchase of the teams themselves. These show up in the balance sheet, but there is little or no economic substance to the amortization. It does not represent actual money that is going out the door.

And this, on the Nets:

But these [financial] statements also illustrate the accounting practices to which Hunter and the players’ association take issue. Brooklyn Basketball (the Nets’ parent company) paid $361 million for the team. In order for the balance sheet to balance, it had to show assets in that amount. Some of these are real, physical assets, accounts receivable, and the like. Other parts are “intangible” assets, which represent the amount the buyer paid above the value of the tangible assets. These assets (but not the franchise itself) are amortized over their “useful lives,” with a portion of their value (a total of $200 million for the Nets) counted as an operating expense each year. For the Nets, this expense added up to $41.5 million in 2005 and $40.2 million in 2006.

In other words, $41.5 million of the Nets’ $49 million operating loss in 2005, and $40.2 million of its $57.4 million in 2006, is there simply to make the books balance. It is part of the purchase price of the team, being expensed each year.

These would seem to be clear analyses that arrive at one conclusion: Ownership groups that have purchased teams in recent years record expenses, both tangible and intangible, related to those purchases in a way that dirties their balance sheets with losses on an annual basis going forward.

And here’s the most important excerpt from the statement the league released last night disputing Silver’s piece (with bolded text from me):

We use the conventional and generally accepted accounting (GAAP) approach and include in our financial reporting the depreciation of the capital expenditures made in the normal course of business by the teams as they are a substantial and necessary cost of doing business.

We do not include purchase price amortization from when a team is sold or under any circumstances in any of our reported losses. Put simply, none of the league losses are related to team purchase or sale accounting.

The league would appear to be saying here that Coon and Silver are just flat wrong when they say any expenses related to the purchase of a franchise are used in the way those two say they are. In financial accounting, there is always room for some middle ground between two apparently contradictory statements — some trick of semantics that makes both sides technically “correct” in what appears to be a black-and-white dispute. I’ve reached out to a few experts this morning to see what that middle ground might be, but a league source has already told me there is no such middle ground — that Coon and Silver are wrong, and that costs related to the purchase of a franchise are not factored into losses the league claims teams are suffering.

Either one side has to be right here, or there has to be some accounting gray area that allows both to stick to their guns on this very esoteric — but crucial — issue of the lockout. Let’s hope we get some increased clarity as the lockout rolls on.

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Re: Declining Quality, Rising Costs of Hydrocarbon (read: Fossil) Fuel Sources

I’m re-posting this brand new piece by Richard Heinberg over at the website for the Post-Carbon Institute. Heinberg has been a leading intellectual light of the Peak Oil movement for now and he lays out a compelling case for end of the age of cheap, easy oil. I’m posting this before I go into a longer essay explaining the Limits to Growth and what they mean to me personally and what they mean for the future of society as it struggles to understand these limits and adjust accordingly. I’m going to re-post the text of Heinberg’s article and then include some comments below…

Rising Hydrocarbon Costs: A Quick Summary for Policy Makers
Posted Jul 6, 2011 by Richard Heinberg

During the past century, world economic growth has depended largely on ever-expanding use of hydrocarbon energy sources: oil for transportation, coal and natural gas for electricity generation, oil and gas for agricultural production. It is no exaggeration to say that the health of the global economy currently hinges on increasing rates of production of these fuels. However, oil, gas, and coal are non-renewable resources that are typically extracted using the “low-hanging fruit” principle. That is, large concentrations of high-quality and easily accessed fuels tend to be depleted first. Thus, while the world is in no danger of running out of hydrocarbon energy sources anytime soon, oil, gas, and coal extraction efforts are increasingly directed toward low-quality, hard-to-produce fuels that require higher up-front investment and entail increasing environmental costs and risks.

These trends are easily demonstrated in the case of oil.

Dependency: The dependence of the world economy on oil is illustrated by the close correlation between oil price spikes and US economic recessions that has been noted by several analysts.[1]

Declining resource quality: The pace of world oil discoveries has been declining since 1964. Oilfields found during the past decade have tended to be smaller, on average, than those located decades earlier, and tend to require expensive new technologies (including horizontal drilling, deepwater drilling, and hydrofracturing) for their development. As Jeremy Gilbert, former chief petroleum engineer for BP, has put it, “The current fields we are chasing we’ve known about for a long time in many cases, but they were too complex, too fractured, too difficult to chase. Now our technology and understanding [are] better, which is a good thing, because these difficult fields are all that we have left.”[2]

Increasing upstream production costs: The cost of developing a new barrel of oil’s worth of production capacity has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2000, the oil industry remained profitable with prices pivoting around $20 per barrel. Today it is estimated that oil prices of $60 to $80 per barrel are required in order to incentivize new exploration and production in many prospective regions.[3]

Increasing environmental risks and costs: As drillers operate in ever more hostile and fragile environments, accidents can have far worse consequences on ecosystems and human economies that depend on ecosystem services. This trend was forcibly illustrated by the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Lower-quality hydrocarbon resources typically also entail higher carbon emissions per unit of energy produced.

Coal and natural gas likewise exemplify these trends, though in somewhat different ways. While global coal reserves estimates have been used to justify the oft-repeated assertion that the world has hundreds of years of supplies, recent studies suggest world coal production could peak and begin to decline within the next 20 years. The most heralded recent development in natural gas industry is the application of hydraulic fracturing technology to production from low-porosity formations to boost reserves; however, this new technology poses increased environmental risks while entailing higher production costs.

Together, coal, oil, and gas contribute to the overall societal cost of anthropogenic climate change. The ultimate burden of climate change on the world economy has been variously estimated; in the worst-case scenario (a global average temperature increase of five or more degrees Celsius), the economy simply would not survive. On the other hand, however, action by governments to limit climate change will almost certainly directly or indirectly increase the price of fossil fuels, adding to price increases resulting from depletion.

As fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive, international conflict over remaining supplies, especially of oil and gas, is likely to become more heated—a trend already clear in the South China Sea and Central Asia.

The replacement of fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy is clearly necessary, but presents the world with an unprecedented technical challenge. Transport systems (autos, buses, trucks, trains, aircraft, and ships) can in some cases be electrified; in other cases, petroleum-based liquid fuels can be replaced with biofuels. Electricity can be produced from sunlight and wind rather than coal and gas. However, alternative energy sources currently provide only a tiny portion of current world energy, so a build-out will require enormous investment over several decades. Moreover, when the prospects of alternative energy sources are evaluated using all important criteria (including the amount of energy returned on the energy invested in energy production, or EROEI; environmental impacts; size of the resource; and variability in flow rates), it is difficult to identify a realistic scenario in which total world energy supplies can continue to grow—or even remain constant—as fossil fuels deplete.

Thus, even if governments act wisely now to develop energy alternatives at maximum possible rates, the world faces a nearly inevitable energy crunch during the next few decades.[4] Governments must therefore develop strategies for energy conservation. Not only must much greater efficiency be brought to energy production and usage, but essential and non-essential uses of energy must be differentiated, with essential uses prioritized and non-essential uses discouraged.


1. James Hamilton, “Historical Oil Shocks.” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no. 16790 (2011).
2. Jeremy Gilbert, “No We Can’t: Uncertainty, Technology, and Risk,” lecture presented at ASPO-USA Conference, Washington, D.C., October 9, 2010. Quoted in Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers (2011), p. 104.
3. Chen Rui, “Analysis on ‘New Fundaments’ and Range of Oil Price Trend,” World Energy Council, 2009.
4. P. Moriarty and D. Honnery, “What Energy Levels Can the Earth Sustain?” Energy Policy 37, no. 7 (July, 2009), 2469-2474.

My comments and reactions to Heinberg Piece

Heinberg correctly identifies the unfolding trends in the energy economy as the world rapidly depletes the last of the high-quality, low-cost fossil fuels. And Heinberg successfully explains these trends within the text of his article. The final two paragraphs inspire some thoughtful questions and considerations:
• It is clear that transport systems will need to change, and the mode of transportation as well as the energy sources used in those modes will change; but, how will stakeholders make choices relevant to a given community and its local culture and economy?
• As the Limits to Growth predicts (and probably has correctly modeled to date) and Tainter’s complexity theory historically situates, rising capital costs to maintain existing infrastructure and repair damage to sectors like agriculture from climate shocks will complicate the capital planning for long-term investment in alternative green energy technology. So how will communities—at the local level, regional level, state level, and international level (provided such complexity of organization can be sufficiently maintained)—reorganize their economies to support the capital expenditures necessary for alternative energy development? Furthermore, how can communities at all levels cope with decreasing net energy surplus and rising complexity costs to preserve a just, livable, and vibrant mode of human Life given that under even the BEST case scenario total global energy stocks will likely decrease under any scenario?
• How can future energy conservation strategies avoid the Jevons Paradox where increased efficiencies stimulate every greater aggregate energy consumption as each economic unit becomes more efficient in exploiting available energy sources?

These three interrelated questions comprise core questions important to thinking clearly about the transition from the Age of Cheap, Abundant Fossil Fuels to the Age of Expensive, Scarcer Dirtier Fossil Fuels.

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Re: DIY Internet (reposted from SF Gate blog)

People are getting creative in building Internet systems without the benefit of centralized fiber-optic systems—makes me feel hopeful that the Internet in some forms will survive the unraveling of petroleum and fossil fuel based civilizations in the face of climate change and energy/resource/water depletion…. Human ingenuity is a wild-card that will change the face of the human society(ies) that survive the crash in very unpredictable ways.

Did you know that people in Kenya, Afghanistan and Pakistan are building their own wireless networks out of found materials? Just $60 of everyday items such as wood, cans, plastic tubs, wires and car batteries can provide internet service for hundreds of people. It’s like the “telephone” of your youth and the best MacGyver episode ever, all rolled up into one.

It works like this: A single commercial wireless router is mounted on radio frequency reflectors and covered in a metal mesh. Another router/reflector pair is set up at a distance. The two routers establish a network that can be used by anybody with a reflector. To build a reflector, all you need is a material — wood, metal, plastic, stone or clay — that can mount the metal mesh. The system can be powered with an automobile battery, so it doesn’t have to rely on fickle developing-world power grids.

The goal is simply internet access for all. And, believe it or not, networks are up and running in Kenya, Jalalabad, Pakistan, and in various hospitals and clinics around Afghanistan. The project is supported by MIT’s Fab Lab. Some of the scientists involved in the project are paying for it out of pocket, with some help from the National Science Foundation.

It’s an open-source project, so if you’re interested in building a DYI network here in the shadow of Silicon Valley, just hit up the wiki.

Hat tip to Fast Company for this awesome story.

Posted By: Cameron Scott (Email, Twitter, Facebook) | July 02 2011 at 01:45 PM

Listed Under: technology

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Energy Delusions–The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy

Energy Delusions: The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy
By Nicholas T. Dahlheim
July 2011

To confess, I’ve been burned out lately with the way energy policy and the future of the industrial economy are discussed. Something has always nagged at me—that the technophilia so prevalent in institutions of higher learning and that is so seductive to non-profits, the business community, and the broader political system guided as they are by the Myth of Progress is unwarranted and perhaps counterproductive to the world confronting chronic and acute environmental problems. And I’ve needed to take time off not only to reflect on the problematics of technolphilia but also to make such reflection consonant with my own biorhythms and those of Mother Nature.

Nowhere, perhaps, do the Myth of Progress and unawareness of biorhythms more inhibit critical thinking than they do with respect to the prospects for renewable energy to save the global industrial civilization from the inevitable decline that Peak Oil and Climate Change will thrust upon it. Well-meaning persons of great education and technical skill believe that mass construction of giant wind turbines or installation of solar panels on the rooftops of homes and businesses can supplant modern society’s dependence upon bountiful, inexpensive stocks of fossil fuel-based energy. Similarly, others believe that fossil fuel generation can be dramatically cleaned-up through gargantuan carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects; and that new extraction techniques can prolong the lives of aging mines and dying fields. A global energy system organized around wind, solar, geothermal, and perhaps some residual fossil fuel production (provided it were aided by carbon capture and sequestration) can provide energy to engage in useful economic activities. Yet, the earnest advocates of a “green” economy based upon the exploitation of such “clean” and “renewable” energy sources fail to recognize the enormous hidden energy subsidies fossil fuels provide to maintain the complexity of the interconnected global industrial economy that renewable resources—at any scale and operating at peak efficiency—can never replace.

Put simply, renewable energy drawn from intermittent sun and wind (supplemented by squeezing out additional fossil fuel energy reserves using more energy and capital intensive methods) will not supply the current economy with sufficient resources to maintain its high-level of integration and connectivity. A renewable energy economy, provided that it is constructed with the greatest of care and haste as well as with full knowledge of its inherent limits, will only be able to support a more decentralized artisan economy. The industrialized global economy featuring mass-produced consumer goods (ie—a large numbers of flashy new electronic gizmos) will become a relic of the past, and socio-economic arrangements of new kinds will emerge in the wake of the global economy’s disintegration. Community leaders, scientists, engineers, political figures, and educators need to prepare for an economic environment of far greater uncertainty than many have previously imagined. Essentially, the limits of Peak Oil and Climate Change will constrain even the ability of the best renewable energy technologies to sustain much less grow the industrial economy. The net energy production, measured in terms of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI), of renewable energy technologies is much lower than for most conventional fossil fuel sources over the lifecycles of the respective projects (using accepted Life Cycle Analysis methods). And lower net energy production for the globalized economy as a whole, including all of the relevant stakeholders; will prove insufficient to pay for the social and economic costs of maintaining a complex society. Thus, the global economy will unravel to the point that lower complexity will allow only for economies of smaller scale to exploit the reduced net energy surplus available to an economy dominated by renewable energy.

The oil, coal, and gas representing solar energy stored up for millions of years represented a one time bequeathal to the humans who would exploit that resource so heavily in transforming the world’s economy towards industrial production. The energy densities of gas, coal, and oil are significantly higher than all other non-nuclear energy, with the energy density of crude oil approximately 37 MJ/L. Renewable sources like wind and solar draw energy from diffuse sources and consequently have estimated energy densities far less than those of fossil fuels. Large wind farms and concentrated solar power stations, even when operating at peak efficiency, still are subject not only to the diffuse nature of their energy sources but also their intermittency. A major wind farm, for instance, without access to backup generation from natural gas power plants, cannot meet the needs of the electrical grid in a modern economy. Solar power is subject to similar limits. Furthermore, giant wind turbines require the manufacture of high-grade steel—itself a process dependent upon cheap fossil fuels. Large wind turbines also transform the mechanical energy of the wind into electrical power through the use of magnets made of rare earth elements that are themselves mined from low-grade ores, using copious amounts of fossil fuels in the process.

Finally, the decline of the availability of cheap fossil fuels will also diminish the time horizons and scalability of renewable energy technology such that the continued profligacy of oil use for, say, private automobile transport in the United States, greatly reduces the ability of the economy as a whole to transition effectively towards a future of scarce fossil fuel inputs.

Intermittent, variable energy sources like wind and solar captured by highly complex power systems themselves dependent upon fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance thus cannot supply the centralized manufacturing processes vital to the interconnected, globalized industrial economy.

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The Great Capitulation–Part I

The Great Capitulation: Obama’s Cowardice to Corrupt GOP
Part 1
By Nicholas T. Dahlheim
December 12, 2010

The American public—at least the portion of it which isn’t totally blinded by Fox News and right-wing mendacity or overly attached to ugly racial prejudice—has finally seen the true nature of the soul of the 44th President. As for myself, I was always a bit skeptical of the Obama phenomenon from the start. You see, I am originally from Chicago, IL and I have had the advantage of witnessing the trajectory of the man’s meteoric rise to stardom on the American political stage. This essay will NOT delve into all of the details surrounding Barack Obama’s ascendance to the Presidency, for those details have already received extensive coverage. To be sure, Barack Obama’s personal autobiography represents as compelling an American story as a person can find. Contrary to the flagrantly racist and hateful rhetoric of many Tea Partiers and the Birther movement, Obama’s struggle to construct an identity from his ambiguous, racially mixed origins and from his decidedly then apparently unique family situation resonates deeply with postmodern 21st century America. And much, much more remains to be spoken of Obama’s relation with the postmodern cultural milieu we collectively inhabit.

I have had great difficulty arriving at a firm explication regarding my deeper feelings about the man, but the closer the view I obtain of President Obama the man the less I see him as a courageous and independent individual. I’m afraid the verdict I will render will not be a particularly positive one to say the least….

The man who made crowds in 2007 and 2008 swoon and who embodied a weary America’s hopes and the furtive desires of the country’s youth for a different future has been nowhere to be found since he has occupied the Oval Office. His cerebral aura and his sober demeanor had appeared as measures of strength, especially in the critical first few months of 2009 after the historic Inauguration. Barack Obama made brilliant use of the media and the town hall forum to sell his economic stimulus and health care reform proposals during the first 6-8 months of his Presidency. As the pressure of governing mounted and the shrill pitch of right-wing racist propaganda intensified, Obama began to abandon the public stage and retreated to the cocoon of the Oval Office to be serenaded by the Siren songs of his inner circle of advisors–Emanuel, Biden, Axelrod, Summers, Geithner, Clinton et al. The image of the strong and youthful President who could capture the national vision and heal the wounds that thirty years of neoliberal Reaganomics and corporate globalization had wreaked upon the nation had begun to tarnish and fade. The visionary orator had become the consummate Washington backroom dealmaker. The 2008 Obama who had given voice to the great hopes of a nation battered by failing Middle Eastern wars and a deepening economic depression had vanished. The candidate who had promised to end the tired partisan bickering in Washington had transformed himself into the quintessential backroom dealer more at ease with a small circle of advisors and influential corporate lobbyists than with seizing the bully pulpit and using it to offer a stirring rhetorical defense of the needs and aspirations of the majority of Americans who had supported him at the polls. And during these torturous two years where the consequences of war and economic depression continue to pull the nation on a downward spiral, the realities of governing have prevailed over Obama’s skill as a candidate. He has proven that throughout the health care debate, the BP oil spill response, the financial reform debate, the 2010 midterm election, and now the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress that he is fundamentally a weak leader. Moreover, Obama has shown NO willingness to rise up and fight for ANY single big-ticket item valued by progressives that would benefit the well-being of the nation as a whole.

I have many friends who still defend President Obama, and I at the very least sympathize with their desire to see Barack Obama succeed as a leader. God knows that after thirty years of neoliberal economics and eight years of odious Bush misrule the country needs a strong and competent progressive President. And to be fair, Obama and the Democratic Congress has not failed completely in their endeavors to pass legislation that assists ordinary working and middle class Americans. Obama has, at the least, overseen the passage of legislation with some progressive provisions that assist ordinary working class and middle class people badly needing relief in this awful economy. The website lists the accomplishments of the Obama Administration’s first two years governing with huge Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. Fairness compels me to merit them some attention:

• Signed financial reform law prohibiting banks from engaging in proprietary trading (trading the bank’s own money to turn a profit, often in conflict with their customers’ interests)
• Signed financial reform law allowing shareholders of publicly traded companies to vote on executive pay
• Cut prescription drug cost for medicare recipients by 50%
• Provided $12.2 Billion in new funding for Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
• Extended Benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees
• Appointed more openly gay officials than any other president in US history
• The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009: a $789 billion economic stimulus plan
• Created more private sector jobs in 2010 than during entire Bush years
• Voluntary disclosure of White House visitors for the first time in US history
• Appointed first Latina to the US Supreme Court
• Promoted social responsibility through creation of, a national database of volunteer opportunities
• Reversed ‘global gag rule’, allowing US aid to go to organizations regardless of whether they provide abortions
• Signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA the authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco for the first time
• Signed New START Treaty – nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia
• Increased average fuel economy standards from 27.5mpg to 35.5mpg, starting in 2016
• Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring basic protections against pay discrimination for women and other workers
• Provided travel expenses to families of fallen soldiers to be on hand when the body arrives at Dover AFB
• Reversed the policy of barring media coverage during the return of fallen soldiers to Dover Air Force Base
• Launched to track spending from the Recovery Act, providing transparency and allowing the public to report fraud, waste, or abuse
• Provided the Department of Veterans Affairs with more than $1.4 billion to improve services to America’s Veterans
• Signed the Children’s Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which provides health care to 11 million kids — 4 million of whom were previously uninsured
• Issued executive order to repeal Bush era restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research
• Signed the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, the first piece of comprehensive legislation aimed at improving the lives of Americans living with paralysis
• Developed stimulus package, which includes approx. $18 billion for nondefense scientific research and development
• Signed the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act to stop fraud and wasteful spending in the defense procurement and contracting system
• Issued executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay
• Ended Bush administration’s CIA program of ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ by requiring that the Army field manual be used as the guide for terrorism interrogations
• Increased minority access to capital
• Established Credit Card Bill of Rights, preventing credit card companies from imposing arbitrary rate increases on customers
• Health Care Reform Bill, preventing insurance companies from denying insurance because of a pre-existing condition
• Health Care Reform Bill, allowing children to remain covered by their parents’ insurance until the age of 26
• Tax cuts for up to 3.5 million small businesses to help pay for employee health care coverage
• Tax credits for up to 29 million individuals to help pay for health insurance
• Expansion of Medicaid to all individuals under age 65 with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level
• Require health insurance plans to disclose how much of the premium actually goes to patient care
• Added 4.6 billion USD to the Veterans Administration budget to recruit and retain more mental health professionals
• Significantly increased funding for the Violence Against Women Act
• Lifted restrictions granting Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island
• Eliminated subsidies to private lender middlemen of student loans and protect student borrowers
• Increased funding for national parks and forests by 10%
• Significantly expanded Pell grants, which help low-income students pay for college
• Expanded hate crime law in the US to include sexual orientation through the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act
• Provided stimulus funding to boost private sector spaceflight programs
• Appointed nation’s first Chief Technology Officer
• Signed financial reform law establishing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to look out for the interests of everyday Americans
• Signed financial reform law requiring lenders to verify applicants’ credit history, income, and employment status

Yet, as genuinely helpful as many of these above provisions are, many of them will do little to address or alleviate the grave economic and political problems imperiling the very structure of the American system and the health of American society. The financial reform bill’s Consumer Protection Bureau, for instance, has since been rendered practically toothless with the brilliant Harvard Law Professor and tireless consumer advocate ElizabethWarren having been forced to report to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Geithner will surely prevent Warren and the Consumer Protection Bureau from having any real effect in weakening the power of the Wall Street megabanks. Even though there are several important provisions in the legislation Obama and the Democrats have passed here, the Obama Administration did a very poor job of touting its accomplishments in the media.

Instead, Obama seemd to do a better job constantly appearing on sports talk shows to predict football games and NCAA tournament bracket results. We have, in the last 23 months, heard little of substance defending progressive ideas. At every instance, the Obama who infamously wrote in Audacity of Hope that he “was a blank slate upon whom people of all political persuasions could write their political hopes and aspirations”, has shown himself to be the real Obama. Incapable of articulating a thoroughly progressive vision for the country and channeling the rhetoric of FDR and the tough political negotiating skills of LBJ even though he had massive public support and large majorities in both parties, Obama’s inner need to meet with approval by all corners of the DC establishment has cratered the Presidency. Such a tendency only reveals a deeply flawed personality that has made Obama unfit to be the kind of President the country needs to resuscitate the dying country that George W. Bush had so mortally wounded.

Obama’s narcissism and his desperate need for approval and celebrity have rendered him incapable of realizing any potential to become a transformative President. Barack Obama may yet escape the ignominious historical judgment reserved for his hapless and craven predecessor, George W. Bush. But the “hostage” deal he brokered with a repugnant GOP Congressional leadership has condemned his Administration to failure and fatally weakened the faith of the public in the office of the Presidency itself. And sadly, for as much as President Obama has set his Administration upon a course so as to avoid upsetting key corporate special interests; reneging on his campaign pledge to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire takes the cake and represents the final cave to the GOP that will ruin his Presidency.

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The China Superpower Hoax

From AlterNet

The China Superpower Hoax
How is a country with a lower per capita income than Mexico hailed by so many as the next global superpower?
September 23, 2010

China must have the best public relations maestros in the world. How else would a country with a lower per capita income than Iran, Mexico and Kazakhstan, one of the worst environmental records of any major nation, endemic corruption, jails stuffed with dissenters, and a dictatorship, besides, be hailed by so many as the next global superpower?

Certainly China is big—1.3 billion people big, a fifth of the global population. As Forbes’ columnist John Lee has written, China has long been the place for the world’s biggest anything: the Great Wall, the 2008 Olympics, Tiananmen Square, the South China Mall in Dongguan, dams, consumption of cement and production of automobiles; most recently, China even had the world’s biggest traffic jam—an incredible 60 miles long—which lasted a month and during which drivers were stuck in their cars for days at a time.

The world has never see anything like mega-nations the size of China (or India for that matter), and no one even knows if populations of this magnitude ultimately are sustainable. China’s voracious need to supply its population and avoid the social explosions that have plagued its history has made it one of the world’s largest consumers of natural resources, especially timber and energy, extracted from places like Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. With such large appetites, China has the ability to drive global markets, and, consequently, has become the new frontier where “get rich quick” investors and Western businesses go panning for gold by speculating in some hot Chinese start-up.

Unfortunately, the hype ignores a starker reality—that China is barely holding it together. Contrarian voices like Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a pro-human rights and democracy journal, try to humanize the conventional wisdom of economic statistics and facts that obscure reality. “With China portrayed in the news every day as an economic and political powerhouse, the rest of the world, at least those parts that treasure freedom and peace, should pay attention to the real China,” says Hu.

To understand the “real” China, it is necessary to see it through the double lens of its paradoxical condition as both a major economy and a still-developing country. China is filled with contradictions and serious challenges. When I visited China in August and September of 2008, after the Olympics, the country that I saw, whether in Shanghai, Beijing or the rural areas, was a long, long way from being a global leader in any meaningful sense. Two hundred million people out of a working population of nearly 800 million are migrants, chafing at their lowly status and rotten wages. Inequality is rampant. Returning from the rural areas—where the vast majority of Chinese still live—to cities is like a form of time travel, moving from feudal conditions where plowing is still done by water buffalo to a land of impressively jutting skyscrapers. Corruption is epidemic, whether in banks, the legal system or the political leadership at national, provincial and local levels, causing an estimated annual economic loss of approximately 15 percent of GDP, according to economist Hu Angang.

Even China’s much-touted economic power has been misunderstood. Recently it was announced around the world that China had surpassed Japan to become the second-largest national economy. But compared to the United States and Europe, China is still an economic mini-me. Europe’s gross domestic product is $17.5 trillion, according to the latest IMF figures, while the U.S. figure is $14.8 trillion and China’s is $5.4 trillion (by Europe, I mean the EU 27 plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland).

Beyond economic output, more than three-fifths of China’s overall exports and nearly all its high-tech exports are made by non-Chinese, foreign companies. Foreign companies take advantage of low Chinese wages to reprocess imports of semi-manufactured goods that are then shipped to Europe and the U.S. China remains, in essence, a subcontractor to the West, says Will Hutton, British political analyst and author of an influential book on China, “The Writing on the Wall.” Despite China’s export success, there are few great Chinese brands or companies. China needs to build them, says Hutton, but doing that in a one-party authoritarian state, where the party second-guesses business strategy for ideological and political ends, is impossible.”

Because of China’s climate of corruption and authoritarian secrecy, even the volume of industrial output has been questioned. Some doubt China’s numbers and official reports. Investment guru James Chanos, who rose to prominence when he predicted the Enron meltdown (and pocketed a billion dollars shorting Enron stock), is shorting China now.

Says Chanos, “China is cooking its books. State-run companies are buying fleets of cars and storing them in parking lots and warehouses” to pump up state-mandated production figures. As evidence of this, experts point out that while car sales have been rising by a huge 20 percent per month, auto fuel usage seems to be rising by only 3-5 percent per month. Chanos also says China is plagued by an ominously growing real estate bubble in high-rise buildings, offices and condos. Much of China’s high growth originally came from decades-long heavy investment in infrastructure, but increasingly it has been coming from construction. Chanos estimates that 50 percent to 60 percent of China’s GDP now comes from alarming levels of overbuilding, virtually none of which is affordable to the average Chinese. “This is not affordable housing for the middle class; this is high-end condos in major urban areas and high-end office buildings, which no one is buying,” says Chanos.

China is on this “treadmill to hell,” he says, because so much of its GDP growth comes from construction which can’t be sustained. If China were to slow down the construction industry, its GDP growth would go negative very quickly.

“That’s not going to happen, because in China people are rewarded at almost every level of government for making their economic growth numbers. The easiest way to do that is put up another building. They’re really hooked on this sort of heroin of real estate development to keep the numbers going,” Chanos says.

Sino enthusiasts are betting that China’s rulers, whom they see as having been competent stewards of a growing economy for decades, have the means to slowly let the air out of the bubble and avert disaster. But with entire building complexes—urban forests of office and condo high-rises—standing empty in China, Chanos and others are predicting a housing market crash like the one that occurred in the United States.

Walking an Environmental Tightrope Without a Net

The only thing cloudier than China’s economic model is the sky over its major cities, so choked with smog that some days you can’t see the high-rises a few blocks away. During the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, many were concerned that athletes wouldn’t be able to breathe the foul air. To try to clear the air, the government instituted an odd-even auto policy, i.e. cars with license plates ending in an even number could drive one day, odd numbers the next. People in Beijing told me that the skies had not been so clear in decades (and they were greatly chagrined when the authorities eventually reverted to the previous laissez-faire policy, resulting in unprecedented traffic jams that make India’s look tame by comparison).

Four hundred thousand Chinese die every year of respiratory diseases caused by pollution. About 500 million rural Chinese—equivalent to the population of the entire European Union—still do not have access to safe drinking water. Acid rain, caused by sulfur dioxide emissions that belch from smokestacks of power plants, is endemic, with the state-run China Daily reporting that in Guangdong province—China’s most prosperous region, and also its most industrialized—53 percent of total rainfall in 2008 was acid rain.

Food scares, such as industrial toxins mixed into milk powder, pet food and cough syrup, have been frequent, and there have been instances of exported toys bearing lead paint and drywall containing highly toxic sulfur compounds that made brand-new homes in the U.S. and elsewhere unlivable.

These consumer dangers are additional manifestations of the amoral, corrupt, robber-baron business practices that have been unleashed in China. The 2008 earthquakes in western Sichuan province, which resulted in the collapse of more than 7,000 schoolrooms and thousands of deaths among schoolchildren, disproportionately impacted the poor who lived in areas where corruption had resulted in shoddy construction practices. The suicide rate among the elderly in rural areas is four to five times higher than the world average because 90 percent of the elderly have no retirement pension, even as there is a growing shortage of nursing home services, and so many elderly choose to quietly end their lives on a barren hillside or in a forest to avoid being a burden to their children. For all these reasons and more, China is plagued by 70,000 protests per year, many of them more like riots and quite violent (including occasional bombings), and had 300,000 labor disputes in 2006 alone, nearly double the number reported in 2001.

Young men and women I met in the cities had fled the Third World conditions in their farming villages only to accept the yoke of working in sweatshop factories or as bar waitresses, earning just enough to afford a bedroom shared with three others, four to a tiny room, two to a bed. Disposable income was practically nil and life was hard. Education is not a way out for most, since it is not free at any level and university is much too expensive for most young people to afford. The only hope they nurtured was that their country would one day be more affluent and some of that wealth would trickle down their way, as according to the Confucian virtues of “sacrifice” drilled into them by the ruling Communist Party. Recent strikes at factories producing products for Western corporations like Apple, Honda and others have managed to exact sizable wage increases of about 20 percent. But for most Chinese, life is a grim struggle and will remain so for years to come. Walking around China, even with all its tourist charms and ancient curiosities, it is hard to envision a superpower taking shape, no matter how far one peers into the future.

There’s Gold in Them China Hills

Welcome to China Inc., this ancient land where the entire country is run like a giant corporation. Certainly the land of “capitalist communism”—an oddball combination, to be sure—has made some impressive gains with its roaring economic growth rates and in lifting several hundred million people out of the abject poverty of the Mao years. Over the past 30 years, China has sustained nearly double-digit growth, a remarkable run which has produced a growing middle class of perhaps 200 million to 300 million people. But an important qualifier is that China started from a very low level of GDP. By 2009, China’s per capita GDP still was only $3,600, compared with $46,000 in the United States. China’s metrics indicate significant challenges for years to come, and considering all its other economic and environmental ills, its past record is no guarantee of future success. Prophecies of its global leadership are premature at best.

Beyond economic and ecological indicators, the hallmark of a great power is when other nations want to emulate you. What made the United States the great power of the post-World War II era was not just its military might but its promise of economic betterment and freedoms—glamorized by Hollywood, the best public relations machine ever—which caused people from all over the world to want to flock to our shores. The City on the Hill inspired people toward an ideal, however much America itself didn’t always live up to that ideal. But no one is banging down doors to get into China, and only the poorest countries aim to be like the People’s Republic.

China inspires curiosity with its ancient history and huge population, but not envy or emulation. That will not change anytime soon, and perhaps never unless China at some point opens up its political and economic system. The absolute unwillingness of Communist Party authorities to tolerate any public reflection, let alone protest, during the 20-year anniversary in June 2009 of the Tiananmen Square crackdown exposed their great fear of their own people, as well as the lack of confidence among China’s rulers in either their system or themselves. It remains to be seen how much of a “new China” will continue to emerge, but all these horizons certainly provide a different view of China from the one typically given by the Sino enthusiasts.

Given this reality, why does China receive so many rave reviews while Japan and Europe—which actually do a far better job of providing for their people—are treated with scorn and derision? The answer seems to boil down to the fact that China’s high-growth economy has become the place where corporations can realize the quickest return for their quarterly profit sheets. To many awestruck pundits, China represents the future, or at least the future of business success.

But it is also the case that China’s über-growth has become an ideological weapon in the hands of free market fundamentalists and pro-growth zealots. The Chinese economy and its high growth engine is used to browbeat other countries viewed as growing insufficiently. Europe and Japan are proof that high growth is not necessary to create the highest living standards in the world, yet in an ideological battle between free market fundamentalists and everyone else, China is a useful propaganda tool.

But once you peel back the curtain, as Toto did in “The Wizard of Oz,” the China reality doesn’t live up to Wall Street’s hype. In fact, the hype actually is damaging to China, as it causes members of the U.S. Congress to propose foolish ideas such as protectionist measures, when in reality China needs different forms of assistance—especially technical assistance—from Europe, the U.S. and other developed powers. The entire world has a stake in China succeeding, both economically and in greening its economy and reducing its carbon emissions. The prospect of China as a “failed state” is too terrible to contemplate.

China has come a long way, but it has a long, long way to go. It’s anyone’s bet whether China will sink or swim. So much for superpower status.

Steven Hill is a writer, columnist and political professional based in the United States with two decades of experience in politics. Hill is the author, most recently, of “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope for an Insecure Age,” published in January 2010. His previous books include “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” (2006), “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics” (2003) and “Whose Vote Counts” (with Rob Richie, 2001).

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