Wednesday, September 30, 2020

When a Beater Finally Becomes a Junker.


When I was young, a guy's first car tended to be a real beater. As long as it was cheap and it ran, it was okay if it was on its last legs. You nursed it along, trying to get another year, another few months, an extra week out of it but you reached that point of no return where just to keep the thing wheezing along wasn't worth the cost.

It's a gas-guzzler and it's burning oil. The brakes are fading and the tires threadbare. Your dad won't have it on his property and, when you go to park it out on the street the neighbours give you a ton of side-eye. No girl would be seen dead in it and even your buddies would rather walk than take a free ride. It needs a lot of work, a lot of money, and even fixed up it would still be a beater.

I wonder if that isn't a metaphor for the United States today. America does seem pretty clapped out. It needs a load of costly repairs and, even then, it may still be broken. Is it worth the bother?

Of late there have been articles showing up in the world press asking the same question, is America broken? Has it gone past some point of no return? Has the beater become a junker?

I think America is broken, FUBAR, F##ked Up Beyond Any Redemption. It's gone too far. It has lost its democracy. It is now an oligarchy in the guise of an illiberal democracy. Predators abound starting with its "bought and paid for" Congress, America's deeply corrupted regulatory system and utterly rigged judicial system groomed to reliably dispense its favours on one group to the exclusion of the others, to the few at the expense of the many. Sure, Americans could elect a good president to replace an unfathomably bad president but the country is too broken to be fixed from the Oval Office.

It would be bad enough if poisoned, corrupted politics was all that ailed the Degraded States of America. But there's more, so much more at play and there's a synergy to America's maladies that each magnifies the others. The U.S. is showing most of the trends that have, in the past, heralded collapse: climate change, environmental degradation, inequality, oligarchy, complexity and external shocks (i.e. inability to control a pandemic). The United States today checks almost all the boxes.

Perhaps the worst threat America faces is internal, the breakdown of social cohesion.  Abraham Lincoln is remembered for warning his countrymen that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Shortly after that the U.S. was plunged into its worst conflict, the Civil War. A week ago, former Obama national security advisor, Susan Rice, warned that, among the many urgent threats facing America, social division magnified all the others.

Political polarization is a “force multiplier” that worsens other threats and cripples our ability to combat them. Stoked by leaders who profit from divisive politics, our polarization prevents us from effectively confronting vital challenges, from the pandemic and its economic consequences to climate change; from the rise of white supremacist groups, which account for the bulk of domestic terrorism, to reforming our immigration system.

There is nothing that will be decided on November 3rd or in the weeks and months following that will heal America's social division, now said to be as deep as it has been at any time since the Civil War. Americans are divided across many fault lines - cultural, political, ethnic, economic, it seems almost anything will do. There is no common base of trust and goodwill. A perverse form of tribalism has taken hold and some are plainly spoiling for a fight

The world looks on in despair tinged with disgust. Even those who wanted to give America the benefit of the doubt had their hopes shattered by the spectacle of last night's presidential debate that made them confront the grim truth of the no-longer United States of America.

Thomas Jefferson foresaw that the "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is its natural manure."

America has a tyrant. That tyrant has his own version of the Brown Shirts of  the 1930s, who go by a variety of names: Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, Ku Klux Klan and more. Challenged to repudiate white supremacists, Trump refused, instead urging them to "stand back and stand by." Meanwhile, judging from the one-sided endorsements of America's police unions, law enforcement stands squarely behind the tyrant.

Tyrants, the worst of them, often have a breakout moment after which nothing is ever the same again.  Sometimes it comes in the form of a coup. Some coups are violent, others are constitutional. Sometimes the tyrant falls back and creates an insurgency to destabilize the state and exploit its weaknesses. It almost never works out and normally ends badly, in ruins.

No, I don't think the elections now just a month away will reverse America's decline. I think the beater is now a junker. Good luck to us all and God bless America.


BTW, I didn't watch the debate last night, not a minute of it. If there's one thing about Trump it's that he's predictable - in a pathological sense.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A "Witch's Brew" of an Election

US intelligence agencies are warning of the threat of extremist violence in the runup to the November 3 elections. From Reuters:

U.S. security officials are warning that violent domestic extremists pose a threat to the presidential election next month, amid what one official called a “witch’s brew” of rising political tensions, civil unrest and foreign disinformation campaigns. 
FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memos say threats by domestic extremists to election-related targets will likely increase in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. 
Those warnings so far have largely remained internal. But New Jersey’s homeland security office took the unusual step of publicly highlighting the threat in a little-noticed report on its website last week.

“You have this witch’s brew that really hasn’t happened in America’s history. And if it has, it’s been decades if not centuries,” said Jared Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, which published the threat assessment.

And the threat isn't Antifa as Trump constantly claims.

Trump officials have pointed the finger at left-wing anarchists and anti-fascists during protests against police brutality and racism over the summer, but federal court records provide little evidence showing those arrested for violent acts had affiliations to far-left groups.

Last week, the top two DHS officials acknowledged in congressional hearings, however, that white supremacists have posed the most lethal domestic threat to the United States in recent years. 
FBI Director Christopher Wray said during congressional hearings earlier this month that his agency was conducting investigations into violent domestic extremists, include white supremacists and anti-fascist groups. He said the largest “chunk” of investigations were into white supremacist groups. 
White supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and related ideologies were tied to 77 percent of 454 alleged domestic extremist murders in the past decade, according to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, a New York City-based anti-hate advocacy organization, and presented at one of the congressional hearings last week.

Most of the terrorism plaguing the United States is domestic, not foreign, and is rooted in the far-right, not the left. However anti-semitic, white supremacists recognize the president as a kindred spirit and Trump values their support. He's heard "they love their country" after all.

Is This the New Face of California?

 The Glass Mountain Inn on the Silverado Trail north of Napa.

This is the inn as it once was


Monday, September 28, 2020

"Dystopia Now" - Will Pakistan Be the First Really Dangerous Country to Collapse from Climate Change?


The world is changing faster than we imagine and most of the change will be lasting. There won't be a lot of 'bouncing back.' 

The experts predict an upsurge in countries turning into failed states. One of these is Pakistan and it's already in the chamber, locked and loaded.

Pakistan today is a mess. It is a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. It has a military that operates a shadow economy. It has an intelligence service, the ISI, that often goes rogue and likes nothing better than to meddle in the affairs of Afghanistan. It has endured endless sectarian strife and conflict with its immediate neighbour, India. It also has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Fatima Bhutto is a writer living in Karachi. She was the niece of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was killed by assassins. Her grandfather was Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister who was deposed in a military coup and hanged. She writes that, of all her country's problems, the most terrifying threat is climate change.

In August, Karachi’s stifling summer heat was heavy and pregnant. The sapodilla trees and frangipani leaves were lush and green; the Arabian Sea, quiet and distant, had grown muddy. When the palm fronds started to sway, slowly, the city knew the winds had picked up and rain would follow. Every year the monsoons come — angrier and wilder — lashing the unprepared city. Studies show that climate change is causing monsoons to be more intense and less predictable, and cover larger areas of land for longer periods of time.

 On Aug. 27, Karachi received nearly nine inches of monsoon rain, the highest amount of rainfall ever in a single day. Nineteen inches of rain fell in August, according to the meteorological officials. It is enough to drown a city that has no functioning drainage, no emergency systems and no reliable health care (except for those who can pay). Thousands of homes and settlements of the poor were subsumed and destroyed, and more than 100 people were killed.

A traders association estimated that the submerging of markets and warehouses damaged goods worth 25 billion Pakistani rupees, or about $150 million. Local papers estimated that with Karachi at a standstill for a week, in some congested areas for longer, Pakistan’s gross domestic product suffered daily losses of $449 million — a number that didn’t include the enormous informal economy. The World Bank estimates that 15 percent of gross domestic product of the Sindh province (Karachi is its capital) is lost every year to environmental damage and climate change. 
Pakistan is the fifth most climate vulnerable nation in the world. Between 1998 and 2018, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, the country is estimated to have lost nearly 10,000 lives to climate-related disasters and suffered losses amounting to about $4 billion from 152 extreme weather events in that period. Analysts have estimated Pakistan’s climate migrants over the past decade at around 30 million people.

Bhutto writes that Pakistan faces an existential threat from the retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. When they're gone the country will lose its most dependable source of freshwater. Droughts and famine will ensue.

Temperature increases have brought plague after plague in rural areas. This year has brought Pakistan the most devastating locust infestations in nearly 30 years. The insects destroyed entire harvests, causing the government to call a national emergency as winter crops were decimated, resulting in losses of $2.5 billion. The locusts descend like a haze, so thick that from a distance it looked like a soft pink fog. Because of heavy rains and cyclones, there has been unprecedented breeding of locusts in the United Arab Emirates. They traveled to us from the Arabian Peninsula.

This is a climate war between the large industrial superpowers, financial predators that have polluted and poisoned our planet for profit, and the poor, who have done the least damage but will pay all of the consequences. Pakistan is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but its people will bear the burden of the world’s deadliest polluters. If nothing is done to mitigate global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank, 800 million people in South Asia will be at risk of amplified poverty, homelessness and hunger.

We learned from the Arab Spring that climate change can cause food insecurity that can lead to unrest that can destabilize nations and topple governments.  Pakistan is a nation of loose ends and climate breakdown is a stress multiplier.

 The Pentagon is deeply concerned about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and is said to have contingency plans to insert special forces into Pakistan to seize and secure the warheads, supposedly to keep them from falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists. Pakistan fears that Washington is really hoping to disarm it, leaving Pakistan at the mercy of hostile India. Because of the perceived threat, Pakistan is believed to now move the weapons around periodically by truck convoys from place to place.

Here is one assessment of the predicament facing the world from a South Asian nuclear exchange.

Pakistan and India may have 400 to 500 nuclear weapons by 2025 with yields from tested 12- to 45-kt values to a few hundred kilotons. If India uses 100 strategic weapons to attack urban centers and Pakistan uses 150, fatalities could reach 50 to 125 million people, and nuclear-ignited fires could release 16 to 36 Tg of black carbon in smoke, depending on yield. The smoke will rise into the upper troposphere, be self-lofted into the stratosphere, and spread globally within weeks. Surface sunlight will decline by 20 to 35%, cooling the global surface by 2° to 5°C and reducing precipitation by 15 to 30%, with larger regional impacts. Recovery takes more than 10 years. Net primary productivity declines 15 to 30% on land and 5 to 15% in oceans threatening mass starvation and additional worldwide collateral fatalities.

What ultimately prevented nuclear war during the Cold War was the confidence the Americans and the Soviets had that their adversaries were rational enough to not launch an attempted pre-emptive strike. Much of the espionage both sides undertook during those tense decades was responsible for building that very confidence.

However a destabilized Pakistan transitioning into a failed state would certainly undermine India's confidence and America's. Moscow and Beijing might not be content to watch from the sidelines. Small wonder the Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight

A Ray of Hope - If You're a Ferret.


Some badly needed good news on the pandemic front. Scientists are testing a nasal spray that could impede coronavirus infection. It seems to work on ferrets (who don't wear masks or wash their hands).

Now scientists have released the results of initial work on a drug-like molecule they say interacts with cells in the nasal cavity to activate the body’s innate immune system.

While immune responses triggered by vaccines involve the generation of antibodies and T-cells geared towards particular pathogens, the innate immune system responds to a wide range of microbes.

“It kicks in like a defence shield, which is broad-spectrum and non-specific,” said Roberto Solari, a visiting professor within the infection in airway disease research group at Imperial College London and an adviser to the Australian biotech company Ena Respiratory, which is developing the drug-like molecule for use in a nasal spray.

Solari added that by triggering the innate immune system this substance, called INNA-051, activates a number of processes including the release of signalling proteins called cytokines, which stimulate mechanisms that stop the virus replicating inside cells.

Who knows? If it works on ferrets it should work on the ferret's closest human relative, college kids. 

Sort of Like Bailing Water Into a Sinking Boat - Why Do We Prop Up the Athabasca Tar Sands?


Who remembers Brian Peckford's 'pickle palace'? Just over 30 years ago, Peckford, then premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, decided to invest provincial funds, $22 million, to develop a hydroponic cucumber factory, Mount Pearl. As he put it, "Holy Smokes, let Newfoundland be first in something."

Well the project, as they say, 'came a cropper.' It was launched in 1987. It died in 1989. The greenhouse assets were eventually sold by the province for $1. Yeah, one dollar. It cost N&L taxpayers $27.50 per cuke at a time when cucumbers were going for fifty cents. 

Peckford now lives on Vancouver Island, just down the road from my place. Yippee!

We don't do political screwups on that scale any more. Now we do them in multiples of billions. A fine example lies in the province next door, Alberta's Athabasca Tar Sands. 

Like Brian Peckford's pickle palace, the Tar Sands have been on government life support for - well, forever. And, this time, it's not going to be a 20-million dollar write off. The worst part of this disaster is that Tar Sands operators, with the connivance of Alberta regulators, have transformed a vast tract of the province into a backwoods version of the Love Canal.

We're still pouring billions into the Tar Sands upkeep and operation. Justin Trudeau, his greenwash notwithstanding, is still committed to constructing the Trans Mountain pipeline. Then again, he owns the damned thing, having taken it off the hands of its private sector owners, former Enron boys who escaped indictment. He grossly overpaid for the pipeline and grossly underestimated the cost of the pipeline expansion. And for what? Why is the Liberal government doubling down on a horribly bad deal?

We have touted Canada's bitumen bounty to the point that it's seared into our brains. I cringed when Trudeau's predecessor, professor Mikey Ignatieff, heralded the Tar Sands as the "beating heart of the Canadian economy for the 21st century." The reality more closely resembles Brian Peckford's pickle palace on steroids. 

When it comes to the Tar Sands the Alberta and federal governments do the same thing - they wildly inflate the bounty Canadians have received from Athabasca and wilfully understate the liabilities we have incurred. At the end of the day, those liabilities may well exceed every dime our governments have ever pocketed from the Tar Sands.  

With so much red ink pouring over the balance sheets of Big Oil, it is easy to overlook a very bad bet made by Alberta regulators that could see Canadian taxpayers on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. A bill so high it would wipe out all the money bitumen mining ever flowed into government treasuries.

For reasons to be pondered by indebted generations yet unborn, the beleaguered Alberta Energy Regulator allowed the petroleum sector to pile up massive unfunded environmental liabilities on the dubious assumption that bitumen extraction would remain profitable for decades into the future. So towering is the tally of unreclaimed tailings ponds that it is possible the largest part of Alberta’s energy sector — heavily hyped as the economic engine of the nation — never actually made any money.

Bitumen royalties paid to the Alberta government back to 1970 total $49 billion. This sounds like a hefty sum, except when compared to unfunded cleanup costs. Officially the AER estimates total oil and gas liabilities to be $58 billion with only $1.6 billion held in securities. Leaked documents from the AER instead peg potential cleanup costs of the tailing ponds alone to closer to $130 billion.

Add to that many tens of billions more to remediate the thousands of orphan wells that dot central and southern Alberta and Brian Peckford suddenly looks positively astute.

With conventional oil giants now publicly planning for a very different future and bitumen royalties dwindled to only 12 per cent of what they were five years ago, isn’t it an appropriate time to make industry settle their tab before ordering more drinks?

Bitumen mining is not the only source of unfunded taxpayer risk accumulated under decades of friendly provincial oversight. The leaked AER presentation suggested an additional $100 billion in unsecured cleanup costs from conventional oil and gas plus another $30 billion from pipelines. Together with tailing ponds, this adds up to an eye-watering figure of $260 billion. At the current leisurely pace of reclamation, it could take 126 years to plug an estimated 180,000 abandoned wells left behind by a previously profitable industry.

Those numbers, horrible as they are, don't tell the full damage. They don't include the human cost, the lives lost to Tar Sands contamination.

Apart from the enormous environmental liabilities are very real human costs, particularly for Alberta’s original inhabitants. First Nations including the Mikisew Cree, Athabasca Chipewyan and Fort McKay have all been fighting for action on leakage of toxic tailings into the Athabasca River impacting their communities.

“Our members have been concerned about tailings pond leakage for years. We have observed changes in odour and taste from groundwater and surface water in our traditional territories,” said Melody Lepine, director, Mikisew Cree First Nation Government and Industry Relations. “We don’t trust groundwater sources and now bring bottled water with us everywhere.”

The human and economic costs of bitumen extraction will continue to climb long after the last oil boom is a distant memory. In the fullness of time it could well be that the so-called economic engine of Canada was not only a massive polluter and climate killer but a money loser as well. 

Mr. Trudeau can don his father's buckskins but they don't fit him. He could, however, put on his long pants and put a stop to this bitumen madness. Sadly, unlike the guy who used to wear those buckskins, our prime minister didn't inherit the previous owner's courage or his wisdom. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Mango Mussolini Gets Bum's Rush

The New York Times has used 20 years of Donald Trump's tax returns to paint a picture of Trump as a tax avoiding bum facing serious financial trouble.

Among the key findings of The Times’s investigation:

  • Mr. Trump paid no federal income taxes in 11 of 18 years that The Times examined. In 2017, after he became president, his tax bill was only $750.

  • He has reduced his tax bill with questionable measures, including a $72.9 million tax refund that is the subject of an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

  • Many of his signature businesses, including his golf courses, report losing large amounts of money — losses that have helped him to lower his taxes.

  • The financial pressure on him is increasing as hundreds of millions of dollars in loans he personally guaranteed are soon coming due.

  • Even while declaring losses, he has managed to enjoy a lavish lifestyle by taking tax deductions on what most people would consider personal expenses, including residences, aircraft and $70,000 in hairstyling for television.

  • Ivanka Trump, while working as an employee of the Trump Organization, appears to have received “consulting fees” that also helped reduce the family’s tax bill.

  • As president, he has received more money from foreign sources and U.S. interest groups than previously known. The records do not reveal any previously unreported connections to Russia.

It is important to remember that the returns are not an unvarnished look at Mr. Trump’s business activity. They are instead his own portrayal of his companies, compiled for the I.R.S. But they do offer the most detailed picture yet available.

The article concludes that Trump's golden goose, The Apprentice, and his income from the show were flagging by 2015. It suggests the 2016 presidential bid was probably an attempt to "resuscitate his brand."  

-  My apologies for the formatting being so screwed up. It happened when I got switched over from Blogger to 'new' Blogger, which seems about as boneheaded as when Coca-Cola introduced "new coke."

The Great Human Petri Dish


How did it come to this? How did humanity become so homogenized?

In his new book, "Commanding Hope," director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads, Victoria, Thomas Homer-Dixon looks at the evolution of a profoundly global civilization that reaches into almost every corner of the world and powerfully binds us together.

Globalism, the economic arm of the neoliberal order, has done amazing things over the past four decades. Lifting half a billion Chinese out of poverty is, by any measure, an amazing feat. The rise of China's and India's affluent "consumer" classes could not have occurred absent globalism. Africa is poised to be the next continent to experience the sweep of globalism. Many Africans look forward to it with eager anticipation.

THD points out that one hallmark of any civilization, a common language, has already been implemented. We may still speak different tongues but we all speak the language of commerce and we uphold its values so essential to maintaining insanely long supply chains and free trade between nations that once seemed to have very little in common.

The author points out that, while we have reaped many of the rewards of globalism, this new economic civilization has come at considerable cost. The glue that most binds us together is our delusional faith in growth as the tonic that heals whatever ails us. The rise of this global civilization has been anchored in devotion to growth. But it's a very selective ideology that requires blinders.

I've written of this before. I was doing an online course in global food security. One of the reading assignments was a portion of a paper written by three 'leading' Chinese economists. It caught my attention and so I chose to read the paper in its entirety. What I found most interesting was a discussion on unmeetable aspirations.

These economists praised China for lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty but asked if that might not backfire. It's one thing to bring hundreds of millions into working class standards of living but what most really wanted was their own version of the "American dream." They were all at home, with the luxury of free time, watching their flatscreen TVs, awestruck at American affluence depicted in our movies.  They yearned for that same standard of living.

The authors of the paper identified a fundamental problem. Where on our finite planet would they find the resources - the capital, the energy, the raw materials - required to produce that level of affluence for the expectant hundreds of millions of Chinese just beginning to climb the social ladder? And not just China but what about India and smaller Asian nations? What about Africa where the globalism revolution was poised to take off next?

They foresaw that this quest for growth so long denied could destabilize even the most powerful nations. How does government tell its people that the resources don't exist, that the Western nations got there first? How does that government explain that there is already a class of affluent Chinese - highly educated, technologically and entrepreneurially advanced, massively prosperous - that had to be accommodated to the exclusion of the masses? How do you get them to accept that they missed out, that the ship of affluence has already sailed? Their conclusion was that the government would probably have to use force, repression. And what about the neighbours?

India and China are the most obvious examples of this socio-economic dilemma. Both face potentially destabilizing social unrest. Both are rivals. Both share a common and contested border with army units squaring off against each other and periodically skirmishing. Both are under authoritarian rule (in China's case, totalitarian). Both face enormous environmental threats including the gamut of climate change impacts, food and water insecurity. Both have nuclear arsenals and are developing 'blue water' navies. What could possibly go wrong?

THD sees the global civilization held together by WITs - worldviews, institutions and technology. Depending on how these shared dynamics operate they can be bonds or shackles. Homer-Dixon discussed this in remarks he made in July at the Cascade Institute, Royal Roads.

Societies are organized around cohesive sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies, which we call “WITs.” Within each WIT, the three components are tightly interdependent: they influence each other, depend on each other, and usually hang together in a cohesive way. For example, a prominent part of our Western worldview is a commitment to personal freedom and independence. This commitment supports and is supported by our institution of (partially) free economic markets. The commitment to freedom also reinforces—and is reinforced by—the technology of private cars, which allow for extraordinary personal mobility, by historical standards. The tight links among these three WIT components mean, among other things, that policymakers will find it hard to reduce use of private cars or, more profoundly, change the way markets operate without addressing people’s beliefs and emotions about their personal freedom.

In everyday terms, humanity’s beliefs and values today are too narcissistic, its political systems too hidebound and short-sighted, its economies too rapacious, and its technologies too dirty for a small, crowded planet with widening social inequalities and fraying natural systems. It looks increasingly likely that our societies’ prevailing worldviews, institutions, and technologies will eventually lose the unforgiving evolutionary contest to other WITs that are better adapted to humanity’s evermore extreme circumstances.

The pandemic has been a brutal shock to many people’s core beliefs about their responsibilities to others, the appropriate role of government, the fairness of extreme social and economic inequality, the value of scientific and technical expertise, ethical relations between humans and nature, and (perhaps most importantly) human beings’ interdependence and shared identity at the planetary level. Humanity will not address the COVID-19 challenge effectively if people retreat into tribal identities and wall themselves off from each other. The pandemic is a collective problem that requires global collective action—as do other critical global problems such as climate change.

Indeed, the pandemic appears to have put humanity on a cusp between two dramatically different worldview pathways into the future—one of solidarity and another of division. Along the solidarity pathway, astute social leaders could frame the problem in ways that catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community, reminding us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems. Along the division pathway, leaders could instead promote powerful ideologies of exclusion and antagonism to deepen differences between groups and turn them against each other. Some populists are already blaming outsiders and other nations for the pandemic and stoking rising anger against governments and public health officials who are advocating measures to suppress the pandemic.

In his book, THD argues that the era of growth no longer answers society's needs. He points out that, even at a modest growth rate of three per cent, the global economy by 2100 would be ten times greater than it is today. Even if we achieved truly heroic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions growth of that magnitude would still see those emissions doubled. In a world already plagued with early-onset impacts of climate change, collapsing biodiversity and dwindling resources, what we've come to accept as modest growth would produce a global ecology incapable of feeding humanity, triggering widespread political unrest and, hence, killing growth. Growth will kill growth although in the most horrible fashion.

When it comes to growth, Homer-Dixon gives us two choices - either it ends voluntarily, by shifting the global economy into a new, non-growth paradigm, or it ends involuntarily, "probably with social catastrophe in its wake."

Connectivity and Uniformity, the shared language of the global civilization:

The rise of the global civilization has been driven by connectivity and uniformity. Even if two individuals on opposite sides of the world can't speak a word of each other's language it doesn't matter. They can still communicate instantly, effortlessly and accurately. Technology conquers what once were nearly insurmountable divides. We're linked to the point of sometimes being interchangeable,

We're also connected economically through our institutions both global, the World Bank, WTO, etc., and domestically by linked exchanges and policies. A bank in Beijing operates in lockstep with banks in New York or Rio de Janeiro, connected by shared policies and standards.

Connectivity leads to uniformity in design, manufacture even agriculture. We settle on standards whether we're trading in baby food, toothpaste or soya beans. Connectivity and uniformity become mutually-reinforcing. Goods get shipped, the economy grows, the world prospers, what's not to like?

We're so swept up in growth that we fail to recognize connectivity and uniformity can be a double-edged sword.

Perhaps someone comes up with a genetic model for corn that produces greatly improved yields. That strain of corn begins to dominate farm fields in the West, then Asia, South America and, ultimately, Africa. The world loves this stuff. So too do the pests and diseases that evolve to attack the plant and, because every field has the same crop, they spread rapidly through the region, like plagues of locusts.

Or let's say some fellow in a distant city few have even heard of, let's call it Wuhan, contracts a highly-transmissible virus that hopped from animals to humans, passing it on to a cluster of people in his vicinity, some of whom get on airplanes to carry the disease to the far corners of the world. Bingo, contagion. People begin turning up sick, hospitals are overwhelmed, governments send their people and their economies into lockdown for a couple of years while Big Pharma scrambles to find a vaccine.

At what point do the bonds that propel the global civilization and its burgeoning economy become our shackles?  At what point do we get cut by the double edged sword we wield so carelessly? Should we become a bit more astute about globalization, identifying the good and abandoning the bad even if that costs the unbridled free market economy?

This Human Petri Dish doesn't seem to be working out too well. 


The Appearance of Justice


It is axiomatic that, in a liberal democracy, justice must be free from bias. Every human is a breathing bag of biases but those that judge us are bound to set theirs aside in the discharge of their duties.

It was almost a century ago, 1923, that the English court of King's Bench, Lord Hewart presiding, wrote that "It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done."

It is of fundamental importance that justice should be seen to be done. In many courthouses you will find, usually near the entrance or in the foyer, a statue of Themis. She is usually depicted holding the scales of justice in her upraised hand, the sword of justice in her other and she is blindfolded.  The scales are in balance, they're not rigged, and the blindfold ensures fairness, equality before the law.

In America today, Themis might more properly be seen as neither blind nor fair.

These values don't matter much in the United States. If they did, Republicans wouldn't gleefully boast about rigging their top courts by the appointment of judges chosen not for exceptional ability but for their partisan political reliability. They want a partisan court, not a court of justice. They want a court that sees and hears and embraces one side to the exclusion of the other. They want a court that will deliver predictable outcomes aligned to their political beliefs. 

In a nation as deeply, angrily divided as the United States, stacking the superior courts with far rightwing judges is abominable. In the United States, already massively corrupted by a "captured" regulatory apparatus (regulatory panels dominated by individuals from the very industries being regulated) and a "bought and paid for" Congress beholden to the Big Donor class, the oligarchs, stacking the superior courts is a consummate act of corruption.

When you "own" the regulators and you "own" the legislators and you "own" the judges, your vaunted system of "checks and balances" is defeated. The very cornerstone of your pseudo-democracy is strangled. 


In today's New York Times, Kim Phillips-Fein writes that the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett would cement the Supreme Court as a court for America's wealthy and powerful. All hail the oligarchy!

With a 6-3 conservative court, the country is at risk of having the few remaining tools that permit some limits on the power of business — like labor unions and environmental legislation — weakened still further. The court’s future decisions could give corporations even more weight and workers less, by blocking potential legislation that might mitigate the impact of unfettered capitalism and staggering inequality.

As a federal appeals judge, Judge Barrett has often ruled in ways friendly to employers. She has joined rulings that stopped a case in which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission objected to a company that allegedly assigned workers to particular geographic locations based on race and ethnicity and that limit the scope of laws prohibiting age discrimination.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Relax. It's Only a Civilization. They Come, They Go. It's What Civilizations Do.


I get it. We're exceptional. In the history of humanity there's never been anything like us, here, today. We're all but invincible, masters of all we survey.

We tend to look at the world as one giant civilization. Perhaps that's because we're a collection of civilizations all integrated through common conventions, communications, trade and such. We've developed institutions to facilitate this integration - the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the "world" this, the "world" that. Then there's a second tier of regional conventions and alliances. After a while it's all a blur.

What is a civilization? What is it really? Luke Kemp of the Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk defines it as, "a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires."

There have been many civilizations in the span of human history. Many believe the Sumerians/Mesopotamians (6500 B.C.E.) were the first to develop agriculture, animal husbandry, cities, trade, a system of writing, that sort of thing. It's as good a place as any to start. Kemp has a list of all civilizations going way, way back. 

Some civilizations were huge, others weren't. Some were long-lived, i.e. Rome, Egypt, others less so. On average, a civilization lasts 336 years. Not very long.

Americans like to boast that their civilization is today's oldest ongoing civilization. They base that claim on the fact that their constitution predates other nations'. Other countries have made significant changes to their constitutional settlements in the meantime. You could argue what that means is that America's unchanged constitution is the most outdated, obsolete of the lot but that would only piss them off.

The future of our modern civilization(s) is a bit worrisome. Humans have never had so much wealth and power nor have we had such means and inclination to bring our civilization(s) crashing down. Some scientists warn we're even on the verge of triggering a sixth mass extinction. 

The question then becomes, what have we learned about how civilizational collapse is triggered. Here Kemp has assembled the collective wisdom of those who theorize on such things.

If the fate of previous civilisations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it say? One method is to examine the trends that preceded historic collapses and see how they are unfolding today.

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down, the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan. 

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

You can read the list as well as I can. What do you make of it?

Kemp gives us another handy graphic to help makes sense of all this.

The author says there are other trends that may help fend off collapse even if temporarily rather than permanently, in part instead of entirely. Kemp finds that, globally, we have become more resilient through diversification of our economies and we are technologically far more advanced and more innovative.

Still, when we look at all these collapse and resilience indicators as a whole, the message is clear that we should not be complacent. There are some reasons to be optimistic, thanks to our ability to innovate and diversify away from disaster. Yet the world is worsening in areas that have contributed to the collapse of previous societies. The climate is changing, the gap between the rich and poor is widening, the world is becoming increasingly complex, and our demands on the environment are outstripping planetary carrying capacity.

Yet we have created our own vulnerabilities, our Achilles Heel(s). The neoliberal era ushered in globalism, global free trade. We may come to regret that.

Worryingly, the world is now deeply interconnected and interdependent. In the past, collapse was confined to regions – it was a temporary setback, and people often could easily return to agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. For many, it was even a welcome reprieve from the oppression of early states. Moreover, the weapons available during social disorder were rudimentary: swords, arrows and occasionally guns.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.

We still have a slim chance to turn this around. All we need is the will to continue and leaders unlike today's crop, those who would herd us over a cliff.

The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.

We know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities levelled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking. We can also invest in recovery. There are already well-developed ideas for improving the ability of food and knowledge systems to be recuperated after catastrophe. Avoiding the creation of dangerous and widely-accessible technologies is also critical. Such steps will lessen the chance of a future collapse becoming irreversible.

We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past.


California Under the Gun, Again

Triple digit temperatures, high winds and low humidity are returning to California over the weekend and could ignite a second wave of wildfires across the state.

Red flag warnings have been issued across northern California from Saturday through Monday. “Even if you live on the coast or in the city, you’re going to feel the heat Monday,” Drew Tuma, a local ABC meteorologist, said. “I expect some places to hit 106F, 107F Monday – easily.”

Heat isn’t the only concern. Gusty winds and low humidity are expected to elevate extreme fire dangers into early October, especially as swaths of the state experience “severe drought”, according to analysts with the US Department of Agriculture.

In northern and central areas, the strongest winds were forecast to occur from Saturday night into Sunday morning, followed by another burst Sunday night into Monday. In southern California, meteorologists anticipate very hot and dry weather conditions with weak to locally moderate Santa Ana winds on Monday.

The heat isn’t just weather – it’s part of a trend. Nasa researchers who document the rising temperatures report that the fires and the conditions that cause them are going to get worse.

“Heatwaves are becoming more frequent, lasting longer, and increasing in night-time temperature and humidity, particularly in urban regions such as the Los Angeles basin,” reported Glynn Hulley, a climate scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who co-authored a study this year on increasingly intense heatwaves. Los Angeles recorded its highest temperature ever – 121F – in early September.

Hulley and his team raised concerns about a troubling upward trend in night-time temperatures. An overnight reprieve of cool air can help curb some of the impact of heat, giving firefighters the chance to contain big burns and vulnerable populations the ability to recover.

“The heatwaves that end up killing a lot of people are really warm, humid nighttime heatwaves, and they are going to become more common,” added Brian Kahn, a co-author on the study and researcher at the laboratory. “Night-time is normally your chance to cool off, but now there’s less relief from the heatwave.”

Firefighters have a message for the stay-behind crowd. Ignore the warnings but, from here on in, you'll be on your own. 

 Mike McMillan, spokesman for the federal incident command team managing the northern section of the August Complex, said fire officials planned to deliver a clear message that “we are not going to die to save people. That is not our job.”

“We are going to knock door to door and tell them once again,” McMillan said. “However, if they choose to stay and if the fire situation becomes, as we say, very dynamic and very dangerous, we are not going to risk our lives.”