Archive for June, 2012

$1.6b cyber attack tip of iceberg, says top official

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Cyber attacks by a foreign state resulted in a British company losing £800 million ($1.58 billion) in revenue, the head of MI5 revealed yesterday.

This “was not just through intellectual property loss but also from commercial disadvantage in contractual negotiations”, said Jonathan Evans.

“They will not be the only corporate victims. The extent of what is going on is astonishing, with industrial-scale processes involving thousands of people lying behind both state-sponsored cyber espionage and organised cyber crime.”

Most state-organised cyber attacks in Britain are believed to be carried out by China and Russia, with an array of targets ranging from weapons manufacturers to petroleum producers.

The director general said the Security Service was involved in the investigation of “cyber-compromises in over a dozen companies and is working with many others that are potential future targets of hostile state activity. But this is only a tiny proportion of those affected.”

– More…


End of an Era

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

– Parents, it is time to think about where your children are going to be when the sh** hits the fan.  I don’t think we’re going to avoid this mess but you could shift them to a place where another generation or two might have reasonable lives.   If you think that might be in a big city in the U.S., I think you are missing the point.

– Dennis

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th June 2012

It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the US, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth”, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses(1).

The future

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before.

The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront. We have our bread; now we are wandering, in spellbound reverie, among the circuses.

We have used our unprecedented freedoms, secured at such cost by our forebears, not to agitate for justice, for redistribution, for the defence of our common interests, but to pursue the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need. The world’s most inventive minds are deployed not to improve the lot of humankind but to devise ever more effective means of stimulation, to counteract the diminishing satisfactions of consumption. The mutual dependencies of consumer capitalism ensure that we all unwittingly conspire in the trashing of what may be the only living planet. The failure at Rio de Janeiro belongs to us all.

– More…

Myth of Perpetual Growth is killing America

Monday, June 25th, 2012

– This article is from no less than the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch.  

– Amazing, isn’t it, that any eight year old could tell you what the problem is with assuming that things can get bigger and bigger when they only have a fixed amount of space to grow in.  

– But, it has taken the mavens of Wall Street until now to smell the coffee.

– Dennis

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Commentary: Everything you know about economics is wrong

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Yes, everything you know about economics is wrong. Dead wrong. Everything. The conclusions of economists are based on a fiction that distorts everything else. As a result economics is as real as one of the summer blockbusters like “Battleship,” “The Avenger” or “Prometheus.”

The difference is that the economic profession is a genuine threat, not entertainment. Economics dogma is on track to destroy the world with a misleading ideology.

Why? Because all economics is based on the absurd Myth of Perpetual Growth. Yes, all theories and business plans based on growth are mythological.

Economists are master illusionists who rely on a set of fictions, fantasies and forecasts that emanate from a core magical mantra of Perpetual Growth that goes untested year after year.

And yet it’s used to manipulate the public into a set of policies and decisions that are leading the American and the world economy down a path of unsustainable globalization and GDP growth assumptions that will self-destruct the planet.

– More…

Earth to America!

Monday, June 25th, 2012


– This is a great little video.  Pass it on….

– research thanks to John P.


NZ Asset Sales Policy Began On Wall Street

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012


– I love my new country but I do believe that New Zealanders can be naive.   Perhaps it is because of their long isolation.   But the stuff John Key, our current conservative PM, is trying to implement here is the same stuff that the Chicago Boys have tried around the world with repeatedly disastrous consequences.   

– And I’m reading that it will likely pass 61 to 60.   Isn’t it utterly amazing that not one of those 61 people will change their vote when the majority of New Zealanders clearly do NOT want asset sales.   One can only hope that the voters remember the transgressions of the 61 later at the polls.

– Read this analysis – it will curl your hair.

– Dennis

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Key government’s asset sales agenda is derived from the Washington Consensus – a set of Wall Street-driven policies that were pronounced dead after the global financial meltdown in 2008.[1] The New Zealand government, however, remains loyal to this failed ideology.

Why? The obvious link is Prime Minister John Key – a former investment banker for Merrill Lynch, the world’s largest brokerage failure.

In most other countries, state asset sales have become a last resort on the road to poverty and ruin, but for the Key government, asset sales are “business as usual.” [2]

So what’s really behind asset sales?
All wealth extraction is facilitated by international and national economic policies, coupled with the private banking system, which together deliver benefits to the financial elite by transferring wealth upward within and between nations.

 The state asset sales policy is just one of several reforms under the Washington Consensus, a set of monetary and economic policies designed to allow: the privatization of public resources and utilities, the removal of barriers to foreign investment and ownership, the sale of state assets, trade liberalization, deregulation, the lowering of business taxes, and cuts to public services.[3]

These “free market” reforms are collectively termed neoliberalism.[4] Simply, they provide big business with improved legal access to markets and assets worldwide.

The Key government’s asset sales agenda fits obediently into this ideology ? the same ideology that ushered in financial deregulation, record bank bailouts, and the Second Great Depression.[5]

Governments in New Zealand have succumbed to the neoliberal movement since 1987, when the first round of asset sales began, as a Reagan-Thatcher-Douglas experiment.

Under these policies since the 1980s, New Zealanders have experienced almost the greatest increase in income inequality in the OECD.[6]

The deep roots of neoliberalism 
Modern liberalism dates back to the end of World War II, when the Bretton Woods agreement formed the IMF and the World Bank, establishing the US dollar as a de facto world reserve currency, and installing policies aimed at stabilizing the world monetary system. Free private capital flows between countries were restricted because it was believed that international financiers had caused the Great Depression.[7]

For the next three decades, Western governments were characterized by liberal, socially democratic policies that sought to safeguard national economies by keeping trade in balance. The world achieved exceptional economic prosperity during this era known as “The Glorious Thirty” years.[8]

But by the 1970s, corporations began to exhaust the spending power of the “consumer society” as total debt increased under the mathematical bias of fractional reserve banking, exacerbated by the Vietnam War.

Policymakers were faced with a choice between more intervention to protect local economies and social justice, or a more liberal business agenda – neo (new) liberalism. Wall Street interests mobilized to advance a host of “business first” policies that became the Washington Consensus, and the euphoria for deregulation ultimately placed Wall Street beyond the reach of democratic public accountability.

Rising poverty and debt for the majority
Multinational corporations proliferated and expanded, outsourcing cheap foreign labour, extracting oil and other mineral wealth, leveraging weaker economies and favourable exchange rates to monopolise global markets, often assisted by IMF and World Bank development loans.

Globalization is defended as a strategy to boost Gross National Product (GDP) and therefore investment in jobs. But in reality, free trade strengthens capital bargaining relative to labour, so that people who derive most of their income from returns on capital (the rich) gain, while people who earn most of their income from labour (the majority) lose.[9]

The outcomes of neoliberal policies have been similar everywhere in the world. Deregulated markets have benefitted the local educated elite who work with the corporations, while the majority of people have experienced a decline in living standards, with a permanent widening of the gap between the rich and poor.[10] [11]

Neoliberalism has been catastrophic. It has accelerated sovereign debt, collapsed the financial sector, and it has caused the highest ever level of global unemployment, described recently by the International Labour Organization as a worldwide crisis.[12]

Meanwhile, the corporations and the international banking aristocracy have amassed enormous unproductive wealth via their trickle-up incomes.

“Free trade” unlocks foreign assets
The post-World War II version of free trade promoted “fair trade” and often achieved a healthy balance of payments. But the Washington Consensus threw caution to the wind, allowing big business to dominate government policy, making deficits routine.

Free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have virtually destroyed US-based manufacturing, leaving Main Street America with a service sector economy.[13]

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) signals yet another secretive free trade deal intended to free-up access to foreign assets. The TPPA could render New Zealand government decisions subject to rulings by international tribunals, in the defence of investors from the negotiating countries of Singapore, Chile, Brunei, Australia, Peru, Vietnam and the United States. This is how “free trade” agreements pave the way for the extraction of wealth ? by the erosion of economic sovereignty.

The Key government’s privatisation agenda is well advanced, with various private public partnerships (PPPs) already being developed. This neoliberal doctrine includes the privatization of prisons, schools, water resources, and all infrastructure.

Ultimately on offer is $5-20 trillion[14] in Crown mineral wealth, including gold, coal, lignite, phosphate, iron sand, oil, natural gas, and more, all under the fourth lowest royalty and taxation regime in the world[15] – a paltry 1% of the production value.[16]

“Mixed ownership model” is destined to fail
The Key government plans to sell 49% of four state owned energy companies – Mighty River Power, Meridian, Genesis, and Solid Energy, and a further 23% of Air New Zealand. It is claimed that $5–7 billion can be “freed up” to reduce debt.[17]

What really betrays these asset sales as an ideologically-based policy is the maths. Financial analyst Brent Sheather has calculated that the assets are earning a higher income than the cost of borrowing.

Currently, the cost of borrowing is 4% for ten years, so the cost of $6 billion would be $240 million. The forecast dividends of the four SOE energy companies average $449 million over the next five years, 49% of which is $220 million. Add $20 million for selling 23% of Air New Zealand and the lost dividends average $240 million a year.[18]

Now, add the sales related costs estimated at 3% or $180 million, plus the expected improved performance from substantial recent capital investment, and there is no way for New Zealand taxpayers to come out ahead.

As the Green’s co-leader Russel Norman has said:
“We have seen this before. Like our energy SOEs, Telecom had invested significant amounts of capital in building a modern telecommunications network in the years before privatisation. In the years following Telecom’s privatisation, dividend streams for its new private owners doubled, then tripled within six years. History now seems to be repeating itself with our energy SOEs. National has allowed the taxpayer to build up the asset, only to then on-sell it to the benefit of others.” [19]

The initial public offerings (IPOs) will be snapped up and passed on to larger offshore players, who with only a combined holding of 25% will enjoy foreign-owned status under the Overseas Investment Act (2005),[20] with ample influence at 49% to sway policy. So expect higher power prices.

Over the longer term, asset inflation will provide a mega windfall for shareholders.

In 1999, the NZ Herald reported that: ‘Over the past 12 years 40 state-owned commercial assets have been sold, realising $19.1 billion. As at August 31, 1999 these assets had an estimated value of $35.7 billion, $16.6 billion above their original sale price. … The privatisation programme has been a huge windfall for overseas investors. Just over 79 per cent, or $13.1 billion, of the increase in value has gone to offshore interests.’ [21] [22]

No political party can beat debt under our monetary system
New Zealand’s government debt is presently modest compared to private debt. In the short-term, tax reforms that enable a fairer redistribution of income would slow the deepening tide of all New Zealand debt ? if only the Key government would allow this.

But in our post-peak oil world, without cheap oil to fuel high productivity, sovereign debt in New Zealand ? as elsewhere, will inevitably force austerity measures consistent with the Washington Consensus. The past failure of these policies will be ignored, because ultimately there is simply no other option under the debt-based system.

Under fractional reserve banking the rate of growth of debt must be higher than the rate of growth of income to avoid collapse. In aggregate, debt grows exponentially until it cannot be repaid. [23] [24]The world is literally attempting to engage productive overdrive in a hopeless struggle to satisfy unproductive debt servicing.

Almost half of the average earned income is already siphoned off via direct or indirect hidden interest, and in government debt taxes.[25] In sum, almost half of humanity’s productive effort is to serve useless debt, instead of solve the world’s problems.

The pressure to leverage fiscal advantage from assets, of all kinds, comes directly from the ruling power – the international banking elite. No political party can entirely avoid asset extraction under the fractional reserve system. Governments can adjust the debt hand-brake, but the foreign bankers are in the driving seat.

The world is sliding toward zero and eventually negative growth. Sovereign debt can only speed up. New Zealand will join the economic train-wreck down the track.

The only escape route is a public medium of exchange that is debt-free.[26] Every sovereign nation can issue its own currency without debt or interest, but nearly all governments align with the international bankers to extort the “common wealth.”

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand issues less than 2% of the nation’s money debt-free,[27] serving the global central banking cartel, not ordinary Kiwis.

Selling public assets amounts to economic suicide
The European Central Bank (ECB) is clearly demonstrating how economic sovereignty can be wrested from countries through debt peonage.

The world on its present course cannot avoid fuel shortages, debt-deflation, fiscal austerity, increasing poverty, political and environmental conflicts over energy and essential commodities, unprecedented global protests against Wall Street financial injustice, political and legal challenges for full reserve monetary reform, climate and humanitarian disasters, further revolution and war.

We are facing the perfect economic storm, in which sacrificing long-term high performing income would guarantee poverty for the majority. Selling public assets amounts to economic suicide.

Most New Zealanders don’t realize that their country, and their future, is being sold.


[1] Anthony Painter. (2009, April 10). The Washington Consensus Is Dead. The Guardian., Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU, UK.

[2] Mixed Ownership Monitoring Unit(2011, December 15). Mixed Owner Model For Crown Companies. Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit , 1 The Terrace, Wellington 6011, New Zealand.

[3] John Williamson. (2004, September 24-25). A Short History of the Washington Consensus.

[4] Neoliberalism. Wikipedia.

[5] Steve Keen. (2011, December 3). We’re Already In The Second Great Depression, We Just Don’t Realize It Yet.

[6] OCED. (2011, December 5). Governments must tackle record gap between rich and poor, says OECD.,3746,en_21571361_44315115_49166760_1_1_1_1,00.html
‘The gap between rich and poor in OECD countries has reached its highest level for over 30 years, and governments must act quickly to tackle inequality, according to a new OECD report. “Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising” finds that the average income of the richest 10% is now about nine times that of the poorest 10 % across the OECD.’

[7] Jan A. Kregal. (2003, April). The Perils of Globalization: Structural, Cyclical and Systemic Causes of Unemployment
‘In the view of US Secretary of the Treasury Morganthau the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions was to keep the control of the international financial system out of the hands of international financiers who were considered to have caused the Great Depression. Keynes agreed that free private international capital flows were incompatible with a stable international financial system and this similarity of views produced a post-war system in which it was presumed that there would be virtually no private international capital flows.’

[8] Embedded Liberalism. The Glorious Thirty years. Wikipedia.
‘The period of government interventionism in the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by exceptional economic prosperity, as economic growth was generally high, was contained, and economic distribution was comparatively equalized. This era is known as les Trente Glorieuses (“The Glorious Thirty [years]”) or “Golden Age”, a reference to many countries having experienced particularly high levels of prosperity between (roughly) World War II and 1973.’

[9] Ian Fletcher. (2011). Free Trade Doesn’t Work, Why the Theory of Comparative Advantage is Wrong.
‘As a result, people who draw most of their income from returns on capital (the rich) gain, while people who get most of their income from labor (the rest) lose.’

[10] Richard C. Cook. (2007, June 2). Monetary Causes of the Immigration Crisis. The “Washington Consensus” has wrecked their economies. Global Research.
‘The conditions also include a shift of indigenous economies to the production of export commodities, away from local self-sustaining agriculture and small business. This typically results in a mass exodus from rural areas to urban slums and causes poverty, unemployment, and crime. These financial programs benefit the local educated elite who work with the Western agencies and global corporations but cause a deep and permanent stratification among social classes.’

[11] OCED. (2011, December 5). Governments must tackle record gap between rich and poor, says OECD.,3746,en_21571361_44315115_49166760_1_1_1_1,00.html

[12] ILO. (2011). Global Employment Trends 2011. International Labour Office, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland.

[13] Robert E. Scott. (2011, May 3). Heading South: US-Mexico Trade And Job Displacement After NAFTA. Economic Policy Institute, 1333 H Street NW, Suite 300 East Tower, Washington DC 20005, USA, www

[14] Dr. Don Elder. (2010, September 21). CEO, Solid Energy. Day 2 presentation at the 2010 New Zealand Petroleum Conference, Skycity Convention Centre, Auckland, during which Dr Elder has been quoted as stating that New Zealand has NZ$ 5-20 trillion in Crown minerals.
[15] IPENZ, authorship withheld. (2011, December). Realizing Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction. The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand Inc., PO Box 12 241, Wellington 6144, New Zealand.

[16] Taxation & Royalties for Mining Companies. New Zealand Mineral Industry Association. PO Box 24315, Wellington 6142, New Zealand.
‘The Ministry of Commerce has recently imposed a royalty on minerals owned by the Crown. The royalty is the greater of 1% ad valorem (value of production) or 5% of accounting profits.’

[17] Mixed Ownership Monitoring Unit(2011, December 15). Mixed Owner Model For Crown Companies. Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit,1 The Terrace, Wellington 6011, New Zealand.

[18] Gordon Campbell. (2011, November 24). Gordon Campbell: financial analysts jump ship on asset sales.

[19] Dr Russel Norman. (2011, November 23). National Set To Repeat Telecom Privatisation Mistake.

[20] Overseas Investment Act (2005). Section 7 (1). ‘…or they are 25% (or more) owned or controlled by an overseas person or persons.’ Parliamentary Counsel Office., PO Box 18070, Wellington 6160, New Zealand.

[21] Bryan Gaynor, NZ Herald. (1999, October 2). Analysis: Filling Foreigner’s Pockets. The New Zealand Herald, PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand.

[22] The Treasury. (1999, September 30). Income from State Asset Sales. Historical information on the sale price and background to New Zealand Government asset sales as at 30 September 1999. The Treasury, Level 5 (Reception), 1 The Terrace, Wellington 6011, NEW ZEALAND.

[23] Michael Hudson. (2004, January 24). The Mathematical Economics of Compound Rates of Interest: A Four-Thousand Year Overview Part I.
‘Orthodox academic models rarely acknowledge the problems posed by the exponential growth of debt overhead. Such models typically make government policies appear unnecessary to cope with this problem, by focusing on the kind of world that might exist if the financial overgrowth of savings and debts did not double every decade or so, having multiplied again and again over the past century. It thus has been left mainly to non-mainstream writers to address the structural problems created by an accumulation of interest-bearing debt.’

[24] Debt Grows Exponentially. (2010, October 30). The Elephant In The Room: Debt Grows Exponentially, While Economies Only Grow In An S-Curve. Washington’s Blog.
The Elephant In The Room: Debt Grows Exponentially, While Economies Only Grow In An S-Curve
‘Hudson says that – in every country and throughout history – debt always grows exponentially, while the economy always grows as an S-curve. Moreover, Hudson says that the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians knew that debts had to be periodically forgiven, because the amount of debts will always surpass the size of the real economy. … One thing is for sure. The exponential growth of debt is a structural problem which – unless directly addressed – will swallow all economies which try to ignore it.’

[25] Margrit Kennedy. (1995). Interest and Inflation Free Money. Creating an exchange medium that works for everybody and protects the earth. Published by Seva International, ISBN 0-9643025-0-0.
‘On an average we pay about 50% capital costs in the prices of our goods and services. Therefore, if we could abolish interest and replace it with another mechanism to keep money in circulation, most of us could either be twice as rich or work half of the time to keep the same standard of living we have now.’ (Other estimates are 40-45%.)

[26] Positive Money NZ. A campaign for Full Reserve Banking, based on similar campaigns in the UK and USA.

[27] Deirdre Kent. (2011, November). Money For Nothing. New Zealand Investor.


– To the original article…

– Research thanks to Kierin  M.


Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

– To the actual article…

– Warning, Science magazine wants you to pay to read the full article.   I think that’s a crock of shit, myself.   But then, hey, the entire world, including stories of its demise, are a for-profit enterprise, right?   Yeah, right.

– Research thanks to Piers L.

We’ve been brainwashed

Friday, June 15th, 2012

It’s no accident that Americans widely underestimate inequality. The rich prefer it that way.

How, in a democracy supposedly based on one person one vote, could the 1 percent could have been so victorious in shaping policies in its interests? It is part of a process of disempowerment, disillusionment, and disenfranchisement that produces low voter turnout, a system in which electoral success requires heavy investments, and in which those with money have made political investments that have reaped large rewards — often greater than the returns they have reaped on their other investments.

There is another way for moneyed interests to get what they want out of government: convince the 99 percent that they have shared interests. This strategy requires an impressive sleight of hand; in many respects the interests of the 1 percent and the 99 percent differ markedly.

The fact that the 1 percent has so successfully shaped public perception testifies to the malleability of beliefs. When others engage in it, we call it “brainwashing” and “propaganda.” We look askance at these attempts to shape public views, because they are often seen as unbalanced and manipulative, without realizing that there is something akin going on in democracies, too. What is different today is that we have far greater understanding of how to shape perceptions and beliefs — thanks to the advances in research in the social sciences.

It is clear that many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society: They believe that there is less inequality than there is, they underestimate its adverse economic effects, they underestimate the ability of government to do anything about it, and they overestimate the costs of taking action. They even fail to understand what the government is doing — many who value highly government programs like Medicare don’t realize that they are in the public sector.

– More …  


African American Doctor Depicted as Gorilla at UCLA Event

Friday, June 15th, 2012

– Racism has no place … anywhere.   But surely, it has no place in medical academia.

– But, apparently, it is alive and well at one of America’s foremost Medical Campuses; UCLA.

– Watch this video to see what’s going on and sign the petition.

AND pass this on and do your part to say ‘no‘ to this sort of crap.

– Dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

– To the Video…

– To the Petition…

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

– Research thanks to John P.

The Rumbling of Distant Thunder

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

– I’ve lifted the following from a Blog called The Archdruid Report.  I don’t think the author will mind because I’m sure he’s writing for the good of people and not for his personal profit.

– The fellow who writes, John Michael Greer, it is brilliant so don’t let the Blog’s name put you off.   Give it a read and see what you think.   There’s a lot of truth here.

– Dennis

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I think most of my regular readers are aware that I spent last weekend at a peak oil event. There have been plenty of those over the last decade or so, but this one, The Age of Limits, was a bit unusual: it started from from the place where most other peak oil events stop, with the recognition that the decline and fall of industrial civilization is the defining fact of our time.
It’s ironic, to use no stronger term, that this should be the point at which so much discussion of peak oil stops, because it’s also the place where that conversation began some fifteen years ago, at the very dawn of today’s peak oil movement. Back then, as conversations about the limits to growth were getting started again for the first time since the twilight of the 1970s, most participants in those early discussions seem to have grasped that the industrial world would either rise to the challenge of peak oil and undergo the wrenching process of shortage and reallocation that a successful downshift of energy consumption would demand, or plow face first into the brick wall of resource limits and crash to ruin. The debates then were over which of these would be chosen.  At this point it’s painfully clear which way the decision has gone, but the discourse of peak oil by and large remains the same.
If you go to most peak oil events, as a result, you can count on a flurry of panels and lectures pointing out the reasons why our civilization’s attempt to extract limitless resources out of a finite planet won’t work, can’t work, and isn’t working. Depending on the event, you will also get either a flurry of panels and lectures talking about how to make buckets of money profiteering off the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures bickering about who’s to blame for the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures airily insisting that the inevitable failure of that attempt isn’t inevitable at all so long as we all have faith in whatever the fashionable alternative energy du jour or the equally fashionable movement du jour happens to be. (You might also get two or three of these at once, in which case the effect is even more schizoid than usual.)
What you won’t get is any serious discussion about what can be expected to happen on the downside of Hubbert’s curve, and how individuals, families and communities might be able to respond to that. At most, you might be lucky enough to find a late night discussion among three or four presenters and a dozen attendees at the hotel bar, sitting there with drinks in hand and talking about the uncomfortable and unfashionable realities that the event organizers have carefully excluded from the agenda. It was those late night discussions that provided part of the inspiration for The Age of Limits conference. What would happen, several of us wondered, if the themes central to those discussions were brought out of exile and put at the center of a collective conversation?
That’s more or less what The Age of Limits set out to do. How did it work?  By and large, remarkably well. Even on a quantitative level, it exceeded expectations; the organizers set their sights sensibly low, aiming for sixty attendees this first year, and kept publicity at an accordingly modest level. In the event, though, more than twice that number showed up, and launched a rolling conversation about decline, resilience, and survival that filled two full days and parts of two others.  The practical side of the conference ran smoothly, despite a couple of impressive spring thunderstorms, and the quality of the discussions was generally high; for me, certainly, it was a relief not to have to deal with more of the usual fearful insistence that X or Y or Z will let the current possessors of middle class privilege cling to their comfortable lifestyles, and to have the chance to talk instead about how those lifestyles are going to go away and what might be done to deal constructively with their departure.
Thinking back over the weekend, three points of crucial relevance for the project of this blog stand out.
The first and most basic is precisely the number of people who are ready to grapple with the end of industrial civilization: not as an abstract possibility to be shoved off on a conveniently distant future, not as an inkblot pattern on which to project one’s favorite apocalyptic fantasies, not as a bogeyman that can be used to stampede recruits into signing up for the greater glory of some movement or other, but as a simple and inescapable fact that is already shaping our lives.  Down the years since I first started trying to talk to other people about where our civilization is headed, that last attitude has been far and away the least common, and the frantic writhings with which so many people squirm away from thinking about that unthinkable reality have become wearily familiar.
One of the repeated pleasures of peak oil events is precisely that those of us who take that recognition seriously have the chance to share a meal or a couple of mugs of beer and talk openly about all the things you can’t discuss usefully with those who are still in the squirming stage. I mentioned in a post last fall the way that peak oil events function as a gathering of the tribe, but it would be more precise to call it a gathering of several tribes—the peak oil investment tribe, the environmental activism tribe, the alternative energy tribe, and so on.  It’s one of the oddities of the tribe to which I belong that it’s hard to give it a simple, straightforward name of that kind, just a clear sense of the trajectory our age is tracing out against the background of deep time, and it’s one of the less heavily represented tribes at most peak oil events. What set The Age of Limits apart is that it was specifically for this latter tribe, and the enthusiastic turnout in response to very muted publicity—little more than a few posts on blogs—shows me that the audience for such discussions is a good deal larger than I had any reason to think.
The second point that stands out is the extent to which people in that tribe—and, I suspect, across a broader spectrum of society as well—are hungry for meaningful discussions of one of the taboo topics of our age, the relation of spirituality to the shape of our future. That hunger came as a surprise to our hosts; Orren Whiddon, the founder and general factotum of the retreat center where the conference took place, responded with noticeable discomfort to my proposal to give a talk on peak oil and spirituality, and his mood was not improved when two of the other speakers, Carolyn Baker and Dmitry Orlov, wanted to address the same topic.  Still, all three talks went forward; I talked about the lessons that traditional spiritualities offer for understanding our predicament, Dmitry discussed religion as a mode of social organization that can sustain itself for millennia, and Carolyn explored collapse as an initiatory experience—and all three talks drew large and enthusiastic audiences.
It’s among the major failures of contemporary Western culture that the keepers of its religious traditions have so signally failed to deal with the core issues of our time.  There’s a history behind that failure, of course.  In what used to be the religious mainstream, well-meaning but clueless attempts to become relevant in the 1960s and 1970s led clergy  to replace authentic spirituality with a new definition of religious institutions as some sort of awkward hybrid of amateur social service agencies and moral lobbying firms, deriving their values from the contemporary nonreligious left rather than from any coherent sense of their own traditional spiritual commitments. Since the vast majority of Americans then and now are on the moderate-to-conservative end of the political spectrum, and have next to no patience with the liberal ideologies that drove this shift, the formerly mainstream denominations ended up with a fraction of their old membership and influence as parishioners abandoned them in droves for more conservative churches and synagogues.
Those latter, meanwhile, had just completed the same transformation in the other direction, surrendering their own  traditional commitments in order to embrace the political ideologies of the contemporary right. This is why so many of today’s supposedly conservative clergy are out there right now urging their congregations to vote for a Republican party whose platform could not be further from the explicit teachings of Jesus if somebody had set out to do that on purpose. Very few American religious groups have avoided falling into one or the other of these pitfalls.
That has had any number of unhelpful consequences, but the one relevant here is that either choice makes it effectively impossible for those who speak for religious institutions to say anything at all about the reality of our nation’s and civilization’s decline.  The denominations of theold mainstream are committed to what, without too much satire, could be described as the belief that everyone in the world deserves a middle class American lifestyle; those of the new conservative religiosity are just as rigidly committed to the claim that middle class Americans deserve, and ought to be able to keep, that lifestyle. Neither can begin to address the hard fact that this lifestyle and nearly everything associated with it are going away forever.
That’s the vacuum into which Carolyn, Dmitry and I ventured over this weekend. For two of us, it wasn’t a first venture by any means; Carolyn has been discussing the spiritual dimensions of collapse for years now, on her website and in several worthwhile books; as for me, after some years of uneasy avoidance and sidelong references, I let myself be lured into discussing the interface between my own far from mainstream spirituality and the realities of the age of peak oil, and that discussion ended up turning into a book of its own. For all I know, Dmitry has been working on his own take on religion and peak oil for longer still, but it was a surprise to me, just as I noted with interest that Jim Kunstler’s latest post includes an uneasy discussion of the potential role of emerging minority religions (that’s spelled “cults” in today’s standard English, which Jim uses) in reinventing a coherent society in the wake of our decline and fall.
There is a good deal more that can be said about the religious dimensions of peak oil, and a familiar sinking feeling tells me that I’m probably going to be saying some of it, once the current sequence of posts on the fate of American empire has been completed. My readers outside North America—particularly in Europe, where religion by and large plays a negligible role in public life—may be puzzled by that focus, but there it is; when European countries encouraged their religious minorities to cross the Atlantic, as a good many of them did in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they pretty much guaranteed that North America would have a much livelier religious history from then on than they would. Religion is a major organizing force in American public life; each of the great shifts in American politics and society have been paralleled, and often preceded, by a corresponding shift in the religious sphere; that pattern is highly unlikely to be broken by the traumatic redefinitions of American public life looming up ahead in the near future, and there are good reasons to think that the religious shift this time around is going to be on the grand scale.
So that’s the second point that struck me this weekend. The third was subtler.  It didn’t get any space on the agenda, and rarely had a central role in the conversations, but it kept on popping up here and there in casual talk. One woman, for example, noted that the farm families in her area, conservative down to their bones, watched the bizarre spring weather this year with increasingly nervous faces and suddenly weren’t talking any more about how global warming was a myth; three other people nodded and chimed in with similar stories of their own.  A man commented in passing that people who used to dismiss his efforts toward personal sustainability as a waste of time aren’t doing that any more, and some of them are asking for gardening tips. Quite a few attendees mentioned their sense that more and more people seem to be aware, however vaguely, that the troubles of the present time cut deeper and offer fewer options than those of years and decades past.
Something has gone very wrong.  That’s the message that’s rumbling like distant thunder through the crawlspaces of the American imagination just now.  Something has gone very wrong, and those whose public claim to power is their supposed ability to manage things so that they don’t go wrong—the captains of finance and brokers of political power who move from photo op to press conference to high-level meeting and back again—don’t know how to fix it.
I don’t expect that sense to reach anything close to critical mass in the near future—though it will be interesting to note whether this year’s version of the traditional American game of electoral charades,  in which two indistinguishably airbrushed Demublican politicians pretend to be as different as possible until the moment the last voting booths close on Election Day, is able to whip up the same level of canned enthusiasm recent exercises of the same sort have managed. It could well take some years before the loss of faith in the institutions that define contemporary American life grows to the point at which it will become an unavoidable political fact.  For that matter, I have no hard evidence that this is happening at all, just stray bits of conversation heard in passing.  Still, those of my readers who have the opportunity might want to listen for the sound of thunder far off; if I’m right, the storm it’s heralding is going to be a whopper.
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