December 20, 2011


The Keystone pipeline controversy offers a good example of the irrationality into which American public discourse has devolved. In brief, the proposed pipeline would bring oil processed from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the US, ultimately as far south a Texas. Despite a completed environmental impact study, the environmental lobby has persuaded the Obama administration to block the project, chiefly (though not exclusively) on the grounds that tar sand development is proving to be an environmental catastrophe in Canada.

No one, not even the oil industry, disputes that the damage being done to northern Alberta is monumental. There is no hiding the destruction that surface mining tar sands is creating. If this were the 1960’s, and the world had plenty of oil reserves, we might be able to stop this tragedy. This is not the 1960’s however. There are no cheap and available oil reserves to tap. Even Saudi Arabia is in decline. If the demand for oil had not exceeded the supply, they wouldn’t be processing oil out of tar sands in the first place. It is naïve to imagine that, in an ongoing liquid fuels crisis with oil at $100 a barrel, and gasoline fluctuating between $3 and $4 a gallon in the US, than everyone in the world is going to put the interests of Canadian wildlife before their own. The Canadian government has been very clear about their intentions. They will develop and sell the oil, if not to the US with a pipeline going south, then to the Chinese with a pipeline going west. Thus, unless the American environmental lobby is advocating and immediate US occupation of Alberta to end the development, their efforts will not save a single fish or caribou. They can have their moral satisfaction with higher fuel prices, and the heightened economic ripple effects such prices must inevitably produce, while the dirty evil tar sand extract propels trucks in China. Personally, I’m a realist. I don’t think that fish or caribou really want to die, but neither do I think they particularly feel better about dying if they are killed for non-Americans. These nasty resources are going to be tapped. The worse the global economy gets, the more desperate people will become and the more environmental concerns will recede from their attention. One should not be proud of this, but to imagine it will be otherwise is simply to deny human nature. People may love nature in the abstract, but not many will be happy to freeze or starve for the sake of preserving it.

On the other side of the debate, the oil industry and their political allies have trumped up the story that the tar sands offer a solution to American dependence on middle eastern oil. Based on the scale of Keystone, this would appear to be simply a lie. The total capacity of the pipeline, upgraded to its final phase, would be 1.1 million barrels per day. US oil demand stands at about 18.7 billion barrels per day. Keystone then, could meet about 6% of US oil demand. We currently import over half of our consumption (some sources estimate much more), so it doesn’t look like 6% from the Alberta tar sands is going to let us kiss our OPEC friends goodbye. Fools on the left, liars on the right. Take heart though – this is only the beginning.

December 14, 2011

Love and Indifference

“We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”
                                                                                                       – Martin Buber

Those who have read my other essays may either be puzzled by my choice of such a topic, or will wince in expectation of my ruthless dissection of it.  I will try not to disappoint.  Love, in my view, is no more than a state of the human brain – and probably a state that occurs in the brains of many other animals as well.  What could be in any way demeaning or discouraging about that?  Each of us is a unique physical process – a process endowed with the extraordinary capacity of consciousness.  We stand in relation to one another, and to the rest of the world.  What is love but a state of relation?  Why should we be afraid to examine and consider it as we would any other part of the world?  Is the dawn less beautiful because we understand what gives the light its color?

The term “love” has many different meanings, especially if one widens the scope of inquiry to languages other than English, but what I want to explore here is the common thread that binds all of the various meanings together.  What is fundamental to love, in other words.  There are obvious differences between loving a lover, a friend, a thing, an activity, or an idea. Yet, in all these cases, love does share a single salient characteristic:

Love is always the dissolution of the distinction between oneself and the object of one’s love.

Physical love involves the obvious collapse of the usual social barriers of space and clothing.  Non-physical love of another person consists of the collapse of the distinction between their interests and one’s own.  It is to be happy or sad for another, rather than merely for oneself.  To love an object is to extend one’s own identity with that object.  In this sense, the painting is an extension of the painter.  To love an activity is either to experience some physical pleasure from it, or, again, to extend and enhance one’s identity through it.  A piece of music is something a musician publicly projects into the world.  The music, the musician, and the performance are inseparable.  To love an idea, too, is to define oneself in terms of that idea.  To love justice is to perceive oneself as just.  All love, then, is an expansion of the self.

It is not true, however, that every entity or process with which a person becomes inseparable is the object of love.  As I type, I do not think about the location of the individual keys.  I think about the words; my hands move over the keyboard, typing the letters.  Typing is a part of my being in some very real sense, but I do not love to type.  I do not hate typing either.  I am indifferent to it.  It is an extension of my capacity, but not of my identity.  I never take pleasure in my identity as a typist. Sadly, one can have similarly loveless deep familiarity with fellow human beings, from loveless marriages to the superficial geniality that is often the pattern of modern life.  We can even be indifferent to our own beliefs.  Most of us espouse at least a few ideas we have simply inherited from others – ideas we have never reflected on, ideas we wear rather than embody in some whole, robust sense.

It is possible, too, to be attracted to something without wanting to attach it to oneself.  Many physically attractive people have very unattractive personalities, and are thus both attractive in one sense and repellant in another.  One may be deeply fascinated with the idea of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but that doesn’t mean one would ever actually want to.  It is possible to be attracted to someone or something without having the slightest intention of including that person or thing into one’s life.  Love requires both attraction and a commitment to embrace the object of love into one’s life in a substantial way.  It requires a willingness to give time, and a willingness to let oneself be changed and defined, at least to some degree, by that which one commits to love.

If love is the expansion of self into realms beyond one’s own consciousness and physical existence, then the countervailing tendency is not hate but indifference.  Hate is a revulsion or fear of something, often something previously close, which has violated an individual’s security or sense of equilibrium.  To hate something is, at least, to stand in some relationship to it.  Indifference, on the other hand, is the denial of any relationship.  Indifference is a contraction of one’s universe where love is its most ebullient attempt at expansion.  Love embraces – indifference excludes.  Love risks – indifference hedges and protects what it has.  Love for mere objects, in a petty, possessive sense, can be seen as a weak form of love, or perhaps as a substitution for love.  To love inert things is, after all, less risky than loving living breathing beings with motives and vicissitudes of their own.

Virtually all of human behavior can be examined in terms of these two countervailing forces – love and indifference.  Life is an ongoing boundary dispute between these natural adversaries.  From a strictly evolutionary point of view, it isn’t always obvious which strategy is best.  Love is not entirely benign.  Like hate, it is a blinding emotion.  It is nearly impossible to see the object of one’s love with any sort of clarity, just as it is nearly impossible to see oneself with any sort of clarity.  The musician and the music, the artist and the art, and the writer and the text – all are too tightly joined to ever know, except in fleeting glimpses, their relationship with external observers.  It must be admitted, too, that political or religious fanatics are possessed by a kind of love – by the total submersion of their identities in some idea.  The fanatic does not know his own position in the larger world – but, unlike the artist, he doesn’t want to.  Indifference, on the other hand, has its strengths.  A position of detachment offers at least the possibility of objectivity.  It lights the way to real knowledge.  Indifference explains the world in facts and causes – love explains the world in narrative and poetry.

To stray too far into the bland neutrality of detachment is to abandon the very force which gives life purpose.  To stray too far into a life of unchecked passions is to lose the equally important, equally human capacity that gives the world order and coherence.  In my heart, I wish you luck in finding a balance – but in my best objective estimation I don’t give any of us particularly good odds of staying on the tightrope at all times.

Extensively revised 7.3.14

December 13, 2011

Responses to M.C. Planck's comments on my most recent OWC article

Mr. Planck has brought up some interesting issues in response to my most recent Occupy Wall Street assessment, which I think are worth addressing. Here’s an extract from his comments:

“Another flaw in our public media is this meme of equivalency. Yes, there are loons on the Left; but sheer honesty compels us to admit that the Right, especially Fox news, is completely out of control. Yes, Dems play partisan politics; but the current environment of automatic filibuster and non-negotiation is unprecedented.

“And yet the media, which tries so hard to paint OWS as ugly, refuses to show history: that Republicans are acting ahistorically obstructionist, that the wealth gap is ahistorically large, that the rejection of science and embrace of religion by politicans is ahistorically pointed. We are in a period of truly frightening change, and all of it is coming from one side of the line.

“Despite OWS, we can't expect more than 50% of young people to bother to vote. Despite OWS, we can't expect anybody to understand bank regulation or support it. Despite everything that has happened, the American electorate simply can't be bothered to pay attention, learn a little history, and vote.”

I am not entirely sure what Mr. Planck is referring to as the public media’s “meme of equivalency“. I admit that I do not spend hours rigorously scouring television and the internet everyday, tallying up the sentiment, but on the whole it appears to me that the public media is only becoming ever more partisan. In some cases, this no doubt reflects the genuine political sentiment of the owners and the editors of the media outlets in question. In other cases, it is probably just the natural outcome of the discovery that inflammatory positions are good for ratings. In any case, I have seen very little news coverage lately that implied the opposing parties in American politics were “equivalent”. I do take the position that they are equivalent, in some sense. So does Ralph Nader, in a somewhat different sense. There is a certain tendency among the more moderate media outlets to pretend that we are not in pivotal times, and that if you ignore the world and click the heels of your ruby slippers together three times you’ll be just fine. If this is what Mr. Planck has in mind, I would agree that some portion of the press has been deceitfully inattentive. Whatever one may feel about the state of the world, one may not rationally believe that we can settle back down into a state of inert material bliss in which smart people in high places will take care of everything. Economics and nature both have other ideas.

Unlike Mr. Planck, I really do see a sense in which the two great motive groups within American politics are essentially equivalent, though not necessarily similar. I choose my words carefully here. I say “motive groups” because there now appears to be considerable weakness in both formal political parties. Inevitably, I will have to over-generalize simply to be coherent, using the terms “right” and “left” as though they represented homogeneous groups – which neither term does.

I would distill the current aggregate position of the American right as follows:

America is in an economic and security crisis because of a weak president, a corrupt congress, and decades of failed liberal policies. We need to restore our economy by de-regulating business and reducing the tax burden on people who create jobs. We need to restore our standing in the world by getting tough, particularly with the enemies of Israel. We need to get back to our traditional values to stop the general rot of our culture. We have plenty of oil; the liberal environmentalists are all that stand between us and energy independence.

Alright, now let’s take this apart. For me, that last position is the most important and the most absurd, so we’ll start with that. Newt Gingrich and others have recently made the claim that the US not only has enough oil for itself, but enough to supply Europe as well. In reality, the US hit peak oil production in the early 1970’s and has been in a general decline ever since. Under the second Bush administration the US oil industry experienced the most favorable conditions imaginable: high prices, self-regulation, and massive subsidies. Yet oil production didn’t rise. Is it plausible that, in the most heavily explored region of the globe, we’ve now suddenly discovered oil we couldn’t find for the last four decades – and right before an election? No, it isn’t plausible. The politicians are simply jiggering the numbers as usual, counting all the theoretical oil reserves, and not the recoverable reserves. Since the real basis of economics in any modern industrial state is energy, this misconception is the linchpin for all the others. The real economy, the manufacture of real tangible wealth as opposed to the practice of inventing money out of thin air, cannot take place without energy consumption. Growth cannot take place without increasing energy consumption. The broadly acknowledged global peak production of oil is now several years behind us. Globally, we are now in something a bit worse than a zero-sum game. Until or unless someone finds a viable replacement for oil, we are in a declining game. Thus, none of the Reagan era thinking about just giving business a free hand can make any headway against the erratic but remorseless decline in liquid fuel supplies we can expect. Money left in the hands of the wealthy will probably do what it has done since the fall of 2008 – wait for favorable conditions that may never come again. In the mean time, all the trumped up jingoism does nothing but provide a conscience-saving veil to hide our ongoing efforts to control the world’s remaining oil reserves. If Bin Laden had never existed, we would have had to invent him soon. The minor resurgence in traditional values issues is, in part, is a genuine reaction to a culture which has grown nauseatingly decadent and valueless. It is also, in part, merely a naïve attempt to reclaim a half-remembered past when ordinary Americans were better off and more secure. On the whole, rather little about the worldview of the right is grounded in reality. It is bound to lead to disappointment, to put it very mildly.

Now let’s look at the current aggregate position of the American left:

American is in an economic crisis because of the greed of the ultra-rich and their Republican cronies. Our security crisis is the result of militarism and adventurism by Republicans, culminating in the second Bush administration. We need to help the poor, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the immigrant population until such time as the crisis has passed and they can help themselves. We can do this by taking a fair share from the rich. We won’t need to worry about the rest of the world if we just show them what nice people we are. Our only significant cultural problem we have is the racism of the right . We might be running out of oil, but global warming is a bigger problem. Both will be solved by some combination of wind, solar, and biodiesel, which will also jump start the economy by producing new jobs.

Having taken the position that energy is the key issue on the table, I will start with that again. Wind, solar, biodiesel, et al, are lovely and useful things. We’ll see more of them in our future. To borrow a phrase from James Kunstler though, they “will not be enough to run Disney World, Walmart, and the interstate highway system.” The numbers don’t add up. You can’t have a liberal, middle-class, 20th century lifestyle on green energy any more than you can have a conservative, middle-class, 20th century lifestyle on non-recoverable oil. Neither Volvos nor Suburbans run on dreams. Nature never guaranteed us a perpetuation of the present -- only nicer. Likewise, while green energy will no doubt produce some number of new jobs, you cannot rebuild prosperity by making the energy sector more expensive and more labor intensive. Cheap oil was the magic of the industrial age. Without it, we are now in a completely different game. Given this reality, the dream of government riding to the rescue of ever growing numbers of unfortunates is simply untenable. Keynesian economics depend on periods of prosperity to restock the coffers of the treasury. If the depression goes on long enough, spurred by high energy costs and the high cost of the international competition for a variety or scarce resources, Keynesianism is thrown back on the fatal option of an inflationary monetary policy to pay its bills. It is painfully apparent that we’re already there, with the government creating money to make up for a revenue shortfall with no end in sight. The bitter irony is that inflation is the most regressive tax of all. The only people who prosper in inflationary times are people who own real, tangible assets (gold, land, capital equipment) – this is to say, predominately the rich. The poor may subsist for now on various “entitlements,” but they must also become ever more dependent on them, in an environment in which everyone’s dollar buys less and less. On the matter of foreign policy, it is true that the Bush administration undermined any affection the rest of the world might have had for the US, but we are now entering and era of global completion for dwindling resources -- which will not be decided by popularity in any case. The Arab world will not give up their remaining oil because we institute a Muslim outreach program, and neither will the Chinese give up their toe-hold on prosperity to make sure Americans can retain their lifestyle. As I’ve said, this is a whole new game. Taxing the rich of their increasingly devalued paper may or may not be justified, but it will not resolve the underlying problem of a shrinking economy. This is a political strategy, not an economic one.

To summarize, the left and the right share a common problem of having utopian delusions of endless and inevitable progress – they simply have delusions of different flavors. Personally, I’m not very interested in determining which unworkable fantasy is better than the other. They are equivalent insofar as neither is tenable.

On the matter of Mr. Planck’s lament that “Despite OWS, we can't expect more than 50% of young people to bother to vote,” I am compelled to ask – what encouragement did OWS ever give anyone to vote? OWS was, from its inception, an abrogation of the normal political process of voting. Their goal was never to elect people to represent them, but simply to blackmail the existing leadership into compliance by creating disorder. They may well be correct in this approach, given the corrupt condition of our public institutions, but it seems odd to even ask why they have not spawned voters and candidates. The Tea Party movement, whatever one thinks about it, must be admitted to have been far more focused on “getting out the vote.” OWS, a symptom of our decline, has no solutions to offer at all – not even untenable ones.