Wednesday, November 19, 2014

délcieuse angoisse d'être..

Albert Camus: Noces, (suivi de) L'été, Éditions Gallimard, 1959

DE La mer au plus près (in L'été):

         " ... Un brusque amour, une grande oeuvre, un acte décisif, une pensée qui transfigure, à certains moments donnent la même intolérable anxiété, doublée d'un attrait irrésistible. Délicieuse angoisse d'être, proximité exquise d'un danger dont nous ne connaissons pas le nom, vivre, alors, est-ce courir à sa perte? À nouveau, sans répit, courons à notre perte.

           J'ai toujours eu l'impression de vivre en haut mer, menacé, au coeur d'un bonheur royal."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Tar Sands, Dirty Oil, and the future of a continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk: Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the future of a continent (David Suzuki Foundation, 2010). 219 pages, index, bibliography, appendices, maps.

abbreviations used in this article

CO2 - carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas
GHG - greenhouse gas(es)

                           Albertan boreal forest: before oil sands "development"

                          After "development": looks like Mars.. inorganic..

                          Mars: definitely inorganic (or maybe a few hardy microbes)

"Our principal impediments at present are neither lack of energy or material resources nor of essential physical and biological knowledge. Our principal constraints are cultural. During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth" Marion King Hubbert, geophysicist, 1976

"In 2006, Canada's environment commissioner, Johanne Gélinas, laid out the dirty math. She reported that oil and gas production, including tar sands mining, had produced 150 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2004, a whopping 51 percent increase since 1990. Oil and gas destined for the United States accounted for nearly a third of Canada's increase in total greenhouse gases, approximately the same amount by which Canada failed to meet it Kyoto protocol targets.

 Noting that the tar sands had made a major contribution to "increasing greenhouse gas emissions", Gélinas found overall an astounding level of federal neglect and incompetence on climate change and oil production" "Few federal efforts are underway to reduce these emissions and those efforts have had minimal results to date. For its part, the federal government is counting on regulatory and long-term technological solutions.. However, it is not leading the way by clearly stating how and to what degree Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emission when oil and gas production is expected to increase." Gélinas concluded that any further growth in tar sands production would likely cancel out national efforts to lower emissions. Shortly after she produced her damning report, the government fired her." Tar Sands, page 128 (Canada, a land of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech..)

"The real work of transforming Canada's fossil fuel-dependent economy will not be big or glamorous. It will be humbling work. Our tasks, as social critic Wendell Berry has noted, 'will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.'" Tar Sands, page 5

".. fifty  years ago, the world annually burned up four billion barrels of oil and discovered thirty billion more. 'Today we consume 30 billion barrels per year and the discovery rate is dropping toward 4 billion barrels per year," Tar Sands, page 189. Kjell Aleklett, director of the Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group before the US House Subcommmittee on Energy and Air Quality, 2005 

             Essentially, we moderns have become idolaters of Mammon, profit, specifically the profit of high flying multinational corporations and the investment banking sector which finances their capital intensive megaprojects. Everything must be sacrificed to this hungry, arrogant, jealous divinity. We have lost our way. The natural order of things is reversed: wo/man now serves the economy. The economy has become our master, not our slave - the world turned upside down..

             One of the major themes of this book is that in the process of selling off her oil and gas to the petro-giants, the province of Alberta has morphed into a North American petrostate.

Petrostate, you say?

               A petrostate is a State controlled by the petroleum industry. This influence has, over time, repeatedly proven inimical to democratic institutions. A government which depends on oil revenues is beholden to the oil companies, not the voters. Thus Alaska and some Gulf States (USA) have no income tax. The citizen therefore becomes less engaged, less vigilant about how government is run and how money is spent. After all, it's not his money! In the long run, the political process with its healthy, inherent antagonisms withers and dies on the vine. Alberta has had about 40 years of unbroken years of conservative party rule, voter turnout is abysmal. Is this a healthy democracy? 

                Petrodollars prop up one party rule: Mexico, Indonesia.

               Giving away a non-renewable resource (oil, diamonds..) dirt cheap has negative knock on effects that can affect other sectors of the economy. Thus we suffer a high Canadian dollar and attendant job suppression in the manufacturing sector. While Alberta - with the collusion of the Feds - is responsible for the oil and gas give away, central Canada - Ontario and Québec - bear the brunt with their relatively large populations and depressed industrial sectors. However, not all of the economic and social distortions are exported to other parts of the country. Alberta suffers from a boom 'n bust economy, typical of economies based on rapid, non-renewable resource extraction: absurd housing prices, inadequate infrastructure (access to doctors and other professionals, insecure highways..), crime, drugs, homelessness, drunk or drugged driving, divorce, breakdown of community spirit.. 
               Alberta has failed to implement even the most minimal regulation of its boom 'n bust tarsands fueled economy. In comparison, Norway has used its oil royalties to build a fund for future social investments, for example, in alternative energy development as cheap oil reserves deplete. Meanwhile, Alberta burns the candle at both ends and gives no thought for the morrow. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

              There are, in reality, a host of reasons why Canada, with the aid of federal government investment, should prioritize the green energy sector: zero carbon footprint buildings, wind power, thermal solar, photovoltaics, geothermal power, biomass, hydro-electricity, tide and wind power.. Converting tarsands - literally sand soaked with bitumen, bottom of the barrel stuff - into usable fuels and petrochemicals is highly energy consuming and thus greenhouse gas (GHG) producing. The bitumen must be released from its sandy matrix with heat which consumes much energy. Because of bitumen's high molecular weight it also requires more energy input to "crack" its long molecules into usable fuels and petrochemicals. Alberta's tarsand industry is a major reason Canada has failed to meet its Kyoto Protocol GHG emission quota.

             Extracting tarsands, either with giant mechanical shovels or by "in situ" underground steam heating is a messy process. Not only does it destroy fragile - sometimes unique and important  - ecosystems, it also generates a lot of toxic waste presently stored in "holding ponds". Like nuclear waste, no one really knows what to do with the carcinogenic mess, so it keeps piling up. Occasionally flocks of wild birds mistakenly land in bitumen rich portions of these ponds and die..

                                          petrochemical soaked duck

             There is some evidence - much of it anecdotal admittedly - that people downwind or downstream of tarsands refineries are physically ill and / or have higher rates of cancer.

             "Reclamation" of used lands is proceeding at a rate far lower than oil companies originally promised.  

              Finally, Nikiforuk points out, the entire tarsands industry is an accountant's nightmare. It is even hard to estimate how much the oil companies have ripped off the people of Alberta and / or the Canadian federal government, so poorly are records maintained. Environmental monitoring and auditing of air, water and soil by the Alberta government is, bluntly, a farce (see link above concerning heavy metal contamination exceeding nationally mandated limits). All of which leads  one to concur with Nikiforuk: Alberta is a de facto petrostate.

               In a concluding section, "Twelve steps to Energy Sanity", Nikiforuk sketches out a programmed withdrawal from a fossil fuel economy (page 200). While any or all of these steps are debatable (while we still live in a democracy-of-sorts...), they deserve perusal by anyone who gives a tinker's dam about humanity's common future:

1- Admit the nature of the Peak Oil crisis. Cheap oil is going. We must prepare for Energy Descent - or suffer.. Forewarned is fore-armed!

2- Slow tarsands development and cap production at 2 million barrels / day. In the future, as cheap oil really begins to run out, "non-conventional" sources of petroleum will be extremely valuable, less as fuel sources than as feedstocks for the chemical industry (pharmaceuticals, plastics, paints and pigments, synthetic fibers..) and as lubricants (for all those renewable energy powered vehicles..) I personally would cap production at a somewhat lower level, maybe a million bbl / day.
3- National Canadian Energy Policy with emphasis on green energy development.

4- Carbon tax to spur development of non-carbon energy sources.

5- Say no! to petropolitics:
     (a) greater transparency and freedom of information to follow dirty $ trails
     (b) use oil royalties to build a sovereign investment fund to spur future conversion to a green energy economy. Norway, Australia, China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates did it! Why can't we, duh..
     (c) boost royalties to current "best practice" levels. Once again, Norway has led the way..

6- Fight continental energy integration schemes. These benefit energy and capital intensive multinationals. But the future we face is one of Energy Descent as cheap energy reserves deplete. We should therefore be moving toward decentralized, labor intensive green energy networks where energy is produced locally (home installed photovoltaics, for example) and consumed locally. This reduces the need for expensive infrastructure (high volume transmission lines) and the energy needed to produce and maintain it (for example, long distance transmission losses).

7- Relocalize food production. Globalized food production will become a thing of the past as cheap energy reserves deplete. We need to get ahead of Energy Descent and begin the Great Transformation now, to reduce impacts..

8- Abandon "dead end" technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage. These technologies are merely stopgap measures designed and promoted by the fossil fuel industry to prolong their dominance in the energy sector as long as possible. We need to think outside the box: think green energy and decentralized energy networks. We need to invent tomorrow's technologies, not prolong yesterday's..

9- Re-orient rural and urban planning toward renewable energy: walkable urban communities, where most of what you need is within walking or biking distance. What is not within walking distance should be accessible with public transport. We should use trains for transport - versus trucks - wherever possible to minimize energy consumption. Promote zero carbon buildings, buildings which produce more energy than they consume. What about urban agriculture? Underground buildings? Hydroponics? Restoring wetlands to treat waste? Green belts to consolidate and build organic soil content in arid zones? Capturing flue gases to feed fuel and food producing algae? The field is vast and barely explored, so fixated on high carbon life styles have we become..

10- Learn to walk lightly on the land, reduce our energy footprint. We are not talking about technology here but "lifestyles" and values (and the goals that flow from values). Scandinavians and Japanese live with half our energy consumption or less. Yet their living standards are not lower than ours. It is even arguable that theirs are higher than ours: longer life expectancy, less crime, more upward social mobility.. Under this heading we need also consider: energy audits, learning to waste less, do things more efficiently. Maintain - or improve - our infrastructures to reduce waste: retrofit house insulation to consume less energy, recycle and repair things we would otherwise throw out,..

11-  Don't wait for government: most pols have been hypnotized by conventional neoconservative "Free Market" ideology. "Power down. Eat local food. Walk more. Travel less. Be a leader in you community and family. Challenge the petrostate." (emphasis added)

12- Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement: (better still, tear it up and recycle as toilet paper for the House of Commons.) It's really a no brainer, rather "constructive nationalism" in a world of future shortages. Who should get their hands on Canada's resources, Americans or Canadians? In a world of looming shortages, this is a definite no brainer!

             All in all, an insightful and rather well penned tirade. There are a few bloopers due to apparent sloppiness. James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis (the Earth seen as a living organism), is described as a climate scientist. He is, in reality, a physical chemist and inventor of scientific instruments. Worse, for the researcher or the activist wishing to validate or track down sources, all cited sources and further reading reccomendations are thrown together at the back of the text. This makes tracing sources difficult. On at least one occasion, I was not able to locate a cited source (not good, not good..) All told, a very good book, one I would recommend giving to young people who are beginning to worry about the world they are growing up in (high school or bright upper primary school).

unofficial mascot of the Tarsands extraction industry: Bertie, the albertosaur and his brood - the family that preys together, stays together..

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

(Classic) book review: The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstafter

 Richard Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition (Vintage Books, NY, 1948, various reprints), 456 pages, index, chapter notes, biographical essay (on sources consulted)

abbreviations used in this article:

APT - The American Political Tradition
FDR - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
RH - Richard Hofstadter
SMM - Self-Made-Man 

            Richard Hofstadter (RH) was a gifted (if somewhat prickly) American historian and public intellectual whose heritage was cut short by premature death at age 54 from leukemia. In later years RH referred to The American Political Tradition (APT) as "a young man's book" yet this work of youth served to break American academic history out of the Left-Right ideological ruts into which it had fallen during the war years and the subsequent rise of communism. It initiated a more empirical, evidence based, mode of doing history whose influence is still felt.

            RH's book filled a gap in my understanding of that most important of nations, the United States of America. (Nineteenth century prophets like Marx, Darwin and Jules Verne saw that the 20th century would be the "American century". The new century is following in the wake of the last though it is becoming more and more evident that "Nova Roma" has entered a Time of Troubles with unknown issue..)

            Although I was raised in the US, large areas of the American national character and history remained opaque. How could a people, so enamoured of their Founding Principles - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, oppress their black fellow citizens? What did they think could be accomplished? Why did the people of my town support European colonial rule? - America, after all, fought a democratic revolution in order to free herself from colonial rule. I was puzzled..

           APT helped me answer some of these questions or, at least, understand better the nature of these questions and what they might actually signify.

           To illustrate the growth and evolution of the APT, RH picked ten federal political figures, presidents or contenders, spanning 150 years from founding father Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). 


           In my retrospective reading, sixty six years after the first edition, RH reveals two powerful, often opposing, drives at the heart of the American soul: Personal Liberty and Greed. The former is often / usually expressed as "property rights" while the latter is acquisitiveness, particularly the pathological form: acquisition for its own sake or as an ostentatious display of personal "worth".

           In the early days of the American republic, at the turn of the 19th century, democracy was generally restricted to land owners. This democracy was the vehicle through which Personal Liberty (conceived of as property rights) and Greed (which includes Power Lust) acquired and defended turf. Or rather, various classes and groups of people, motivated by these dominant culturally reinforced drives, contended for turf.

           While America began as a colony of craftsmen and landholding farmers, (proto-)industrial modes of production began to appear in the early 19th century. Industrialization shaped the ways in which Personal Liberty and Greed developed and conflicted. Industrialization favored large scale production, mass markets, large capital expenditures and high finance. These trends concentrated capital - hence political power - into fewer and fewer hands.

          Opposing these "concentrative" trends: the great American mythic hero, Self-Made-Man (SMM). He is the little guy who, through determination, integrity and ingenuity "makes it", that is, "proves he is a man", acquires status and worth in the social hierarchy. A particularly romanticized - and moralized - vision of  the oppressed yet noble SMM rose in the southern states in reaction to a perceived power imbalance between North and South. The agrarian, slave economy of the south was, in the long run, no match - economically, politically, demographically or culturally - with the emerging industrial states of the North. Ironically, slave-holding southern plantation owners saw themselves as Davids fighting the Goliaths of northern high finance. To embitter things, northern abolitionists decried slavery as moral evil before the face of God, heightening southern feelings of social and cultural inferiority. One suspects that much of the paradoxical nature of American society today is rooted in the foundational paradoxes of those early dramas and the stresslines and fracture faults they created.

           Over time, the first pole of the American psyche, the thirst for Personal Liberty, has degenerated due to the need of corporations to constantly expand markets to gain profits (their raison d'être). The Late Industrial Age culture that has evolved over the last century is characterized by a narcissistic, anomic and atomistic individualism (or perhaps pseudo-individualism). (See footnote 1)

           To maximize production, hence profits, people are "programmed" from birth - TV ads! - to consume! consume! consume! Today much, if not most, of our consumption in industrial societies is way beyond subsistence levels required to hold body and soul together. Consumption beyond mere subsistence is not in itself a bad thing, of course. Culture, in any "sophisticated" sense of the term, depends upon social surpluses being generated which are then canalized into non-subsistence (optional) activities. But today, profit driven consumption generates social, ecological and climatic pathologies. We, and our world, are sick - literally - from overconsumption. We are constantly encouraged to consume way beyond elemental biological needs, way beyond our personal needs for "self expression": books, tools, skills..  

            Our self-expressive drives - "programmed" by our evolutionary history - function, in part, to establish our "worth" or "rank" within our social matrix. This is simply basic Primate Politics as they express themselves through human beings, human hands, human voices, human thought..  So what makes modern consumer culture "pathological"? What went wrong?

             One problem: overconsumption or hyperconsumption is now taken as a sign of value, not the skills, values or truth that were discovered or expressed by the consumer. Consumption is no longer a necessity or a socially sanctioned compensation for services rendered to the community. The act of consumption itself becomes a sign of worth or rank: I am worth more than you because my car is worth more than yours.. In the final stage of alienation, the work of art is not appreciated for its own sake (or even the pleasure it provides) but for the price tag that indicates our personal (quantitative) "worth" relative to those who could not afford it. Such a culture of ostentatious, rank-assigning consumption necessarily invites competitive consumption all the way down the social hierarchy. Everybody consumes as much as they can to show their superiority over those father down the pecking order. In the (pathological) limit, our sense of worth is totally driven from the exterior, we have no center. This state of being - or lack of Being - is undoubtedly reflected in existentialist observations that we moderns lack "authenticity". 

             Many people in industrial countries do lead dull lives of drudgery where no fulfillment is found in the stultifyingly repetition of the assembly line or checkout counter. For these "wage slaves" (Karl Marx), as well as for the rich, consumption has become a (futile) act of self-affirmation: I consume, therefore I exist! But like all drugs, the fix wears off quickly and the craving soon returns hence we consume! consume! consume! - even if it is killing us. Like Alice in Wonderland we run madly to hold our place..
             Even the scale of modern industry makes it hard for SMM to achieve the autonomy and entrepreneurial ability his agrarian or artinasal ancestors took for granted. Aside from increasingly rare exceptions, the American Dream has become a lie and, at some level of consciousness, everyone knows it. Hence the hostility and fanaticism burning so intensely at America's core these days should surprise no one. (note 2)

            AS RH understood, SMM reached the natural limits of growth, or rather, competence sometime in the 19th century. The entrant entrepreneur was now no longer on a level playing field with his larger, long established corporate competitors. Indeed, as corporations devoured one another in periodic merger mania feeding frenzies, power and wealth become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The little guy was left with the scraps. Thus many of the higher paying industrial - and now, increasingly, white-collar - jobs are shipped overseas as multinational corporations strive to maximize profits by reducing labor costs in globalized market economy. The results: middle class (especially lower middle class) economic stagnation, Mcjobs, increasing job insecurity, industrial "rust belts", urban dead zones, self-employment and contract labor, anomia (and it's evil twin, fanaticism)..

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              From my recent forays into world history and political theory, I conclude that "history" is a dynamic, evolving process, generating both transient and long lived entities. Humans are short lived. The "Institutions" of society like the State, the Church, markets, the political and economic systems,.. tend to be relatively long lived, lasting centuries without substantial change sometimes.
            Political theory is the attempt to generate a mental model of the Historical Process that we live as "society" at the present point in time. Political theories are only as good as they are useful at a given place and time.

              Political theories are not, however, passive, merely descriptive labels we attatch to "things" out there in the real world. Mental models of society also form and shape - to some unknown degree - the issues and processes they hope to elucidate. It's the old chicken or egg riddle: society creates political theory which then shapes the society that created it.. Once created, political and social "forms" (tensions, patterns, Institutions, values..) tend to acquire a life of their own and evolve according to poorly understood "laws" (some hard scientists - physicists and chemist especially - doubt that there are any "laws of social evolution" to be discovered, that societies are, in principle, too complex to be comprehensible in terms of law-driven behaviors and processes, the usual objects of science..)

              Idealists who associate the USA with democracy, civil rights and personal freedom will be surprised to see the degree to which democracy and socio-economic equality were really feared by many of the Republic's founders and their political inheritors. Many state and federal politicians, sons of ruling elites, openly or covertly feared the "mob". America's political elites have been and still are, on the whole, conservative - even reactionary - in their fundamental values regardless of their nominal political affiliation: Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Progressive.. After reading APT, I now understand that often repeated neocon proverb: the American Revolution was different from those in Europe and elsewhere, it was conservative revolution, fought for conservative values..

           Reform-minded presidents like FDR (his New Deal of the Great Depression years, 1929 - 1939) came from moneyed elites. Such reformers, RH argues, did not act from any real sens of identity with the common man but from general moral and ethical principles. They held and, to some degree, acted upon a Protestant - and Enlightenment - ethic of "good works" and "Progress". They did not really want radical change in the dominant socio-economic "System". They simply wanted to round off it's rough, discordant edges which offended their moral sensibilities (worse, the System's injustices provided ammunition to the Enemy, the radical socialists and the communists). American reformers were really social engineers not revolutionaries: the furthest they went was to label themselves "Reformers".

               Since APT's first printing in 1948, the Protestant Work Ethic with its emphasis on personal integrity has been deeply eroded and replaced by more reactionary "Social Darwinist" ideologies: Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Libertarianism, Neoconservatism.. (note 3) In a blatant fashion these new social philosophies move personal self interest, selfishness, greed and narcissistic status flouting front and center. Lip service is still given to SMM, the great American hero and idealized self image, but he is now a morally hollowed figure. The primary function of his cult today is to justify policies which "make the rich richer and the poor poorer", regardless of their relative merit or any real positive social contribution. Thus, funding is cut to the public school system while well-to-do parents move their kids to private schools. The expected result occurs of course: the public schools degenerate which, of course, "justifies" further cuts in the poorly performing public system.. (note 4)

               Published less than a century ago, APT already merits the title "classic". Like a good wine, it has aged rather well. RH's writing remains fresh and engaging, he makes history a page turner, a rare gift in an academic historian! His analyses of the historical evolution of the American political process remain valid though the final stage he described  (consensus politics) has long since been replaced by the contemporary phase of ideological gridlock. (note 5)   

                I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the great nation and power that is America and above all, some of those puzzling paradoxes that mark her social and political life.


1- rise in the culture of narcissism: scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory in the USA among college students have increased 30% from 1979 - 2006:

          Former Le Monde environmental reporter, Hervé Kempf, has studied the pernicious effects of a greed driven society on the environment:

2- American Dream: from wiki:

"The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work."

          Over the last 4 decades, neoconservative ideology has radically cut social services and social goods because anything having to do with the public sector (except the police and the military) is bad, evil, wasteful, counterproductive, inefficient, etc. Result: the social "playing field is less level" than it used to be. The initial advantages provided by familial wealth grow stronger over time, upward social mobility declines. SMM will not get as far in life as he was taught to believe he could. The American Dream, if not dead, is at least on life support.. 

The American Dream, a lie?

If the American Dream is defined in terms of upward social mobility (reward for competence and personal initiative), then, at the present moment, the Dream is more alive in Scandinavia than in North America!

3- Social Darwinism: The idea is simple: social and economic classes correspond to some general notion of "genetic fitness". Curtly - the poor are not oppressed, as Marx would have it, they are just inferior. Such views function, in practice, to rationalize or justify current social injustices. Darwin, to his credit, pre-emptively rejected such interpretations of his work on natural selection. For him, as is now accepted by legitimate scientific inquiry, natural selection favored co-operation and mutual aid between humans, not oppression. Thus he argued that the amount of co-operation in "even the most primitive human cultures far exceeded that seen even among the great apes", our closest living relatives.
4- American student performance relative to other countries:

Not good, not good..

5- Consensus history: While Hofstadter did not invent consensus history or politics, he became a major spokesperson and popularizer of the position, particularly after the publication of APT. This approach to history and politics downplays class or group struggle and seeks to define the common values that define and structure the American political process. Hofstadter argues that political opponents tend to face off over "peripheral" issues while sharing a common set of core values: belief in democracy, property rights, free enterprise, the Protestant Work Ethic,..