The holarchy of rules and the problem of silos of knowledge in the quest for the survival of humanity

By Karl North | March 31, 2017

Seen in retrospect, the failure of those concerned with the advancement of knowledge to respect the complexity of the world, and to move toward ways of doing science that account for its connectivity, may be one of the greatest causes of the ongoing collapse of Western Civilization[1]. As products of that civilization, we are all in varying degrees more prisoners in silos of compartmentalized knowledge than we need to be. And the resultant mistakes in interpreting the world and solving the problems of living are greater than is necessary. This essay is an attempt at a partial remedy, a set of tools for seeing and seeking a more generalized, transdisciplinary knowledge that reveals a holarchy in which lower levels are necessary to properly understand higher ones. The holarchy is also a way of testing to what degree one’s policy proposals for confronting the collapse are grounded in the all necessary underlying levels of knowledge.

If the human species wants to survive and to behave in ways that might increase its longevity, it must learn and respect a holarchy of rules and options. The holarchy can be described as levels in a pyramid in which the lower levels limit what can happen in the ones above them. There is of course more to understand in the systems and structures of interdependency at each level, but the rules are the starting point. Later I will offer another pyramid as a guide to understanding within levels.

The biophysical rules are at the bottom because they constrain what our species and all others can do to survive, and the size and resource consumption of populations. They include the rules of energy and matter – the laws of thermodynamics – and the rules that govern ecosystems, in particular the carrying capacity (CC) of a resource base.  The carrying capacity in turn governs the size and consumption per capita of the populations that can survive. In simple terms, consumption of resources must stay within carrying capacity or carrying capacity will erode and populations will decline and possibly go extinct. This graph gives some idea of the range of options.

Because our species has such a great relative ability to consume resources, the ecological load that situates our species relative to carrying capacity is of necessity a product of the population and the consumption footprint per person. The temporary windfall of fossil energy has permitted a rise in consumption to a phantom CC[2] far above the actual CC, which results in rapid erosion of the actual CC.

Although many of the biophysical rules are known today, most of humanity has so little understanding of them that nothing higher in the pyramid can be properly understood and all policies adopted eventually fail. Test yourself. Do you have at least the elementary understanding of the rules of matter, energy and ecosystem rules and their implications for what happens in the world, a knowledge needed to have any chance at understanding anything higher in the pyramid? If not, that is the first knowledge gap that you need to fill.

The political economy and its rules

Because of its place in the holarchy of rules, no social system can last for long unless it obeys the rules of the biophysical system. In turn, one can change little of consequence in a social system without an understanding of its internal rules and structure.

The important key to understanding a given society is its political economy – its rules and structure of power relations, the power to make the decisions that affect everyone’s lives. Just as energy and its structure, forms and flows are central to a grasp of how biophysical systems work, so power, its distribution in a society and its forms and routes of implementation are vital to seeing how and why things happen in a social system.

In a society whose rules mandate private control of resources and their use in the economy, and allow unbridled competition, power inevitably concentrates in a minority to such an extent that all major institutions – the market economy, government, media, schooling and science – fall under its control. This description represents capitalism as an ideal type, variants of which are dominant in the world today. In this social system the leadership of the minority, acting as a loose oligarchy, stays in the background and rules and shapes society by operating indirectly through the social institutions it controls. When one understands the political economy of capitalism, one can see that attempts at lasting change that do not serve the interests of the oligarchy will not occur through government channels or the electoral system; capitalist government exists to work out the differences within the oligarchy; other than that function it is just a stage show meant to fool the people.

A society with another kind of political economy will exhibit a dramatically different decision and policy making process. In Cuba for example, where concentrations of private power are banned and private investment from outside is strictly controlled, no powerful private oligarchy exists to control government planning. Agronomists in the Ministry of Agriculture, for instance, can legitimately disagree and debate what agricultural policies are best for the Cuban people without regard for what is best for the likes of Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Conagra or Tyson Meats, unlike the US Department of Agriculture, which operates as a servant of agribusiness corporations. And in Cuba the Ministry of Agriculture, not private central banks like Citibank or Morgan Guarantee, has a major say in the allocation of agricultural investment.

A tool to understand how societies work

As explained above, there can be no effective strategy for political change without a deep understanding of the political economy: how it operates, its dynamics and structure. The iceberg graphic – another holarchy – is an important conceptual tool to gain that knowledge. The iceberg tool can be applied to biophysical systems or any complex system, a large corporation for example. Most people see only events and a few patterns – the tip of the iceberg – and try to effect change based on that superficial knowledge. The iceberg tells us that if we can identify events as part of patterns and trends of behavior, we need to look for their causes more deeply in the iceberg – in the structures that generate and explain them.

The underlying structures and mental models – the collective beliefs and values – are essential to know because they limit the options for social and individual behavior or change. A pattern of suburban sprawl in a capitalist society is an example of a physical structure that tends to limit transportation options to the use of motor vehicles. The iceberg directs further inquiry into the relationship of the rise of suburbia to related structural elements like the political economy of capitalism. As described above, the concentration of power under capitalism in private corporate institutions – in this case the auto industry and related industries like energy – explains why so much of the transportation sector is devoted to motor vehicle transportation, one of its most energy intensive possible forms.

Knowledge of the underlying social structures and collective mental models go hand in hand. A focus on changing moral values alone will not achieve much if the social structures are not understood and altered in ways that facilitate the new values.

Again, test yourself in your understanding as directed in the iceberg. Have you learned enough about the political economy of the society you live in to have any chance of devising effective strategies for change that would allow the human species to get through the coming population bottleneck[3] and rebuild a civilized society at a much lower level of access to energy? Social science, like biophysical science, is not something one can learn by winging it. The use of the iceberg tool may reveal why the existing political economy limits options and methods of change, as described in the hierarchy of rules.

An example of silo-ism

The Limits to Growth project[4] (LTG) is an example of self-imprisonment in silos of knowledge. It displays a good knowledge of the biophysical level of the holarchy of rules but practically no knowledge of the existing social system – globalized capitalism – whose problem dynamics its models reveal. The LTG authors omit from their world model a submodel of the rules and structure of the political economy, an understanding of which in the hierarchy of rules is necessary to consider options for change. That is, they fail to apply explicitly to the existing social system and its complexity the same modeling method that they deem necessary to address the complexity of the world system. Instead, the causal forces in the social system are merely implicit, embedded in the data they use to build the world model. The political economy is a phantom presence in the decision rules of the model – the auxiliary variables that comprise the flow equations in the model. In effect the authors of LTG treat the global capitalist power structure as an external, as if it were an immutable fact of nature. Consequently, when they propose and simulate policy scenarios to address the problems of sustainability their world model reveals, their world model has no way of showing how the social system will react to these policy scenarios. The authors are simply plugging in calculations of the changes to the key stocks and flows that they expect from each policy scenario. To achieve any of these scenarios except ‘business as usual’, their world model needs to include a submodel of the rules and political economy of the social system to provide insights as to what structural changes would be necessary at the systemic level in society. Here is a simplified version of the LTG model.

As you can see, there is no social system explicitly represented in the model. It’s as if the world were as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals maximizing self-interest”. As a result, the authors of the Limits to Growth do not think intelligently about capitalism as a social system. Here is an example.

The title of chapter two of the LTG book  - “The Driving Force: Exponential Growth” – illustrates the invisibility to the authors of the social system as a dynamic system. Growth does not drive anything; only people organized in a structure of power relations do. This is the same mistake that mainstream economists make when they speak of the market as a driving force, thus avoiding revealing questions such as the effect of monopoly control and the power of the capitalist class to make the decisions that shape everyone’s lives. LTG co-author Donella Meadows, who was a pioneer in promoting systems thinking, nevertheless revealed the same inability to describe the existing political economy of capitalism because she was never willing to seriously study and model its system dynamics. When she wrote about the problem of the sustainability of society in one paper, all she could say was “it’s the economics”. That hardly begins to expose the nature of the problem.

The avoidance the LTG authors display is common in the capitalist world because to properly describe the political economy of capitalism as a system is revealing, and is therefore considered subversive, and carries penalties, especially in the US. So instead, people who have the investigative skills tend to remain in the comfort zone of their intellectual silos, defending them with bounded rationalities.

The iceberg and options for change

Learning from the iceberg tools to see below the surface of events is essential to know how deep it is necessary to intervene in the social system, the biophysical system or any complex system to achieve lasting change. To use another example in the physical structure of transportation, the iceberg tool directs us to understand why a pattern of increasing traffic jams in the transportation system cannot be solved by widening roads: this will only attract more cars, replicating the problem. To achieve the necessary leverage will require structural changes: in the political economy that in turn changes the physical structure of transportation. It will also require a shift in the collective values and beliefs, such as the car and happy motoring as a cultural ideal. Hence the manufacture of such cultural ideals and who controls that process is revealed as a problem to be solved.

The recurrence of traffic jams despite attempts to solve the problem demonstrates resilience – a general property of complex systems. Resilience can be bad or good depending on one’s goals for the system. The lesson of the iceberg is that policies that intervene too high in the iceberg may fail because they encounter policy resistance – an ability of the system to bounce back when changed – an instance of resilience.  Deeper interventions that alter system structures will be more politically difficult but are more likely to result in lasting change. However, deeper intervention also demands a systemic understanding of society, starting with its political economy as described previously, to find the effective leverage points in the structure.

Individual vs. social options for change

Past social options, once acted upon, limit individual options for many people later on. In the US, after an alliance of the fuel, auto and tire industries conspired to trash the railroads and replace rail with auto transportation, it became difficult to travel by train, despite rail being much more energy-efficient.

Some individuals appear to have freedom to choose. Many people think that because an individual can make a change, it can be scaled up to a national policy. People who put solar panels on their roofs, for example, often assume that because they have done it, the whole society can change to run on solar electricity. In general then, proposed changes at the level of the whole society require consideration of many interconnected factors in both the social and biophysical realms that an individual may get away with ignoring, but only for a while.

Conclusion

Many civilizations have collapsed for lack of knowledge and application of the holarchy of rules. The paradox in the present collapse of industrial civilization is that, taken as a whole, humanity knows enough of the holarchy of rules and the realms of knowledge it represents to mitigate or at least navigate this collapse, but for reasons explained above, the knowledge often exists in isolated compartments, often in different individuals. Few of us have, or are willing to gain enough integrated knowledge of the whole. What are your gaps of knowledge in the hierarchy of rules and systems? Are you taking the lesson of ‘the blind men and the elephant’ seriously?


[1] For summaries of this situation from different angles, see the following:

Humans Have Energetically Overpowered the Earth

Locked In: The Paradox of Capitalism

Clinging to the Titanic, or How to Let Go

[2] Catton, William R. 1982. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Chance

[3] Catton, William R. 2009. Bottleneck : Humanity’s Impending Impasse: Humanity’s Impending Impasse

[4] Meadows, Donella H. and Dennis L., and Jorgen Randers. 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.

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Clinging to the Titanic, or how to let go

By Karl North | February 20, 2017

- “A world ends when its metaphor has died” Archibald MacLeish

- “Don’t be fooled by the idiotic exertions of the Red team and the Blue team. They’re just playing a game of “Capture the Flag” on the deck of the Titanic.”- James Kunstler

Political ecologist William Ophuls has researched the unsustainability of modern industrial society for several decades.[1] Recently he summarized our global predicament this way:

Modern civilization lives on depleting energy and borrowed time. Its day of reckoning rapidly approaches. If civilization itself is to survive, it must be inspired by a new ideal that renounces endless material acquisition and makes a virtue out of the necessity of living within our ecological means.[2]

In other words, the industrial economy is a one shot deal, an oil-fired short-lived spike like a sky rocket in the long reach of natural history. How many have digested that reality as it slides down and growls in the gut like a hot shot of bourbon? And if not, why not?

Ophuls’ day of reckoning is currently taking the form of a number of convergent global tipping points:

A tipping point is a point in time when a trend gains runaway status: like a ship so close to hitting an iceberg it can no longer be stopped before there is long term or even permanent damage. Despite decades of warning from scientists, humanity has not been able to alter course from the above trends to avoid the inevitable. What causes us to cling to the Titanic? This essay will describe some of the mechanisms that keep us clinging, and suggest ways of advocating letting go that might make them attractive to a wider audience than they are getting now.

The culture of the Titanic

Every age has its guiding, reigning metaphor. In the era of the totalitarian church in Europe, one could call it divine kingship, or more generally, the rule of the divine Word. Since the Enlightenment, the reigning metaphor seems to have been the machine, which is perhaps short for the technologies born of reductionist science and its quasi-religion of endless material progress.

From the viewpoint of most of human history, the machine age and its culture is an anomaly. We have been tribal and local for most of our history, but have been taught that tribes are primitive and that only nation states are good. For most of history, natural resources were considered common wealth; in the machine age a minority has maximized their control of resources and persuaded us that it is for our own good. This minority has replaced conceptions of the world that arise from local experience with a worldview that they manufacture to serve their interests. Early in human history, trade began as a gift economy, more about mutual benefit than calculated gain. In the machine age the custom is to pursue never-ending profit for its own sake, to maximize consumption at all costs, to generally accept technological solutions for our problems, and to accept a fraudulent financial system of semi-legalized theft, prohibited in earlier ages as usury.

A new metaphor

As the age of the machine goes into its end game, depleting the very resources required to sustain it, humanity needs a new guiding metaphor, one that rectifies the failings of the machine age and its worldview, and helps us choose our options in light of new knowledge of how the world works and our place in it.

The new knowledge in question – actually old knowledge given new value by science – acknowledges the importance of the connectedness of the world and the rule of natural laws, the laws of ecosystems. Hence the appropriate metaphor to midwife a new age of human history might be the age of ecology, writ large enough to encompass as part of ecosystems, for the first time in centuries, all the social endeavors of our species. In other words, in language even economists could comprehend, we would concede that humanity is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mother Nature.

The deeply embedded beliefs and expectations of the machine age, as described above, may die a long, slow death. Hence acceptance of the age of ecology and its laws may not occur without some help from religion. The mayhem and social chaos that attended the fall of previous civilizations caused humans to find refuge in religious beliefs. As the Pax Romana fell apart, European society found an anchor in the Christian Church. This time, the world’s monotheisms, steeped in unecological, anthropocentric beliefs, will be useless. In fact populations that cling to them will spike and then self-extinguish as their attempts at retaining control over nature destroy their resource base. Like technology, religion can easily work for good or ill. However, if some sort of religious response is inevitable, it is worth considering what alternative creed might best assist the birth of the age of ecology.

To embrace the necessity of a low energy, post-industrial world will require a major shift in beliefs and values – a new cultural paradigm. Many pre-industrial faith-based cultures that attempt to conform to ecological and tribal law exist as models reconstructed from history. One example worth exploring for what it can teach us is the historical experience of the Amish and Mennonite communities, convenient because they live among us today. These are not folk communities stuck in time. Their technologies and way of life are conscious choices that derive directly from their values, not from ignorance or backwardness. Their history is one of continuous struggle to invent ways to continue to practice their values under pressure from the outside world with which they must trade and compete economically. It is precisely for this reason that they may be worth learning from. As groups try to bail from Titanic and seek relocalized ways of survival, they too will need to struggle against the pressures of the dying industrial economy and its institutions, and against its residual culture within themselves.

The Amish experience

Complete economic autarchy was never a goal of Amish communities. Hence they had to continually adapt their technological choices to both their collective values and the changing technologies they are competing with in the external economy. In the process they developed a keen understanding of the social implications of adopting technologies like telephones, electricity, and motor vehicles, in sharp contrast to the English (as they call us), who have been taught to judge technologies only for their convenience or economic profit.

The Amish hold life in an agrarian community to be their ideal. They believe it puts them in close contact with the creation and therefore with the creator’s commandments. In the same way, their system of farming reflects their respect for the earth as the work of the creator. They use horses and mules as part of an integrated crop/livestock farming system that is more ecologically sustainable than industrial farming systems. Thus they share some farming goals in common with organic farmers and increasingly participate in the organic movement. A Mennonite dairy farmer group once invited me to present a day-long seminar to share with them my experience as a certified organic sheep dairyman using draft animal power. They in turn have much to teach organic farmers about simpler technologies and more frugal, communitarian ways of living.

Draft animal power adds to the measure of sovereignty the Amish seek as a protection against the toxicities of the industrial way of life. The Amish control most of its technology, from animal breeding to the manufacture of animal powered machinery for farming and transport. Thus their communities are relatively independent of an auto industry that is one of the most resource-wasteful products of the industrial era.

The Amish seek economic security in community strength instead of technological development and expansion of farm size. Their prohibition of movable tractors tends to limit farm size to less than 100 acres, keeps neighbors close and relationships strong. Yet they continue to improve horse-drawn machinery in ways that allow them to compete in the external economy without undermining the community.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2mPnAjOQ4A

In Ohio they even adopted machinery improvements before the English. When the use of the telephone became necessary for business communication, they allowed it in booths far from farmhouses and buildings, to prevent it from replacing face-to-face communication among themselves and thus weakening community relationships. The Amish ban on connection to the electric grid is intended to maintain as much local sovereignty – control over the shape of their community – as possible wherever dependence on the outside world is not absolutely necessary.

The Amish are careful to protect key social institutions like the rearing and education of children from outside influence. As long as English schools still had the rural character of the one room schoolhouse, they sent their children there for the elementary grades and then brought them back to farm and workshop for apprentice-style education. But when English schools began to consolidate, taking children far from home and providing a more urban oriented program, they created their own parochial schools. They were acutely aware of the consequences of habituating their children to corrosive influences like bus riding, electrified buildings and indoor plumbing.

Amish values of simplicity and community are manifest in the rejection of status consumption, obvious in their undifferentiated clothing and plain, functional buildings and household interiors. Such subtle status seeking as occurs is limited to areas that also stress their positive values, like well-kept barns and animals and beautiful front flower gardens.

In sum, how can the Amish example help us develop a creed for the energy descent? The Amish long ago created their unique interpretation of Christianity, which provides the values that inform decisions about farming and other livelihoods, technologies, and community relations and lifestyles. Working in reverse of the Amish, humanity on the energy down slope needs to work out a faith or at least a belief system that encourages and rationalizes the changes in all these areas of life that increasing resource scarcity will impose.

A number of the elements of the Amish credo are made to order for the energy descent. As energy-intensive agriculture gives way to a labor-intensive form, our faith will need to venerate farming and rural life instead of demeaning it as we do now. Community will again become necessary for economic security, so Amish ways of building strong communities may be useful. As many technologies become too energy-costly, we will have to develop the same ability as the Amish to discern which to let go and which will serve us well in a low energy world. Communities will need to become more economically self-reliant and resource input self-sufficient, so the Amish quest for sovereignty – autonomy by deliberate defection from the outside world – will be a useful example as the industrial economy becomes increasingly dysfunctional. The Amish model demonstrates the possibility of frugality without abject poverty. Taken together, these beliefs and values provide a good start on a creed to fit the age of ecology.

Part of the answer may be the alternative American dream that exists in the back of everyone’s mind. It surfaced in the dropout movement of the 1960s, motivated then by a desire to escape mainstream society, its values and occupational straightjacket. It is beginning to surface again due to a powerful new incentive: the need to build an alternative as the industrial system melts away. Hence guiding slogans of the sixties like Small Is Beautiful[3] are gaining new impetus. Ecological imperatives will ultimately compel us to live in smaller, simpler settings congenial to the political ideals of Rousseau and Jefferson – somewhere between the Dunbar Number (150) and the community of seven thousand of Alexander’s A Pattern Language[4]. Something like a Gaia religion that embraces the systemic, integrated nature of life on earth may appear if our species should be so lucky.

Today, a small population is beginning to boldly explore those options again, as happened in the Sixties. A courageous few are jumping ship, beginning to walk away from the industrial civilization and distance themselves from its institutions – its urban clusters, the market economy (especially the parasitic FIRE economy: finance, insurance and real estate), centralized government, mass media, formal schooling and the reductionist intellectual culture. Although they tend to explain themselves in rational terms, I think the root motivation is more a shift in gut values. Probably the only way this model will take root in a larger population will be by taking on religious overtones, becoming a faith for the age of ecology.


[1] Ophuls, William. 1977. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity.

[2] Ophuls, William. 2013. Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology.

[3] E. F. Schumacher, 1973.

[4] Alexander, Christopher. 1976

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Reality 101: Some Notes on Teaching Humanity’s Predicament

By Karl North | September 10, 2016

Our species faces a predicament: the inevitable decline of industrial civilization as we know it, and possible extinction. Decades ago, a small but growing group became aware of the situation and began to create ways to communicate it to the general public. An ‘energy descent’ literature appeared that has described it using terms like overshoot (Catton), the limits to growth (Meadows et al), a long emergency (Kunstler), catabolic collapse (Greer), die-off (Hanson) and peak everything (Heinberg), just to name a few. They faced a mass media which did not consider the news fit to print, and a public who so far has denied it outright.

Gradually most of the group recognized their effective quarantine as The Cassandra Complex. Cassandra was the legendary daughter of the king of Troy who warned her father not to allow the Trojan horse into the besieged city. She was under a double curse: that she always had to tell the truth, and that no one would ever believe her.

Still, some of the group who understand the situation continue trying to find ways to break through the denial and provide enough explanation of how the world really works so that those who can handle the information might begin to adapt their lives. One example is a set of talks by Chris Martenson, The Crash Course. My essay takes its title from one of the more ambitious and comprehensive results, a college course designed and taught by Nate Hagens.

These educational efforts generally have two main themes. One is an explanation of the biophysical system in which our species exists, and how our violation of its rules is creating the predicament. This theme often includes a segment on evolutionary biology and psychology that tries to explain humanity’s predicament behaviorally mainly in those terms. The second theme is an analysis of the present organization of humanity as a globalized capitalist system, an analysis that explains the ability of the system to persist in a pathway of self-destruction while keeping most people in the dark.

Because the members of the initial group who became aware of the predicament were and still are mostly people trained in the biophysical sciences, there now exists a large literature that explains that aspect of the predicament. Their attempts to explain the role of the present social system in causing the predicament have not been as accurate or successful, in my view, for a couple of reasons.

One is the historical antagonism between physical scientists and social scientists. The former have questioned the scientific status social science, going so far at times as to describe all behavioral science as nothing but noise. Margaret Thatcher epitomized this view when she said that society does not exist. Ideologically in line with her capitalist handlers, she meant that our species will prosper as a collection of individuals each pursuing his/her self-interest, and has no need for theories or analysis of society as such.

In reaction to their detractors in the physical sciences, many social scientists have tried to give their discipline independent status by ignoring biophysical realities in their research. C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, written half a century ago, summarized the antagonism, coming down heavily on the side of physical science, and kicking off a debate that continues to this day. Many who write accurately on the energy crisis retain residual loyalty to their training in reductionist science despite its inability to cope with the interconnected nature of the universe as we know it. They therefore tend not to take too seriously anything that can’t be empirically demonstrated by reductive methods.

The second reason that the presentation of systemic social analysis has not been as successful is the subversive nature of critical social science. Ruling strata have therefore traditionally demonized it, penalizing and marginalizing its producers, and making their writings easy to ignore even by highly educated publics.

While far from the whole story, one area of social organization that energy descent educators have singled out for special treatment and covered well is the role of money, finance and debt under capitalism. Understanding how financial structures and forces are combining to bring down the capitalist political economy is important in exposing the deep delusions of most of the public about these things and helping people to project alternative scenarios of social organization for the era of transition. Writers who are renegades from careers in finance have been particularly effective in this area (Chris Martenson, Paul Craig Roberts, Michael Hudson, Charles Hugh Smith, Nate Hagens). As these writers document, the policy of using interest bearing debt to enable capital investment, while not unique to capitalism, is intrinsic to capitalism as a system, and is essential for an understanding of the impetus to endless growth in our economy.

Without attempting a full-blown treatment, these notes will point out elements that critical social science reveals about our society as a system, which I argue that younger generations need to know to better confront the industrial melt-down that lies ahead.

A political economy of capitalism

If we are to have any chance of coping with such an unprecedented turning point in human history, we need to know how our current social system really works, how it contributed to the predicament, and how it will react to melt-down and to attempts to transition to a different social order. That is, we need a knowledge of its political economy. By ‘political economy’ I mean more than a study of the interaction of wealth and decision making power. I mean a systemic analysis of a society as a totality encompassing all its social institutions and its distinctive culture, grounded in an understanding of its structure of power relations and the many forms in which power is exercised. I am using the term political economy as shorthand for this more comprehensive framework of inquiry. In the nascent social science of the 19th century, social analysts of all political persuasions called themselves political economists.

The structure of power

Among the important insights that critical social science reveals is that the process of concentration of wealth and power in a minority is built-in to capitalism. Most people are aware of rising inequality, but surveys show that the public seriously underestimates the present concentration of power, and is therefore far too optimistic about the potential of political action to change anything at the level of nation states. Partly this is because of what Sheldon Wolin called inverse totalitarianism, the ability in modern states of ruling strata to avoid the direct exercise of power, remain in the background, and rule indirectly through control of the main social institutions: government, economic system, mainstream media, and the science establishment.

The manufacture of consent

Also important, our rulers have used powerful tools of propaganda to indoctrinate and successfully manufacture consent to their rule and unending desire for capitalism’s products – a deeply embedded culture of capitalism. The overwhelming growth and triumph of the propaganda industry over the last century got a boost when a kinsman of Freud, Edward Bernays, brought Freud’s insights on unconscious desires to the US and created the advertising industry. Bernays went on to show the powerful minority how to use propaganda to manipulate the collective consciousness, calling it ‘public relations’ and schooling them in a cardinal rule of propaganda: always use language that diverts attention from unpleasant realities.

Ruling strata have successfully created false narratives around all major institutions to hide who rules America. As I wrote elsewhere,

Since the beginning of the republic, US elites have found in the language of freedom a magnificent weapon of mass deception. “Let Freedom Ring!” the siren song sang out. Pandering to both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, the powers that be offered different conceptions of what ‘free’ means, all of which on deeper analysis ring hollow. ‘Free speech’, ‘free press’, ‘free elections’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘free competition’, ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, ‘free world’ and the like were all peddled to a population that got only a show window view, a shallow misrepresentation of how these policies work out over time in a society where from the outset wealth and power have been concentrated in few hands. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes folktale, it is important to defrock and to deconstruct this language in the light of what has happened historically in our society in the guise of freedom.

What does a closer look at freedom in our society reveal? The main deceptive device in the language of freedom is to focus on individual freedom in the short run and to hide the inevitable consequences over time in which a few that have the means, unless thwarted, capture the means to control the lives of the many. Thus unrestricted freedom ends in loss of freedom.   Speech that functions properly to promote the public good turns out to be not free but expensive, and thus becomes the privilege of the wealthy minority who use it to indoctrinate the rest of us. Enterprise appears free until one’s enterprise is subjected to the inevitable hostile takeover by the powerful interests that exert monopoly power in most sectors of our so-called free market economy and reduce most people to wage slavery. Trade is not usually free, but favors the more powerful, imperial player, and so locks lesser economies into underdevelopment. Elections are not free but won by the candidate with the most funding. Academics, particularly in the applied sciences, know well that the price of academic freedom to criticize corporate power is institutional marginalization and the end of funding for their research.

Thus knowledge of the political economy of capitalism can offer eager students of the energy descent powerful analytical thinking tools to see through the fabric of fairy tales that propagandists are constantly fine-tuning. They tailor different versions to specific publics all along the political spectrum from techno-fundamentalism to Christian fundamentalism. Hence they persuade conservatives that government is the problem – when it is really only the agent of a powerful class, and they convince liberals that government would serve the people if there were just a little more regulatory red tape.

An extensive literature on the manufacture of consent and many other areas of political economy neatly exposes all these false narratives, and awaits energy descent writers who are willing to share its important insights on how our social system really works. An example of my own writing along these lines is The Alchemy of Language in the Pacification of the American People.

Keeping the system going beyond its demise date

Another reason to share the revelations of political economy that expose its false narratives is to help people see how ruling strata have created crutches that mask evidence of the energy descent that began decades ago, props that make the present situation more brittle and crisis prone, and will cause more distress as those chickens come home to roost . Here is a list of some of these, covered well in the literature:

  1. The expansion of credit to keep consumption going, thus mortgaging the future with debt at all levels of society.
  2. Financialization of the economy, anticipated decades ago in a major work of Marxian political economy, Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. The endless bailouts to prop up debt-ridden financial institutions.
  3. Offshoring of the US industrial economy. The result:

Cheap imports based on cheap foreign labor and unregulated raw materials extraction slowed the decline in US standard of living and actually increased wealth greatly in the US financial class. However, because US production for export declined, one result has been a ballooning trade deficit, which we paid for again by artificial means: the printing and sale of federal treasury bonds not backed by the production of real wealth.

4. Increasing reliance on the weapons industry to soften economic stagnation. As I have said elsewhere,

The weapons industry – one of our economy’s few remaining profit engines – is still helping to provide a semblance of normality in the US economy and keep public discontent from spilling over into revolt. Because the weapons industry depends on constant warfare to market and consume its ‘products’, US foreign policy is driven toward serial wars, partly to sustain the ‘health’ of this prop for an otherwise stagnant economy. But because a trillion dollar federal budget for warfare displaces the funding needed for social services – especially in a failing economy – the end result is the same: rising discontent.

5. Ignoring infrastructure dilapidation: utilities, transport, essential medical and educational institutions etc., to maintain a semblance of system solvency.

To begin to explain the above constellation of policy choices, one needs an operational knowledge of our political economy – how it is organized to insist on profit maximization at any cost. Taken as a whole, this policy pattern suggests that ruling strata have little allegiance to nations in which they happen to have residence. Rather, they use national armies and diplomatic muscle to protect their interests.

The costs of life in the system

Energy descent educators need to reveal the costs, the trade-offs inherent in capitalism’s ability to generate the vaunted material benefits of The American Way of Life. They need to draw on the copious literature in this area. Examples in the early wave of criticism in the 1950s-60s include works on planned obsolescence like Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers and the literature of cultural alienation, exemplified by Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and exposés of the emptiness of middle class suburban life like C. Wright Mills’ White Collar. More recently, Kunstler’s The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream identifies suburban sprawl as a product of the cheap energy era and attacks it both for its immense waste of natural resources and its spiritual and social emptiness. Other costs like the destruction of family and community and the loss of quality of life from living in an environment where pollution is inescapable in air water and food are well described in the literature as derivatives of the capitalist political economy.

In conclusion, educators who wish to school audiences in Reality 101 – to reveal the real world behind the veil of false narratives and misunderstood status of biophysical resources, to describe the present unique situation in human history and to prepare them for some sort of adaptation to the post-petroleum era – need to provide powerful tools for understanding how the world works, both the biophysical systems in which society is immersed and the peculiar political economy of capitalism that locks society into a self-destructive path.

Topics: Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Uncategorized | No Comments » |

​The struggle to integrate social and ecological science: its critical importance to the future of human society

By Karl North | September 4, 2016

I initially began this essay to make a case to the scientific community for a revision in the way science is done. However, I believe the issues and the arguments herein to be of such importance for the future of humanity that I tried to make it readable for the general public as well. If it inspires readers to gain the elementary knowledge of  capitalist political economy and systems ecology necessary to understand our present predicament, it will have served its purpose.

In the attempt to integrate disciplines that study natural and social systems, I think Hannah Holleman’s focus on methodology is an important starting point. At their best, I find both systems ecology and Marxist social science powerful because of their methods of inquiry, which I see as strikingly similar. They both look at phenomena as interconnected, systemic, historical and dialectical/dynamic. They both look for structural causes of behavior, that is, arising from the way systems are organized causally. So in my view the best way to integrate the disciplines is on the basis of that common analytical framework and method of inquiry. When workers in each learn elements of the discipline of the other, they will soon be delighted to see how much they have in common methodologically.

That said, I have not yet seen a good attempt to integrate the two disciplines. Levins and Lewontin’s work[1] reveals enough knowledge of both to do the job, and the integration is implicit in their writing, but they have not articulated it formally. At least they recognize the importance of the work of H.T. Odum, whose pioneering work laid the foundation of modern systems ecology, and have absorbed its method in their work.

Odum[2] has begun an integration using an analytical framework for energy flow in systems, which follows the same Laws of Thermodynamics in all types of systems. For example, t​he growth capacity of both a forest and​ an empire can be understood in terms of the available energy ​and how the system channels it​. Odum appears to have a critical understanding of capitalism as well, for his analysis rarely is inhibited by the usual false assumptions of conventional economics or political science about the laws of nature.

John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman’s The theory of unequal ecological exchange: a Marx-Odum dialectic represents a good next step. But it is long and tediously academic and needs a summary approach without the endless citations.

They and others like Rebecca Clausen have tried to develop ‘metabolic rift’ into a bridging concept. That’s a step forward, but only a start on integration.

Even Holleman and Foster and others​ (Kovel, OConnor, Burkett, etc.) expend too much effort on a “reconstruction and reaffirmation of Marx’s own critical-ecological outlook”. Little has come of that gleaning effort other than a confirmation of Marx’s materialist assumptions and a few indicators of ecological concerns. This should not be surprising because ecology did not emerge as a coherent discipline until long after his death. Engels’ Dialetics of Nature was a valiant attempt but premature due to the state of the science at that time (1883).

Other than the attempts described above, unfortunately I see a lot of analysis being driven only by increasing awareness of present social and environmental disintegration and not by adoption of appropriate methods of inquiry. Most ecologists and environmentalists tend to think that because they can see signs of increasing economic crisis they can analyze the situation without studying Marxist methods. Most Marxists who see intensifying ecological crisis think they can study the situation properly without learning systems ecology and the laws of nature. So it becomes another example of the classic problem of the six blind men and the elephant.

To retrace steps historically, one of the early landmark attempts at integrated analysis was William Catton’s Overshoot: The Revolutionary Basis of Ecological Change, published in 1982. Catton was a social scientist who realized the importance of learning ecology as a discipline. Although not a Marxist, he saw that no revolutionary politics could succeed without an understanding of and obedience to the laws of nature. Unlike most social scientists, he realized that humanity in the last analysis is just one species among many, and is subject to the same constraints as all others in the way it uses or misuses natural resources. So he predicted that all attempts at revolution organized by peasants or workers will be upstaged and potentially overruled by a revolution imposed by the present process of overshoot of planetary carrying capacity, which will lead inevitably to decline of industrial civilization as we know it.​

A key to understanding why overshoot is happening is the growth imperative built into capitalism. Theoretically, societies could impose limits to growth, but only if capitalism is replaced with a system that permits such politics. Endless growth is also built into biological imperatives to reproduce and expand population built into our DNA. In that respect we are no different from virtually all other species. Hence the biological imperative is manifest and plays a role in the rise and fall of civilizations long before the advent of capitalism.

However, the structurally created growth imperative of capitalism amplified the biological imperative. How does this imperative function? Briefly summarizing the work of Marxist and other critical social science, it derives from two key ‘rules’ of capitalist social organization: unrestrained economic competition and a system of allocation of capital investment that requires rent – lending at interest – formerly known as usury. The first rule compels businesses to grow to protect market share from competitors. To constantly grow they must borrow investment capital. The second requires enough growth to create the surplus needed to pay the interest on the borrowed capital, and eventually pay back the principal.

Added to the biological imperative and the systemic impetus to growth in capitalism is the historical convergence of the rise of capitalism with the development of a source of energy to power growth that was far cheaper and more concentrated than the sun, the power source of all previous growth. Until it brought civilization to the present conundrum – the rapid depletion and peaking of production of fossil energy and many other raw materials, this fossil fuel bonanza eliminated a major limitation on the growth of the human species and its economies.

The historical result is that within the last several centuries human populations have expanded to the point that human consumption of the planetary resource base overshoots earth’s carrying capacity two to four times. It is manifest in the rapid depletion of the raw materials available to maintain industrial civilization and in the attendant damage to essential ecological services. One consequence appears in the gradual decrease in growth of the global economy over recent decades. Most economists and other social scientists (including most Marxist social scientists) have tended to ignore this trend by theoretically “externalizing” the voracious economic effect on raw materials inputs because their disciplinary tradition assumes these inputs to be endless. Because nothing runs without energy, World GDP decline has followed the gradual end to cheap energy. The rate of global economic growth, running over 10% in the ‘golden age’ of the l950s, has dropped over the ensuing decades to close to zero in the mature industrial economies.

Because energy is the master resource, its increasing scarcity eventually raises its cost and reduces extraction of all other essential raw materials, most of which also show signs of increasing scarcity. Many minerals are close to or past peak production.

The overall consequence of planetary overshoot will be not only the end of growth, but the permanent degrowth of the industrial economy from loss of inputs including lost ecological services like clean water and air and fertile soil. Unlike problems in the past that could be fixed with technologies based on cheap energy and raw materials, this situation has no solution. Society must adapt to a powering down of industrial civilization. Neither conventional economic analysis nor ecological science alone can facilitate the adaptation, because of the limitations of these disciplines, studied separately, outlined above. We need a combination of ecological awareness of overshoot and a critical appreciation of the causes of overshoot in the capitalist system. From this perspective, the rapid integration of critical social science and systems ecology a la Odum becomes the new imperative.

Assuming that humanity finally gains a holistic, social-ecological understanding of how the world works, and the conundrums it presents, the next question is the political likelihood and options for acting on that understanding within the present global political economic system. To address that question requires a historically informed analysis of the system – how it got to be the way it is today.

Civilization or barbarism: When freedom becomes license

We are told that the beginning of agriculture was the beginning of civilization. What nonsense. If the label is to mean anything, the society we apply it to should be civilized, or at least aim to be. The ruling strata have hijacked the term, as they have with many words and phrases they use to indoctrinate, and used it to cover a new era of barbarism. As historians of all political stripes have observed, the advent of agriculture simply provided a windfall of new surplus that an already powerful minority expropriated and concentrated, creating affluent urban centers of imperial exploitation, keeping peripheries in relative poverty. Most all of the resultant attempts at civilization rose and then collapsed, as previously depicted in the timeline – The Rise and Fall of Empires. These city-states/empires became the signature of a new era of history, growing without restraint into cancerous pustules on the skin of the biosphere, and characterized by massive social and ecological exploitation. And we call that civilization?

So how should we define civilization and evaluate present efforts or lack thereof? When pressed, even rank individualists agree that our species is a social animal. Historically, political frameworks that failed to value society as a whole and to limit individual liberty accordingly have tended toward conflict, social chaos and what political philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously called a war of all against all, or barbarism. Thus all attempts to become more civilized in human history have sought a balance between freedom and license that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number – that is, a balance between individual freedom and social constraints in law and ultimately cultural norms that work to optimize the common good. I will use that measure of a balance to look critically at the present situation of humanity and its political institutions.

The dominant form of large scale social organization in the world today is capitalism. The most extreme form of capitalism – producing the greatest good for the smallest number - is the US version. Building on the assumption of individual salvation in the Protestant ethic, capitalism serves the class that created it for its benefit by pushing society to accept the private interest of individuals as its paramount value. From the perspective of civilization as a fair balance between liberty and license, therefore capitalism is a social pathology. My thesis will be that, as the new barbarians, the US Empire and its vassal industrialized economies are spreading that pathology throughout global humanity, and that in the US this pathology has infected both the political left and the right, each in different ways. Efforts to restore the balance with mixed economies have met with limited success in different times and places, but enough to warrant brief mention herein as well.

The capitalist ideal embraces license as a way of organizing society – by putting its economy and its resource base under private control. Because its economist priesthood preaches unlimited growth of both the economy and private wealth with no public restraint, over the last five centuries this form of political economy has penetrated in a virulent imperial form almost everywhere on the planet. The damage to the quality of life of global masses has been so great as to spark a reaction in the direction of public control of economies, culminating in the first experiments with socialism on a nationwide scale, and the dilution of some of the capitalist national economies into mixed economies, at least for a time, notably in Western Europe and the global south. The damage of unrestrained exploitation of the global natural resource base has caused enough depletion of finite resources and damage to essential ecosystem processes to threaten the extinction of our species, but the reaction in the direction of reform has yet to achieve much at the level of national government.

Attempted pathways to civilization

Those in the West who consider themselves liberals have tried to amend capitalism to make it more socially just – one that achieves a better distribution of power and wealth. They have not understood the degree of concentration of wealth and power that has occurred under capitalism, thus their gains have been illusory, amounting to little more than trickle down from the ruling strata in temporary times of prosperity, much of it gained from imperial pillage of the global south.

Moreover, liberals exhibit little awareness that the present industrial level of production of wealth is cannibalistic of the planetary resource base it relies on, and is therefore suicidal. As already described, Industrial civilization based on ravenous consumption of essential but finite resources is like the proverbial sawyer cutting the branch he is sitting on.

On the other hand, those who see themselves as political conservatives have traditionally sought to maximize individual freedom. Generally they exhibit no understanding of how those chickens come home to roost: over time a minority takes advantage of the freedom to capture most of the wealth and power and so-doing reduces the freedom and quality of life of the majority, reducing the majority to wage slavery for example. Most conservatives, like the liberals, also fail to see the dead end of a civilization that pursues endless growth.

These liberal and conservative conceptions of the way our society works are typical of the false narratives that the ruling strata use to pacify the public. They will not address the unprecedented dual challenge of peak industrial civilization and severe concentration of wealth that is revealed by the integrated insights of critical political economy and systems ecology. These insights suggest that we need two-fold system change: a political economy that replaces capitalism and replaces industrial economies based on depletion and damage of the resource base. We need to shift our approach from reductionist management of our impact inside of that system to a holistic stance that recognizes the need to change the system itself. If, when and even whether that kind of change is possible is the subject of a whole other paper. A growing literature on the subject exists. I have suggested some scenarios in other writings.[3]


[1] For example, Lewontin, Richard and Richard Levins, 2007. Biology Under the Influence, Monthly Review Press.

[2] Odum, H.T., 2007. Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-first Century, Columbia University Press.

[3] Scenarios of Political Response to Energy Descent Crises

Food Production Systems in the Decline of the Industrial Age: A Call for a Socio-ecological Synthesis

Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios

Visioning County Food – Part One

Visioning County Food – Part Two

Visioning County Food – Part Three

Visioning County Food – Part Four

Visioning County Food – Part Five

Visioning County Food – Part Six

Topics: Political and Economic Organization, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization | 4 Comments » |

Humans Have Energetically Overpowered the Earth

By Karl North | September 7, 2015

All life depends on constant consumption of energy. Nothing happens without it. More energy, more stuff happens: goods, services, population, raw materials depletion, pollution, damage to soil, water and other ecosystem processes that are essential to all life, including humanity. Less energy, less of all of the above. For most of several billion years of natural history, the energy supply consisted mainly of current solar gain. Life, including human life when it appeared, self-organized into ecosystems that operate well with that level of energy flow, no more, no less.

Some solar energy accumulated in storage, primarily in forests and soil organic matter. Again, all life has self-organized into ecosystems that operate well with the slow rate of energy liberation from storage in living and dead biomass in natural ecosystems, a rate that roughly equals the refresh rate. Ten thousand years ago, humans began to learn how to consume the storage energy faster than replenishment occurs. Ancient urban societies arose using this rapid rate of energy consumption, depleted it, and all collapsed as a result. It must have taken considerable hubris for us to call, in retrospect, all of these ultimate ecological failures ‘civilization’.

Although ancient ‘civilizations’ were repeatedly overpowered using up energy from storage biomass, apparently we never learned the lesson. Two hundred years ago, humans began to draw heavily on fossil energy, a source never before available to life on the planet. Because its quality and concentration is many times greater than current solar gain or even accumulated storage, this energy source has provided more power consumption and attendant production of stuff than the biosphere was ever built to withstand. The evidence of this is now visible everywhere we look. Just as a car will quickly wear out if used at higher RPM than it is designed for (the red zone on your dashboard tachometer), planetary ecosystems eventually wear out when too much power is applied.

[To read enlarged image, right click on it and open in new tab]

Here is the crux of the matter. The kind of power is irrelevant: ‘clean power’ or ‘renewable energy’ is ultimately no solution when too much is used. If it were possible to replace consumption of fossil energy with the same level of power use from another source, it would wear out the earth just as fast. And yet many environmentalists advocate just that. The earth is so overpowered by fossil energy consumption compared to levels its ecosystems were adapted to over billions of years, that any significant attempt to replace current power consumption with another source, were it successful, would only perpetuate the industrial juggernaut, and thus continue the present destruction of the planetary resource base on which the human species is dependent.

As resource analyst Tim Murray puts it, “The greatest calamity that could ever be inflicted on human and non-human species alike would be the discovery of an abundant, cheap and perpetual energy source, or unlimited availability of cheap food and universal and uninhibited access to bountiful water supplies.”[i]

What to do? If by ‘solution’ we mean wishful attempts to prolong the inevitable decline of the industrial way of life with some technology to keep the juggernaut going, there is no solution. We just need to power down, or wait for the inevitable decline to catch us unawares. Seen through the ecosystemic lens and from the long reach of natural history, we do not have a shortage of anything, we have a longage of expectations. We need to stop grasping at straws and reduce our energy use to the level for which the biosphere was designed. Of course that is hardly politically palatable. Most people refuse to accept the situation and will not brook being governed by anyone who does. Think Jimmy Carter.

So what to do? Well, individuals and groups who do accept the situation can “collapse now and avoid the rush”. Easier said than done, you say, so maybe it’s time to get started.


[i] http://sinkinglifeboat.blogspot.ch/2010/02/ten-ecological-reasons-to-oppose-mass.html

Topics: Political and Economic Organization, Recent Additions, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Uncategorized | 1 Comment » |

Forces Driving the US Political Economy

By Karl North | May 4, 2015

The Crutches and the Consequences

Since the 1970s US economic growth has slowed, resulting in a declining standard of living for the majority in the lower classes. The decline in material standard in the US would be far worse but was artificially propped up in several ways.

First, we allowed foreign imports to replace our industrial production, initially from Japan and Germany, then gradually from Taiwan, Korea, and finally from China and other so-called Asian Tigers. These economies industrialized rapidly, in part because our financial class has increasingly transferred its capital investment to them, in effect moving our industrial economy gradually offshore to foreign lands.

Cheap imports based on cheap foreign labor and unregulated raw materials extraction slowed the decline in US standard of living and actually increased wealth greatly in the US financial class. However, because US production for export declined, one result has been a ballooning trade deficit, which we paid for again by artificial means: the printing and sale of federal treasury bonds not backed by the production of real wealth. The enormous US trade deficit compares to a situation where you feed a neighbor from your garden for years on end, which keeps his family from starvation, but he pays you back only with an occasional Twinkie. Eventually such trade inequities have negative consequences. The result over the last decades has been a 75% decline in the purchasing power of the dollar, as measured against the price of gold. The fact that the dollar has any value is only due to the lingering confidence in the economic stability of US as a superpower. As US imperial power is now itself in decline, that confidence will gradually evaporate.

Another negative result of the increasingly off-shored industrial sector was that much of the industrial working class has been pushed into lower paying retail, clerical and service economy work. Fifty years ago, one job assured a family a middle class standard of living; now a family needs 2-4 jobs to maintain the same standard.

The second prop for the US standard of living, especially in the last twenty years, has been the accelerating expansion of credit fostered by a policy of abnormally low interest rates. Today credit or outright subsidy is necessary to sustain economic activity at all levels – consumerism, government programs and core industries like energy, agriculture and automotive. Also, low interest rates have fostered a speculative economy, creating artificial bubbles like the real estate bubble that burst in 2008. Little of this activity is backed by the production of real wealth in our economy, so ultimately cannot be sustained.

Unfortunately the only possible outcome in the coming years of this sort of financial engineering to paper over systemic economic problems in the US is the failure of the two props, the trade deficit and the credit explosion, which will leave US society to face the full force of economic decline. The temporary saving grace is that the credit disease along with the tendency of the vast increase in upper class wealth to seek increasingly riskier investment opportunities, has spread to the other mature industrial economies – Japan and Europe – making their currencies even weaker than the dollar, and making the dollar seem strong, for now. On an increasingly energy scarce planet, those nations suffer from an additional handicap vis-à-vis the US: they have little or no domestic source of oil. As the ‘fracking frenzy’ in the US reveals itself to be a short-lived and partly artificial bubble, constantly dropping US conventional oil production will gradually put this country in the same situation as Japan and Europe.

The Perpetual Motion  Bailout Machine

One could explain the passivity in our society in response to decades of slow decline due to de-industrialization in terms of the boiling frog effect: it was so gradual that we just got used to it. On the other hand, the ongoing government bailouts of our main private financial institutions have pandered so blatantly to the upper investor class that the public, while not yet in revolt, now senses a rottenness in the very core of our system of power. On top of some of the biggest lump sum bailouts in history, continuing injections of $85 billion per month into our financial system did not stimulate the economy or produce jobs as proclaimed; instead these policies fed speculation and an artificial stock market bubble that, again, benefited only the upper investor class. And since these funds were created with no basis in the production of real wealth, eventually the public will suffer for it one way or another in lost purchasing power. The low interest and bailout policy is now in a dead end street: to avoid an immediate melt down of the financial system it has become a perpetual motion machine, but the longer it continues to in effect print money, the more disastrous the eventual breakdown.

The Underlying Erosion of the Economic Resource Base

The processes of financialization and deindustrialization have been obvious to anyone who looks for them. However, few people other than students of ecology and natural resources have become aware of the effects of global resource depletion, whose costs, like a subtle undertow at the beach, are gradually dragging down the global economy, slowing growth, and eventually throwing it into reverse.

Because nothing happens in an economy without energy consumption, energy is the master resource. Also, cheap energy is responsible for easy access to other resources that are essential to operate an industrial society. Hence a decline in available energy causes an economy to stop growing and begin to shrink.  Technologies, no matter how spectacular, will in the end not solve the problem, for technologies consume energy too, usually more than the economy consumed before they were brought online. The ability of technologies to conserve energy by improving efficiency is limited, and the energy conserved usually gets consumed elsewhere in the economy, depleting the resource base even faster.

The present situation of the human species is that the combination of cheap energy and policies of unrestrained growth over the last two centuries has accelerated depletion of energy and other resources to the point that they are becoming too scarce and costly to be affordable for more and more of the uses that are customary in an industrial economy. This happens because increasing amounts of energy are necessary to extract and process the fossil energy and other raw materials that we have come to depend on. Hence this energy is no longer available for other purposes. On a finite planet, no solution exists for an economy that is running out of easily obtained nonrenewable resources. Thus as the hundred year oil extravaganza ends, the global economy will inevitably shrink to the point where it can operate on currently available sunlight, as did all the world economies until the advent of fossil fuels in the late 18th century.

The economic effects of depletion are varied, and are subtle at first. The declining material standard of living of the US working class since the 1970s is partly due to the rising costs of depletion. Also, our industrial infrastructure was built with cheap resources and can no longer be maintained as their scarcity/costs rise. So we have let US infrastructure deteriorate: transport system, utilities, essential medical and educational institutions. Methods of production in most sectors of the economy, designed to consume energy extravagantly when it was cheap, are becoming increasingly uneconomical. The transport system, especially in the US where it was shaped primarily to maximize private profit, is extremely energy inefficient. In US agriculture over 80% of the prodigious quantities of energy consumed comes from oil. However, in the present US political climate, policy changes to mitigate or adapt to the effects of the energy descent are inconceivable, for they would subject our privately run economic system to massive public intervention, which we have been programmed to believe is taboo.

The weapons industry – one of our economy’s few remaining profit engines – is still helping to provide a semblance of normality in the US economy and keep public discontent from spilling over into revolt. Because the weapons industry depends on constant warfare to market and consume its ‘products’, US foreign policy is driven toward serial wars, partly to sustain the ‘health’ of this prop for an otherwise stagnant economy. But because a trillion dollar federal budget for warfare displaces the funding needed for social services – especially in a failing economy – the end result is the same: rising discontent.

Conclusions

Here I have only summarily described the forces driving our political economy at the start of the era of energy descent. The Interdependence of Phantom Financial Wealth, Phantom Carrying Capacity and Phantom Democratic Power attempts to explain in more detail how our form of capitalism has shaped these forces over time.

As the props described above have a short half life, eventually they will no longer work to mask the decline of industrial civilization due to resource depletion and associated ecological damage. Hence it should be clear that the next decades will be nothing like the last ones. What will happen in the future depends partly on how we respond to the inevitable changes these forces are bringing about. Potential responses as a nation to the forces described above are explored in Scenarios of Political Response to Energy Descent Crises and Locked In: The Paradox of Capitalism.

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High Level Rats Who Bail from the Rat Race: Disillusioned Conservative Cabinet Level and Financial Class Insiders

By Karl North | March 1, 2015

There exists a long history and literature of criticism of the modern social system based on the concentrated wealth and power of private capital. Most of the critics are writing from outside the centers of power. What is new is the radical rejection of the system now voiced by people with long careers high enough in the system to view its inner workings, who have left those careers in disgust with what they have learned and have begun writing regularly about it. Here is a short list of these system expatriates and links to their exposés.

1. Paul Craig Roberts. Many govt positions including Treasury Undersecretary in Reagan administration. http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/

“By supporting Israel, declared to be a terrorist state by a few moral governments that still exist, and accused of war crimes by the UN General Secretary, Washington is in violation of its own laws against supporting terrorist states. Of course, Washington itself is the leading terrorist state. Therefore, it is illegal under US law for Washington to support itself.  Washington, however, does not accept law, either domestic or international, as a constraint on its actions. Washington is “exceptional, indispensable.”  No one else counts. No law, no Constitution, and no humane consideration have authority to constrain Washington’s will. In its claims Washington surpasses those of the Third Reich.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/08/11/reckless-interventions/

2. David Stockman. Director of the OMB under President Reagan, former US Representative, best-selling author of The Great Deformation, and veteran financier who held executive positions in Blackstone and Salomon Bros.: thus, an insider’s insider. Few people understand the ways in which Washington DC, The Fed, and Wall Street work and intersect better than he does. http://davidstockmanscontracorner.com/

“If you look at the entire radar screen of things developing both domestically and internationally, we are plunging deep into a perfect storm of policy failure. The American Imperium is collapsing. There is blowback everywhere.” [from concurrent failures in US policy across foreign, monetary, economic, and fiscal fronts]

3. Chris Martenson. Former financial class professional, research economist, affluent Connecticut conservative. Left that life to co-author Peak Prosperity.com and The Crash Course, which explain why industrial civilization is at peak prosperity and on the way permanently down.

“It’s time to face the facts: A dangerous convergence in the economy, energy and the environment will make the ‘twenty-teens’ one of the most challenging decades ever. The Crash Course explains this predicament and provides sufficient context to support the idea that it is well past time to begin preparing for a very different future.”

4. Nate Hagen. Former successful Wall St. careerist who managed investment for the 1%. Vice President at Salomon Bros. and Lehman Bros. Co-creator of The Oil Drum, long the most informative website on the peaking of industrial civilization. Second life as lecturer on life in the energy descent, with a new PhD in natural resources. The Converging Economic and Environmental Crisis

“The financial crisis that has blighted the world’s richest countries since 2008 was a turning point in human history because it ushered in an era in which economies will tend to shrink rather than grow. Incomes will decline because the natural resources required for growth—particularly oil, the lifeblood of the world economy—can no longer be extracted in growing quantities.” Fleeing Vesuvius

5. Charles Hugh Smith. Quitting a potential career as a financial analyst, he continues as a freelance writer and carpenter who currently runs a blog critique of world economic and financial affairs.  http://www.oftwominds.com/blog.html In his own words,

“The blog is #7 in CNBC’s top alternative financial sites, and is republished on numerous popular sites such as Zero Hedge, Financial Sense, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I am frequently interviewed by alternative media personalities such as Max Keiser, and am a contributing writer on peakprosperity.com.”

He has published a book on how to leave the rat race. Get a Job, Build a Real Career, and Defy a Bewildering Economy

6. Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel Prize winning economist and Columbia University professor with high level advisory positions in the Clinton administration. Former Chief Economist at the World Bank, he left in disgust to become a radical critic of the failed economic development goals and policies of the Bank, the IMF, the Treasury Department and other such institutions that manage investment and economic policy in the US and underdeveloped nations. Author of Globalization and Its Discontents

7. Michael Hudson. Economics professor and former Wall Street analyst and consultant. Now writes scathing critiques at http://michael-hudson.com/ of how the US and its financial class handle world affairs. His many books include Global Fracture: The New International Economic Order

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What is Fascism?

By Karl North | September 30, 2014

Who cares what fascism is? We in the US should, because elements of it are creeping into our society, activated on an as-needed basis at present to keep its development somewhat below the radar of the masses. Because the term is so often misused, here I will summarize a relatively rigorous conception of fascism like the one used in Marxian political economy. Its rigor is that it is predictable as a stage of capitalism that emerges under certain conditions of severe societal crisis brought on by economic depression at home and loss of power abroad. I will point to its history in Europe and unfolding events in the US today to exemplify what I see as defining characteristics of fascism.

A Stage of Capitalism

In this conception, fascism is a response to severe, systemic crisis in a capitalist society. Capitalist systems are designed ideally to put the common wealth – all property, raw materials, production facilities and distribution of goods and services – in private hands, directly or indirectly under the control of a business and financial oligarchy. In times of crisis, property and most profits remain privatized but some control over production is surrendered to the governing regime. So fascism is not the preferred stage of capitalism, but is adopted when crisis levels demand more authoritarian, centralized control of the economy. In the high crisis levels of WWII, Nazi Germany commanded Mercedes Benz to build tanks instead of cars. And Washington ordered General Motors to do likewise, as part of a ‘war economy’ under government control.

Because fascism is not squarely anti-capitalist, and is in fact a stage of capitalism, capitalists in societies not suffering a fascist stage are sympathetic to fascism in other countries. US and European industrial elites supported the rise of fascism in Germany until and covertly even after the German declaration of war[1]. After the war, they were happy to rehabilitate the fascist regimes of Franco and Salazar in Spain and Portugal that had been allies of the Nazis, quietly reinstate German war criminals to high office or, in the worst cases, allow German and other fascist mass murderers to escape prosecution by emigrating to the Americas. Today the Western ‘democracies’ support the fascist ‘orange revolutions’ in Eastern Europe, including the overtly Nazi current regime orchestrated by Washington in Ukraine. In the attempt to retain control of Arab oil the US Empire has not hesitated to support Muslim extremists to create ethnic conflict, weaken and balkanize anti-imperialist regimes, and make them more compliant. The violently authoritarian, exclusionary character of some of these jihadi groups is an essential ingredient of fascist ideological control. So while fascism is currently only incipient in imperial centers, it is encouraged when necessary to manage imperial control in peripheral client states.

The goal of fascism is to maintain a capitalist system in the face of crisis by adopting a number of authoritarian methods that would not be needed in more normal times.

The trend toward dictatorial government that is characteristic of fascism extends not just to the economy but to all areas of society. In WWII, rationing replaced some capitalist control of markets. So it is likely to occur again in the US as the present crisis deepens. In US law, all the necessary elements of fascist control are already in place. The  so-called Patriot Acts enacted during the Bush regime and reconfirmed and extended under Obama end the most basic protections from dictatorship that citizens have, essential civil rights that date back to the Magna Carta.

A Unique Form of Dictatorship

Totalitarian mind control is a cheaper tool of social control than brute force, and is a defining characteristic of fascism. In recent decades the US mainstream media, always under a large degree of capitalist control, align their manufacture of an illusory reality increasingly with the official story coming out of Washington. Increasing censorship[2] and propaganda in schools and other institutions also is used to ‘dumb down’ the public.[3] Oligarchs like the Koch brothers have promoted authoritarian religious fundamentalism to the point where it governs the collective consciousness of nearly half of US citizens, who become foot soldiers waging war against science and voting for public policies that drive the country toward fascism.[4] Media and government control the increasingly illiterate lower classes and ill-informed professional class with a populist message that has only a semblance of substance in policy. In Nazi Germany it was called National Socialism. In the US, socialism has been made a dirty word, so propagandists are left with lame slogans like ‘a return to growth and job creation’.

All sorts of regimes adopt more centralized decision-making in times of crisis. Fascism achieves mind control in a distinctive way; it promotes the myth of national moral or cultural superiority to justify expansionist violence abroad and repression (called ‘national sacrifice’) at home.

It commonly uses myths of racial, religious or ethnic preeminence in this way, as in the Nazi claim of Aryan supremacy, which justified extermination of all groups that they could call ‘untermenschen’ (subhuman) and confiscation of their assets. Aryan supremacy was used to justify the Holocaust and the scorched earth policy of German expansion into Slavic lands by way of systematic massacre, town by town. The US oligarchy today, faced with declining imperial control worldwide, depends ever more heavily on the myth of ‘American Exceptionalism’ – the illusion that our system of government and economy is superior – to justify military invasion and occupation, often dressed up as ‘humanitarian intervention’, to put out fires of resistance to the Empire. Similarly, Zionist fascism relies on scriptural references to a “chosen people” and a “promised land” to justify its conquest of Palestine by ethnic cleansing and its continuing genocidal expansion toward a “Greater Israel”. The US has a long tradition of racism that is being used to promote a fascist mentality. Attempts in recent decades to clean up the rhetoric have caused racists to use less obvious language while promoting their agenda with ever more intensity, as is manifest in increasing police violence in inner cities, prisons, and among immigrant populations.

Increasing regimentation and surveillance at home contribute to totalitarian control. Civil society organizations come increasingly under central control. The Nazis created the Brown-shirts – youth groups like a paramilitary form of Boy Scouts – to indoctrinate the younger generations, and used them to spy on parents and police neighborhoods.

In the digital age surveillance is easier: the agencies like the NSA and compliant internet corporations like Google invisibly blanket the country with constant surveillance, as whistle blowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have revealed. To prevent such revelations the Obama regime has stepped up persecution and prosecution of whistle blowers far more than any previous administration, even reaching out with a long imperial arm to force Sweden to capture and deliver Assange on trumped up charges.

In the name of national security Washington uses the exaggerated threat of international terrorism to scare the nation into tolerating a creeping police state. Police in the US are now equipped and trained to act like an occupation army, and have resorted increasingly to police violence and repressive curfews and lock-downs in isolated instances. Authorities used the Boston marathon bombing, a crime never really solved, to test out and habituate a million-fold urban population to a lock-down and a frightening and sinister house-to-house invasion of privacy by heavily armed militarized personnel.

The Contributory Crisis

At this point the question arises: Is there really a deepening crisis sufficient to be driving US society toward the conception of fascism described above? Indeed a crisis exists that is unprecedented in human history, which has three related elements. Its underlying driver, affecting all nations, is resource depletion and its associated damage to essential ecological services that the global expansion of industrial society has brought about. A temporary 200-year injection of fossil energy has permitted the growth of an industrial civilization whose consumption of resources has now overshot manifold the ability of the planet to sustain it. Those chickens are now coming home to roost. Cheap energy, the enabler of wealth and productivity during this period, is no longer cheap. Nothing happens without out energy. Hence, less energy = less economic activity = less industrial civilization. The inevitable result of over-extension is shrinkage, which is already happening in the mature industrial economies and their less industrialized client states.

The second element is an economic crisis that is partly a function of the depletion just described. In the words of Naomi Klein, “[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.”[5] The economy is losing the war; the economic crisis  deepens as long as the capitalist system remains in place. The other reason for the economic crisis has to do with the present evolutionary stage of capitalism in the mature industrial economies, the US, the European Union and Japan. In these economies, economic growth has slowed for a number of reasons as a characteristic of maturity. In response, the international financial class is exporting the industrial sector of these economies to more rapidly growing countries with cheaper labor where it can continue to make the high profits to which this class is accustomed. Because industry is the core of an economy, this slows growth in the mature capitalist nations even more. On top of that, the financial class is exploiting one of the remaining sources of financial profit in the mature economies: a massive expansion of credit/debt including high risk speculative investments. These actions prop up the domestic consumer economy and stock market temporarily, and thus mask the crisis with cheap imported goods, but cannot last, and will worsen the inevitable crash.

The third element in the crisis is the addiction to “The American Way of Life” in the mature economies, strongly reinforced by indoctrination to a fairy tale view of reality created by the capitalist controlled media and government. The result is widespread denial of the crisis, generations of people without the skills to adapt to a post-industrial economy, and mass deception/delusion as to the nature of the crisis. In short a zombified populace.

In “Progress”, Blowback and the Future of Industrial Society I have described the three-part crisis summarized above in more detail.

Under these circumstances, when the reality of the crisis hits hard enough, it seems likely that anger in such an ill-informed populace will replace illusions, making many Americans vulnerable to the demagoguery on which fascism thrives. One can only hope that the economic crisis weakens central government in the US enough to preclude the emergence of a powerful fascist state.


[1] The film Remains of the Day is a famous story of collaboration with Nazi Germany in the British aristocracy.

[2] http://www.sott.net/article/251402-Young-Persons-Called-to-Private-Grand-Jury-for-Owning-Books

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/26/books-censorship-prisons-schools-free-speech-un-shakespeare

[4] http://www.pewforum.org/2014/09/22/public-sees-religions-influence-waning-2/

[5] This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

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The Alchemy of Language in the Pacification of the American People

By Karl North | July 14, 2014

Orwell’s term “doublethink”[1], the use of language to create a false picture of reality, has spawned a large literature, but that exposure has not stopped powerful interests from inventing new ways to use the capacity of language to control thought.

Something primed me many years ago to automatically search for the camouflage, innuendo, and outright misrepresentation of meaning that appears to be a subtext of much use of language. I can only guess at the possible influences: formal education in anthropology and linguistics in early life, fluency in a couple of foreign languages and brave stabs at a few others, a brief acquaintance with later Chomsky protégé and political framing[2] analyst George Lakoff (also in graduate school), my eventual assimilation of the great Chomsky’s analysis[3] of the “manufacture of consent”, and perhaps most of all, the effects of coming of age politically in the upheavals of the 1960s.

It no longer takes much to disrobe the most innocent-sounding terms, once one is willing to examine them critically. As illusions fall away, they create a snowball effect by provoking questions about the official narratives in other areas of life. Calling the medical industrial syndicate in the US ‘health care’, for example, when much of it is so obviously nothing but an expensive treatment racket. Or, speaking of ‘the Western Democracies’ as our media incessantly do, when there is obviously no regime anywhere on the globe that fulfills the demands of “by the people, for the people, of the people”, or is even structured so that it might potentially do so. Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish judge on the US Supreme Court, said it in a nutshell: a society can have the wealth in few hands, or it can have democracy; it cannot have both. By this measure, most societies have no chance at a real democracy that works.

So from my vantage point, the success of semantic trickery, now combined with powerful graphics and video, to create a nation of consumers addicted to chewing our way pell-mell through first our own raw materials, then those plundered from other nations, never ceases to fascinate. That was just the beginning of the achievements of ‘public relations’. Amidst the new era of global degrowth due to the end of cheap energy, which is causing increasing suffering and revolts against oligarchic regimes worldwide, the power of language has succeeded in this country in making us the most pacified people on the planet. How does this happen?

The Myth of Absolute Freedom

Since the beginning of the republic, US elites have found in the language of freedom a magnificent weapon of mass deception. “Let Freedom Ring!” the siren song sang out. Pandering to both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, the powers that be offered different conceptions of what ‘free’ means, all of which on deeper analysis ring hollow. ‘Free speech’, ‘free press’, ‘free elections’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘free competition’, ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, ‘free world’ and the like were all peddled to a population that got only a show window view, a shallow misrepresentation of how these policies work out over time in a society where from the outset wealth and power have been concentrated in few hands. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes folktale[4], it is time to defrock and to deconstruct this language in the light of what has happened historically in our society in the guise of freedom.

What does a closer look at freedom in our society reveal? The main deceptive device in the language of freedom is to focus on individual freedom in the short run and to hide the inevitable consequences over time in which a few that have the means, unless thwarted, capture the means to control the lives of the many. Thus unrestricted freedom ends in loss of freedom.   Speech that functions properly to promote the public good turns out to be not free but expensive, and thus becomes the privilege of the wealthy minority who use it to indoctrinate the rest of us. Enterprise appears free until one’s enterprise is subjected to the inevitable hostile takeover by the powerful interests that exert monopoly power in most sectors of our so-called free market economy. Trade is not usually free, but favors the more powerful, imperial player, and so locks lesser economies into underdevelopment. Elections are not free but won by the candidate with the most funding. Academics, particularly in the applied sciences, know well that the price of academic freedom to criticize corporate power is institutional marginalization and the end of funding for their research.

The Ideology of Political Freedom

The success of ‘freedom’ as a weapon of mass deception manifests itself in different ways depending on political viewpoint. For those convinced of the value of unlimited private enterprise, government should be limited to defending the republic. This of course was a cunning illusion, or delusion on the part of many in the working classes who were so persuaded, for the historical pattern of government behavior from the beginning of the republic has been to subsidize private enterprise with the workers’ taxes. More importantly, libertarian policies concentrate private power in an oligarchy that then exercises an unaccountable tyranny over everyone, much of it by making government its servant, thereby diminishing liberty for all.

For the liberals, those convinced of the value of government to improve the quality of life of the citizenry, reliance on free speech and the electoral process, the constitutional forms of government, to work for the common good if used properly, were the illusions. For these forms were always easily bent to serve the interests of the rich, as we indicated above. Liberals cite our free speech and electoral system to justify their belief that our government, if it is not working to their liking, just needs a few repairs. What they forget is that speech that makes a difference is not free; it is expensive. And in a society where the rich can spend billions more than the rest of us, they control the flow of information. They use this concentrated power to control minds, to engineer consent to their rule, by controlling elections through the control of information. Moreover they use their power over information to convince the majority that our subjugation is not real, that we live in a free society where the sky is the limit and, to paraphrase Steinbeck, we are all only temporarily embarrassed millionaires. So free speech alone, without an equal distribution of wealth, is historically revealed as worthless as one of the cornerstones of the democracy liberals cherish.

Thus from both of the widely held political viewpoints the government is correctly seen as failing the people, but for different illusory reasons.

Our extreme attachment to individual freedom seems strange and naïve to foreigners who have a more balanced sense of values: the French, for example, for whom fraternité and égalité are necessary counterweights to liberté. The English language once acknowledged liberty in excess as ‘license’, but that word has all but disappeared from our vocabulary.  Historians like Christopher Lasch[5] have described the fertile ground in which our addiction has grown: a culture of individualism and self-absorption[6], itself partly a product of many generations of dominance of a Protestant ethic shorn of most of the “brother’s keeper” communal values of early Christianity and even surviving threads of it in certain schools of Catholicism. Lasch points to a pathological manifestation of extreme freedom in both the unfettered capitalism of the libertarian right and the “do your own thing” self-indulgence of the sixties left.

The unfortunate result of the obsession in our society with individual freedom is the breakdown of community and even of the family. The breakdown is occurring wherever the maximize-profit-at-any-price economy takes hold and market values supplant human values. It is most evident here in the US in the most extreme version of that economy, and at slower rates across the planet as other societies fall under the spell of our imperial cultural values.

The Mirage of Democracy: The Manufacture of Consent

As the statement by Brandeis implied, real political power in any society can come from only two places: concentrated private wealth or a well-organized and well-informed, class-conscious popular movement. Because wealth in the US is so concentrated in a minority, and because that minority has used its wealth to control the mass media, it has successfully employed sophisticated tools honed in the advertising business to constantly manufacture and maintain in the public mind an ‘official story’ of how our society works that is a tissue of fairy tales.

One of the most blatant yet widely accepted fairy tales is the one about what the mass media call “the Western liberal democracies”. Because in most of these societies real power resides in an oligarchy inside a plutocracy, the role of government is mostly reduced to serving those interests. Public so-called servants (more seductive semantics) in these regimes are only power brokers for an oligarchy, not real sources of power. The role of politicians therefore is to run a Disneyland stage show of democracy, not the real thing. They must constantly walk a tightrope where they appear to serve the public interest while in reality serving concentrated private capital.

As described earlier, this stage show misleads both liberals and conservatives about the function of government and its employees under these conditions. Politicians must be stage managers for the oligarchy although some may delude themselves otherwise. They are assisted by propagandists who convince conservatives that government itself is to blame for its failure to serve the people, thereby neatly deflecting blame from the oligarchy. Other propagandist ideologues convince liberals that because in theory the formal structure of government (elections, separation of powers, etc.) permits democracy, it will actually happen if we just try a little harder. On the rare occasions when a mass movement temporarily overcomes its indoctrination and pulls off a legislative win for the public good, the liberal ideologues exploit it as evidence that “the system actually works”. However, the subsequent history of these occasional wins reveals that they rarely last very long.  Politicians, ever obedient to power, follow a historical pattern and quietly erode such gains using a variety of time-tested tools: they weaken the law, create loopholes, avoid enforcement, or rescind it in the dead of night. They know almost instinctively that the longer they leave a law in place that the plutocracy opposes, the more they risk the loss of their jobs and government careers.

The Mirage of Well-Being: The Manufacture of Desire

The endlessly repeated label ‘free market economy’ is used to persuade us that the economy democratically serves the public interest through the anonymous market forces of supply and demand free of government interference. The public is told it achieves the society it wants by its market choices: by shopping. In reality the decisions of the minority investor class shape an economy by manufacturing demand for those products that best serve its interests. Moreover, a brief critical inspection reveals heavy government intervention in the “free market” to subsidize big business, ignore toxicity in both products and byproducts and crush labor’s right to a living wage.

As a result the average citizen of the US consumes the resource base of the planet about thirty times faster than a third world peasant, measured as an ecological footprint. In energy terms we use 35,000 calories to feed a lifestyle in which our bodies need only 2000 calories of food. Much of the rest is what the economists call discretionary consumption, not really necessary for survival. And much of that consumption is an addiction created by the power of advertising.

The End of the American Way of Life and the Cover Up of Collapse

The myth of endless freedom seemed OK as long as the illusion of an endless frontier in theory offered everyone the freedom to acquire land and its wealth. Masses of immigrants to the US endured decades of indentured servitude to escape oppression in Europe, then found that the best land in the East belonged to the rich. However, the frontier, while it lasted, offered a dream of freedom from the resurgence of share-cropping and sweat shops in the New World that followed them from the Old.

However, now several contradictory forces in our industrial economy are combining to bring it down. The manufacture of desire is needed to keep the economy growing, for without growth our peculiar system begins to fall apart. But growth eventually has its price, which by now is ever more evident: rising costs from depletion of essential resources that cannot be replaced, and damage to basic ecological services our species needs to survive. Moreover, as the rich capture an increasing proportion of the wealth that our economy produces, the ability of the majority perform its necessary function as consumers declines, also stalling economic growth.

As the US economy shrinks under these contradictions and can no longer deliver the American Dream, government and mass media are working overtime to maintain a semblance of normality. Aided by generations of indoctrination, they use an avalanche of rigged employment and growth statistics to convince us that an upturn is just around the corner, or, failing that, simply keep all the bad news out of the mass media. Presumably at some point an increasingly angry public will begin to see through the alchemy of language, and pacification will no longer work. As the Chinese say, we live in interesting times.


[1] See George Orwell, 1984.

[2] See George Lakoff, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea

[3] See Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent

[4] See my essay, Two Folktales for Comprehending Late Stage Capitalism and its Scientific Culture

[5] See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

[6] Ibid.

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Locked In: The Paradox of Capitalism

By Karl North | July 2, 2014

Much of this post was lifted from an article by another author, because I found the logic and the language so compelling. But I neglected to keep the reference. If I learn who the author is, I will be happy to credit him/her with  those statements that are not mine, and provide a link to the original article.

A sustainable economy is inconceivable without sweeping systemic economic change. Why? A sustainable economy requires a healthy planet, not the planetary destruction that is occurring now. But maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict. Why?

Saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns: For example, the science tells us that to save the planet for human existence, we have to drastically suppress fossil fuel consumption, even close down industries like coal. But no corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put themselves out of business, just to save humanity, and no government can suppress fossil fuel industries because to do so would precipitate economic collapse

That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society; they’re responsible to private shareholders, by law.

Won’t ‘efficiency’ improvements save us by conserving energy and materials? Not a chance. The waste-based industrial economy depletes the natural capital (raw materials) it requires. Under unrestrained capitalism, improving efficiency has always allowed and eventually led to more consumption, which rises to eliminate the savings in energy and raw materials that was gained. Adjusting our waste-based economy to operate at greater efficiency depletes natural capital more thoroughly at a higher rate. This classic behavior is called the Jevons Paradox.

What about ‘green capitalism’? Because under capitalism change relies on private investment, the practical effects of “greening” production are severely limited to tinkering with existing technologies that are really design failures, unable to survive in a post-petroleum economy. And most ‘green’ technology fails a life cycle analysis for energy and other resource consumption. Life cycle analysis reveals this easily.

In fact, green production under capitalism makes the situation worse. Example: Aquaculture was supposed to conserve wild fish populations. But this turns out to be just another case of “green gone wrong,” because, aside from contaminating farmed fish (and fish eaters) with antibiotics to suppress disease in fish pens, farm-raised fish are most profitable as carnivores. So they generally don’t eat corn. Feeding ever-more farmed fish requires capturing ever-more wild forage fish to grind up for fishmeal for the farm-raised fish, which leaves ever-fewer fish in the ocean, starving those up the food chain like sharks, seals, dolphins and whales. Calling fish caught for fish farms ‘trash fish’ just shows how unecological the conventional thinking is. So instead of saving wild fish, fish farming has actually accelerated the plunder of the last remaining stocks of wild fish in the oceans. And the fish farms spread exotic diseases in the ocean ecosystem, which are killing off the wild ones even faster.

Such examples are not exceptions: throughout the industrial food system forces intrinsic to the capitalist economy drive production beyond what nature’s laws can withstand, sending bad ripples in all directions. When the organic movement got steamrollered by the rise of industrial organic, it was in the cards, and those of us who understood the nature of our economy knew it before it happened. Worse, certified organic food from even the most careful organic farmers cannot avoid the contamination by pesticides and GMOs, and indirect damage from the loss of pollinators and seedstock that has sustainable genetics. This is not accidental: GMO technology is not about progress, it’s about corporate power and control. As farmers all over the world suckered into GMOs are beginning to learn, GMOs don’t increase farmer profits, they enslave farmers to agribusiness multinationals while creating hitherto unknown frankenfoods and monster agricultural pests.

The story is the same with pollution: Most of the pollution any car will ever produce (even the ‘greenest’ car), 56 percent, is generated in the manufacturing process before the car even arrives at the showroom – in the production of all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other resources that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Again, life cycle analysis of any product reveals all this easily. Car producers don’t want to do the science because it doesn’t sell cars. Like most conventional technologies, most ‘green’ technologies fail a life cycle analysis for pollution, and also for depletion of increasingly scarce, finite raw materials.

Therefore the only way to prevent overshoot and collapse is to enforce a massive economic contraction in the industrialized economies, one that retrenches production across a broad range of unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful and polluting industries, eventually shutting down the worst. In effect it requires a controlled collapse and planned transformation. Yet this option is foreclosed under capitalism because this is not socialism: No one is promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be closed out. We don’t do that under capitalism; we hang laid off workers out to dry. Hence a policy of sweeping economic contraction would create massive unemployment.

So everybody –  CEOs, workers and governments – find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, destroying their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. If they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse. We’re all imprisoned on board a runaway train of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. The present system locks us into a slow moving disaster.

So for example, when climate scientists such as Hansen tell us we need to “shut down the coal industry” and “leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s only natural that, like auto workers, who will bite the bullet,  none of us really want to think about the full implications of this imperative. So the tendency often is to think about this issue in isolation from the rest of the economy, as if fossil fuels are mainly in the “energy sector,” which we could fix by switching to renewables, by junking the clunker for a Prius, and go on driving and consuming as before while, hopefully, the economy also keeps on growing. But this is a delusion because in our economy, fossil fuels are in virtually everything we depend upon, and are necessary to drive every step of a product’s life cycle, from raw material to landfill.

Thus the industrial economy as a whole requires massive amounts of fossil fuels for maintenance purposes alone, just to keep the industrial plant going, to keep entropy at bay. The system (industrial plant and the economy it supports) was designed for, and can only survive on, cheap energy, and that is fast disappearing. An industrial economy operating on a finite planet eventually can no longer afford itself; that is where we are now, entering an era of permanently rising scarcity and ecological costs beginning to take effect. The evidence is all around us.

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