Friday, February 21, 2020

The Global Warming Apocalyptic Cult

[Note: this article is much longer than my usual—almost 8000 words. I have been working assiduously on it for over a month, and that explains why my postings have been so sparse lately. It’s behind a firewall because I don’t want any trouble from cult members.]

Do you want to save the planet? Do you feel that this requires everyone to stop burning fossil fuels, and does doing so necessarily involve paving the land with solar panels and lining the beaches and the mountain ridges with giant wind generators? How about putting a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and taxing people for the carbon dioxide they emit? Do you believe that “99.9% of climate scientists agree...” logically implies that they necessarily right? And what makes you think that humans are capable of saving planets when they can’t even figure out what to do with their garbage?

If this sort of thinking triggers you and causes you to imagine that I am some sort of “climate change denialist,” then, unless you are emotionally fragile and prone to hysterical fits, you should still make an effort and continue reading, because you may have, through no fault of your own, have found yourself inducted into the Global Warming Apocalyptic Cult. The first step in freeing yourself from the clutches of an apocalyptic cult is realizing that you are an apocalyptic cult member. Part of the process involves learning how the cult functions: where the cult gets its power; why people fall into its clutches and, perhaps most importantly, who is paying for it and who is getting rich from it. Having your illusions shattered may be painful at first, but you are sure to feel better later—unless you immediately find something equally beyond your control to worry about and get busy with that.

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Saturday, February 08, 2020

A Most Convenient Virus

I prefer to write on things I know about, but once in a while an opportunity presents itself for me to comment on some aspect of widespread mistrust and confusion while resting on a solid foundation of my professional curiosity. This is the case of the 2019-nCoV novel coronavirus. A lot of the elements of the coronavirus story just don’t add up, and that’s what I want to explore. At the outset, I want to make it clear that I am no expert on these matters. Is 2019-nCoV a genetically engineered biological weapon or is it a naturally evolved strain of a virus that is endemic in China’s bat population? This we don’t know, but it is interesting to look at the plausibility of each of these scenarios and also to consider whether what we are observing could be a combination of a little of each.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Peak Free Oil

Back in my halcyon days of youth I went to some anti-war demonstrations, not to protest against the first Gulf War, since I could already see that such protest would turn out to be futile, but to pick up women. Sure, I shouted “No war for oil!” as loud as I could, but that was just my mating call. Even in those salad days of yore I was already smart enough to know that “No war for oil!” was a spectacularly stupid thing for us to be shouting. “We want to die!” would have been equally dumb. What would North Americans, with their own reserves badly depleted, but with their car-dependent suburban sprawl still sprawling, do without oil stolen from some unlucky country? Crawl slowly toward the nearest gas station and expire from exhaustion along the way? But we aren’t dead just yet, so let’s crawl back down the memory lane and see how this situation came about, then crawl back to see where we are today.

Once upon a time the USA was a remarkably oily nation, with prolific oil wells such as the renowned Spindletop in East Texas. Juvenile USAnians competed against each other on who could burn the most rubber while getting the shittiest gas mileage. I caught the tail end of that failed experiment: my first car was a monstrous, hulking land yacht: a ’68 Chevrolet Caprice. In 1970 a phenomenon called Peak Oil arrived in the US, oil production fell and drastic steps became necessary. One of them was to convert from a “take our dollars or our gold” scheme to a “take our dollars or else” scheme: if you don’t like dollars, we also have bombs. Another was to start going directly after the oil wherever in the world it is found and trying to take it without paying for it. But all things, good and bad, must come to an end eventually, and free oil is no exception. In fact, what we may be witnessing at the moment is a phenomenon I wish to call Peak Free Oil.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Life After Putin

Two days ago Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address before the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, and since then I have received a flurry of emails and comments from people asking me to explain what he meant. I don’t want to make assumptions about the depth of your interest in Russian affairs, and so, to save you time, let me start by providing a very short executive summary: Putin will step down as president after his current term, which will end in 2024 unless an early election is held, but the system he has put in place will stay in place. Essentially, life after Putin will be more Putin under a different name. If that’s all you care about, you can stop reading now.

To delve deeper, we need to draw a distinction between Putin the man and the system of governance he has built over the past 20 years. There is always plenty to complain about, but overall it has been quite effective. During Putin’s period in power, Russia has solved the problems of separatism and domestic terrorism, reigned in the predatory oligarchy, paid off virtually all of its foreign debts including ones it inherited from the USSR, grew its economy by a factor of six (vs. China’s five and USA’s one), regained Crimea (which had been part of Russia since 1783), rebuilt its armed forces to a point where international security is no longer a major concern, and achieved an overall level of societal well-being that is unparalleled in all of Russian history.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

New Decade, New Rules

Decadal boundaries are arbitrary things untethered to any physical phenomena other than the usual boring changing of the seasons. But just two weeks into the new decade the atmosphere seems different from the past decade, and it has been difficult for me just to keep up with the sweeping changes that are taking place, never mind analyze them. Yet write I must, because not only is the mass media completely useless at best and harmful at worst, but also even the more enlightened and independent-minded commentators seem mired in paradigms that are out of date and reliant on invalidated political and economic assumptions. This prompts me to step into the breach and try to set things straight.

Here is a quick list of what’s new so far this decade:

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Donnie Walks off the Reservation

Until now, Donnie Trump, Putin’s man in Washington, has been more or less doing as he has been told. Since he is due to be reelected later this year, now is a good time to evaluate his performance so far, and I am sure that his Kremlin report card shows his overall grade as “acceptable.” Here are some of his most notable achievements, listed in no particular order:

• He has steered trade negotiations with China into a cul de sac where the Chinese basically do whatever they want while the US pays them ever more for the privilege of importing their products. So far, his “art of the deal” has only driven up Chinese imports, along with the trade deficit, and there is no reason to think that this will change.

• He has pushed the already wobbly Federal Reserve into another cul de sac: it can’t raise interest rates without bankrupting lots of US companies and crashing the stock market, and it can’t lower them without triggering a bond crisis and crashing the US dollar.

• His erratic pronouncements on the uselessness of NATO have turned them into a self-fulfilling prophesy, to a point where Turkey is now a NATO member in name only while the Ukraine, which has stupidly written the goal of NATO membership directly into its constitution, is now reduced to crying over spilled ink.

• He has cleverly used the Syrian Kurds to demonstrate to the world the value of US friendship by throwing them under Syrian tanks at a moment’s notice while giving them the option to surrender to the dread Syrian dictator Bashar Assad (which they did).

• He has cleverly subverted his own slogan “Make America Great Again,” reinterpreting “America” to just mean “the stock market”—which is indeed great, at the moment, but can become not at all great moments after somebody somewhere flips the wrong switch.

• He has masterfully played to the ancient horrors that haunt the US constitution, driving a wedge between the liberal and populous Blue states and the mostly empty conservative Red ones, where the Reds get the Senate, the Executive and the Supreme Court, the popular vote be damned, while the Blues get the consolation prize of a madhouse House of Representatives.

• And throughout, Donnie has been able to maintain plausible deniability, like a good Russian agent should, causing his political enemies to make fools of themselves and develop aneurisms while passing toothless impeachment resolutions.

Given this legacy of success, Donnie can easily coast to reelection, then sit pretty for another four years, watching the country burn, tweeting sporadically to clean up on insider trading (legal if you are Prezz) and playing plenty of golf.

But lately there has been trouble in paradise.

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Friday, January 03, 2020

Predictions for the 2020s

While many commentators see it fit to publish their predictions for the year ahead, I find a single year to be too fine-grained for any meaningful forecast. For me, plus or minus five years is about the right size of the error bars to place on any prediction with regard to timing, making it possible to time any major change to within a couple of decades. And it just so happens that another decade has gone by since I published my last set of predictions for the United States in the 2010s and it is therefore time to come up with a new set, for the 2020s.

My last set of predictions worked out moderately well. Although in some cases the process has not run its course, the trends are all unmistakable and the processes I outlined should be expected to continue and in some cases to run to completion within the new decade. But this time around I will attempt to make more specific predictions.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Final Act

In processing the flow of information about the goings on in the US, it is impossible to get rid of a most unsettling sense of unreality—of a population trapped in a dark cave filled with little glowing screens, all displaying different images yet all broadcasting essentially the same message. That message is that everything is fine, same as ever, and can go on and on. But whatever it is that’s going on can’t go on forever, and therefore it won’t. More specifically, a certain coal mine canary has recently died, and I want to tell you about it.

It’s easy to see why that particular message is stuck on replay even as the situation changes irrevocably. As of 2019, 90% of the media in the United States is controlled by four media conglomerates: Comcast (via NBCUniversal), Disney, ViacomCBS (controlled by National Amusements), and AT&T (via WarnerMedia). Together they have formed a corporate media monoculture designed to most effectively maximize shareholder value.

As I wrote in Reinventing Collapse in 2008, “...In a consumer society, anything that puts people off their shopping is dangerously disruptive, and all consumers sense this. Any expression of the truth about our lack of prospects for continued existence as a highly developed, prosperous industrial society is disruptive to the consumerist collective unconscious. There is a herd instinct to reject it, and therefore it fails, not through any overt action, but by failing to turn a profit because it is unpopular.”

Two years earlier, in a slideshow optimistically titled “Closing the Collapse Gap” (between the USSR and the USA), I wrote: “...It seems that there is a fair chance that the US economy will collapse sometime within the foreseeable future. It also would seem that we won’t be particularly well-prepared for it. As things stand, the US economy is poised to perform something like a disappearing act.” And now, 12 years later, I believe I am finally watching what amounts to preparations for that act’s final rehearsal; the ballet troupe is doing stretching exercises and the fat lady is singing arpeggios to warm up…

Friday, December 06, 2019

Super-Double-High Standards

Newscasters around the world are facing a new challenge: reporting the news about the United States with a straight face. Take the unfolding impeachment comedy in the United States which is part of the daily fare on Russian television, which I monitor for this and that. Here, after years of reporting on the “Russian meddling” narrative, it has gradually turned into the stuff of comedy—a sort of Commedia dell’Arte. In a typical skit, “our man in Washington” Donny begs Putin to bring him in from the cold, but Putin tells him, “Hang in there, Donny, we need to line up Tulsi for the presidency first.” The beauty of this comedic paradigm is that the Americans do all the script-writing; the Russians, along with much of the rest of the world, can just sit back and laugh.

The real story behind the fake “Russian meddling” narrative has by now shifted to the Obama administration’s illegal spying on the Trump campaign, justified using concocted evidence, but this is too subtle for most of the audience. It also begs the questions, When did American officials stop lying and doing illegal things, and, When will anything be done about it? And since the answers to these questions seem to be, Never, and, Never, it’s just more of the same tawdry nonsense and therefore not too amusing. More importantly, far more amusing developments are now afoot…

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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Avoiding the Coming Ice Age

Most people like predictability in their lives. Some like a modicum of excitement and wild things, but even then they tend to prefer the outcome to be predictable; eventually, they want to come home and go back to work rather than end up marooned on a desert island or eaten by a polar bear. Public cravings for predictability create a market niche for people who make predictions. Oddly enough, it doesn’t matter much whether the predictions are accurate or not. Weather is chaotic, and therefore not particularly predictable beyond a few days, but people like to complain, and weather forecasts give them something to complain about. Stock markets are chaotic too, but there are analysts to suit every mood, from very bullish to very bearish.

Cyclical phenomena are the easiest to predict accurately. The prediction industry got its start many thousands of years ago, when priests and shamans started gazing up at the stars and the planets and lining up rocks to sight them in. They used the information they gained through their stargazing to accurately predict the best times to plant crops or go fishing. People were duly impressed by such feats and thought that this was some sort of magic. Sometimes they stayed impressed for thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt, for instance, they believed that the Nile wouldn’t flood and irrigate their fields unless the Pharaoh performed his rituals and mated with his sister to produce the next Pharaoh. That, by the way, is called “magical thinking,” and in some ways it continues to this day. In the United States, for instance, people believe that if the Federal Reserve chairman continues to perform his rituals their country won’t default on its debt and the money will flow forever.