Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Reform" won't solve our biggest problems

"You never cure structural defects; you let the system collapse."

As I contemplated this proposition taken from a recent piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I realized what profound implications accepting it would have for all those engaged in attempting to address our current social, political and environmental ills.

If it is true that modern capitalism is incompatible with effective action on climate change, if it is true that top-heavy, bureaucratic nations always eventually become captive to their wealthy citizens, if it is true that our centralized, complex, tightly networked systems in finance, agriculture, shipping and manufacturing are exceedingly fragile and prone to failure--if these all represent structural defects, then they cannot be addressed by tinkering or "reform." Those in charge cannot be persuaded to "do something" which is contrary to the structural necessities built into these systems.

The choices then are: 1) Do nothing, 2) insurrection (for which you might be jailed or worse) or 3) start building a decentralized replacement. Since I'm discarding choices one and two, I'll address choice three.

First, adopting choice three doesn't mean we should abandon critiquing the current systems under which we live. Quite the contrary. Those systems are where future adopters of decentralized replacements currently do business. They are the Brand X against which new systems can and need to be compared.

Second, we have good evidence that small-scale governments can actually respond to climate change when large-scale governments can't. Citizens of seaside communities experience the rising ocean waters first hand and have direct access to their elected officials as do those who experience droughts. And those cities have actually taken significant (but still inadequate) steps toward addressing climate change. It is counterintuitive that decentralized governments could act more quickly and effectively on issues of international scope than national governments until we see them in action.

Third, modern communications have become bifurcated. There are large media establishments very much wedded to the status quo and the power elite. The heavy concentration and centralized nature of this type of media makes them uniquely incapable of understanding and communicating much about the merits or even existence of decentralized alternatives.

Then there is the thriving and ever more seamless worldwide digital communication network which allows people across the planet to share their ideas, practices and discoveries with one another without mediation. We should not in this context, however, devalue good old face-to-face communication which still works best of all.

Much of what passes for "media" online is really an attempt to exploit readers for commercial gain and therefore much more a part of the centralized media system. But even here, little-known businesses with new approaches to serving small, niche needs provide an alternative to the conglomerated consumer companies of our age.

Fourth, the worldwide tightly networked systems which dominate our lives today are too fragile to last. But that doesn't mean they will dissolve all at once or at the same rate. Parts will decline, parts will evolve and parts will disappear on different schedules. Certain aspects of existing systems might actually be of some use in the new decentralized system. A warehouse used for international trade can just as well be used for regional trade.

We can boil at the inequities and destructiveness of the current system. There are times and places that are appropriate for that. But our best chance to traverse the the path to a more decentralized world while minimizing harm and maximizing success is to begin building it.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Split personalities: We like some science, but not all of it

We modern folk are in a bind. We embrace what the sciences and the technology that flows from them have to offer, but we refuse to believe that we live in the world described by those very sciences.

Here I'm not merely talking about climate change deniers who, of course, fit this description. They merrily dial number after number on their cellphones, but they do so without realizing that in their climate change denial they are rejecting the very same science that underpins the phone they are using: physics.

But so many others live in this dual world as well. We humans imagine ourselves set apart from the natural world. And yet, our very bodies are the subject of scientific investigations. So we turn to our minds which we imagine set us apart from the natural world. But what is the mind? Do we not place the mind in the body? Are its manifestations not speech, writing, music, dance, and graphic arts which require the body for their expression.

The science of physics tells us that we live in a thermodynamic system. The universe is a thermodynamic system and so by definition must our Earth be one. Thermodynamic systems produce entropy, lots of it. Some two-thirds of all the energy we use in the United States is wasted. That's right, wasted. That entropy shows up as climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is also acidifying the oceans. It shows up as barren landscapes left behind by coal and other mining. It shows up as waste heat and waste products flowing from our factories, our homes and our vehicles.

In a broader sense, the entropy that we used to see and feel in the United States in the form of so-called "smokestack" industries has now been moved to China where another yet entropic problem, air pollution, chokes the urban population on a daily basis.

We think our presence is making the world more "orderly," but, in fact, we are filling it with new and dangerous expressions of entropy.

Geology tells us that metals, mined fertilizers, and our dominate form of energy, fossil fuels, are finite. The Earth is a sphere and has no pipeline to some other planet. And yet, there are people who claim with a straight face that resources including energy resources are infinite. This is so because "resources come out of people's minds." There's that word "mind" again. Just where does it reside?

We speak of leaving the planet and setting up colonies on Mars. But biology and physics tell us that those attempting to do so will suffer dementia resulting from the cosmic radiation that will bombard their brains. Humans on Earth are protected from this type of radiation by the Earth's magnetosphere. Not so in deep space or on the red planet which lacks a magnetosphere. There might be ways to protect such astronauts, but they would require much additional weight, both for the trip and for any enclosures or ships sent to the surface of Mars.

The point is that biology and ecology tell us that humans are evolved specifically to survive and thrive within the narrow strip of the biosphere. They can for brief periods with special apparatus live outside that. But long-term survival cannot be assured, in part, because the biosphere is far too complicated for us to understand and replicate. Attempts to do so have been miserable failures. The long and the short of it is that we aren't going to colonize space except as an expensive form of suicide.

Some look at measures of human well-being and declare that all is well and getting better. But this presupposes that we understand the biosphere better than we do. To analogize, you can live well on your savings until your savings run out. Likewise, humans can keep increasing their well-being by drawing down the natural capital of the biosphere (fisheries, soil, water, metals, fossil fuels), but eventually this drawdown will start to cut into the productivity of the biosphere as it has for many fisheries, water tables and some farmland ruined by erosion and salt. The drawdown will also affect the quality and price of fossil fuels and other minerals available as we seek the harder-to-get resources.

But perhaps what's even more important than what the sciences tell us is what they cannot tell us. Those on the cutting edge of their scientific disciplines are putting the lie to the idea that we are close to understanding how our universe works. Instead, what our latest researches are revealing is how little we know and how much more we have to find out.

Those who see comfort in this say that we can proceed full ahead on economic growth and the attendant speedup in resource extraction since we do not know for sure that they will kill us or seriously degrade our lives. What these people do is simply extrapolate the recent past into the future. It is a religious belief and not one based on sound thinking. What they do not take into account is the risk of systemic discontinuities, systemic ruin, that could come from climate change, resource extraction and new, untried technologies.

The approach is akin to playing roulette when we already know the wheel is stacked against us. In such a game, the more bets we put down, the more likely we will be ruined. But it feels great as long as we are winning.

It is the fate of the compulsive gambler to keep on gambling until he or she loses everything. That is our current trajectory, and it is a trajectory that requires a split personality regarding what we know from the sciences in order to maintain a false sense of security.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Living world: Should natural entities be treated as legal persons?

This year the New Zealand parliament voted to give legal personhood to a river and provided for the appointment of two guardians to represent it. In India a court extended legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and the glaciers that feed them.

It defies our normal modes of thinking that natural entities such as trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, and glaciers should be given legal standing in courts and public life. And yet we take as a matter of course the legal rights of other inanimate entities:

The world of the lawyer is peopled with inanimate right-holders: trusts, corporations, joint ventures, municipalities, Subchapter R partnerships, and nation-states, to mention just a few. Ships, still referred to by courts in the feminine gender, have long had an independent jural life, often with striking consequences.

The quotation comes from a famous law review article on the topic of rights for natural entities entitled "Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights For Natural Objects," written in 1972 by Christopher Stone, a professor of law at the University of Southern California.

Perhaps our most important blind spot is that we forget that we humans are natural entities as well. Scientists study our bodies just as they do the bodies of other animals--except that these scientists are not allowed to kill humans to dissect them or expose them to potentially harmful substances without informed consent. (Animal rights activists would argue that such protections should be extended to all animals.)

Ultimately, what's at stake is what our relationship with other natural entities will be and whether it is in our interest to grant them legal rights. It is well to remember that full legal rights for women, African-Americans, Native Americans, the mentally and physically disabled, and many other disadvantaged groups were once unthinkable, too. And yet, today few would argue against including these previously excluded groups within the realm of legal personhood.

But, one might say, these are people and belong to a special category. Nature cannot speak for itself as we humans do. To which law review author Stone replies:

It is not inevitable, nor is it wise, that natural objects should have no rights to seek redress in their own behalf. It is no answer to say that streams and forests cannot have standing because streams and forests cannot speak. Corporations cannot speak either; nor can states, estates, infants, incompetents, municipalities or universities. Lawyers speak for them, as they customarily do for the ordinary citizen with legal problems.

Now, perhaps the most important phrase in the above quotation is "in their own behalf." This explains why we might not regard it as sufficient merely to compel people by law and by custom to take care of natural entities. When natural entities do not have independent advocacy, it is all too easy to consider them merely as the instruments of humans. We call them "resources" and that means they are for our use as we please. Nature becomes merely a great vat of primordial clay from which we humans can take whatever we want and shape it to our needs without regard to the needs of any other entities.

This is the relationship of a master to a slave, Stone points out. That master is concerned about his slave as a piece of valuable property that he does not want stolen or injured by another; but the master reserves the right to injure the slave for his own purposes (through overwork, lack of food, poor medical care and, of course, involuntary servitude.)

In the United States we already have the Endangered Species Act. Lawyers speak regularly on behalf of species in court proceedings. The purpose of the act, of course, is not to protect individual organisms, but to insure the survival of an entire species. I wonder how we would be obliged to act if humans were classified as an endangered species under the law. What might we as a species be required to change to insure our own survival (or face an an angry and powerful federal judge)?

What we face instead of a judge is the rest of the natural world. In fact, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Theory in the early 1970s. The theory re-imagines the Earth as a single biogeochemical system that is self-regulating in the way that a single organism is said to be. The organic and inorganic worlds influence one another. Geology, biology and chemistry are bound up as one field when we look, for example, at the carbonate layers of the Earth which were formed by living creatures. Life is not an afterthought on Earth; it is a major geological force on the planet.

This is not a new animism. This is not to say that rocks have the mental faculties of humans (though the opposite is sometimes said of people we don't like). But there is a flow of information and interaction which regulates key processes on the planet to keep it habitable.

Those engaged in climate change activism understand this and fear that the dawn of the Anthropocene means that the Earth will within the next several decades become increasingly hostile to the life which now inhabits it including human life.

But, the argument for legal rights for natural entities goes beyond human survival. It imagines that natural entities have worth in and of themselves and not just as materials necessary for human survival. This move has been essential for women and racial and ethnic groups who have achieved full legal rights. They have worth in and of themselves and not as mere instruments of others.

It may be profitable for a nation to lift up its oppressed peoples and include them in the mainstream of social, economic and political life. It may be good for all of us. But the worth of these oppressed peoples does not reside in their profitability, but in their status as autonomous individuals who have self-determination.

What goes unrecognized by most is that the natural entities we think are currently excluded from our legal and political lives are actually sitting in our courtrooms and legislatures across the planet. They sit quietly, implacably in their insistence that the laws of nature will not be contravened. Our understanding of such laws can be used to benefit us--to extract resources and to protect us from natural dangers--but we cannot repeal those laws for they do not arise from legislative or judicial fiat.

Slowly, haltingly, we are coming to understand this and providing representation for the entities of nature in our various institutions--representation that renders into human speech and writing the information that is running past us everyday in the environment as if it were coursing through a series of gargantuan broadband cables connecting everything on the planet.

This is why it is so disturbing to see an American administration who believes we should reverse this trend and go back to pretending that the natural entities aren't in the room. Those entities who are ignored turn to conflict to be heard. Already that conflict has taken the form of a great worldwide fever in the planet's atmosphere. It is in evidence in fisheries that have been depleted, soil that has been eroded or made too salty to sow, and water, air and land that continue to be fouled by toxic pollution.

We can easily see that these effects are due to the acts of humans. What we must now see is that they are also due to the reactions of nature. The conflict can only be resolved through dialogue, and that dialogue can only come into existence when we recognize that we are dealing with entities that have a life of their own.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Communications breakdown: Can we even talk about our environmental and energy problems?

Conversations that seek genuine understanding by all sides ultimately require a common frame of reference. If we aren't talking about the same things, how can we understand one another?

We usually refer to this as talking past one another. Sometimes this happens because we haven't taken the time to understand what our conversation partner is trying to say. We are distracted and focused on something else. Increasingly, our public discourse--that which we all see on the airwaves, on the internet and in print--is mere polemic in service of some political or economic interest. There is no genuine attempt to explore the issues, only to advance a particular view of them--often for pay as is the case with public relations agencies and also fake think tank academics who merely parrot the positions of their funders.

We like to regard ourselves as living in an age of enlightenment. But enlightenment only occurs when we are intellectually honest. What intellectual honesty requires is the ability to entertain ideas and accept evidence that contradict our current views and to evaluate those ideas and evidence on some basis other than a financial or political interest.

The late William Catton, the sociologist and ecologist who stands as the 20th century prophet of our predicament, laid out this problem in his last book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse. By bottleneck Catton means a dramatic reduction in human population over the coming century due to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil erosion and other problems and the attendant chaos these will bring to our current governance and economic arrangements.

I am reminded of Joseph Tainter's admonition in The Collapse of Complex Societies that societies don't collapse because of resource shortages or climate change, but because of their inability to respond effectively to such developments. The cause: an elite governing class that has become insulated from the warning signs of such a collapse.

In ancient Mayan civilization sculptors were still working on monuments to their rulers as late as 909 A.D. after a century of drought. The question is: Who in their right mind would be expending resources on such a task under such dire circumstances?

Today we build ever higher temples to finance in our major cities even as major ecological catastrophes converge on our civilization. Like the Mayan rulers, ours believe our civilization is invincible. It is this myth of invincibility that makes genuine communication about vulnerabilities almost impossible because the myth has spread to practically the entire population of the planet. Even those who are struggling to get by, for whom the system has worked very poorly, even they want more than anything to get a larger share of wealth from our supposedly invincible engines of production. I do not blame them.

When the frame of reference on one side (and by far the most numerous and well-funded side) is the invincibility of modern technical society and when on the other it is that history teaches us that all civilizations destroy themselves when they reject the physical realities they face, then there can be no sensible dialogue. The frames of reference must overlap and that takes time and experience.

I am reminded that the horse became a sacred animal to the American Plains Indians only after Spanish explorers brought them to the New World and the Plains Indians realized their utility for hunting and warfare. My point is that talking to a Plains Indian prior to that time about horses would have drawn blank stares. Clearly horses did exist, but they were simply outside the experience of these native peoples.

We will only have a genuine public discussion about the vulnerabilities of our own civilization, one that will lead to commensurate action, when those vulnerabilities become glaringly obvious to a significant section of the public--when the horses, so to speak, show up in large enough numbers on the plain. In the meantime, we can only cultivate the ground for that day when we will be faced with talking not about solutions, but about damage control.

We should not, however, underestimate the value of damage control. A more benign phrase might be mitigation and management. However we style it, it is the one thing that will enable humans to get to the other side of the civilizational bottleneck which William Catton foresaw and which we will almost certainly face if we humans do not change our current trajectory.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at