Sunday, January 15, 2017

Neoliberals know the price of everything and the value of nothing

My father likes to say that some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The same could be said of the neoliberals of the world, who--in case you missed my previous piece--are now transcendent in most policy circles across the world.

To review, the neoliberal agenda is one of deregulation, unfettered trade, fiscal austerity (with the attendant reduction in social programs), privatization and tax reduction. Fundamental to the neoliberal ideology is that government regulation and planning of economic activity are inherently flawed and cannot bring about the desired ends of efficiency, prosperity and social harmony.

Instead, price is the great and sufficient transmitter of information across the economy and across society at large. Price is the best barometer for all decisions. Hence, the emphasis on privatizing almost everything in society including education and health care.

Neoliberals believe that voting with your money is at least, if not more important, than voting in elections in a free society. The freer the market, the more choices consumers will have, and the more competitive the market, the better the quality will be.

There are several problems, of course, with the price mechanism. First, it only takes into account costs which are directly borne by the provider of a product or service. So-called externalities such as pollution and climate change are not tallied in the price. In order for those costs to be included, say, by the imposition of a carbon tax, the government would have to intervene, something not consistent with neoliberal ideas.

Second, such a monomaniacal focus on price alone pre-empts a broader view of social goals, reducing them merely to price signals. But not every social good can be reduced to a price signal in a nominally "free" market.

Here we have a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. The neoliberal who ignores climate change sacrifices a habitable climate for his or her children and grandchildren in favor of cheap prices for goods and services now. This is the supposed "economic rationality" which the neoliberal espouses because he or she does not seem to know the VALUE of a habitable climate. What the neoliberals would like you to believe is that a neoliberal world is inevitable--which translates into a suicide-by-climate-change pact among peoples.

The theorists, policymakers, propagandists and business leaders also tell us that "globalization"--another vague, but central tenet--is inevitable, that it is a product of technological change, that it is akin to a natural law which we cannot violate without consequences.

In fact, it is nothing more than a conscious set of policies set out in worldwide trade agreements administered in part by the World Trade Organization--policies that favor the wealthy over everyone else and which break down national barriers (read: eliminate protections against the destruction of local industries and agriculture) that hinder the free flow of capital and goods (and, of course, the search for profits). As it turns out, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu tells us in his book of essays Sociology is a Martial Art, "the global market is a political creation."

It is no accident that neoliberals advocate neither for the globalization of a minimum wage nor for the globalization of free education nor for the globalization of universal health care. Why is that? Well, these areas of social uplift are considered merely to be cost centers which reduce competitiveness. But if these were available to everyone, then no country or industry would be at a disadvantage. So, it becomes obvious that the neoliberal agenda is to UNDERMINE all these social goods in order to lower costs (that is, lower wages, benefits, and taxes) and to increase profits by pitting one country against another in a race to the bottom of the social ladder.

Moreover, creating anxiety and uncertainty among employees, even ones at the highest level, is actually the point. Such anxiety and uncertainty hinders them from taking risks in participating fully in society as political actors.

The same logic would apply to environmental, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the population at large. If you want your country to be competitive, it is best to keep such regulations to a minimum.

Bourdieu points out that neoliberal policymakers are obsessed with the "confidence of the markets." Why, he asks, are the not equally concerned about the "confidence of the people"? Recent developments such as the decision by British voters to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States suggest that the confidence of the people in the neoliberal globalist experiment is becoming shaky.

Bourdieu adds that instead of a universal minimum wage, we get what economist Frédéric Lordon calls the "minimum guaranteed shareholder income."

Any demand that education, health care, pensions and other benefits for workers be maintained, let alone expanded, is now styled as old-fashioned and backward-looking. These benefits must be "reformed" (read: destroyed). In fact, basic protections for the middle and lower classes are some of the most important human achievements ever, Bourdieu explains. Rolling them back isn't progress, it is anti-progress.

The neoliberal agenda styles itself as a revolution--the Reagan revolution, the Thatcher revolution--and anyone who opposes it is labeled parochial, retrograde and opposed to the march of progress. What these supposed "revolutions" really turn out to be are the latest versions of a very old system of wildcat crony capitalism supported by a combination of corporate and state power in which the corporations tell the state how to govern.

The neoliberal agenda undermines the hard-won gains of average people whose autonomy and independence--far from being undermined by social insurance programs--are predicated on a degree of financial security and access to health care and education which allow meaningful participation in democratic life. This participation would be what philosopher Isaiah Berlin refers to as "positive freedom," that is, the ability to take action based on our resources and previously developed capabilities.

The neoliberal agenda also threatens to undo any progress we've made so far in addressing the myriad existential environmental challenges that threaten to undo civilization as we know it.

We would not presume to understand the Sun by examining merely one wavelength of light coming from it. We would not presume to understand the forest by examining one tree. Nor would we presume to know all of humanity and human society by examining one individual. But somehow neoliberals believe that we can understand and govern society by focusing on price alone.

What gets sacrificed in such a system is social stability and harmony and a habitable biosphere inside which we can all live and prosper. This is what is now at stake when we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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, January 08, 2017

To confront power, one must first name it: Neoliberalism and the sustainability crisis

Recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ordered references to human-caused climate change be deleted from the state Deparment of Natural Resources website. Scientific findings concerning the natural world have become an embarrassment for the neoliberal world view. The answer in this case seems to be to delete them.

But what is the neoliberal world view and why is it important to understand? Paraphrasing theologian Walter Wink British writer George Monbiot explains that in order to confront power, one must first name it. The power Monbiot has in mind is the power of those enacting the neoliberal agenda. He explained in a talk last year that this ideology is embraced by leaders of both the political right and left throughout much of the world.

More disturbing is that few people are aware of this fact, and fewer still can define what neoliberalism is. It's important to understand that this ideology animates much of the governing class on the planet. It's important because this ideology almost completely opposes doing anything serious about climate change or any of the other environmental and social ills which afflict us.

First, neoliberalism should not be confused with modern-day liberalism which is generally associated with tolerant social policies and governmental intervention in and regulation of the economy. To the contrary, neoliberalism harkens back to 19th century classical liberalism. Neoliberals champion a return to laissez-faire economics by means of the privatization of public services and property, fiscal austerity, deregulation and, of course, free trade.

Neoliberalism was first enunciated in the late 1930s as a response to fascism and communism. Only later did neoliberal ideas find their full expression in the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the government of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. For obvious reasons neoliberal ideas have been championed and lavishly supported by wealthy corporate interests.

These ideas were also highly influential in the presidency of Bill Clinton and the government of Tony Blair. Thus, both left and right have adopted many of the tenets of neoliberalism. Both Clinton and Blair mixed the redistributive policies of the left with the economic ideas of neoliberalism. Certainly not every politician left and right embraces the neoliberal ideology; but it is now largely an article faith on both the left and the right that markets are the preferred solution to any problem.

One modern example is that addressing problems with public schools requires competition from publicly funded private schools often called charter schools. Other examples include privatizing public lands and minerals, public recreation facilities, and public services such as water, public parking and even prisons. Of course, not all on the left have embraced these policies. But the left has largely accepted corporate dominance of government policy which has led to a less than robust attempt to roll back such measures or to regulate industry.

Of course, the marketplace alone cannot address climate change, soil depletion, fisheries decline, deforestation, toxic waste disposal, and pollution in general. And so, in order for the neoliberal program to succeed it must prevent ideas about limits in nature from taking root. In general it must pretend that the problems mentioned above either do not exist or are a subject to ready technical fixes.

Scott Walker may be an egregious example on the right. But politicians on the left should not be let off lightly. The insistence, for instance, that the deployment of renewable energy will solve the climate change problem is disingenuous at best. It should be obvious to those who understand climate science that only drastic reductions in overall energy use and major changes in our infrastructure and in our daily routines can hope to bring down greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. And again, the marketplace alone isn't going to do these things for us.

This message is inconvenient for both right and left in that it suggests that we must dispense with the growth economy and structure our economic lives based on other principles, say, sustainability above all and solidarity through shared sacrifice. These principles have the possibility to be inspiring, but they simply do not fit into the neoliberal vision of perpetual growth and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

The first step, the very first step, however, is to know that much of the world's political elite subscribes to the neoliberal vision whether in its most austere trappings or in a softer form that retains some of the social safety net.

The irony is that though neoliberalism began as a response to fascism and communism--to the authoritarian concentration of political and corporate power in the state--neoliberalism has now morphed into an ideology that accepts corporate control of government policy, policy that is increasingly authoritarian in its economic and security (surveillance) apparatuses.

It is important to understand that neoliberalism as originally conceived and now practiced is hostile to social democracy. Most people recognize that many European states are social democracies and that Canada and Australia also qualify. But fewer acknowledge that the United States is also a social democracy as evidenced by its old-age pension and health care programs known as Social Security and Medicare, respectively. In addition, there is Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor, and subsidized health care for many others under the Affordable Care Act.

Unemployment benefits and the Earned Income Tax Credit are yet other elements of America's social democracy as are subsidized housing for low-income households and subsidized home mortgages for special groups such as veterans. Americans often hate to think of their country as a social democracy. But they must now come to understand that it is if they wish to oppose the neoliberal agenda which aims to end the programs mentioned above and many others.

Monbiot is on to something when he says we must name the power we are up against. If you care about sustainability, if you care about social stability, if you care about the poor, the power you are up against is the neoliberal ideology as expressed on both the right and the left. If you don't understand that, then you will end up shadow boxing against a shadowy and ill-defined opponent.

P.S. I encourage you to watch the entire talk by Monbiot which is perhaps the clearest explanation I've seen of the neoliberal agenda.

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, January 01, 2017

The 100 percent renewable energy future: The good news and the bad news

Authors Richard Heinberg and David Fridley in their recent book Our Renewable Future make the case for a society that runs on 100 percent renewable energy. But they don't pull any punches, giving us both the good news and the bad news.

Okay, here's the good news: A 100 percent renewable energy society is well within our technical capability, and we've taken some important steps already. Now, here's the bad news: The 100 percent renewable energy society is inevitable whether we plan for it or not.

I know the bad news perhaps sounds like good news, but it's not. The bad news may make it seem as if all we have to do is sit back while solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass and other forms of renewable energy are deployed at an ever faster pace. But, what the bad news really implies is that if this deployment process isn't coupled with strenuous efforts to decrease our fossil-fuel energy use dramatically, we may find ourselves in a dystopian energy-starved world with a chaotic climate, a world that little resembles the one we live in now.

Here's the problem as the authors explain it toward the end of the book: "Sound national and international climate policies are crucial: without them, it will be impossible to organize a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy that is orderly enough to maintain industrial civilization, while speedy enough to avert catastrophic ecosystem collapse."

In other words, we'll get to a renewable energy economy eventually as fossil fuels become ever more expensive to take out of the ground. But the default endpoint is not one that results from a planned transition which would try to save the best of industrial civilization while jettisoning the worst.

Rather, the default endpoint is merely the wreckage of an industrial civilization that didn't prepare properly. Such a society would be forced to make due with the energy budget available from renewables like all past civilizations. That's a lot less than we in industrialized countries use, and, more important, far less than we could have if we make sensible and serious plans and implement them starting now.

Heinberg and Fridley don't dwell on this conclusion, but it is at the heart of their message. Most of the book is spent explaining why the transition to renewable energy is possible and how it can take place.

This is a largely hopeful message which explains that there is a lot for each of us to do as citizens in influencing and pushing for the right policies and as community members in preparing ourselves, our families and our neighbors for a lower energy future. The authors make very clear that the amount of renewable energy we can hope to generate in the coming decades simply cannot be expected to match what we are getting today from fossil fuels. That means we have to change many aspects of our society and our daily lives.

Fortunately, as they explain, we know how to reduce our energy footprint dramatically if we have the will and the perseverance. The steps for doing this will sound familiar to many: weatherizing and insulating existing buildings; building new ones for very high energy efficiency; focusing on public transportation, bicycling and walking as modes of daily transport; creating a food system that uses far less energy (which means primarily organic) and builds rather than depletes the soil (which can become a place to store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere); moving toward local and regional manufacturing (relocalization as it is commonly called) to reduce the need for freight transportation; moving away from the consumer economy which prioritizes consumption and planned obsolescence toward what the authors call the "conserver economy" which prioritizes durability, repair and recycling; and scheduling our electricity use to accommodate the daily cycles that renewables are likely to exhibit.

These are tall orders and lack much of the flash offered by the techno-optimists who assure us that renewable energy will make the future look like the present, only better--and, all we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.

Our Renewable Future is without a doubt the most sensible book I've read on the prospects and promise of renewable energy, and I wholeheartedly endorse its conclusions. A future of 100 percent renewable energy is possible. But only if we act now and persist.

That means there is a lot of work ahead for all of us. The rewards, however, are a stable climate and durable communities that offer many (but not all) of the advantages of our current fossil-fueled civilization. And this future is one that can be ushered in by a transition far more humane and far less traumatic than the one our business-as-usual trajectory could hope to offer.

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, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays--No post this week

I'm taking a holiday break and expect to post again on Sunday, January 1.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The climate trials of the 21st century have begun

We now have underway the first climate trials (or various stages of them) of the 21st century. The overall question in these trials is actually straightforward: Do governments and corporations have an obligation to protect the habitability of the Earth's climate for human populations?

Let's start with government. The first trial (in the United States) was not actually that recent. In 1999 a group of environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2003 the EPA denied the petition. Several states then joined a legal appeal which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided in 2007 that, in fact, the EPA did have the authority and the obligation to consider seriously how to regulate greenhouse gases.

The agency then offered a regulation plan which was challenged in court. In 2014 the Supreme Court found the EPA plan acceptable with a few minor tweaks.

This kind of legal battle is really a plain vanilla regulatory fight about what a particular government agency can and should do under existing laws. But a more sweeping type of legal battle is now unfolding, one that invokes a much broader obligation of the government to make the climate safe for future generations.

In Washington state a group of young people between the ages of 12 and 16 sued the state to force it to implement a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. The state has since come up with a plan that the attorneys for the children say is inadequate. They are in court once again.

Washington isn't the only state feeling the judicial heat. A group called Our Children's Trust is pursuing legal action in several states (including the case cited above) and in federal court. The federal case is proceeding to trial after the government failed to get it dismissed. The aim of the federal plaintiffs is to seek broader protection in policies across the government, not in just one agency.

Some legal experts give the federal case little chance of succeeding even if the plaintiffs win at trial. Appellate courts and the Supreme Court are unlikely to buy the argument that there is a general obligation on the part of the government to regulate greenhouse gases that is judicially enforceable outside of specific legislation. But, there will be an airing of scientific evidence during the trial and an attempt to expand existing legal doctrines to cover the unique challenges posed by climate change. This case is the first of its kind at the federal level related to climate under the so-called public trust doctrine.

Outside the United States in the Netherlands, a court ruled that the government of the Netherlands must make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Similar legal efforts are underway in Belgium and Switzerland.

It's worth remembering that when the first lawsuits against tobacco companies were filed in the United States, few believed they would ever succeed. It took time, but ultimately the tobacco companies were made to pay for damage to public health. And, their advertising was restricted as part of a settlement with state and federal governments. Private lawsuits also eventually found success.

Is there room for private climate-related lawsuits seeking damages? Maybe. If there is general obligation to protect the public from the effects of climate change brought about by greenhouse gases, then it seems logical that those emitting the greenhouse gases might be held liable for damages. A case involving a Peruvian farmer suing a large German utility has just gotten underway. A win, even for the modest damages the farmer is seeking (17,000 euros), could open the floodgates for thousands, perhaps millions more plaintiffs like him. That makes this case a serious financial threat to industries that extract and/or burn large amounts of fossil fuel.

There is yet another kind of climate-related case that is emerging, one that involves the fiduciary responsibilities of fossil fuel companies to inform their investors about threats to their businesses. An investigation of ExxonMobil Corp. initiated by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is trying to determine whether ExxonMobil hid what its own research discovered about climate change as far back as the 1980s and in doing so misled investors about the risks to the oil and gas giant's business.

Many corporate fraud probes begin in New York State because the Martin Act which governs securities fraud there doesn't oblige the attorney general to assert intent to defraud, only that investors were misled by statements issued by a company. In contrast, Federal securities fraud law requires establishing intent--that is, what is going on in the minds of the people making material misstatements--something that is much harder to demonstrate.

Whether ExxonMobil and possibly other large fossil fuel companies end up paying fines for any such fraud, there will now be a thorough airing of what these companies knew about climate change and whether their understanding contradicted the campaigns they funded either to deny the reality of human-induced climate change or to confuse the public and policymakers about the causes and trajectory of climate change.

This development has a remarkable similarity to what happened to tobacco companies. Those companies were forced to divulge what they knew about the dangers of smoking from their own research. Of course, this was kept from the public as the companies continued to insist that smoking wasn't linked to health problems.

It turns out that the Martin Act also allows for criminal sanctions. But it seems unlikely that anyone will go to jail in connection with the current investigation of ExxonMobil.

That does, however, beg a very important question: Can individuals be prosecuted for misleading the public about the dangers of climate change? It seems unlikely that any case of this kind will be mounted in the near future. In the United States the First Amendment problems with such a case are obvious. But I can imagine that if climate change continues at its current accelerating rate, there might be a clamor by, say, 2030 for the prosecution of prominent climate-change-denying businessmen and politicians.

It is doubtful that such prosecutions would get very far in the United States or many other countries under current law. But it seems plausible, even if unlikely, that an international tribunal, perhaps patterned after South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, might take up the task of investigating individuals who have been egregiously obstructionist toward action on climate change. Such a commission would seek to bring about so-called restorative (rather than retributive) justice.

That would be a healing outcome. I can imagine much worse.

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, December 11, 2016

The post-fact world and the need for a new consensus

In a piece I wrote four years ago I asked whether we were moving toward a fact-free world. Now, I wonder if that world has arrived.

The media is full of opinions and opinions parading as facts and facts that are not facts and sometimes just crazed fantasies posing as facts. We are now having a public discussion about so-called "fake news" and whose news is really fake. I'm thinking of rumors circulated on the internet that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.was a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

There was, of course, absolutely no basis for this wild and on-its-face ridiculous accusation. And yet, a rifle-wielding man who drove in from North Carolina shot up the place. He came all that way believing the story was fact because, well, he read it on the internet. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The bar for facticity for many people has been lowered to ground level it seems. Anything they want to be a fact magically becomes a fact.

Now this is not to say that it is easy to determine what is or is not a fact. When we say "fact," we usually mean something that is true. But that just begs the question of how we determine whether something is true.

We do this in one of two ways. Either we witness something ourselves or we take something to be true based on the authority of others. We may observe some act or process in society or nature and say that we saw something with our own eyes and therefore know it to be true. There is unfortunately the small problem of eyewitness accounts being frequently mistaken. And, there is the problem of trying to interpret what we saw correctly and explain it to others accurately.

Then there are facts which we accept as facts from others because they are friends who have proven reliable in the past or because we believe the source to be a fair-minded and well-informed expert in a particular field. Climate scientists come to mind.

Climate scientists from around the world have arrived at a consensus that human activities are causing the lion's share of warming on planet Earth. They don't make this claim lightly. They have examined the Earth's temperature for decades and been able to estimate temperatures very far back into the past based on ice cores, tree rings and other indirect evidence. And, they can quantify the things that humans are doing that cause warming. They check and recheck and check again against new information that comes in on an almost daily basis from around the world.

The facts of climate change are the most exhaustively examined scientific facts ever in the history of the world. Thousands upon thousands of scientists from disparate disciplines have compared data and conclusions over decades.

Now, I can know a little something about climate change from observation as I've noticed more hot days in summers and both generally warmer, dryer winters and now also more frequent very deep freezes in the United States due to a meandering jet stream, an effect predicted by climate scientists.

And, here is where simply observing isn't enough. To understand how both could be true, one has to understand the complex movements of so-called polar vortexes in order to place them in the climate change narrative. Not even climate scientists agree on the link. But there is now growing evidence. Such context explains why what may turn out to be the warmest November ever could be followed by a deep freeze in December and still fit the climate change narrative.

Here is where people can go off the rails. Because the society in which we now live has become so complex, we must routinely rely on the specialist knowledge of others. When we flick on a wall switch, we don't need to know how electricity works or the power plant that produces it or the coal mine that supplies the power plant. We can leave that to others and trust that they know how to get electricity to us.

Why do we trust them? Because the electricity rarely fails to arrive and when it doesn't, the outage typically lasts no more than an hour or two. (There are exceptions, of course, during large-scale natural disasters or in some places due to destruction from war or the unreliability of the local electric utility.)

For complex phenomena such as climate change, how can we judge except through information provided by experts? We can check their credentials and the type and amount of their research. We can see what their colleagues say about their work. This is complicated and difficult even in the age of the internet since most of what these experts write will likely be hopelessly incomprehensible to us.

In a era that has become increasingly distrustful of experts--and not just climate experts, but experts in economics, trade policy, foreign policy, banking, medicine, law and many other areas--we are seeing results that we don't like (at least in some areas) when we follow or are forced by law or policy to follow the advice of the experts. We have come to believe that these experts are often merely self-interested profiteers or hired spokespersons for wealthy interests who are trying to deceive us.

Once one starts down this path, it is hard to distinguish between intellectually honest pronouncements, say, from climate scientists, and mere boosterism on practically any topic from a think tank hack who has a PhD but who is merely repeating his or her paymaster's views.

This gets to the core of the problem. It doesn't really pay to be intellectually honest any more. In the hyper-partisan environment we now find ourselves, giving a inch to the other side means to many that they will end up losing the argument. Debate is no longer a means to find the truth by testing ideas against the questions and criticisms of other, it is mostly propaganda designed to win no matter what the truth is.

That has often been the case in the past when it comes to partisan political battles. But we have previously reserved a special place for pronouncements from scientists whom we believed were above the partisan fray and who pursued the truth regardless of where it led.

That faith in science is gone for a significant part of the population. Some of the propagandist think tanks have noticed that scientific investigation has social and political aspects like most pursuits in life. This, in the propagandist's view, moves scientists--the ones the propagandist disagrees with, not the ones he or she agrees with--into the realm of self-interested parties who cannot be intellectually honest.

So debate is now not a process that helps lead to consensus, but rather it is often used with the intent of annihilating the other side. And yet, consensus is how we often come to accept facts we cannot observe or determine for ourselves.

It is this lack of consensus which provides a fertile field for untethered fantasies about what is true. What we can say about consensus positions, however, is that they always turn out to be wrong in some direction and must be adjusted to the times and the current state of our society and knowledge. This does not make them useless. Far from it, consensus positions form the basis for common action.

Here is the nub of the issue. Consensus positions don't have to be 100 percent correct in every detail in order to be useful and even life-saving. We can be approximately correct about climate change and do useful things to address it without being 100 percent certain about its course and severity. We are merely being prudent, and our prudence should match the potential severity we are able to discern based on our current understanding. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is a severe threat and that we should do a lot right away and on into the future to mitigate it.

Those who oppose action often do so based on the misapprehension that public policy is somehow based on certainty. The fact that public policy is NEVER based on certainty should be burned into the brain of every citizen. We always leap together into a world that is only partially understood. Intellectually honest discussion in which doubt and changes in understanding are actually welcomed are the best way to approach a rapidly evolving world where uncertainty is everywhere.

If some people demand certainty before action, then we should ask them to provide certainty that our current trajectory will lead to the happy destination they describe. Those demanding certainty cannot provide certainty and will not provide a warranty--that is, a promise to pay for damages if they are wrong. This shows you that they are, in fact, quite uncertain.

It turns out that a lot of the facts that we believe are actually the result of the consensus understanding of others, possibly the result of careful and intellectually honest research by experts or possibly the result of a conscious or unconscious self-interested campaign of propaganda designed to look like it is the product of such a consensus.

How does one proceed when we must always live with uncertainty? Here we must understand that the major debates of our age over climate, resource limitations, economic inequality, pluralism, terrorism and war have their roots in the changes we humans have inflicted on the biosphere. Climate change is now implicated in major conflicts such as the one in Syria.

The struggle over finite resources such as oil cannot be separated from the continuous turmoil in the Middle East. People fear there will not be enough for everyone to prosper, and those with power grab as much wealth as they can. And, when the powerful find the rules inconvenient, they use their influence with government to change those rules in order to continue their grab for wealth or to get the government to go to war on their behalf--sometimes with results that are the opposite of what is intended. The Iraq War comes to mind.

How do we move forward in such a poisoned and difficult social and political environment? The answer has to be to bring about a new consensus. It turns out the felicitous functioning of society depends consensus. But there can be no consensus where there are no recognized and agreed upon facts. And, facts themselves very often depend on the consensus of experts whom we do not know. In short, without facts there is no consensus and without consensus society can break down into anarchy and conflict.

I'm not saying that this is our destination. I'm only pointing out that finding a consensus is an important step in avoiding such a destination. There are glimmers in recent elections around the world, however troubling they may be, that the old consensus has broken down.

Globalism--that is to say worldwide economic integration mediated by large corporations--does not enjoy the support it used to. The vast gulf between the rich and the poor is being noticed. The destruction of the middle class is being noticed. Senseless and destructive wars that seem to accomplish little are being noticed. The economic devastation being visited on the rural areas and small towns around the world by the forces of globalism is being noticed.

Forging these inchoate understandings into a coherent narrative that includes something about our connection and dependence on the biosphere is the critical task now before us. I don't have that coherent narrative up my sleeve ready to deliver magically to my readers.

The new narrative we need will not come from a savior or a strongman. I think it will be the work of many who see a part of the narrative and articulate it so that others can understand. I believe that narrative will and must be built organically by all those dedicated to creating a just and livable world for us and for those who come after us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and 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, December 04, 2016

Who's afraid of a recount?

Why all the fuss about the recounts which Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is asking for in three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? After all, every political professional knows that a vote recount almost never changes the outcome.

The professionals in the Green Party know that. The professionals in the Clinton campaign know that and have said they don't expect the recount to change anything. And, the professionals (if there are any) in the Trump campaign know that. I was a consultant to a candidate who sought two recounts in two very close elections. The recounts barely budged the totals.

There is the rare exception, of course. Al Franken became a U.S. senator from Minnesota because of a recount. But, it's hard to name another officeholder off the top of one's head who is in office today because of a recount.

As it turns out, there are two things which are driving the fear and loathing in the two major parties (even though the Clinton campaign has now said it will participate in the recounts).

First, there is envy. Jill Stein and the Green Party have found a way to increase media coverage of the party and its agenda by an order of magnitude. And, that's just so far. Whatever you think of Stein and her party, they have pulled off a masterstroke of publicity. They will now get weeks of free coverage in all the major and minor media and much of the blogosphere.

It's no puzzle why the Trump administration doesn't want a public discussion of Green Party priorities on climate change and renewable energy when the administration is planning to pull out of the Paris climate accord, reduce support for renewable energy and roll back regulation of the fossil fuel industry.

For the Democratic Party establishment, the Green Party's more thoroughgoing devotion to environmental policies and social and economic justice could over time lure dissatisfied Democrats into the Green Party fold.

But there is another reason major parties don't like these recounts. They call attention to the flawed voting infrastructure in the United States. In a country where politicians and other civic leaders constantly tell us that "every vote counts," we are about to see that not every vote does count.

There are problems with the reliability and integrity of the machines that do the tabulating. Some electronic voting machines are easy to hack. There are problems with some election procedures: burdensome ID requirements, lack of same-day registration, and lack of mail-in voting which provides by far the easiest, most convenient and most thoughtful way to vote. (I know because I live in Oregon which has mail-in balloting only). There is the inherent conflict of interest in having partisan officials oversee vote counting. There are attempts to suppress voting through intimidation and disinformation. And, there is the lack of nationwide standards to insure that every vote really will count.

With the two major parties enjoying a duopoly on political power, the current system is largely to their liking. Jill Stein wants to make them uncomfortable.

Another development in the 2016 U.S. elections that has this duopoly concerned is that Maine adopted via referendum what is called ranked voting. It is also known as preference voting and instant-runoff voting. This will allow Maine voters to rank candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate for a particular office wins more than 50 percent of the vote as a first preference, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped. If a voter's first ranked candidate is dropped in the first round, then the voter's second preference is counted in the second round. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the second round, then the process continues until one does.

As a practical matter this means that progressive voters could rank a Green Party candidate as their number one choice without splitting the left-leaning vote in a way that allows a right-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Right-leaning voters could choose, say, a candidate from the ultra-conservative Constitution Party without splitting the right-leaning vote in a way what would allow a left-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Ranked voting will mean more diversity of parties and candidates and more possibilities for minor party candidates to win office rather than merely play the role of spoilers. Look for ranked voting to spread to other states in 2018 and beyond.

This election has ushered in an era of extreme volatility and fluidity in American politics. The recounts and the adoption of ranked voting in Maine are just two examples. I expect there to be hundreds more examples in the coming years.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and 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