Absent a mass uprising in the US, we are all doomed to ongoing oligarchic tyranny, says Tariq Ali

Leftist Lion, Ali, analyzes loss of radicalism that was nurtured by the 1960s counterculture

Foresees militarized repression by the corporate state at any sign of popular resistance

No 1273 Posted by fw, March 5, 2015

“The devolution of the political system through the infusion of corporate money, the rewriting of laws and regulations to remove checks on corporate power, the seizure of the press, especially the electronic press, by a handful of corporations to silence dissent, and the rise of the wholesale security and surveillance state have led to “the death of the party system” and the emergence of what Ali called “an extreme center.” Working people are being ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit—a scenario dramatically on display in Greece. And there is no mechanism or institution left within the structures of the capitalist system to halt or mitigate the reconfiguration of the global economy into merciless neofeudalism, a world of masters and serfs.”Chris Hedges citing Tariq Ali

To read Chris Hedges’ account of his meeting last week with Tariq Ali, in which Ali provides a wide-ranging take on radical mass movements in the US, past and present, and, to a lesser extent, on recent events in Greece, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is a cross-posting of the entire article, featuring added subheadings in bold italics, inserted as hanging indents, and added text highlighting. Skimming the subheadings alone provides an excellent overview of the essay.

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Tariq Ali: The Time Is Right For A Palace Revolution by Chris Hedges, www.truthdig.com / www.popularresistance.org/, March 3, 2015

Stunningly prophetic Tariq Ali, hurler of rhetorical thunderbolts and searing critiques

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali is part of the royalty of the left. His more than 20 books on politics and history, his seven novels, his screenplays and plays and his journalism in the Black Dwarf newspaper, the New Left Review and other publications have made him one of the most trenchant critics of corporate capitalism. He hurls rhetorical thunderbolts and searing critiques at the oily speculators and corporate oligarchs who manipulate global finance and the useful idiots in the press, the political system and the academy who support them. The history of the late part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century has proved Ali, an Oxford-educated intellectual and long-time gadfly who once stood as a Trotskyist candidate for Parliament in Britain, to be stunningly prophetic.

Laments the loss of the radicalism that was nurtured by the 1960s counterculture

Ali, when we met last week shortly before he delivered the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at Princeton University, praised the street clashes and open, sustained protests against the state that erupted during the Vietnam War. He lamented the loss of the radicalism that was nurtured by the 1960s counterculture, saying it was “unprecedented in imperial history” and produced the “most hopeful period” in the United States, “intellectually, culturally and politically.” The Pakistani-born Ali, who holds Pakistani and British citizenships, was already an icon of the left during the convulsions of the 1960s. Mick Jagger is said to have written “Street Fighting Man” after he attended an anti-war rally in Grosvenor Square on March 17, 1968, led by Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and others outside the U.S. Embassy in London. Some 8,000 protesters hurled mud, stones and smoke bombs at riot police. Mounted police charged the crowd. Over 200 people were arrested.

Vietnam War protests scared “the living daylights” out of those in power

“I cannot think of an example of any other imperial war in history, and not just in the history of the American empire but in the history of the British and French empires, where you had tens of thousands of former GIs and sometimes serving GIs marching outside the Pentagon and saying they wanted the Vietnamese to win,” he said. “That is a unique event in the annals of empire. That is what frightened and scared the living daylights out of them [those in power]. If the heart of our apparatus is becoming infected, [they asked] what the hell are we going to do?”

US Senate hearings about Vietnam War were an inspiration, the likes of which could never happen again

This defiance found expression even within the halls of the Establishment. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the Vietnam War openly challenged and defied those who were orchestrating the bloodshed. “The way that questioning was conducted educated a large segment of the population,” Ali said of the hearings, led by liberals such as J. William Fulbright. Ali then added sadly that “such hearings could never happen again.”

Implosion of USSR opened the door to ruling elites’ rollback of the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s-‘70s

“That [spirit is what the ruling elite] had to roll back, and that they did quite successfully,” he said. “That rollback was completed by the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Gradually, dissent decreased. By the time of the 2003 Iraq War, demonstrations, though large, were typically one-day affairs

They sat down and said, ‘Great, now we can do whatever we want. There is nothing abroad, and what we have at home—kids protesting about South America and Nicaragua and the contras—is peanuts. Gradually the dissent decreased.” By the start of the Iraq War, demonstrations, although large, were usually “one-day affairs.”

Those in power made people feel powerless. Our very democracy was under threat.

“It was an attempt to stop a war. Once they couldn’t stop it, that was the end,” he said about the marches opposing the Iraq War. “It was a spasm. They [authorities] made people feel there was nothing they could do; that whatever people did, those in power would do what they wanted. It was the first realization that democracy itself had been weakened and was under threat.”

The rise of the corporatocracy has reconfigured the global economy into merciless neofeudalism, a world of masters and serfs

The devolution of the political system through the infusion of corporate money, the rewriting of laws and regulations to remove checks on corporate power, the seizure of the press, especially the electronic press, by a handful of corporations to silence dissent, and the rise of the wholesale security and surveillance state have led to “the death of the party system” and the emergence of what Ali called “an extreme center.” Working people are being ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit—a scenario dramatically on display in Greece. And there is no mechanism or institution left within the structures of the capitalist system to halt or mitigate the reconfiguration of the global economy into merciless neofeudalism, a world of masters and serfs.

The young especially have given up on democracy, seeing no alternative

“This extreme center, it does not matter which party it is, effectively acts in collusion with the giant corporations, sorts out their interests and makes wars all over the world,” Ali said. “This extreme center extends throughout the Western world. This is why more and more young people are washing their hands of the democratic system as it exists. All this is a direct result of saying to people after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘There is no alternative.’ ”

Battle between popular will and corporate oligarchs is becoming increasingly volatile

The battle between popular will and the demands of corporate oligarchs, as they plunge greater and greater numbers of people around the globe into poverty and despair, is becoming increasingly volatile.

Even Greece’s leftist Syriza government has been forced to commit to more punishing economic reforms. Risk of a meltdown looms

Ali noted that even those leaders with an understanding of the destructive force of unfettered capitalism—such as the new, left-wing prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras—remain intimidated by the economic and military power at the disposal of the corporate elites. This is largely why Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, bowed to the demands of European banks for a four-month extension of the current $272 billion bailout for Greece. The Greek leaders were forced to promise to commit to more punishing economic reforms and to walk back from the pre-election promise of Tsipras’ ruling Syriza party to write off a large part of Greece’s sovereign debt. Greece’s debt is 175 percent of its GDP. This four-month deal, as Ali pointed out, is a delaying tactic, one that threatens to weaken widespread Greek support for Syriza. Greece cannot sustain its debt obligations. Greece and European authorities will have to collide. And this collision could trigger a financial meltdown in Greece, see it break free from the eurozone, and spawn popular upheavals in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

The cost of open defiance of corporate tyranny will be painful, as the Greeks and others before them have discovered

The cost of open defiance, which, Ali pointed out, is our only escape route from corporate tyranny, will at least at first be painful. Our corporate masters do not intend to release their death grip without a brutal fight.

Ali recalled that even his late friend Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist president of Venezuela, was not untouched by intimidation from Establishment forces. “I remember talking to Chavez many times and saying, ‘Comandante, why do you stop there?’ ” Ali said. “He said it is not realistic to do it at the present time. We can regulate them, make life difficult for capitalism, use oil money for the poor, but we can’t topple the system.”

Ali added, “The Greeks and the Spanish are saying the same.”

“I don’t know what Syriza thought,” he said. “If it thought we can divide the European elite, we can make a big propaganda campaign in Europe and they will be forced to make concessions, that was foolish. This European elite, led by the Germans, doesn’t crack easily. They have walked all over the Greeks. The Greek leaders should have said to their own people, ‘We are going to try and get the best possible conditions—if not we will report to you what has happened and what we need to do.’ Instead, they fell into the European trap. The Europeans made virtually no concessions that mattered.”

The clash is not economic, it’s political. It’s a battle for power

The clash between the Greeks and the corporate elites that dominate Europe, Ali said, is “not economic.”

The European Union is “prepared to pour billions into fighting Russians in the Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not a question of the money. They can throw away the bloody money, as they are preparing to do and are doing in the Ukraine. With the Greeks they pretend it is economic, but it’s political. They are fearful that if the Greeks pull it off, the disease will spread. There are elections in December in Spain. If Podemos [Spain’s left-wing party] wins with Greece already having won and proceeding, however modestly, on a different path, the Spanish will say the Greeks have done it. And then there is the Irish waiting patiently with their progressive parties, saying, ‘Why can’t we do what Syriza has done? Why can’t we unite and take on our extreme center?’ ”

Obama may be black, nonetheless, he is an “imperial president”

Ali said he was “shocked and angry about all the hopes that were invested in Obama by the left.” He lambasted what he called the American “obsession with identity.” Barack Obama, he said, “is an imperial president and behaves like one, regardless of the color of his skin.” Ali despaired of the gender politics that are fueling a possible run for the White House by Hillary Clinton, who would be the first woman president.

As for Hilary Clinton, her gender makes no difference – her politics will be determined by the political system in which she’s embedded

“My reply is, ‘So bloody what?’ ” he said. “If she is going to bomb countries and put drones over whole continents, what difference does her gender make if her politics are the same? That is the key. The political has been devalued and debased under neoliberalism. People retreat into religion or identity. It’s disastrous. I wonder if it is even possible to create something on a national scale in the United States.

Perhaps it would be better to build US progressive movements on a big city or state level

I wonder if it would be better to concentrate on big cities and states to develop some movements where they can have an influence in Los Angeles, New York or in states such as Vermont. It may be wiser to concentrate on three or four things to show that it can be done. I can’t see the old way of reproducing a political party of the left, modeled on the Republican and Democratic structures, as working. These people only work with money. They do not even speak with very many ordinary people. It is credit-card democracy. The left cannot and should not emulate this. America is the hardest nut to crack, but unless it is cracked we are doomed.”

Ali foresees militarized repression of popular resistance by the corporate state

Ali said he fears that should Americans become politically conscious and resist, the corporate state will impose naked forms of militarized repression. Government’s reaction to the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon stunned him. Authorities “closed down an entire city with the support of the population.” He said that the virtual declaration of martial law in Boston was “a dress rehearsal.”

“If they can do it in Boston they can do it in other cities,” he said. “They needed to try it on in Boston to see if it would work. That frightened me.”

“The manufacturing of threats manufactures fear,” he said. “It creates sleepwalking citizens. They [officials] never tried to do this on this scale when they were fighting the Soviet Union and the communist enemy, which was supposed to be the worst, most dangerous threat ever. Now they do it over a handful of bloody terrorists.”

Groups such as Black Lives Matter, he said, offer some hope for the rise of a new Black leadership

“Just as the traditional left parties have been wiped out all over the world, so has the radical segment of the African-American population and their organizations,” he said. “They were physically wiped out. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, some of the most gifted leaders, were assassinated. The Black Panthers were destroyed. Areas where blacks lived on the West Coast were flooded with drugs. It was a well-planned assault. But the young people who came out in Black Lives Matter have this older spirit. When Jesse Jackson went to Ferguson and engaged in demagogy he was heckled. They did the same on the East Coast with [Al] Sharpton. These black leaders, bought off, are being seen for what they are.”

Americans’ ignorance of their own history and of revolutionary theory will undermine a sophisticated resistance

Ali’s deep concern is that organizations such as Black Lives Matter too often react to events and “don’t totally grasp that dealing with this problem of continuous state violence against the citizenry requires political movements.” He worries that Americans lack an understanding of their own history and that very few are literate in basic revolutionary theory, from Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg. This illiteracy, he said, means that opposition movements are often unable to effectively analyze the structures and mechanisms of capitalist power and cannot formulate a sophisticated political response.

America’s “wretched neoliberalism” has downgraded the teaching of history

“Why didn’t the American working class produce a Labour Party or a proper Communist Party?” he asked. “Repression. If you look at … what happened in America in the early decades of the 20th century and the last decade of the 19th century you see that private mercenaries were hired to stop it [political organizing]. This is a history that is not emphasized. This wretched neoliberalism has downgraded the teaching of history. It is the one subject they really hate. Politics they can take up because they use anti-communism. But history is a huge problem. You can’t understand the emergence of Syriza without understanding the Second World War, the role of the partisans, the role of the Communist Party that organized the partisans and how at one point 75 percent of the country was controlled by these partisans. Then the West came and fought a new war, Churchill did it with Truman’s backing, to defeat these people.”

Although sympathetic to Occupy, Ali says they should have produced a charter of demands

“I was sympathetic to the Occupy movement, but not to the business of not having any demands,” he said. “They should have had a charter demanding a free health service, an end to the pharmaceuticals and insurance companies’ control of the health service, a free education at every level for all Americans. The notion, promoted by anarchists such as John Holloway, that you can change the world without taking power is useless. I have a lot of respect for the anarchists that mobilize and fight for immigrant rights. But I am critical of those who theorize a politics that is not political. You have to have a political program. The anarchists of yore, in Spain, for example, had a real political program. This new type of anarchism achieves nothing. And probably half of these groups are infiltrated. We have the figures of how many FBI people were in the Communist Party and their Trotskyist offspring. There were huge numbers. FBI people were making key decisions.”

Failure to build mass movements to dismantle NSA surveillance reflected “complicity in our own oppression”

Ali said that the failure on the part of citizens to build mass movements to dismantle wholesale surveillance in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden was an example of our collective self-delusion and our complicity in our own oppression. The cult of the self, a product of neoliberal corporate propaganda, infects every aspect of society and culture and leads to paralysis.

Where is the civil rights movement to oppose mass surveillance? Citizenfour got an Oscar – So what!

“Hollywood gave an Oscar to “Citizenfour” and that is as far as it goes,” he said. “As if that matters. That is what is frightening. No civil rights movement has sprung up uniting the citizens against mass surveillance. Neoliberalism has effectively destroyed solidarity and empathy, helped by new technology. It is a culture of narcissism.”

Ali predicts that if a new global financial crisis does not give rise to an alternative vision beyond capitalism, things will get worse

Ali predicted that the current global speculation would result in another catastrophic financial crash. This new crash will give birth to “movements and people who will say, ‘Enough.’ ” If these movements build radical political programs with an alternative socialist vision for society, our “authoritarian capitalism” can be battled, but if this vision is absent, if revolt is simply reactive, things will get worse. The epicenter of this struggle, he said, will be in the United States.

And if there is no uprising in the US, we are all doomed

“If nothing happens in the United States, if nothing new is created to challenge systemic excesses and empire, it will be a bad situation for all of us,” he said. “One is doomed if nothing happens in the U.S.”

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Dozens of Italian cities empower citizen action through city-citizen joint initiatives to improve city life

Innovative co-design approach represents serious shift in thinking in “finding solutions” to manage city projects and urban issues

No 1272 Posted by fw, March 4, 2015

“What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a ‘co-design process’ with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.”David Bollier

When I moved to Windsor, Ontario in 1990, I enthusiastically responded to city council invitations to residents to participate in the annual strategic planning process and to provide feedback to big ticket projects. That enthusiasm was quickly dashed when it became clear to me that these exercises were little more than a façade of participative democracy. As far as I could determine, public input was never incorporated in the final drafts of official documents or project plans.

Imagine, then, my rekindled enthusiasm in participative democracy at the municipal level when I skimmed Bollier’s report of the Italian co-design approach to the planning and management of city projects. Click on the following linked title to read the original article or read below a cross-posted version with highlighted text to bring key ideas to the fore.

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LabGov Pioneers the Paradigm of City as Commons by David Bollier, bollier.org blog, February 27, 2015

David Bollier

David Bollier

What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.

The Bologna project is the brainchild of Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome in cooperation with student and faculty collaborators at LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons.  LabGov is an “inhouse clinic” and think tank that is concerned with collaborative governance, public collaborations for the commons, subsidiarity (governance at the lowest appropriate level), the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.  The tagline for LabGov says it all:  “Society runs, economy follows. Let’s (redesign institutions and law together.”)

For years Iaione has been contemplating the idea of the “city as commons” in a number of law review articles and other essays. In 2014, the City of Bologna formally adopted legislation drafted by LabGov interns. The thirty-page Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons (official English translation here) outlines a legal framework by which the city can enter into partnerships with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services.

Taken together, these collaborations comprise a new vision of the “sharing city” or commons-oriented city. To date, some 30 projects have been approved under the Bologna Regulation.  Dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.

The Bologna Regulation takes seriously the idea that citizens have energy, imagination and responsibility that they can apply to all sorts of municipal challenges.  So why not empower such citizen action rather than stifling it under a morass of bureaucratic edicts and political battles?  (On this point, check out David Graeber’s new book, The Utopia of Rules.)

The conceptualization of “city as commons” represents a serious shift in thinking. Law and bureaucratic programs are not seen as the ultimate or only solution, and certainly not as solutions that are independent of the urban culture. Thinking about the city as commons requires a deeper sense of mutual engagement and obligation than “service delivery,” outsourcing and other market paradigms allow. 

But consider the upside:  Instead of relying on the familiar public/private partnerships that often siphon public resources into private pockets, a city can instead pursue “public/commons partnerships” that bring people together into close, convivial and flexible collaborations. The working default is “finding a solution” rather than beggar-thy-neighbor adversarialism or fierce political warfare.

To Iaione, the Bologna Regulation offers a structure for “local authorities, citizens and the community at large to manage public and private spaces and assets together. As such, it’s a sort of handbook for civic and public collaboration, and also a new vision for government.”  He believes that “we need a cultural shift in terms of how we think about government, moving away from the Leviathan State or Welfare State toward collaborative or polycentric governance.” 

Besides more public collaborations, the Regulation encourages what Iaione calls “nudge regulations” — a “libertarian paternalism” that uses policy to encourage (but not require) people to make better choices. The term, popularized by behavioral economist Richard Thaler and law scholar Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, is seen as a way of respecting people’s individual freedoms while “nudging” them to (for example) save enough for retirement, eat healthier foods and respect the environment.

The Regulation also encourages “citytelling” – a process that recognizes people’s “geo-emotional” relationships with urban spaces in the crafting of rules for managing those spaces.  And it elevates the importance of “service design” techniques for meeting needs.  Thus, information and networking tools, training and education, collaboration pacts and initiatives, and measurement and evaluation of impact, all become more important.

For a lengthier treatment of Professor Iaione’s thinking and the Bologna Regulation, check out Michel Bauwens’ recent interview with Iaione at the Shareable website. Iaione explains how his studies of the tragedy of urban roads and experiments in Bologna led him to develop the theoretical framework for local public entrepreneurship, which is the basis of the CO-Mantova project and the idea of the city as a commons.

Iaione sees commons-related policies as ways to tap into the talents and enthusiasm of an emerging new social class – active citizens, social innovators, makers, creatives, sharing and collaborative economy practitioners, service designers, co-working and co-production experts, and urban designers.  Conventional governance structures cannot effectively elicit or organize the energies of these people. Thinking about the “city as open platform” works better.

With the CO-Mantova project, in Mantua, LabGov has been trying to develop “a prototype of a process to run the city as a collaborative commons, i.e., a ‘co-city.’” It is building a new kind of collaborative/polycentric governance with five key sets of actors:  social innovators, public authorities, businesses, civil society organizations, and knowledge institutions. Although it is a formal, institutionalized process – a public-private-citizen partnership – its beating heart is the trust, cooperation, social ethic and culture among the participating parties.

The goal is to build peer-to-peer platforms – physical, digital and institutional – to advance three main purposes:  “living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures), making together (co-production).”  The CO-Mantova project may soon start a CO-Mantova Commons School.

An exciting aspect to LabGov is its reconceptualization of the catalytic role that universities can play.  LabGov is a nonprofit based at a university, but it works with all sorts of outsiders.  Instead of considering the university, industry and government as the only important players, LabGov subscribes to “a Quintuple Helix approach” (expressed in LabGov logo) where the university “becomes an active member of the community and facilitates the creation of new forms of partnerships in the general interest between government, industry and businesses, the not-for-profit sector, social innovators and citizens, and other institutions such as schools, academies, plus research and cultural centers.” 

There are so many urban commons projects emerging these days that it would be great to assemble them into a new network of vanguard players. In the meantime, I will be closely watching the progress of LabGov and the Italian cities that are boldly experimenting with these new modes of governance.

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Will our energy future be fueled by fossils or by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight?

“The gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant,” says Richard Heinberg

No 1271 Posted by fw, March 3, 2015

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg

“Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts. If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, ‘How we use energy is as important as how we get it.’” Richard Heinberg. Post Carbon Institute

Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. In this abridged cross-post, focusing entirely on the introductory and concluding passages of his very long essay, Richard comes to a startling conclusion, alluded to in the above excerpt, and fully clarified below in his conclusion.

To read the complete essay of 7,000 words, with copious graphs and photos, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is an abridged version, with added subheadings and highlighted text. Omitted are 7 sections of supporting evidence: 1) Unburnable Fossils and Intermittent Electricity; 2) The Liquid Fuels Substitution Quandary; 3) How much energy will we have? 4) A Possible Outcome of Current Energy Trends; 5) Googling Questions; 6) A Couple of Key Concepts; 7) Transitioning Nine Sectors.

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Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, January 21, 2015

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

What the fossil fuel industry wants you to believe

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options [excluding nuclear]. On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

Versus the renewable energy pitch

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

In fact, our energy destiny will be the one best supported by the facts. But what are “the facts”?

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”

***** End of Introduction *****

 [Conclusion] 8. Neither Utopia Nor Extinction

This is all politically charged. Some renewable energy advocates (particularly in the US) soft-pedal the “use less” message because we still inhabit an economy in which jobs and profits depend on stoking consumption, not cutting it. “Less” also implies “fewer”: if the amount of energy available contracts but human population continues growing, that will translate to an even sharper per capita hit. This suggests we need to start reducing population, and doing so quickly—but economists hate population decline because it compromises GDP and results in smaller generational cohorts of young workers supporting larger cohorts of retirees. Here is yet another message that just doesn’t sell. A contraction of energy, population, and the economy has only two things going for it: necessity and inevitability.

Serious renewable energy scientists claim an energy transition will require “changes throughout society”

From a political standpoint, some solar and wind advocates apparently believe it makes good strategic sense to claim that a renewable future will deliver comfort, convenience, jobs, and growth—an extension of the oil-fueled 20th century, but now energized by wind and solar electrons. Regardless of whether it’s true, it is a message that appeals to a broad swath of the public. Yet most serious renewable energy scientists and analysts acknowledge that the energy transition will require changes throughout society. This latter attitude is especially prevalent in Europe, which now has practical experience integrating larger percentages of solar and wind power into electricity markets. Here in the US, though, it is common to find passionate but poorly informed climate activists who loudly proclaim that the transition can be easily and fully accomplished at no net cost. Again, this may be an effective message for rallying troops, but it ends up denying oxygen to energy conservation efforts, which are just as important.

Ultimately, renewable enthusiasts will have to ignore renewable hype and deal with reality

I have good friends in the renewable energy industry who say that emphasizing the intermittency challenges of solar and wind amounts to giving more ammunition to the fossil fuel lobby. Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; in a similar spirit, some solar and wind boosters might say that a little exaggeration of renewable energy’s potential, uttered in defense of the Earth, is no sin. After all, fossil fuel interests are not bound by the need for strict veracity: they continually make absurd claims that the world has centuries’ worth of coal and gas, and decades of oil. It’s not a fair or equal fight: the size and resources of the fossil fuel industry vastly outweigh those of the renewables camp. And there could hardly be more at stake: this is war for the survival of our current civilization-supporting climate regime. Nevertheless, we will ultimately have to deal with the reality of what solar and wind can actually provide, and we will do so far more successfully if we plan and prepare ahead of time.

Humanity’s future prospects are tied to adaptation to lower energy consumption levels

There are a lot of smart, dedicated people working hard to solve the problems with renewables—that is, to make it cheaper and easier for these energy sources to mimic the 24/7 reliability of fossil fuels through improvements in energy storage and related technologies. None of what I have said in this essay is meant to discourage them from that important work. The more progress they make, the better for all of us. But they’ll have more chance of success in the long run if society starts investing significant effort into adapting its energy usage to lower consumption levels, more variable sources, and more localized, distributed inputs.

In terms of energy use, there’s a significant gap between our current way of life and a future sustainable way of life

The problem is, the gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant. If energy declines, so will economic activity, and that will create severe political and geopolitical strains; arguably some of those are already becoming apparent. We may be headed into a crucial bottleneck; if so, our decisions now will have enormous repercussions. We therefore need an honest view of the constraints and opportunities ahead.

We know what we need to do to avoid ecological and societal collapse, the question is are we up to the challenge?

At this point I must address a few words to “collapsitarians” or “doomers,” who say that only utter ruin, perhaps extinction, awaits us, and that renewables won’t work at all. They may be correct in thinking that the trajectory of society this century will be comparable to the collapse of historic civilizations. However, even if that is the case, there is still a wide range of possible futures. The prospects for humanity, and the fates of many other species, hang on our actions.

What’s needed now is neither fatalism nor utopianism, but a suite of practical pathways for families and communities that lead to a real and sustainable renewable future—parachutes that will get us from a 17,000-watt society to a 2,000-watt society. We need public messages that emphasize the personal and community benefits of energy conservation, and visions of an attractive future where human needs are met with a fraction of the operational and embodied energy that industrial nations currently use. We need detailed transition plans for each major sector of the economy. We need inspiring examples, engaging stories, and opportunities for learning in depth. The transition to our real renewable future deserves a prominent, persistent place at the center of public conversation.

The Transition NetworkThe Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, The Simplicity Institute, and many other organizations have already begun pioneering this work, and deserve support and attention. However, more framing and analysis of the issues, along the lines of this essay but in much greater depth, could also help. My organization, Post Carbon Institute, is embarking on a collaborative project to provide this. If you don’t hear much from me for a while, it’s because I’m working on it. Stay tuned.

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