Nightfall II: Endgame for the American Way of Life

by P. J. Laska

After commenting on the mass delusion that characterizes AWOL (the American Way of Life) in the Post-Meltdown era (Nightfall: Dimming of the dream) this essay looks at the significance of the Occupy Movement and presents Istvan Meszaros’ analysis of the unresolvable structural crisis of capitalism as a way of understanding the system’s failure to act on our present science-based foresight capability by addressing the critical issue of our species’ metabolism with nature.  It then examines the demented logic of extreme technologies that consume fossil fuel in order to obtain the additional fossil fuel necessary to continue global capital’s expansionary drive, and concludes with some observations on the impediments to a transformative eco-socialist restructuring that could avert the worst of what is implied by capitalism’s continuing assault on nature.

In the fourth year of the Post-Meltdown Era, AWOL continues, diminished but undeterred.  One doesn’t have to look hard to see the manifestations of entrenched denial on a mass scale.  They are so pervasive that even though capitalism has entered the cul de sac of senescence and the signs of this are everywhere, the condition still passes for normalcy.  Capitalist culture has always had a warped normalcy bias, but adherence to “normalcy” in the face of impending calamity has a religious aspect, an unswerving belief about being down but not out, a resurrectionist faith that after a period of hardship and perseverance through a long slump, lasting possibly a decade, the “economy” will right itself, full recovery will come, and AWOL will be able to reverse the new feudalism of the 1% vs. the 99% and return to its former profligate ways.  The mass delusion is evident, for example, in the continuing infrastructural momentum of excess and waste seen in the automobile industry.  The latest Motor Trend magazine lays it out undisguised in a celebratory picture summary of fifty new models with minor design changes, some added comfort and convenience options, but with the all-important average gas mileage figures unchanged (12-17 mpg city, 17-24 hwy — if you’re lucky).  No small, higher mileage cars are listed, but their listing wouldn’t matter because their average mileage is not high enough to make much of a difference.  At present only hybrid technology breaks the low mileage barrier, and hybrid vehicles, like home solar conversion systems, are priced well beyond what the average family can afford.  As a world-wide cultural paradigm AWOL’s personal transportation system based on fossil fuel consumption is evidence of a reality blockage that is difficult to fathom given the Earth System changes now underway.

Although the delusion that sustains AWOL is nothing new, post-Meltdown revelations of capitalism’s inability to function as a stable social metabolic system make it a little easier to see through the ideological fog that hides reality by predestining the system’s unsustainable infrastructural momentum while concealing the contradictions that render it socially and ecologically inimical to global health and well-being.  Capitalism’s ideological fog machine had the presidential podium during the 1980’s, and Reagan cranked it to full capacity with his “Morning-in-America” speech in 1984.  In retrospect this speech-act can now be seen as the AWOL version of Brezhnev’s political decision to lower the blinds in the Soviet Union after he took over from Khrushchev.1  The difference is that while the fatal weakness of the Soviet system could not be hidden, the sound of the other Cold War shoe dropping in the USA was drowned out for more than two decades by the ebullient, self-congratulatory applause with which Reagan’s speech was received.  Now, after Wall Street’s financial Meltdown and four years of deep, disabling recession, the applause has waned and other, dissenting voices are making themselves heard.

 I

The occupy movement

In late September of 2011, three years after Capitalism’s epoch-ending financial meltdown, a spontaneous movement, inspired by the “Arab Spring” liberation movement that began in Tunisia and Egypt (and the earlier “occupation “ of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison)  “occupied” Wall St. to challenge not only its culture of greed and welfare bailouts for “the 1%” at the expense of the “the 99%” but also the profit-over-people policy that robs large segments of the population of their future.  Within weeks the movement had spread to hundreds of cities across America and “the developed world.”  The inclusiveness of the Occupy Movement brought together activists from the Old New-Left from forty years ago and from Organized Labor, and in its unity and its valuing of equality and co-operative mutualism and in its direct democracy of free association, one could see in embryo the future society of sanity and health that must supplant the pathological domination of the failed social and economic system taking us down a backward path to ruin.  How baffling it all is to the apologists of Capital was evident one Friday last November on the PBS’ evening news when media pundit David Brooks in a Mr. Thin Man moment dissed the value and purpose of a “leaderless movement with vague demands.”  Implied by his obtuse misunderstanding of the Occupy encampments is the same sort of ideological presumption seen two decades earlier in Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated New York Times bestseller The End of History 2  which takes the capitalist world system to be so successful it can have no successor (so what’s the point of challenging it?).  Both the ideology and the presumption are less evident and secure now that the Great World System is lurching into its 4th year of stagnation and decline.  Since a sizable amount of the debt in the interlocking global system is held by U.S. banks, there is worry that the Eurozone’s multiple sovereign debt crises will force another round of Wall St. bailouts (to preserve capital values and the illusion of Capitalism’s historic victory).

These days it seems that only “developing” economies like those of China, India and Brazil are still growing enough to create new billionaires, while “developed” capitalist countries are desperately in need of a way to dispose of the debt that financed their previous round of expansion. But their failed strategy of profiting from debt based securities, while burdening future generations, has little hope of a re-run any time soon, since it has brought hardship and impoverishment to many while delivering an extreme polarization of wealth that is being likened to a new “Gilded Age.”   In real world history the fantasy of a history-ending “success story” that ends in abysmal failure — repeatedly — is like a legacy software app that no longer runs on current systems.  An alternative definition of what real success consists in is the deeper meaning of what the Occupy Movement is about.

Whatever emerges from the Occupy Movement, one thing will remain incontrovertible: it blew away the fog and broke the silence that allowed the moneyed manipulators of consciousness to shape the narrative that the problem capitalism is having in continuing its expansion is the Government’s fault.  By “occupying” Wall St. that false narrative was marginalized in the media and voice was given to the truth that responsibility for the Meltdown, the job losses, the foreclosures and evictions, the falling property values and revenue for schools, the budgetary crisis of the states, the tuition hikes and cutbacks in education and a safety net strained to the breaking point, lies with the wizardry of financial control and with the corporate lobbying in what passes for “democracy” in Washington.  The symbolic home of the wizardry is Wall St. By focusing on the “bankster” functionaries of the capital-system the Occupy Movement did the nation, and the world, a great service, one that hopefully marks a turning point in the recovery of real history and with it the realization that capitalism is a creature of history, and that it is in fact, in the words of Samir Amin, a “parenthesis of history” and therefore is properly understood as having a beginning and an end.  There is reason to believe that this understanding, which enables us to think “beyond capital” and which was once the conscious component of revolutionary action against the rule of capital, has returned to encourage a new movement to end its rule once and for all.

The next step after occupying the street synonymous with capital is to “Occupy Capital” itself.  Since the capital system is a political as well as an economic form of domination, it can be “occupied” 3 initially by demanding that Congress tax the wealthy and re-direct public revenues away from subsidizing private profit (welfare for capitalists) and toward the jobs necessary to begin a re-structuring that will end the stagnation and place the nation on a path toward healthy and sustainable sufficiency for the entire population.  The consequences of not taking the progressive step of forcing the costs of capitalism back on its principal beneficiaries are now being shaped in the form of budget-cutting austerity measures whose purpose is to lower debt, shore up capital values and expand the budget reserves necessary to fund future equity injections that will be needed to keep a failed and crippling system from collapsing under the weight of its antagonistic and contradictory organization of social and economic life.

In the U.S. the progressive goal must be to break the gridlock in Congress between the party of “de-reg” and the party of “re-reg,” responsible for the “AWOL Oscillation,” the back and forth movement between the two political parties that sustains the myth of an underlying naturalness, historical necessity and inalterability of capitalism and “market rationality” now and for future generations. When the Republican Party gains majority control we get “conservative de-reg,” a push to roll back “job-killing” government regulations  in order to pump up profits by stun-gunning labor, public safety and the science that informs us about the continuing degradation of the environment.  When the Democratic Party takes over we get “liberal re-reg,” policy changes to preserve some semblance of social justice and environmental sanity (the re-reg party used to protect programs that provide a minimal safety net for segments of the population injured or marginalized by de-regged “free” enterprise, but that commitment has flagged now to the point that the budget axe may soon be falling on them).

The long-term stabilizing result of the AWOL Oscillation has been the unquestioned policy of subsidies in the form of governmental outlays of public funds for private capital gains, either by reducing or removing tax obligations, by direct grants of credit (for “job creation”), by publicly-funded resources and services (e.g. the cost of screening airline baggage is not born by the “free market” airlines), or in a financial emergency like the Meltdown, by providing direct steroid-like injections of public money to banks to stave off a system-wide financial collapse.  This massive public largesse to insure continuing private accumulation at the expense of general economic and environmental health is evidence of the power of a veiled THIRD PARTY, the party of Capital, working behind the scenes through its army of lobbyists to shape legislation in its interest.  The Party of Capital is not a party that caucuses in public forums open to the press.  Its designs are veiled and have to be exposed by tracking outlays of cash. That it is the dominant party, the real power in politics, is not in question. 4 The rule of Capital over society is such that it has been able to effectively subvert the functioning of democracy.  In both the political and economic spheres it disenfranchises labor and arrogates important decision-making to itself.  The power of democratic decision-making is a minor spectacle of consumption where “voting rights” are restricted by income.  The higher the income the greater the power to decide what to buy.  In the political sphere although opinion polls show the vast majority want tax increases on the wealthy rather than cuts to entitlements and the safety net, even modest proposals to tax the wealthy are blocked.  An Occupy Movement united with Organized Labor on political demands for job programs paid for by tax increases on the rich, 5 no budget cuts for entitlements, and protection of the environment has the power to end the delusion, break the stalemate and establish real democracy.  To tweak a lyric from Leonard Cohen, “First we take Wall St., then we take D.C.”

II

The structural crisis of capitalism

“[T]he fear that capital might encounter one day its absolute limit…haunted liberal/bourgeois theory ever since Adam Smith for a very good reason…Under the circumstances when that fear becomes an avoidable reality — which is fast happening today — the investigation of the conditions of production…acquires a dramatic topicality because the limits of capital collide with the elementary conditions of the social metabolism itself, and thus acutely and chronically threaten the very survival of humanity.” – Istvan Meszaros, Beyond Capital

Capital is ancient in origin, although its name is modern.  What capital stands for is power over nature, labor, and all the productive forces of a community.  Ancient power cults amassed capital initially from tribute by means of armed conquest and subjugation and used their excess accumulation to establish permanent military forces and to assemble armies of labor for colossal building projects.

Capitalism is a historical phenomenon of the Modern Age. It rests on a production formula that yields, in its dreams, an unlimited accumulation of capital.  According to the formula, “capital” can be continuously amassed by the establishment of a production process that yields surpluses greater in value than the original capital advanced and, with the process being repeated over and over, to a continuing accumulation of value projected as an “economic law” (even though, as Meszaros points out, this is the inversion of the true meaning of the word “economy”).  Marx called modern capital “self-expanding value,” because it is able to change form (from money to commodities and back to money) “without thereby becoming lost.” 5 To make clear the distinctiveness of capitalism from earlier forms of capital accumulation he contrasted it with the actions of the miser and the merchant.  The miser, he says, is a capitalist gone mad.  The miser accumulates by pulling his capital out of circulation and hoarding it, which is the opposite of what the capitalist does.  Capitalists risk their hoards in the production process in order to increase them.  Merchant capital antedates capitalism and has a long history going back to ancient societies.  Merchants exchange some of their value-hoard for commodity goods, which they then market for a greater value sum, enabling them to grow their original hoard.  They are not capitalists, Marx noted, because “buying in order to sell creates neither value nor surplus-value, but acts as a middleman…in the actual exchange (that realizes the surplus-values of production in the form of money).” 6 Unlike merchant capital, which operated under both the ancient empires and the feudalism of the middle ages, capitalism began by organizing and developing the forces of production, while simultaneously bringing into being new social relations of production.  The new formula for capital expansion turned labor-power into a commodity and living labor (the new working class) into “a force that creates value” 7 and is “the sole source of surplus value.” 8

The last three centuries testify to the fact that the formula employed by capitalists is a powerful method of wealth production and value accumulation.  Competition among capitalists in the quest to revolutionize society’s productive forces (labor power, science, technology) drove them to expand, modernize and transform nearly all aspects of everyday life into a means for the continuous expansion of capital.  In the process of this transformation the power legitimating the productive formula for capital expansion was secured by the domination of capitalists, acting together as a class, over the governing bodies of society’s institutional structures — political, judicial, economic and educational.  But the recent Meltdown and the continuing pain of the recession demonstrate that the formula for generating capital, even with the domination of capitalists over society, is plagued by recurrent crises that slow production and impair capital accumulation. Marx saw these recurrent crises as the result of a contradiction between the limited dimensions of consumption under the rule of capital and a production process that always pushes to go beyond “the immanent barrier” of insufficient ability to consume.  Since the aim of capital, he wrote, “is not to minister to certain wants, but to provide profits…, a rift must continually ensue” 9 between the productive forces developed under capitalist control and the consumption capability of those comprising the great majority of the population — “the 99%.”  Because the profits that feed capital growth come from containing or suppressing the wages and salaries paid to workers, there is always a deficiency in working families’ power to consume.  The contradiction between the increased productive power of social labor and the inability of the largest class of society to expand its consumption causes a recurrent crisis.  Capital growth sputters and slows, production is scaled back, unemployment increases.

Marx’s analysis penetrated the fog of traditional liberal economic theory by disclosing the contradiction at the heart of the system, the disabling antagonistic character of the “relations of production” (the domination of labor by capital), revealed by its failure to achieve  universal sufficiency in society even though the power of the social productive forces were vastly increased.  It also explains the devious credit expansion in the years prior to the Meltdown that brought the system to the brink of financial collapse.  In order to exceed the “immanent barrier” to the system’s drive to expand capital (the barrier of the limited capacity to consume) the financial sector of the system came up with devious credit innovations to postpone a “rift” crisis and keep economic “growth” going.  Consumption was expanded and capital values were increased by loosening borrowing requirements and treating future payments (of mortgages and credit card debt, for example) as equity in derivatives markets. The ingenious fraud of passing off debt as equity was able to postpone a “rift” crisis for the better part of a decade but proved in the end to be unsustainable when the housing market and credit bubbles collapsed, confidence (“trust”) eroded, and the inevitable recession set in.

The result is massive unemployment and economic stagnation on a scale approaching that of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, which, together with government borrowing, burdens a generation of worker-consumers, the 14 million unemployed and 12 million under-employed and the 1 in 4 children now living in poverty, many of them homeless.  In this context the attempt to devise a “grand bargain” for deficit reduction can be seen for what it is: a cynical attempt to break the social contract between the generations and shred the safety net that sustains a bare minimum of sufficiency for millions (even while it denies millions more basic health care services), in order to prevent a general depression of capital values and free up more of the national budget for subsidizing new capital investment.  This recurrent type of crisis, or “rift,” between “the stupendous productivity [of the system]” 10 and the inability of the largest class of society [the 99%] to sustain or increase its level of consumption and decision-making in the social metabolic process is one manifestation of what Istvan Meszaros calls the fundamental structural crisis of the capital system that became visible in the latter half of the 20th Century.  This crisis is on-going rather than cyclical and eruptive, and is “not confined to the social/economic sphere” 11 but “affects the framework itself in its entirety,” 12 and has no resolution short of transcending the system’s underlying social antagonism. 13 

Meszaros’ massive study Beyond Capital (1995), which is further elucidated in his more recent The Structural Crisis of Capitalism (2010), argues that the recurring rift seen in the value realization crises is evidence of a pervasive structural crisis that is a “manifestation of the system’s encounter with its own limits,”14 and of a resulting full-blown “ecological rift,” as John Bellamy Foster characterizes it,15 in humanity’s metabolism with nature, from which there is no escape without designing and putting into place a new “metabolic fit”16  that heals the rift by recognizing the “metabolic value” of flourishing eco-systems and by protecting them against entropy.   

Beyond Capital is compelling in its critical assessment that capitalism has brought humanity to a crossroads leading either to a barbarous regression of accumulation by dispossession, war, and environmental ruin, or to a revolutionary transition that supplants the power of capital with an equitable and ecologically sustainable form of social metabolic reproduction.  Developing his analysis on the basis of Marx’s critical foundation, which historically establishes that capitalism exists to produce surplus value first and useful goods and services second, Meszaros sets out the structural implications of the fact that the logic of capitalism is not reversible.  Altering the formula by which it extracts surplus value would entail ending the conflictual and “antagonistic” social relation between capital and labor, while producing goods and services (“use-values”) on the basis of need rather than for profit would defeat capitalism’s formula for accumulation. The formula underlying “market rationality” dictates that a profitable return on investment is the “necessary” condition for production start-ups.  As a pre-condition of “social metabolic reproduction” the priority of the accumulationist imperative restricts both the type and quantity of useful goods and services produced.  The supply of materials, machine technology, labor and credit may all be in place but without a “go-ahead” from the world market that the goods to be produced will realize a capital gain, they will not be produced.17 This critical understanding makes evident the real relation between labor and surplus value, which those who serve the chimera of market rationality disregard.  The monstrous contradiction is too hideous and morally objectionable for them to look upon without the protective goggles of Neoclassical liberal ideology.

To put the market’s chimera of Unreason in command of society’s entire productive forces is a prescription for pain, distress, dysfunction and now, in capitalism’s end time, potentially fatal risk.  The latter fact is tacitly acknowledged by the collaborative leadership of the capitalist class and explains why they do not surrender national defense to the vagaries of market idolatry.  While defense contracts for weaponry and the technologies of national security are “bid out,” no one can seriously maintain that market logic decides the type and quantity of military and security goods to be produced.  When it is acknowledged that defense decisions are not dictated by the market, the question is thrown open as to why other sectors of the social metabolism equally essential for national well-being, like health care, pharmaceuticals, food production, electric power, or transportation, should be subjected to the trauma of a pseudo-rationality that is restricted of vision, narrow of motive, and structurally unable to meet the requirements of universal social sufficiency and environmental sanity.  When that question is circulated through the social mind, light bulbs of awareness are turned on.  For what sense does it make to turn over production of life’s essentials to the functioning of a mechanism that has no brain and decides the goals and parameters of production not on the basis of social and environmental need but (most recently) on the basis of software designed to determine whether products and services can be profitably marketed at any given time? Anyone who thinks this is sound transgenerational logic is not interested in the long-term sustainability of human communities and the geo-biological conditions on which they depend.  In a sane society (one not laboring under mass delusion) this in itself would function as a critical personality assessment concerning the competency and fitness of decision-makers.  Capitalism’s growth mechanism is future-blind, bent structurally toward conflict and pathological repetition of its socially and ecologically destructive designs, and demonstrably incapable of preparing humanity to deal with the massive disruption of age-old Earth-system equilibriums caused by 250 years of mindless and extravagant free-loading on fossilized sunlight.

Meszaros’s contention is that unlike the recurrent crises of recession, the structural crisis of the system is not resolvable and if it continues to thwart the potential of the social metabolic reproductive order to transcend its contradictions by developing society’s productive forces on a non-antagonistic basis, it will drive humanity over the cliff.  This is not an extreme conclusion. There is mounting evidence that continuing species and habitat loss sets the stage for a third Great Extinction, made more ominous by the fact that while previous known extinctions took out many animal species, what is happening now is that “large numbers of plant species are going extinct.”18 This loss of plant species is not a mystery.  It is related to habitat loss from a complex of causes, including human settlement, energy consumption (deforestation, mountaintop removal and open pit mining), over-grazing, monocultural cropland conversion, and the slowly accumulating effects of global warming that drives some species to extinction, while weakening others by making them vulnerable to expanded insect predation (the on-going destruction of pine trees by the bark beetle that cold winters used to keep in check is a well-known example).

During the run-up to the recent financial Meltdown, Meszaros noted that forms of “extraneous help,” (like the earlier 20th Century Keynesian state intervention, and the most recent example of this sort of help, the post-Meltdown financial sector bailout), “only intensify capital’s ‘hybridization’ as a social reproductive system, thereby piling up trouble for the future.  In the years ahead of us the structural crisis of capital — asserting itself as a chronic insufficiency of ‘extraneous help’ at the present stage of development is bound to get deeper [and] to reverberate across the globe, even in the most remote corners of the world, affecting every aspect of life, from the directly material reproductive dimensions to the most mediated intellectual and cultural concerns.”19  As a hybrid system that enforces “capitalism” on the 99% who must bear the burden of the system’s failures, while granting “socialism” to the 1% who benefit from nationalizing the system’s bankruptcy, capitalism has now reversed the role its ideologists claim for it in the social reproductive order from that of doctor to patient, from that of advancing innovator and inaugurator “bringing good things to life” to that of frail addict looking for the next injection of public wealth to help it perpetuate the unsustainable drive for unlimited expansion.  The fragility of the system’s now fully hybridized (socially subsidized) production/consumption efforts is plainly evident in the extreme designs to extract, with ever more complex and destructive mega-technologies, the additional fossil fuel energy necessary to sustain its continued expansion.

III

Extreme technologies and fossil fuel

“It’s not a conceit to imagine that in another generation or two we’ll all be…energy scavengers picking through what’s left of our reserve, boiling the oil sands and pumping abandoned wells to the last drop.” — William Marsden, Stupid to the Last Drop

In the same way that Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote depended on his faithful steed Rocinante to pursue a deluded vision of knight-errantry, capitalism from its inception in the 17th Century depended on human labor and the fossilized concentrations of natural energy preserved in the earth to realize its own chimera of unlimited expansion.  Early on the capitalist mode of production replaced animal energy sources with mechanical “horsepower” drawn first from the BTU’s contained in coal, then from the middle of the 19th Century on from the energy contained in oil and gas (methane) as well, so that all three forms (solid, liquid and gaseous) of fossilized sunlight were put to work greatly increasing industry’s productive power, which reduced but did not replace the need for human labor power.  Replacing animal and much human labor power with ancient remains of solar energy preserved in the earth, together with advances in science and technology, made possible a new form of civilization. Tragically, the full potential for human wealth production made possible by this civilization has been squandered in a futile effort to preserve the divisive, antagonistic inequities of past forms of civilization, which modern industrial production has, rationally but not in fact, 20 rendered obsolete.  The contradiction between modern capitalist civilization’s rational productive potential and the irrationality of its social metabolic configuration is the story of Quixotism writ large.  Now new Earth System 21 pressures on this waning historical design, in the form of extreme “weather events,” together with the expansionary system’s demand for oil that can no longer be met by conventional supply are pushing it across the threshold into a new era, the outlines of which are increasingly evident to non-deluded impartial observers.  This section looks at the extreme technologies being deployed to temporarily postpone the necessary restructuring that must accompany a global conversion to a new renewable energy base that can avert the worst consequences foreseen by climate science as inevitably following from the present delusional path.

Each of the three forms of fossil fuel energy now in use (coal, natural gas, and oil) involves designs for hyper-exploitation by means of extreme technologies.  Extreme technologies are those that by complexity of design and scale of deployment entail an extraordinary risk of harm to ecological systems, human communities, and the geophysical conditions on which they depend.22   These technologies enable instrumental designs for fossil fuel recovery that make earlier forms of extraction look primitive in comparison. Underground coal mining, for example, proceeded for hundreds of years without the use of extreme technology. The main known risks involved were born by those laboring in the mines. As understanding of conditions improved and inspection controls and safeguards were set in place, the risk of cave-ins, explosions and resultant loss of life in underground mines decreased.  The environmental impact of burning coal as the main source of electric power was not scientifically understood and remained an unknown risk until well into the last century.  In recent decades, in spite of the now known risks associated with the greenhouse effect of increased CO2 emissions, the mining of coal for the purpose of electric power generation has been expanded above ground using the extreme technology involved in surface strip mining.  In the southern Appalachian Mountains this type of coal mining, known as “mountaintop removal,” begins with deforestation by clear-cutting valuable hardwood timber.  Then the exposed tops of the mountains are literally blown to bits, dynamited into rubble called “overburden,” which is then pushed into intermittent valley streams using the type of mega-machinery the transnational Caterpillar Corporation is famous for, 23 so that the coal seam can be accessed, gouged out by gargantuan shovels and hauled to crushers that prepare the coal for power plants.

Large tracts of West Virginia and Kentucky, and even larger expanses of land in western states, have been turned into moonscapes to get at coal that, in the eastern U.S. at least, used to be extracted by underground mining methods.  Deep lying seams were, and still are, mined using vertical shafts.  Coal seams lying higher up the mountains, which are now subject to mountaintop destruction mining, were previously accessed by horizontal “drift mouth” mines.  The coal was removed but the forested land and was left intact.  Underground mining, being more labor-intensive, provided more jobs. Mountaintop destruction mining, being capital intensive, provides increased profits and fewer jobs. The extraordinary risks involved in expanding coal production by dynamiting the tops of mountains are of several types.  For the planetary biosphere as a whole the risk is increasing atmospheric CO2 from burning additional in power plants. But mountaintop destruction mining also takes out large tracts of atmosphere-stabilizing “carbon sink” activity provided by the natural respiration of trees. This makes it doubly harmful. Additionally, the violent scale of such mining causes health risks to the local residents who live near such mining sites.  Protests against this abuse of the natural environment and the adjacent population are on-going but so far the shadow government of Capital continues to prevail.

The quest for enhanced recovery of natural gas (methane) also involves the use of extreme technology.  Methane gas, CH4, is found compressed in underground pockets, in rock strata and coal seams, in permafrost and in submarine “clathrates,” or methane ice.  The simplest of all hydrocarbons, it is the most abundant organic compound on earth.  Released into the atmosphere it becomes a potent greenhouse gas, at least 20 times more heat-trapping than CO2.  Cleaner burning than coal, it produces much less CO2 per unit of heat released and is being touted as the future replacement for oil. When public utility regulation ended and natural gas became subject to global market pricing, rising demand for the cleaner burning fuel and increased profit incentives led to a burst of exploration in old and new fields and to a method of extraction by the extreme technology known as high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.24  The process consists of drilling into deposits of methane-bearing coal bed and shale formations and injecting fluids consisting of water and a proprietary mix of chemical compounds25  to fracture the rock layers and release the methane gas they contain.  Fracking a site can be done repeatedly until the recovery of methane drops off.  The main known risk involved in repeatedly causing small-scale earthquakes by means of this extreme technology is chemical contamination of groundwater in the drilling area, or even the degradation of entire aquifers should the proprietary fracking compounds containing known carcinogens transfer “out of zone” by “fracture communication, as can happen when new wells end up connecting with preexisting fissures or old wells.” 26   The energy industry’s effort to evade the risk of groundwater and aquifer contamination is not in any way a deviation from the norm.  Capitalism began by destroying the common lands used by self-sustaining communities and in the process created a proletariat class whose labor was a purchasable commodity.  The risk of groundwater and aquifer contamination is minimized  because the water commons as it exists, being essentially a gift of nature like breathable air, is not a commodity.  Its loss to communities, however, would turn a natural form of wealth essential to life into a commodity, to be shipped in for a price from some distant uncontaminated capitalist-controlled source.

The extreme technologies now being used to get at previously unrecoverable sources of oil show the same pattern of risk minimization on an even greater scale — as the recent BP Deep Horizon rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates. 27 The extreme technology of deep water drilling involves a scale of complexity that has to be seen to be believed. 28 The Macondo well, for example, site of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf, is located 48 miles from shore in approximately 5000 feet of water. The well was drilled ultimately to a depth of 20,600 feet, or 15,000 feet below the ocean floor.  Actually, two wells were sunk (requiring 100 days for each) into “hydrocarbon-bearing sand,” at a cost of a million-plus per day for each.  Obviously, only major players like BP, the 3rd largest energy company in the world and the 4th largest corporation of any kind, have the initial capital for such ventures.  However, the yield of successful deep water wells is high, up to 10,000 barrels a day — hence the gamble.  The potential losses from this sort of geo-ecological gambling were played out for months in the global media as undersea plumes of oil migrated around the Gulf of Mexico and washed into the highly productive fisheries of the barrier islands and onto the pristine beaches of Gulf coast tourist towns. Behind these scenes lies the risk of pumping greater amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as a result of the fatal decision to counter the growing gap between the post-peak plateau of conventional crude oil production and the rising global demand for oil by introducing recovery methods that rely on ever more extreme technologies.  The deluded logic of these extreme design efforts becomes apparent in another trend that shows up more clearly in the process of extracting oil from the Canadian tar sands. The use of fossil fuels to extract fossil fuels adds an unsustainable upward-trending curve that must eventually terminate in a condition that many cultures of the ancient world pictured in the form of an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. 29

The tar sands have been in the news for the past year in connection with the controversial plan for a 1700 mile Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s “Athabasca Oil Sands” to Texas refineries — and is being touted as the answer to AWOL’s dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East.  Like the oil locked up in shale formations, oil from the tar sands is referred to as an “unconventional” source of fossil fuel.  These sources have become more important since conventional oil peaked in 2006 30 while global demand continues to grow. Oil production from the Alberta tar sands started forty years ago. To put the current controversy over the XL pipeline in context, there are already pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Canada to Chicago and from the province of Alberta over the Rocky Mountains to British Columbia, where tar sands oil ships across the Pacific to Japan and China. The planned Keystone XL pipeline is designed for “a ten-fold expansion of oil sands production.” 31

The Alberta “oil sands” are more accurately described as “tar sands” because there’s no oil there until the sands are processed by a complex design that depends on the consumption of fossil fuels.  “Bitumen,” a heavy sticky substance, coats sand grains mixed with clay.  At room temperature it is soft like molasses.  Below 50 degrees it becomes “hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invariably put it.”32 Concerning the commercial decision to get oil from the tar sands, an encapsulating statement by Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute nails down the irrationality of capitalism’s energy designs for the immediate future: “Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track?  The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel of oil really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.”33 And, one can add, the question this poses for the future is how much fossil fuel can the market system afford to consume in the process of extracting fossil fuel before the system itself collapses?

The oil produced from the tar sands is the most carbon-laden form, known as VHC — very heavy crude.  The process of extracting this VHC from the sand and clay is so intricate it requires a phenomenological treatment to get the full sense of what is involved.  At each step we find the consumption of existing fossil fuel energy is required.  Enormous electric shovels run 24/7.  Four hundred ton dump trucks burn fifty gallons of diesel fuel a hour transporting the black sand to power crushers, where it gets mixed with water heated to 175 degrees and  continuously agitated to free the bitumen from the sand and clay and transfer it via bubbles of froth to the surface where the action of skimmers collects it.  Two to five barrels of water are needed for every barrel of heavy oil collected.  The water is heated by natural gas (methane), the cleanest burning fossil fuel, prompting critics of the process to point out that it “turns gold into lead,” the cleaner burning fuel exchanged for the dirtiest.34This is followed by a process of upgrading the heavy oil on site or diluting it with light oil pumped in so that it can be transported via pipelines to refineries elsewhere.  It will take a lot of light crude to get very heavy crude from Alberta to Texas via the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Getting oil from the tar sands therefore consumes all three forms of fossil fuel: coal (for the electricity to run the giant shovels), methane gas (to heat the water), and refined oil (diesel for the dump trucks, and lighter grade oil to dilute the thick VHC for transport).

Add in the external costs of the vast amounts of water needed for extraction of the VHC, loss of boreal forest habitat together with a major storehouse of terrestrial carbon, and pollution of the land, lakes and river systems (from numerous tailing ponds — the toxic waste water containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons has to go somewhere), together with the consequent health hazards for the indigenous Chipewyan and Cree “First Nations” people of northeastern Alberta, all of which capitalist enterprise routinely omits from its cost accounting, and you have an ecological holocaust — even without including the total tar sands VHC  triple shot of CO2 to the atmosphere (one from the use of existing refined fossil fuels to produce the stuff),  a second shot from energy expended in the transportation and refining process, and a third shot when the refined products (gasoline and naptha, airplane jet fuel, and diesel) are consumed by industry and the public in the daily activities that sustain and increase global GDP.35 The overall global warming impact of capitalism’s on-going quixotic expansion quest is cumulative and made more ominous by the high-risk, mega-technological effort to extend what has been, in effect, a subsidized “free lunch” from the age-old Earth System. The latter does not issue commands to stop.  It supports life but doesn’t make any arrangements or design the accommodations.  It doesn’t care if the formula for unlimited accumulation alters the dynamic balance of natural conditions and organic forms.  The micro-organisms (1 billion bacteria, 1 billion actinomycetes, 1 million fungi, 100,000 protozoa, 10,000 algae per gram of soil) adapt quickly, humanity may or may not be able to. 36

IV

The pathology of denial

The American Way of Life is not up for negotiation.” — President G. H.W. Bush, at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992

In 1926 the Russian philosopher Vernadsky presented the “biosphere” concept as an active envelope of planetary scale, with the understanding that “’nature’ is in fact an organic whole…an organized envelope of the earth…and should be reflected as a whole in all our scientific notions.”37  By the middle of the 20th Century the ecological branch of biological science which has the “biosphere” as its main object of study was well-established, and popular books on ecology had begun to appear.  One of the most well-known and well-received was a work by the cellular biologist Barry Commoner.  In it he formulated in plain language some basic laws of ecology.38  The first was the holistic theorem implied in Vernadsky’s biosphere concept that “Everything is connected to everything else.”  A consequence of this basic theorem is “You can’t do just one thing,” meaning that in a dynamic world of complex interrelationships no human productive design activity is without its side-effects.  The validity of the latter came to sudden prominence in the 1980’s with the discovery that a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer was appearing seasonally over the South Pole.  The hole was an ominous development because the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects the complex of interrelated organisms in the biosphere from harmful solar radiation that would otherwise strike the Earth’s surface.

A scientific search for the cause of this portentous phenomenon eventually tracked it to human agency, specifically to the production of stable chemicals known as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), whose primary use on a large scale was as proprietary refrigerants (used widely in air conditioners).  Definitive scientific verification of the CFC-Ozone depletion tie-in led to their eventual ban and design replacement.  There were several lessons to be learned from this episode, in addition to its validation of Commoner’s second law of ecology that “everything must go somewhere.”  But the most surprising lesson would have to be the revelation that in a holistically balanced totality “little can be big.”  The amount of CFC gas released or escaping at the surface level and rising to the upper atmosphere was very small, compared to the size of the planetary “envelope,” and yet it was enough to disrupt significantly the process of protective ozone formation.  The problem was the very stability of these gases, which is what made them attractive for use in the compressors that cool business locations, homes and vehicles during the warmer seasons on the planet’s surface.  A related lesson is that what initially looks to be the best solution to a human design problem may turn out to be ecologically disastrous.

The “little is big” principle also applies in the case of global warming. The amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere, an increase now largely attributed to fossil fuel consumption, is measured in parts per million.  Prior to the start of the modern era and the rise of capitalism, the amount of CO2 stood at 270 ppm.  By 1965, as global warming was for the first time becoming a controversial topic in the media, it measured 320 ppm.  When the UN’s IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) issued its “First Assessment Report” in 1990, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere had crossed the 350 ppm threshold which many scientists see as initiating major changes in the earth’s climate zones and rainfall patterns, the effects of which were already becoming visible in the retreat of polar sea ice, permafrost and mountain glaciers. Today, atmospheric CO2 measures 392.41 ppm (CO2now.org).  What is alarming is that the rate of CO2 accumulation is increasing.  Whereas it took ten years for CO2 to go from 320ppm to 330ppm in the period 1965-1975, by the 1980’s and 1990’s an increase of 10ppm took on average only 6 years, and since the turn of the millennium a 10ppm increase has taken only 5 years (2001-2006, and 2006-2011).

The UN continued to work on a “Framework Convention on Climate Change,” and negotiators from 150 countries met over a series of months finalizing the Framework for signatures at the world’s first Earth Summit set for Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992.  Many heads of state were in attendance, including President George H. W. Bush, who refused to sign and was heard to utter the famous sentence quoted in the above epigraph.  A world meeting grand in its conception and billed as “a historic moment for humanity” in dealing with the problem of anthropogenic climate change failed to live up to its billing when the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases opted out.  An article in the New York Times three years later helps explain President G.H.W. Bush’s action (and the mentality it sprang from).39  The article’s major thrust indicates the underlying pathology of denial that was and still is pervasive in the nation.  It qualifies the overwhelming fact of climate change with hedge words like “the uncertain but real prospect of climate change,” and “consumption of the fossil fuel energy whose by-product carbon dioxide could heat the atmosphere and make the global climate more unstable and disruptive” (my emphasis). The article identifies the biggest environmental problem facing the nation not with climate change but with the preservation of natural habitat, which it cites as having an optimistic side in the continuing reforestation of the Eastern U.S.. The corporate capitalist controlled media are under the obligation to present a façade of balance in reporting news, even when the opposing views are scientific knowledge on the one hand and ignorance on the other.  The fact of anthropogenic global warming was not an uncertain prospect or a merely possible trend either at the time of the Earth Summit in 1992 or at the time of the 25th anniversary Earth Day in 1995.40  On the contrary, it was scientifically well established.  Although think tanks designed to protect the image and interests of capitalism were and still are maneuvering to cast doubt on anthropogenic global warming in the public mind, 41 there is wide consensus within the climate science community (a) that the phenomenon is real and (b) that its main cause is traceable to human consumption of fossil fuels.

Despite the absence of controversy among climate scientists, the UN sponsored meeting that established the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 setting binding limits on carbon emissions and which was signed and ratified by 191 states was defeated in the U.S. Senate.  At the UN sponsored climate talks in December of this year (2011) in Durban, South Africa, the prospect of a replacement treaty to go beyond the Kyoto Protocol (set to expire in 2017) looks dim.  A spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “While governments avoided disaster in Durban…the decisions adopted fell well short of what is needed.” 42 The European initiative to establish a “roadmap” to a legally binding treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions equally for all nations was strenuously opposed by the governments of India and China, which saw a binding treaty as limiting growth in their nations and condemning millions to poverty.  Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, commented that, “These positions are largely rooted in incompatible views of the future, and there is no reason to believe that more talking will change them.” 43 The pathology of denial, therefore, is  characteristic of the AWOL capitalist paradigm generally, wherever it is the controlling design of an accumulationist social metabolic order.  Future sustainability of this design, which is contingent on expansion of fossil fuel consumption, is not a consideration.  The impotence of the Capital system to resolve the impasse (between developed and developing nations) confirms Meszaros’ view about the missing global “state of the capital system.44

Anthropogenic global warming also confirms Barry Commoner”s 4th law of ecology, which he stated as: “There is no free lunch in nature.”  The notion of a fossil fuel “free lunch” without consequences for the biosphere is a chimera of delusion made possible by ecological ignorance.  In the non-delusional reality of scientific facts the “free lunch” of sweet crude oil has now peaked and continues in a condition described as “an undulating plateau” that requires the extraction of non-conventional fossil fuel by means of high-risk extreme technology plus the use of already produced fossil fuels to meet an increasing global demand.  The era of capitalism’s delusional free lunch has ended and in the bizarre political landscape of the U.S. today the response by the vociferous deniers of anthropogenic climate change has been to defend capitalism’s hybridizing effort to expand its subsidies through lower wages, tax-exemptions and the rolling back of environmental safeguards by deregulation.  It is possible that in their atavistic effort to return labor to the Adam Smith era this most agitated wing of the Party of Capital, though consciously future-blind, may actually be responding subconsciously to the system’s need to find a way to adapt to the new “no free lunch” era, in which the yearly cost of “extreme weather events” suggests that FEMA’s budget will eventually exceed that of Defense,45 and that the concept of defense itself will undergo a transformation.

Increasingly, this pathology of denial depends on a denial of pathology.  As critics are now pointing out, it is essential to the AWOL capitalist paradigm that only individuals or families, not an entire social class or an entire society be designated as sick.  But AWOL today is a social and economic paradigm for living at extremes of activity and consumption.  It is recognized as a throwaway society, the most profligate in history, whose inordinate and unsustainable excesses are a necessary condition of its continuance.  The pathology of its hyper-consumption in support of an ‘economic’ growth that is the very opposite of true economy is accompanied by the artificially created deficiencies that include poverty and diet deficiencies, physical illness, drug addiction and increasingly now by widespread mental disorders. The disabling form of hoarding, for example, characterized by extremes of collection and clutter, and now the subject of a cable TV reality show, is on the verge of being given its own separate classification in clinical psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  The way in which these mental health “disorders” are connected to capitalism’s social metabolic reproductive system is not understood, and cannot be understood without moving inquiry and investigation to the holistic level where structural imbalance is taken into account.  As Dr. Susan Rosenthal says in her book on the practice of medicine under capitalism (Sick and Sicker), the system needs a growing medical sector “to contain the damage it creates.”  It is a system in which the practitioner seeking to be an agent of health and healing ends up becoming “an agent of damage control.”46  For AWOL’s capitalist paradigm is structured in a way that promotes sickness and injury, together with artificially induced inadequacies, rather than universal health and well-being for people, animals, plants and the holistic physical environment that supports them. The structural contradiction that sets individuals and classes against one another reproduces the society’s disabling artificial scarcities and inequalities of access, while the pathology of denial and its ideological chimeras (like “green capitalism”) reinforce each other in a delusional cathexis that promotes the sickness of excess and the “fight club” needed to sustain it as a superior way of life

Initiating a transition from global capitalism’s burdensome accumulationist imperative to a sustainable energy infrastructure and a social metabolic order of universal sufficiency and equality of access is blocked by the political power of the Party of Capital, by the physical and psychological dependence created by a superstructure of pathways and beliefs based on reassuring and seductive illusions, together with a massive infrastructural inertia involving extreme technologies that have the appearance of permanence and inevitability.  To a growing number of critical observers, however, it is clear that the AWOL capitalist paradigm has no viable future and that Earth System changes now underway will, over the present century, test humanity’s ability to survive. The historical task for present and future generations therefore is that of a socialist transformation that redesigns and renovates humanity’s earth household “in the course of extricating it from the perilous structural framework of the capital system.” 47

End notes:

1.  The reference is to a popular joke that circulated among the Russian nomenklatura prior to their abandonment of the USSR at the end of 1980’s.  The joke related that when Khrushchev was taking a train across the country the train suddenly stopped.  The Premier asked why and was told that there was no track ahead.  He thought for a moment and then gave the order for the track behind the train to be torn up and placed in front so the train could continue.  When Brezhnev came to power the same incident occurred.  When he gave the order to do what his predecessor had done, he was told there was no more track.  He thought for a moment, then gave the order for all window blinds in the passenger cars to be pulled down. That way, he said, no one will know the train is not moving.

2. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) developed out of an essay published in a foreign policy journal while he was working as a planner for the State Department.  A stale re-working of Hegel and Nietzsche, concluding that capitalism’s liberal democracy is the “evolutionary goal” of history, it has been reissued as “a modern classic” by the publisher.  A Library Journal reviewer commented that “History disappears very early in the narrative, to be replaced by abstract philosophy” and that “the essay made into a book is pretentious and overblown, though it offers some grounds for speculation.”  Fukuyama’s “classic” was preceded thirty years earlier by Daniel Bell’s “classic” The End of Ideology, which was not as pretentious and overblown since it only modestly announced the passing of Marxist ideology.

3.  There are signs, however, of growing concern in the Party of Capital about the “no tax” pledge taken by their Congressional supporters.  A contingent of millionaire investors disturbed by the uncompromising stand of the hard Right against any tax increase on the wealthy showed up to lobby Congress personally for an increase in their taxes.  House Speaker Boehner told the press that they were free to write a check to the U.S. Treasury.  Another indication is seen in the utopian proposals thrown up for an easy way out. The Daily Kos recently reported on a piece by Hassan Heikal  (a chief executive of EFG Hermes, a leading investment bank in the Middle East) in The Financial Times suggesting that world governments impose a “one-off global wealth tax on individuals with a net worth in excess of $10million” to recover enough ($5-$10 trillion) to relieve capitalism’s debt crisis (thereby ending the “austerity obsession” and saving the system for another go-round).  He estimated the aggregate holdings of the global capitalist class to be in the neighborhood of $50 trillion.

4.  In The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time (CBHT), New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008, Meszaros described the power of Capital as “the extra-parliamentary force par                  excellence” that constitutes “the rule of wealth over society” (p. 325).

5.  At this writing the eviction of the Occupiers in New York, Oakland, Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia (while occupations continue in Boston, D.C., San Francisco and other cities) raises the question whether the movement, having demonstrated its unity and the power of its message, needs to be tied to encampments at physical locations.  The Occupy Movement and Organized Labor have called for a “Take Action Now” demonstration to “occupy” Congress for the week of Dec. 5-9.  A shift to politics in the coming election year seems the logical next step.

5. Capital, Vol. I, Penguin ed., p. 153.

6.  Ibid., p. 395.

7.  Ibid., p. 425.

8.  Ibid., p.348.

9.  Rosdolsky, Roman: The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’, Vol. 2, Plato Press, 1977, p. 488.

10.  Capital, Vol. 3, Penguin ed., p. 375.

11.  Meszaros, Istvan: Beyond Capital (London: Merlin Press, 1995) p. 684.

12.  Meszaros, CBHT, p. 407.

13.   Meszaros adds the qualification that violent eruptions cannot be excluded “when the complex machinery now actively engaged in ‘crisis-management’ and in the more or less temporary ‘displacement’ of the growing contradictions run out of steam…. [The] fact that the existing machinery is being brought into play with increasing frequency and that it proves less and less effective as things stand today, is a fair measure of the severity of this deepening structural crisis” (Beyond Capital,681).

14.  Meszaros, CBHT, p. 68.

15.  Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett, and York, Richard:  The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010) “Introduction: A Rift in Earth and Time,” pp 13-49.

16.  Salleh, Ariel, ed., Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology (London: Pluto Press, 2009), quoted in Foster, et. al., ibid., p. 415.

17. It is necessary to add, of course, that they will not be produced in the U.S. when there is cheaper labor available elsewhere, as the recent case of Solyndra —  the Obama administration-backed project for producing solar panels in the U.S —  demonstrates.  The Chinese have captured the solar panel market and as a consequence of the globalization of markets (among other things) Solyndra went into bankruptcy.

18.  Ward, Peter: The End of Evolution: a Journey in Search of the Clues to the Third Mass Extinction Facing Planet Earth (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), p.25.

19.  Meszaros, CBHT, p. 68.

20.  Hegel insisted that history is the dialectical realization of reason’s Ideal, but, as Meszaros points out, his position stipulated the necessity of reconciliation with the present and thereby an arbitrary closure [of history], which required that the shutters be pulled down to hide the reality of the irrational (Beyond Capital, p. 9).

21. “Earth System” is a metaphor for conceptualizing an evolved (non-designed) totality whose constancy and stability depend on a dynamic equilibrium of physical and biological forces.

22.   Since perceived risk is relative to an understanding of conditions and to the safeguards installed in production designs, risks assessment is a matter of rational judgment and cannot be an exact science.

23.  The CEO of Caterpillar Corporation announced in 2011 plans to invest $800 million globally and triple production of giant haul trucks and double the production of large dozers.

24.   Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is being conducted in shale formations in 32 states, according to an Earthjustice tally.

25.  In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act.  It also exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing.  This provision is commonly referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole” and was primarily the work of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Dr. Strangelove of U.S. energy policy.

26.  Mooney, Chris: Scientific American, 11/11, pp 80-85.  See also the Duke University study (to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) which found high methane levels in ground water in the vicinity of hydraulic fracturing(Christian Science Monitor 5/9/11).  The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study whose results are not expected until sometime in 2012.  Note also that, “If fracking is taken to refer to the entire process of un-conventional gas drilling from start to finish [it] demands a staggering amount of water for a single lateral  [a horizontal fracking line], as well as 15,000 to 60,000 gallons of chemicals.  This flowback water has to be managed; up to 75% of what goes down comes back up… [as] a cocktail of chemicals….  This toxic water must be stored on-site and later transported to treatment plants or reused.” (Mooney, Chris, op. cit.).

27. For photos and diagrams of the Deep Water Horizon MODU (“mobile off-shore drilling unit” that sits on enormous semi-submersible pontoons, held in place by satellite positioning technology and 8 directional thrusters) and a summary of the final report of the commission appointed to study the disaster, go to:  http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/final-report

28.  An introductory survey of the various technologies is available at http://www.saudienergy.net/PDF/Intro%20Oil.pdf

29.  In the life sciences the ouroboros designates “a self-begetting, self-maintaining living system” (Fox, Ronald: Energy and the Evolution of Life, New York: W. H Freeman and Company, p. 40).  Life achieves this sustaining condition by utilizing a dynamic equilibrium process of no accumulation beyond the sufficiency needed to complete an organism’s life cycle.  It is just this sufficiency condition that is violated by capitalism’s expansionary formula, which requires ever more energy input, and which is now entering a borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario of consuming fossil fuel in order to get the extra fossil fuel needed to keep the global profit motor running, a design that depends on energy from more costly unconventional sources. This is a strategy that will ultimately lead to negative net gain and is therefore one that even the most addicted accumulators will eventually abandon.

30.  In 2008 81% of world’s primary energy consumption was from fossil fuels (26% coal, 34.4% oil, 20.5% gas).  OPEC has set a production limit of 30 million barrels/day and caps output for its 12 member states, keeping the price at around $108/barrel.  The Mid-East supplies the largest share of world oil production: 56.6%,  followed by Central/ So. America: 14.9%, Europe/Eurasia: 10.3%, Africa: 9.6%, No. America: 5.5%.  In 2011 daily world consumption of oil (85 million barrels/day) exceeded daily world conventional production by 5 million barrels/day, “for the first time ever” (www.economist.com).  The difference is made up by production of non-conventional oil including biofuels.

31.  The U.S. already has 450,000 miles of pipeline.  The New York Times reports (12/16/11) that the North American energy scene is being transformed on a colossal scale by “a coming wave of pipeline construction” estimated at $200 Billion by 2035.  The purpose of this massive outlay of capital?  Thousands of miles of new pipeline “are needed to serve wells in the fast-growing shale fields.”  This is gas and oil-fracked and processed from shale, more unconventional fossil fuel, in addition to the Alberta tar sands oil.  For what purpose?  The NYT report mentions “new power plants that replace the aging nuclear power plants to be de-commissioned.”  Thus the impending disaster is much bigger than one pipeline from the tar sands. Oil from sedimentary shale rock has to be distilled by a power-consuming process greater than that required for extracting tar sands oil. The madness of such a quest as a national energy policy is evident in the implied message: “Global warming be damned! Dig for the last drop!”

32.  Kunzig, Robert: “Scraping Bottom,” National Geographic. Com, March, 2009. Photography by Peter Essick.  Published with the caption: “Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.”  This is one of the finest pieces of reporting on the tar sands that one is likely to find.

33.  Quoted in Kunzig, Robert, op. cit.

34.  Kunzig, Robert, ibid.

35.  There is much more on the Canadian tar sands saga of greed, deceit, abuse and denial in William Marsden’s brilliant muckraking book Stupid to the Last Drop (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), which also includes a chapter on the looming environmental disaster of fracking for natural gas.

36. This is the place to note that microscopic forms of life are also part of the industrial design to prolong capitalist expansion in its post-mortem phase by supplementing the shortfall of crude oil (in meeting global demand) with unconventional sources of oil.  See David Biello’s “The False Promise of Biofuels” in the November, 2011, issue of Scientific American, pp 59-65, which begins with the epigraphic understatement that, “The breakthroughs needed to replace oil with plant-based fuels are proving difficult to achieve,” and then lays out the failure of CORN ethanol (government subsidies and massive diversion of farmland needed for food), the failure of CELLULOSIC ethanol (problem of speeding up natural “biological interactions” to break down cellulose), the failure of ALGA oil (oil from pond scum algae grown commercially in vats: “You can’t add a lot of nutrient to the system and make any money out of it”), and the failure of SYNTHETIC ORGANISM hydrocarbons (“biological architects do not know which genes are needed to make a synthetic microorganism hardy, cheap to keep alive and able to produce oil in abundance”).  The capstone of Biello’s article is a quote from an industry scientist who says that “expectations should be lowered,” that all the energy in crops grown today comes to roughly 20 percent of world energy consumption and increasing it would have significant social and ecological consequences.  Therefore, “the goal should be to produce something like the world’s supply of airplane fuel,” a thought that intimates some of the fascinating future choices that await populations addicted to the AWOL paradigm.

37.  Kuvakin, Valery, ed., A History of Russian Philosophy, Vol. II, chap. 41.  Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1994.

38. Commoner, Barry: The Closing Circle, Nature, Man and Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).

39. “The 25th Anniversary of Earth Day: How Has the Environment Fared” by William K. Stevens,” The New York Times, April 18, 1995.

40.  Clive Ponting, for example, in the concluding chapter of his Green History of the World (Penguin Books, 1991) wrote that, “The greatest stresses within the global system stem from the output of greenhouse gases…. It is now virtually inevitable, even if strict controls are introduced quickly, that global temperatures will rise to a level never before experienced by settled societies or even in the last 100,000 years and possibly longer” (p. 405).  Today, global output of CO2 is higher than that in the worst case scenario of climate scientists which forecasts a catastrophic rise in global temperatures by 4 – 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century (http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo).

41.  Prior to its funding problems in 2010 The Competitive Enterprise Institute founded by lobbyist Fred L. Smith, Jr. ran commercials with the tagline, “Carbon dioxide — they call it pollution, we call it life.”  See also, publications by climate change denier and “transhumanist” Ronald Bailey:  Ecoscam: the False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (Boston: St. Martins Press, 1993) and Earth Report 2000, edited with Michael Novak (New York: McGraw Hill, 1999), sponsored by The Competitive Enterprise Institute.

42.  Broder, John M., The New York Times December 12, 2011.

43.  Ibid.

44. Beyond Capital, pp 68-70 (“Global capital…is devoid of its proper state formation, notwithstanding the fact that the capital system asserts its power — in an exceedingly contradictory form — as a global system.”).  See also: CBHT, p. 68 (“Thus, the missing ‘state of the capital system’ as such…[puts] the sanguine expectations of ‘globalization’ under the shadow of grievous failure.”).

45.  The year 2010-2011 recorded 10 extreme weather events costing at least $1 billion each in relief aid.

46. Rosenthal, Susan: Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care, Amazon Kindle edition, 2010.

47.  Meszaros, CBHT, p. 377.

Note: This essay was first published as “Nightfall for AWOL II” in Issue 36 of the Left Curve.

[Thank you indeed Peter for permission to post this here]

The writer is poet-philosopher associate of the Left Curve. His recent publications are Night & Day: New and Selected Poems (2010) and The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing (2012).

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