Category Archives: Abject stupidity

Flat earth believers


Tony sent me this link. He probably thought I needed help getting going. He understands the "value" I put on folks who spread pure nonsense. Actually, the flat earth crowd doesn't even enter my radar because unless they are employed setting airline routes, it hardly matters what folks believe about the shape of the earth.

However, the sort of "thinking" that goes into this quite-common behavior is downright dangerous. And it is sadly not confined to the lunatic fringe. As pointed out below, this sort of thinking is quite common in the social sciences—Michel Foucault claimed that what the author wrote was nearly irrelevant compared to the power relationships that impacted his writing. Pontius Pilate had a French philosopher asking "what is truth?" I went through a period where the ability to quote Foucault was a sign of intellectual seriousness.

Because I had formulated my facts-as-building-blocks approach to epistemology before I had ever heard of Foucault, I pretty much dismissed him as another typical Leisure Class thinker. If you live in a world where being right or wrong is not terribly important, you tend to skip over learning the skills an aero engineer must learn to design something that punches a 550 mph hole in the air and the biggest problems for the passengers are crying babies and bad food. Anyway, Michel, there are many writers who are scrupulously concerned about being absolutely accurate—some even go so far as to provide illustrations.

This is just another way to avoid doing homework.  IF you know the science or other important facts, coming to a conclusion about the accuracy of another's testimony is routine. If you do not have the background to evaluate the information, you must fall back on judging the speakers based on his or her dress, hairdo, necktie, sexual history, political party, etc. Or the power arrangements.

That's the problem with climate science. The folks collecting data on the front lines have no doubts about whether climate change is real. The rest of us must either evaluate the data from second-hand sources with the required scientific (high school chemistry) background or else from random decisions based on sociology, rumor, or slander. In this way, the climate doubters have managed to stalemate an incredibly important public debate even though the facts are overwhelmingly against them.


I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt


Harry T Dyer, May 2, 2018
Lecturer in Education, University of East Anglia

Speakers recently flew in from around (or perhaps, across?) the earth for a three-day event held in Birmingham: the UK’s first ever public Flat Earth Convention. It was well attended, and wasn’t just three days of speeches and YouTube clips (though, granted, there was a lot of this). There was also a lot of team-building, networking, debating, workshops – and scientific experiments.

Yes, flat earthers do seem to place a lot of emphasis and priority on scientific methods and, in particular, on observable facts. The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat earth experiments and models. Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat earthers try to “look for multiple, verifiable evidence” and advised attendees to “always do your own research and accept you might be wrong”.

While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between “power” and “knowledge”. This relationship between power and knowledge has long been theorised by sociologists. By exploring this relationship, we can begin to understand why there is a swelling resurgence of flat earthers.

Power and knowledge

Let me begin by stating quickly that I’m not really interested in discussing if the earth if flat or not (for the record, I’m happily a “globe earther”) – and I’m not seeking to mock or denigrate this community. What’s important here is not necessarily whether they believe the earth is flat or not, but instead what their resurgence and public conventions tell us about science and knowledge in the 21st century.

Multiple competing models were suggested throughout the weekend, including “classic” flat earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, puddles with multiple worlds inside, and even the earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.The cosmic egg theory explained.

Flat earthers are not the first group to be sceptical of existing power structures and their tight grasps on knowledge. This viewpoint is somewhat typified by the work of Michel Foucault, a famous and heavily influential 20th century philosopher who made a career of studying those on the fringes of society to understand what they could tell us about everyday life.

He is well known, amongst many other things, for looking at the close relationship between power and knowledge. He suggested that knowledge is created and used in a way that reinforces the claims to legitimacy of those in power. At the same time, those in power control what is considered to be correct and incorrect knowledge. According to Foucault, there is therefore an intimate and interlinked relationship between power and knowledge.

At the time Foucault was writing on the topic, the control of power and knowledge had moved away from religious institutions, who previously held a very singular hold over knowledge and morality, and was instead beginning to move towards a network of scientific institutions, media monopolies, legal courts, and bureaucratised governments. Foucault argued that these institutions work to maintain their claims to legitimacy by controlling knowledge.

Ahead of the curve?

In the 21st century, we are witnessing another important shift in both power and knowledge due to factors that include the increased public platforms afforded by social media. Knowledge is no longer centrally controlled and – as has been pointed out in the wake of Brexit – the age of the expert may be passing. Now, everybody has the power to create and share content. When Michael Gove, a leading proponent of Brexit, proclaimed: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”, it would seem that he, in many ways, meant it.

It is also clear that we’re seeing increased polarisation in society, as we continue to drift away from agreed singular narratives and move into camps around shared interests. Recent PEW research suggests, for example, that 80% of voters who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election – and 81% of Trump voters – believe the two sides are unable to agree on basic facts.

Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralised, and competing narratives have emerged.

This was something of a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend, and was especially apparent when four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves”. It was readily apparent that the flat earthers were keen to separate knowledge from scientific institutions.

Flat earthers and populism

At the same time as scientific claims to knowledge and power are being undermined, some power structures are decoupling themselves from scientific knowledge, moving towards a kind of populist politics that are increasingly sceptical of knowledge. This has, in recent years, manifested itself in extreme ways – through such things as public politicians showing support for Pizzagate or Trump’s suggestions that Ted Cruz’s father shot JFK.

But this can also be seen in more subtle and insidious form in the way in which Brexit, for example, was campaigned for in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly facing problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians, and flat earthers, are able to circumvent with moves towards populism.

Again, this theme occurred throughout the weekend. Flat earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning” over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that “hope changes everything”, and warned against blindly trusting what they were told. This is a narrative echoed by some of the celebrities who have used their power to back flat earth beliefs, such as the musician B.O.B, who tweeted: “Don’t believe what I say, research what I say.”

In many ways, a public meeting of flat earthers is a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions. In much the same way that Foucault reflected on what social outcasts could reveal about our social systems, there is a lot flat earthers can reveal to us about the current changing relationship between power and knowledge. And judging by the success of this UK event – and the large conventions planned in Canada and America this year – it seems the flat earth is going to be around for a while yet. more

The power of conventional wisdom


One of the smartest men I know once assured me that the "Zeitgeist cannot be changed—that's what makes it the Zeitgeist." OK. Except I know better. I grew up in the world created by the Keynesians of the Ken Galbraith variety. I watched it just disappear in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo to be replaced by people who believed in ideas that supposedly had been forever discredited by the Great Depression. I still gasp at the sheer audacity of it all. It helped immeasurably that we had become a land of historical illiterates (The United States of Amnesia--Gore Vidal) so forgetting economic history was a trivial problem. And so the Zeitgeist changed from the Keynesians to the Monetarists in an historical eye-blink. Maoists become central bankers. And no, I most certainly do NOT believe all this happened by accident.

Even so, this was much easier than anyone could have imagined (or at least me.) The family business was running a church where I learned just how difficult it is to get folks to change their minds. Turns out well-funded think tanks can change quite a few minds. Jason Hirthler lays out a believable explanation for how and why this happened. Interesting reading.

Colonizing the Western Mind


by JASON HIRTHLER, MARCH 2, 2018

In Christopher Nolan’s captivating and visually dazzling film Inception, a practitioner of psychic corporate espionage must plant and idea inside a CEO’s head. The process is called inception, and it represents the frontier of corporate influence, in which mind spies no longer just “extract” ideas from the dreams of others, but seed useful ideas in a target’s subconscious. Inception is a well-crafted piece of futuristic sci-fi drama, but some of the ideas it imparts are already deeply embedded in the American subconscious. The notion of inception, of hatching an idea in the mind of a man or woman without his or her knowledge, is the kernel of propaganda, a black art practiced in the States since the First World War. Today we live beneath an invisible cultural hegemony, a set of ideas implanted in the mass mind by the U.S. state and its corporate media over decades. Invisibility seems to happen when something is either obscure or ubiquitous. In a propaganda system, an overarching objective is to render the messaging invisible by universalizing it within the culture. Difference is known by contrast. If there are no contrasting views in your field of vision, it’s easier to accept the ubiquitous explanation. The good news is that the ideology is well-known to some who have, for one lucky reason or another, found themselves outside the hegemonic field and are thus able to contrast the dominant worldview with alternative opinions. On the left, the ruling ideology might be described as neoliberalism, a particularly vicious form of imperial capitalism that, as would be expected, is camouflaged in the lineaments of humanitarian aid and succor.

Inception 1971

In a short span of time in the 1970s, dozens of think tanks were established across the western world and billions of dollars were spent proselytizing the tenets of the Powell Memo in 1971, which galvanized a counter-revolution to the liberal upswing of the Sixties. The neoliberal economic model of deregulation, downsizing, and privatization was preached by the Reagan-Thatcher junta, liberalized by the Clinton regime, temporarily given a bad name by the unhinged Bush administration, and saved by telegenic restoration of the Obama years. The ideology that underlay the model saturated academia, notably at the University of Chicago, and the mainstream media, principally at The New York Times. Since then it has trickled down to the general populace, to whom it now feels second nature. Today think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute, Stratfor, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment, the Open Society Foundation, and the Atlantic Council, among many others, funnel millions of dollars in donations into cementing neoliberal attitudes in the American mind.

The ideological assumptions, which serve to justify what you could call neocolonial tactics, are relatively clear: the rights of the individual to be free of overreach from monolithic institutions like the state. Activist governments are inherently inefficient and lead directly to totalitarianism. Markets must be free and individuals must be free to act in those markets. People must be free to choose, both politically and commercially, in the voting booth and at the cash register. This conception of markets and individuals is most often formulated as “free-market democracy,” a misleading conceit that conflates individual freedom with the economic freedom of capital to exploit labor. So when it comes to foreign relations, American and western aid would only be given on the condition that the borrowers accepted the tenets of an (highly manipulable) electoral system and vowed to establish the institutions and legal structures required to fully realize a western market economy. These demands were supplemented with notions of the individual right to be free of oppression, some fine rhetoric about women and minorities, and somewhat more quietly, a judicial understanding that corporations were people, too. Together, an unshackled economy and an unfettered populace, newly equipped with individual rights, would produce the same flourishing and nourishing demos of mid-century America that had been the envy of humanity.

A False Promise

This ‘Washington Consensus’ is the false promise promoted by the West. The reality is quite different. The crux of neoliberalism is to eliminate democratic government by downsizing, privatizing, and deregulating it. Proponents of neoliberalism recognize that the state is the last bulwark of protection for the common people against the predations of capital. Remove the state and they’ll be left defenseless. Think about it. Deregulation eliminates the laws. Downsizing eliminates departments and their funding. Privatizing eliminates the very purpose of the state by having the private sector take over its traditional responsibilities. Ultimately, nation-states would dissolve except perhaps for armies and tax systems. A large, open-border global free market would be left, not subject to popular control but managed by a globally dispersed, transnational one percent. And the whole process of making this happen would be camouflaged beneath the altruistic stylings of a benign humanitarianism.

Globalists, as neoliberal capitalists are often called, also understood that democracy, defined by a smattering of individual rights and a voting booth, was the ideal vehicle to usher neoliberalism into the emerging world. Namely because democracy, as commonly practiced, makes no demands in the economic sphere. Socialism does. Communism does. These models directly address ownership of the means of production. Not so democratic capitalism. This permits the globalists to continue to own the means of production while proclaiming human rights triumphant in nations where interventions are staged. The enduring lie is that there is no democracy without economic democracy.

What matters to the one percent and the media conglomerates that disseminate their worldview is that the official definitions are accepted by the masses. The real effects need never be known. The neoliberal ideology (theory) thus conceals the neoliberal reality (practice). And for the masses to accept it, it must be mass produced. Then it becomes more or less invisible by virtue of its universality.

A Pretext for Pillage

Thanks to this artful disguise, the West can stage interventions in nations reluctant to adopt its platform of exploitation, knowing that on top of the depredations of an exploitative economic model, they will be asked to call it progress and celebrate it.

Washington, the metropolitan heart of neoliberal hegemony, has numerous methods of convincing reluctant developing nations to accept its neighborly advice. To be sure, the goal of modern colonialism is to find a pretext to intervene in a country, to restore by other means the extractive relations that first brought wealth to the colonial north. The most common pretexts for intervention depict the target nation in three distinct fashions.

First, as an economic basket case, a condition often engineered by the West in what is sometimes called, “creating facts on the ground.” By sanctioning the target economy, Washington can “make the economy scream,” to using war criminal Henry Kissinger’s elegant phrasing. Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are relevant examples here. Second, the West funds violent opposition to the government, producing unrest, often violent riots of the kind witnessed in Dara, Kiev, and Caracas. The goal is either to capsize a tottering administration or provoke a violent crackdown, at which point western embassies and institutions will send up simultaneously cries of tyranny and brutality and insist the leader step aside. Libya, Syria, and Venezuela are instructive in this regard. Third, the country will be pressured to accept some sort of military fettering thanks to either a false flag or manufactured hysteria over some domestic program, such as the WMD restrictions on Iraq, chemical weapons restrictions on Syria, or the civilian nuclear energy restrictions on Iran. Given that the U.S. traffics in WMDs, bioweapons, and nuclear energy itself, insisting others forsake all of these is perhaps little more than racially motivated despotry. But significant fear mongering in the international media will provide sufficient moral momentum to ram through sanctions, resolutions, and inspection regimes with little fanfare.

Schooling the Savages

Once the pretext is established, the appropriate intervention is made. There’s no lack of latent racism embedded in each intervention. Something of Edward Said’s Orientalism is surely at play here; the West is often responding to a crude caricature rather than a living people. One writer, Robert Dale Parker, described western views of Asia as little more than, “a sink of despotism on the margins of the world.” Iran is incessantly lensed through a fearful distrust of the ‘other’, those abyssal Persians. Likewise, North Korea is mythologized as a kingdom of miniature madmen, possessed of a curious psychosis that surely bears no relation to the genocidal cleansing of 20 percent of its population in the Fifties, itself an imperial coda to the madness of Hiroshima.

The interventions, then, are little different than the missionary work of early colonizers, who sought to entrap the minds of men in order to ensnare the soul. Salvation is the order of the day. The mission worker felt the same sense of superiority and exceptionalism that inhabits the mind of the neoliberal. Two zealots of the age peddling different editions of a common book. One must carry the gospel of the invisible hand to the unlettered minions. But the gifts of the enlightened interloper are consistently dubious.

It might be the loan package that effectively transfers economic control out of the hands of political officials and into the hands of loan officers, those mealy-mouthed creditors referred to earlier. It may be the sanctions that prevent the country from engaging in dollar transactions and trade with numberless nations on which it depends for goods and services. Or it might be that controversial UNSC resolution that leads to a comprehensive agreement to ban certain weapons from a country. Stipulations of the agreement will often include a byzantine inspections regime full of consciously-inserted trip wires designed to catch the country out of compliance and leverage that miscue to intensify confrontational rhetoric and implement even more far-reaching inspections.

Cracking the Shell

The benign-sounding structural adjustments of the West have fairly predictable results: cultural and economic chaos, rapid impoverishment, resource extraction with its attendant ecological ruin, transfer of ownership from local hands to foreign entities, and death from a thousand causes. We are currently sanctioning around 30 nations in some fashion; dozens of countries have fallen into ‘protracted arrears’ with western creditors; and entire continents are witnessing huge outflows of capital–on the order of $100B annually–to the global north as debt service. The profiteering colonialists of the West make out like bandits. The usual suspects include Washington and its loyal lapdogs, the IMF, World Bank, EU, NATO, and other international institutions, and the energy and defense multinationals whose shareholders and executive class effectively run the show.

So why aren’t Americans more aware of this complicated web of neocolonial domination? Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who pioneered the concept of cultural hegemony, suggested that the ruling ideologies of the bourgeoisie were so deeply embedded in popular consciousness that the working classes often supported leaders and ideas that were antithetical to their own interests. Today, that cultural hegemony is neoliberalism. Few can slip its grasp long enough to see the world from an uncolored vantage point. You’ll very rarely encounter arguments like this leafing through the Times or related broadsheets. They don’t fit the ruling dogma, the Weltanschauung (worldview) that keeps the public mind in its sleepy repose.

But French-Algerian philosopher Louis Althusser, following Gramsci, believed that, unlike the militarized state, the ideologies of the ruling class were penetrable. He felt that the comparatively fluid zones of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) were contexts of class struggle. Within them, groups might attain a kind of ‘relative autonomy’, by which they could step outside of the monolithic cultural ideology. The scales would fall. Then, equipped with new knowledge, people might stage an inception of their own, cracking open the cultural hegemony and reshaping its mythos in a more humane direction. This seems like an imperative for modern American culture, buried as it is beneath the hegemonic heft of the neoliberal credo. These articles of false faith, this ideology of deceit, ought to be replaced with new declarations of independence, of the mind if not the mainstream. more

Jason Hirthler can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

Peak Fracking


Kunstler has a habit of speculation about the future with at best, partial information. But on this subject, he is spot on! Shale oil is a mirage. It is a secondary recover scheme that only works when there is plenty of money financing this crazy difficult / expensive scheme. In many cases, shale exploration does not even cover the investment in purely energy terms so eventually, even the hot money boys will find something else to do.

Of course, none of this is especially new. I knew folks in 1960s oil patch North Dakota who could have predicted that the long-term outcome for such scheme was non-producing wells.

Enjoy Kunstler at his most informative.

Party On, Dudes

James Howard Kunstler , February 9, 2018
Clusterfuck Nation

Support this blog by visiting Jim’s Patreon Page

As of this week, the shale oil miracle launched US oil production above the 1970 previous-all-time record at just over ten million barrels a day. Techno-rapturists are celebrating what seems to be a blindingly bright new golden age of energy greatness. Independent oil analyst Art Berman, who made the podcast rounds the last two weeks, put it in more reality-accessible terms: “Shale is a retirement party for the oil industry.”

It was an impressive stunt and it had everything to do with the reality-optional world of bizarro finance that emerged from the wreckage of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis. In fact, a look the chart below shows how exactly the rise of shale oil production took off after that milestone year of the long emergency. Around that time, US oil production had sunk below five million barrels a day, and since we were burning through around twenty million barrels a day, the rest had to be imported.


Chart by Steve St. Angelo at www.srsroccoreport.com

In June of 2008, US crude hit $144-a-barrel, a figure so harsh that it crippled economic activity — since just about everything we do depends on oil for making, enabling, and transporting stuff. The price and supply of oil became so problematic after the year 2000 that the US had to desperately engineer a work-around to keep this hyper-complex society operating. The “solution” was debt. If you can’t afford to run your society, then try borrowing from the future to keep your mojo working.

The shale oil industry was a prime beneficiary of this new hyper-debt regime. The orgy of borrowing was primed by Federal Reserve “creation” of trillions of dollars of “capital” out of thin air (QE: Quantitative Easing), along with supernaturally low interest rates on the borrowed money (ZIRP: Zero Interest Rate Policy). The oil companies were desperate in 2008. They were, after all, in the business of producing… oil! (Duh….) — even if a giant company like BP pretended for a while that its initials stood for “Beyond Petroleum.”

The discovery of new oil had been heading down remorselessly for decades, to the point that the world was fatally short of replacing the oil it used every year with new supply. The last significant big fields — Alaska, the North Sea, and Siberia — had been discovered in the 1960s and we knew for sure that the first two were well past their peaks in the early 2000s. By 2005, most of the theoretically producible new oil was in places that were difficult and ultra-expensive to drill in: deep water, for instance, where you need a giant platform costing hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention armies of highly skilled (highly paid) technicians, plus helicopters to service the rigs. The financial risk (for instance, of drilling a “dry hole”) was matched by the environmental risk of a blowout, which is exactly what happened to BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, with clean-up costs estimated at $61 billion.

Technology — that El Dorado of the Mind — rode to the rescue with horizontal drilling and fracturing of ”tight” oil-bearing shale rock. It was tight because of low permeability, meaning the oil didn’t flow through it the way it flowed through normal oil-bearing rocks like sandstone. You had to sink a pipe down, angle it horizontally into a strata of shale only a few meters thick, and then blast it apart with water under pressure and particles of sand or ceramic called propants, the job of which was to hold open those fractures so the oil could be sucked out. Well, it worked. The only problem was you couldn’t make any money doing it.

The shale oil companies could get plenty of cash-flow going, but it all went to servicing their bonds or other “innovative” financing schemes, and for many of the companies the cash flow wasn’t even covering those costs. It cost at least six million dollars for each shale well, and it was in the nature of shale oil that the wells depleted so quickly that after Year Three they were pretty much done. But it was something to do, at least, if you were an oil company — an alternative to 1) doing no business at all, or 2) getting into some other line-of-work, like making yoga pants or gluten-free cupcakes.

The two original big shale plays, the Bakken in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford in south Texas, have now apparently peaked and the baton has passed to the Permian Basin in west Texas. If the first two bonanzas were characteristic of shale, we can look forward not very far into the future when the Permian also craps out. There are only so many “sweet spots” in these plays.

The unfortunate part of the story is that the shale oil miracle only made this country more delusional at a moment in history when we really can’t afford to believe in fairy tales. The financial world is just now entering a long overdue crack-up due to the accumulating unreality induced by Federal Reserve interventions and machinations in markets. As it continues to get unglued — with rising interest rates especially — we will begin to see the collapse of the bonding and financing arrangements that the fundamentally unprofitable shale “miracle” has been based on. And then you will see the end of the shale “miracle.” It is likely to happen very quickly. It was fun while it lasted. Now comes the hard part: getting through this without the nation completely losing its marbles and doing something stupid and desperate — like starting another merry little war. more

Oh goody—another dirty climate conference


Someday soon, humanity must make organizing and attending climate conferences a capital crime. These things are worse than useless but they grind on because the folks who like these sorts of things are convention planners. It's what they do. This year's climate extravaganza is being held in Bonn Germany. No one knows why or what they hope to accomplish. An estimated 23,000 people are descending on a tiny little backwater that is obvious ill-equipped to handle them—belching thousands of tons of CO2 on their sacred journeys of self-importance.

If anyone suggests that anything important could be accomplished with video-conferencing, the face-to-face crowd reacts in horror. According to them, those who would eliminate these conferences are the worms of humanity—the introverts. Since the only legitimate way to call these conferences a success would be the ability to point at falling CO2 levels, and that clearly has not happened after 23 years of conferencing, a sane person would try something else. But these folks cannot even progress to video conferencing. And since few or none of them seem willing to grapple with the problems of progressing from legislating outcomes to funding outcomes, we can assure ourselves that no meaningful progress will happen anytime soon.

Climate change is a Producer Class problem that will only respond to Producer Class solutions. Climate conferences are extreme manifestations of Leisure Class behavior. Pretty much explains why they are useless. After all, useless is the primary goal, the heaven, of the Leisure Class.

COP23: Is the Bonn summit worth the trouble?

Dave Keating (Bonn, Germany) 08.11.2017

In the first part of our COP Secret series, we take a look at how UN climate summits have become mammoth events with high carbon emissions - which is why there's some grumbling that the yearly ritual has become a circus.

In 1995, at the first UN climate ‘conference of the parties' (COP) in Berlin, about 4,000 people gathered in a small venue to begin hashing out the rules of the Kyoto Protocol, which would be agreed two years later.

This week, 23,000 people are flooding into the small city of Bonn, Germany for what has become an incredibly complex, expensive and emissions-intensive yearly event. It's costing Germany €117 million ($135.5 million). Bonn has built two tent cities along the river Rhine the size of eight football fields. Participants must take a shuttle bus to travel between them.

"It's so confusing!" gasps one delegate as she rushes by with a rolling suitcase. "And nobody can tell me where to go!"

Two days in, the city's infrastructure is already under strain – and most people haven't even arrived yet. Bonn's public transport system was overwhelmed on Tuesday, with trams becoming so packed some people were forced to get off. Bonn's 9,000 hotel beds have been booked out for months, motivating many to stay in the nearby - and bigger - city of Cologne. But construction work on the tracks between the two cities has made traveling between them a nightmare.



This isn't the first time the former German capital, home to the UN's climate secretariat, has hosted a COP. In 1999, delegates worked together in Bonn to devise the rules of the already-agreed upon Kyoto Protocol. But just 4,188 people came to town for that summit – much more manageable.

The fact that so many delegates are attending this conference, in an interim year where no major decisions will be taken, shows just how important these summits have become. It's nowhere near the record 38,000 that came to Paris two years ago, but it is strikingly close to the 27,000 people who came to Copenhagen for the previous attempt to clinch a deal in 2009.

Too big?

Some are concerned about how enormous the climate summits have grown to become, saying they are too polluting and too expensive – requiring too much sponsorship by big corporations.

According to the UN, the 2009 Copenhagen summit emitted the equivalent of about 26,000 tons of CO2. But this does not include travel. According to an analysis by Wired Magazine, transportation for the Paris delegates emitted 300,000 tons of CO2. If the emissions can be avoided, wouldn't it be better to do a virtual conference?

The hosts are sensitive to these concerns. Germany held a press conference this morning explaining that the summit is "the greenest UN climate conference ever."

"The emissions have been really managed down, from the food that is served…right to the emissions that are coming from travelers all around the world coming to Bonn," UN climate spokesperson Nick Nuttall told DW.

A consultancy has been hired to calculate how much emissions were produced by the summit, and the result will be published afterwards. Those emissions will then be offset through climate financing from Germany, something undertaken by all hosts in recent years.

Still, wouldn't it be better to keep emissions down and not spend all of this money in the first place?

'We need the face-to-face'

Delegates at the summit told DW that although the logistics of attending such a huge summit can be difficult, it's worth it. "Nothing beats face-to-face time," said Hannah McKinnon from the NGO Oil Change International. "This is my tenth COP, and there's something very familiar about them at this point. You come and it's a nice reunion, you see a lot of your colleagues and friends that you really only see once a year."

But McKinnon didn't have to come far. She lives 400 kilometers up the Rhine in Freiburg, Germany, just two hours away by train. Her roundtrip journey will produce just 0.04 tons of carbon.

For Seydun Kane from Senegal, the journey was much longer and more stressful. He flew from Dakar to Paris, then to Dusseldorf – a journey which will emit two tons of carbon.

"We had some problems when we arrived in Dusseldorf, there was no translation, only German, and we cannot speak German," he said, adding that they then had train problems getting from Dusseldorf to Bonn. "We lost a lot of time."

He says the set-up of the enormous tent city, with two different locations separated by a shuttle bus, has been inconvenient.

"Everything is nice when you're inside the pavilion, but the problem is the transportation between the Bonn Zone and the Bula Zone," he said. "You need to leave the other side to come here, and sometimes you miss important events."

The organizers have said the event's massive size necessitates two separate zones for the negotiators and for the NGOs and businesses. But McKinnon says this can create symbolic difficulties, compared to previous smaller COPs where the two sides were closer and interacted more.

"With the Bonn and Bula zones being quite a ways apart, what does that mean for the interaction of the different constituencies?" she asked. "Will negotiators ever be over here? Those are questions that are not unique to Bonn."

A clean COP

McKinnon is an experienced COP attendee. For 20-year-old Kiran Ooman, a student at Seattle University, this is the first climate summit. His journey will emit 3.3 tons of CO2. He is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against President Trump and the US government for its inaction on climate change. He sees no problem with the fact that the summits have grown to such a huge size.

"I think it's a great thing, the more people are talking about this the more people might actually do something," he said. "I have been very impressed, meeting all of these incredible people from all over the world."

Savitree Srisuk, a specialist on environmental education from Thailand, says she thinks her German hosts are making an effort to mollify the environmental effects of the summit. A roundtrip flight from Bangkok to Bonn emits four tons of carbon.

"I feel like the German organizers are really concerned about the environment, and how people at this event can show their action in protecting the climate," she said.

"They're very concerned about the garbage, and how we use products in the pavilion. Anything that we use every day, like water and food, these things have to be eco products."

Hans Naome with the campaign group Nuclear for Climate had a much shorter journey. He drove from neighboring Belgium, a trip that will emit 0.17 tons of carbon. He had to take vacation days off work to come for the summit to advocate for the place of nuclear power as part of a zero-emissions energy mix. But he says it's worth it, especially for a cause like his which can encounter skepticism.

"If I wouldn't come to the COP, I wouldn't talk to the people I talk to – and most people have very little knowledge about nuclear," he said. "In general most of the people are willing to listen, and in the end it sometimes happens that we say, ok let's just agree to disagree. But most people are friendly. They've come here to talk and learn, and to broaden their horizons." more

The end of Wolfgang Schäuble’s evil madness?


Wolfgang Schäuble does not have a fan club around here because he is such a perfect neoliberal. (The list of my criticisms can be found here) But he has been accepted / praised in Germany because he has been the enthusiastic face of the German financial establishment. And what an ugly face that has been. Even by German standards, he is especially homely. If someone was casting a play and needed a devil to scare little children, he would be perfect. And I am pretty certain the Greeks whose lives he was destroying had no problem thinking of him as evil personified.

But the neoliberalism he was pitching was certain to be harming the German economy as well because it is an economic philosophy that causes a great deal of collateral damage. So it is with some pleasure I note that one of the more enlightened of the German economists, Heiner Flassbeck, has produced a stunningly accurate critique of Schäuble's crackpot mismanagement. Unfortunately for the Germans, the neoliberal bench is very deep. There are probably thousands of economists spread over all the political parties ready to make Schäuble look like a kindly old man. But the fact that he has been eased out as the FM may mean that there are corners of the German economic establishment who at least have questions about the "wisdom" of neoliberalism. It is 25 years too late but a turnaround must start somewhere.

Thank god, it’s over. Eight years of Wolfgang Schäuble

Heiner Flassbeck, 26. October 2017

Thank god, it’s over.

The most common claim in the German press about Wolfgang Schäuble’s eight years as Germany’s finance minister appeared again in the business daily Handelsblatt on Monday morning: “He saved the euro states and consolidated the budget”. That is to say: he was a German Hercules who saved entire nations and worked wonders in the financial-political sphere that have never been seen before.

That verdict can hardly be more wrong. It would be much closer to the truth to describe his achievement as follows: he drove euro nations to the brink of collapse and allowed the German state to record an enormous current account surplus at exactly the wrong time. Wolfgang Schäuble’s record in Europe should be mentioned in the same breath as his record in Germany, because the two cannot be separated.

Let’s start with Europe. The outgoing federal minister of finance, more than any other German finance minister before him, must be held responsible for the economic developments in Europe. As a European financial and political heavyweight, and in view of Germany’s unique historical role as a creditor for the whole of the EU, he dominated the Euro group and set the agenda for the so-called rescue of crisis states. The results were and continue to be catastrophic!

If one compares the economic development of the euro area after the global financial crisis with the only comparable economic area, the United States, the euro zone’s “performance” can at best be seen as inadequate. Even if we consider such a dubious benchmark as GDP, since 2012 growth in the euro-zone economy has remained more than five per cent below what it could have achieved if it had grown as strongly as the United States.

In other words, if the EU economy had grown as much as the US since 2009, European GDP today would be well over EUR 150 billion higher than the current figure. This is a considerable shortfall, even for such a large economic area. The simple reason is that, following a recovery comparable to that of the US recovery immediately after the global financial crisis, European economic policy changed tack in 2011 in an attempt to overcome its own crisis, with a fatal mixture of austerity and “structural reforms”.

According to official figures, today’s unemployment rate in Europe is still nine percent, while in the US it is approaching historical lows of well below five percent. Unemployment levels throughout southern Europe, including France, are still extremely high – and this is not due to the encrusted labour markets but solely to low growth momentum.

Europe is not only suffering from low growth and high unemployment; it has also failed to meet its inflation target. The European Central Bank (ECB) has been fighting deflationary trends with zero interest rates for years. This is heavily criticised in Germany, but at the same time we Germans do not want to believe that it was German wage deflation under the Social-Democrat/Green coalition of 2005 to 2010 [check dates] that sowed the seed of deflation in the euro zone.

This means that all the region’s macroeconomic goals are far from being achieved. Germans will object to this assertion, explaining that in Europe there were “structural” problems, excessively high government debt, and a lack of competitiveness. That made it impossible to solve the European economic crisis as easily as in the United States via macro-politics. But this is exactly where the real problem with Wolfgang Schäuble begins. He immediately adopted the theory that the financial crisis was caused by “excessive public debt”, only later adding the “lack of competitiveness of the southern European nations”. Both analyses were wrong.

Already in 2009, Mr Schäuble’s first year as German finance minister, an honest analysis would have revealed that the enormous gap in competitiveness among EU countries is largely due to German wage dumping initiated under the Social Democrat/Green government. Mr Schäuble should then have focused on the burgeoning German current account surplus. He should also have recognised that it was impossible for the other euro nations, which were running current account deficits and whose companies were reducing investment, to consolidate public finances without falling further into recession.

The adoption of an austerity policy at the beginning of the global economic crisis was simply absurd. Consequently the provisions of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact should never have been so restrictive and no attempt should ever have been made to comply with them. Long before 2015 it should have been clear that no state could adhere to these targets without causing enormous economic self-harm and slipping deeper into crisis.

More importantly, the Euro group had also urged its member nations to “make labour markets more flexible” to combat the crisis, which meant reducing wages to “improve competitiveness”. This however led to a sharp decline in domestic demand, resulting in a further increase in unemployment. The Euro group and Mr Schäuble had expected exactly the opposite.

Mr Schäuble should have been aware of this cause and effect. And he should have fought accordingly for a change in German economic policy. That would however have meant convincing the population that for a nation with a high current account surplus, whose business sector was radically reducing its investment, and in the midst of the euro currency crisis, any attempt at consolidating the budgets of the euro nations was absurd. With a responsible and knowledgeable finance minister at the helm the mechanism for putting a brake on public borrowing would never have been adopted into the German constitution.

This is the crucial point in assessing Wolfgang Schäuble’s performance as German finance minister. The cause and effect we are talking about here are not easily understood, and one can be sure that he did not understand them. Unfortunately he believes that does not matter – even with hindsight. His curious advice to his incoming successor goes like this:

“He doesn’t have to be the greatest expert. That might even be dangerous, since he would then no longer listen to his advisers.”

And Mr Schäuble adds a claim that is hard to beat in outlandishness:

“Of course, it is important to try to comprehend things. But you must also be able to communicate it. Otherwise a politician is not doing his job.”

Apparently the man who held the fate of Europe in his hands for eight years believes that his advisers (his officials and the infinite number of “experts” in the central banks and international organisations) are always right, and that it is therefore best if the politician simply follows their advice. Obviously it never occurred to Mr Schäuble that his advisers might be fundamentally wrong. That is exactly what happens when you give a lawyer such an important economic policy position: he is deeply impressed by the “wisdom” and knowledge of his advisers and cannot carry out his political task of protecting the German and European people from a ruinous economic policy.

But Mr Schäuble goes even further – and this is frankly shocking – by claiming that you can communicate better if you know less. Up to now we were under the illusion that only those who really understand every detail of policy can communicate it in a credible and perspicacious manner. Now we learn that too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Why? Would it then no longer be possible for a finance minister to tell his voters that everything is going splendidly in Europe, although in reality things are only slightly improving? Would it be more difficult to declare that government debt is calamitous? Could Southern European nations no longer be blamed for the defects in the monetary union?

Now that it is too late, we finally know why Mr Schäuble never explained to the German public how monetary union works. Now we know why he never even tried to think of government debt in relation to savings and other sectors’ debts. Now we realize that it was sheer ignorance that drove him to follow the international institutions blindly when it came to “making labour markets in southern Europe more flexible”.

It is a pity that we are learning this only now, at the last moment, though we could at least learn something from it. Not only that Germany and Europe have eight lost years behind them, but also that the next German finance minister must be more able than his predecessor. The most important rule for the future is to remember that lawyers can’t do everything, even those who like Mr Schäuble are the sons of a Swabian Housewife. more