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July 4, 2014

Bulletin #192: New Mexico meetings; season of the witch

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  1. New Mexico meetings
  2. Season of the witch

Dear friends –  

  1. New Mexico meetings

Our converging historical crises can seem overwhelming.  How shall we meet the times?  In meetings this month we will offer a simple overall conceptual framework for doing so, and discuss different scenarios for what might lie ahead, with a New Mexico focus.  Within those limits – whatever they turn out to be – we will “choose our own adventure.”  The results will be our stories, our history. 

At these meetings we will suggest simple, synergistic political goals that organize themselves according to the 1955 Russell-Einstein manifesto: “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”  Investment in one corresponds with disinvestment in the other, on the national scale as well as for the individual.  Empire dissolves in both cases, liberating necessary attention and resources. 

We will sketch in some of the constraints and risks we see in the present decade and the next and onto this backdrop, lightly sketch possible scenarios or paths for nuclear policy, including disarmament, and for green economic development, or else decline, in New Mexico.  

The two-hour meetings will be divided into alternating 20-minute periods of presentations (with slides) and discussion.  Wholesome snacks will be served.  

Our goals for these meetings are practical, and we hope the presentations and discussion will be inspiring and helpful to everyone involved in environmental, peace, and justice work. 

The first Albuquerque meeting will be this coming Monday, July 7, at 6 pm.

The first Santa Fe meeting will be this coming Tuesday, July 8, at 5:30 pm.  

We are also meeting in Taos on July 24. 

If you think you might be interested in attending one of these meetings please call us at 505-265-1200, or write Trish

Many of you don’t live in New Mexico.  We will publish the presentations from these meetings promptly at lasg.org.  

  1. Season of the witch   
Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences.  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now.

So said Winston Churchill in 1936.  So it is now.  What’s a bit spooky is that for most of us, life may seem somewhat normal despite what educated persons know to be mortal ecological threats, not to mention the other threats, including nuclear war.  We know we have sown the wind; what whirlwind must we endure, or fail to endure?  We see portents, with greater or lesser clarity.  We know something’s brewing.  These are wyrd times, when we are especially conscious of our own fates and those of our communities and our world.    

Meanwhile quite a few “best-laid schemes” of the powerful – our corporate captains and our custodians of empire, who harrow lives as the poet’s plow overturned the mouse nest – are going “agley.”  This is especially true in the Department of Energy (DOE).  But the outcomes for us and for them are much more complicated than simply “grief an' pain,/For promis'd joy.” 

So many plans are failing now that it seems the ground-rules of history in the making – the kind of history we in the U.S. have taken for granted since the Second World War – are shifting.  Perhaps they are just becoming more visible.  Like the poet, we “backward cast [our] e'e, on “prospects drear” – like the end of the Cold War, an event now revealed to have applied, as far as the U.S. foreign policy establishment  is concerned, to the Soviet Union but not to us.  Ending the Cold War bilaterally just didn’t quite happen, an interpretation to which our Ukrainian putsch is just the latest testimony. 

“An' forward, tho' I canna see,/I guess an' fear!”

Some of the ground-rules we might not have seen have to do with thermodynamics – with the annoyingly compelling fact that our economy, beneath the froth of money, has a physical and an energetic basis.  Our economy depends in particular on oil – cheap oil.

We mention energy and oil in particular first among the crises we could list because oil is a master economic and foreign policy driver.  Its role in our economy is “hard” – there are no scalable substitutes – and because the oil supply situation, even in the well-endowed U.S., is deteriorating very quickly.  The quest for oil, and geopolitical advantage to control oil, has lured the U.S. into two wars in this century already, which have exhausted the American empire.  Industrial civilization, including agriculture, depends helplessly on fairly cheap oil. 

The year in which the all-time maximum production of conventional oil occurred, worldwide, was 2005.  (That year also may have seen the peak in actual crude oil production – oil exclusive of natural gas condensates, from which fewer products can be made.)  In any case oil prices are now four times higher than in 2002, and the capital expenditure necessary to produce a new barrel of oil has risen five-fold since 2000 for independent oil companies.  The portion of GDP devoted to obtaining energy is rising fast in the U.S. and most countries, as is the energy necessary to obtain energy and raw materials. 

In the U.S. at least, no economic recovery has ever occurred under these circumstances and none, we believe, can or will occur.  This conclusion made stronger by massive and rising inequality, the offshoring of most of our productive industry and skills, and the cancerous growth of finance.  Real capital formation in U.S. society as a whole has very likely already come to an end, or will do so in the present decade. 

The present shale oil bubble will definitively pop very soon, by 2016 we believe, plus or minus a year (this is not the place to go into this in detail). 

Not only is real (as opposed to nominal) capital formation ending, but critical infrastructure is not being well-maintained, with consequences that could become irreversible. 

As for U.S. natural gas, prices must increase dramatically to hold onto today’s production levels for a few more years.  There is no long-lived U.S. shale gas bonanza.  

Worldwide, the liquid fuel situation is worse.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned of potential oil shortages this year if OPEC – by which is meant Saudi Arabia, the other OPEC members being already maxed out – cannot find a way to provide an extra 1 million barrels per day.  This concern predates the recent conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  World crude oil production is increasing only very slightly now (condensates included), and only because U.S. shale oil production has been rising quickly – for now. 

Food prices are strongly correlated to oil prices, and political instability to food prices. 

Climate issues tend to be couched in normative terms (“we should do X to avoid Y”).  Climate implores that we act, to save ourselves and our planet.  Oil, by contrast, and energy in general, commands, independent of anybody’s views about anything. 

All notions of stability and prosperity, and of rising federal tax returns under the present taxation paradigm (so important to federal planning and budgeting, including in the nuclear weapons business) are now out the window.  We have written about this a little at Forget the Rest.  Congressional Budget Office (CBO) growth projections have been too optimistic in recent years.  Federal spending caps are set using these projections under the Budget Control Act. 

The real pie is not growing.  There is no rising tide that will lift all boats, and there will never be henceforth.  “Progressive” liberalism as we know it today has no foundation in reality.  There will be no more real overall economic growth.  How will the pie will be cut?  The question of justice, and responsibility, and of the social and environmental contract, is now primary.  We can’t avoid it by positing growth that won’t occur. 

What this means for nuclear weapons policy is simple.  Ever-growing nuclear weapons budgets, as currently projected (which will need to be augmented because of inevitable “ordinary” cost overruns and “extraordinary” additions to cover management fiascos, now almost routine) can be sustained only if the nuclear weapons enterprise and the broader military/homeland security complex grow relative to non-military spending. 

Successful nuclear weapons modernization, if it is possible at all, requires further erosion of the U.S. social contract.  In budgetary as well as in other ways, this would describe a politics of human disposability.  We are at that point now structurally, as well as culturally.  Our nuclear life-extension projects (LEPs) compete with human and planetary life extension, not just in terms of money but more so in terms of attention, career investment, and culture.  We are entering a time when we have to make some responsible decisions about our national commitment to mass destruction. 

Make no mistake: current U.S. foreign policy aims to control as much of the world’s critical resources as possible, with little regard for the fate of others.  This is not working out well for us.  The failures and blowback will only get worse if we persist. 

Meanwhile back at the DOE ranch, the “pivot to failure” that started more or less with the failure of Building 371 at the Rocky Flats Plant in the early 1980s, ramified throughout the DOE empire (“U.S. Spent Billions on Atom Projects That Have Failed,” Keith Schneider, NYT, December 12, 1988), is still evident today in the stupid mistakes that led to the closure of the WIPP site, and in so many other ways.    

LANL’s rush to meet a deadline this year stirred up – literally – chemical ghosts from the Cold War that had lain quiet for decades.  We do not need the final results of multiple months-long investigations to know how dumb those chemistry mistakes were, and how negligent management was. 

There will be other such normal accidents, at LANL and elsewhere in the nuclear weapons complex.  A dozen (or 30 or 40) other examples could be cited, but the fact is that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an agency that has been captured by its contractors and especially its three big labs, cannot manage large, complex projects well.  The risk of failure in any given case is high.  Yet failure is constantly rewarded. 

NNSA and DOE are sailing into a hurricane of converging crises, quite possibly led by inexorably peaking oil supplies and its financial and economic sequellae, with far too much sail aloft. 

We can’t go into all the details behind these assertions in this short Bulletin, which perhaps strains your attention already.  We will be doing so in our upcoming meetings and future publications. 

Until next time,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group


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