The ‘liberal media’ and ‘fake news’

March 5, 2019

There are many factors leading to the prevalence of fake news.

An important cause is that capitalism depends on fake news and manipulation of information for its daily activity. We have advertisements that carefully conceal problems, and associate products with good times, family, success and so on, when the product is largely irrelevant to these joys. We can have advertisements that blatantly lie about products, and the transformations that will happen when you buy them, to get you to buy them; sometimes these lies may be ‘ironic’ so as to make the falsehood obvious, even while making it. Advertisements aim to keep you consuming when you already have enough and could more sensibly invest money elsewhere.

We have companies continually hyping products that are in development to undermine markets for existing products and rival products in development. We have science being attacked to keep products on the market, and successful, a long time after they are known to be dangerous or destructive. We have PR organisations whose sole role in life is to make their clients look good when they have done harmful things and to discredit any opposition or criticism. For sales and functioning, the appearance of integrity is more important than real integrity. Fake news is not marginal to capitalist functioning. As deceit and misdirection works to keep corporate profit high and seems entirely natural in capitalism, it is not surprising that its use is extended elsewhere.

The general thesis of this article is that, given that the Right tends to be busy implementing policies that will benefit the corporate sector at the expense of everyone else, they have an incentive to issue fake news to keep voter support, or at least keep voters in perpetual confusion.

They are helped in this aim, by a web of corporately supported ‘think tanks’ who get massive amounts of money to support their various corporate sponsor’s lines and provide ‘useful opinion’ and ‘policy advertising’. These think tanks are routinely quoted to provide ‘independent’ support for the corporate sector and its ‘free markets’, or to attack (or ignore) whatever science shows that the Right is living in a fantasy land. This seems normal in capitalist practice, as asserted above. Reporting information from these sources also saves corporate media money, as the media do not have to spend much on investigation. As well as commercial distortion, political parties can also try to distort news for political advantage, and misinformation can easily be spread when it supports corporate ideology, or if it attacks those who have doubts about corporate dominance. Similarly, governments who are warring against each other can also issue fake news, to try and influence the populace of other countries – hence the Russian involvement in the US elections, which seems to have been successful enough.

An important question in studies of informational bias, is ‘who owns and controls the Media, and how do they work?’ The answer is simple: most media is corporately owned. Consequently most media is biased in favour of the corporate sector, and of corporately controlled politics and markets. Such media depends on corporate advertising for revenue, so it has another incentive to be nice to the corporate world. Business pressures add to the problem; things like keeping advertisers, time pressures, getting news cheaply from PR firms and from hype press releases, and attracting customers through sensation, gossip, and previously unheard stories. This adds to irrelevance and fakery. On the whole, this makes it extremely unlikely the media will criticise the current set up of power relations other than to allege we need less regulation of the corporate sector.

Theories which rely on the proposition that left wing intellectuals and “cultural Marxists” have taken over the media in an attempt to brainwash the population into progressivism, have to explain how it is that (uniquely in this form of business), management and owners are not running the show for their own benefit, and to promote their own ideas. The only other explanation for this assertion is that the poplar market is largely left wing? Which I doubt people making this assertion will agree with.

A media takeover by left wing workers also seems unlikely as, in general, the media tells me how wonderful the free market is nearly all the time. If the right does anything bad then it tells me how the ‘liberals’ ‘have done something equally bad’, while if ‘liberals’ do something bad it does not need to make any equivalences. It can report the smallest right wing protests over days, portraying them as popular movements, and can completely ignore much larger left wing protests unless they are absolutely huge. Even then you don’t get much information about what people were protesting about and the coverage rarely lasts for more than one report. The media gives equal time to people who deny there is an ecological crisis, but does not give remotely equal time to the large numbers of people who think free market or neoclassical economics is rubbish. It reports next to nothing about the hardships of working class people or the protective actions of unions. It ignores tales of industrial accidents, and keeps telling us how wonderful successful business people are and how much we depend on them. The number of times people like Noam Chomsky, left wing anarchists, or known Marxists, get access to the mainstream media is close to zero – although it is true that people like Obama will be labelled as left wing to make it seem as if there is balance. Failures in the system are supposed to arise from corrupt individuals who can be ignored, not because that is the inevitable way the system works. No detailed critique of the system is allowed. In the US, the media has spent 30 years or so passing on Republican slanders about the Clintons to the extent that despite all the truly lengthy investigations that have turned up nothing, people still think they are guilty of something.

Then there is the kind of censorship that Chomsky discusses, in which information people should know is just not made easily available because it goes against rightwing dominance. Most people in the US do not know labor history, or the way that capitalist elites have attempted to suppress the workforce, they don’t know anything about the number of industrial accidents that are ‘normal’, they are not aware that high levels of unemployment result from pro-business policies to keep wages “under control,” they don’t know what socialism is about and so on; they just know ‘free markets’ are good and socialism, or unions, are bad, as they are told this repeatedly.

Then there are media organisations such as those in the Murdoch Empire, who seem to deliberately promote a right wing ideology at all costs, and who specialise in name calling and attacks on ‘liberals’. At least according to folklore, Murdoch workers get the message as to what is to be written and they write it, or face the sack. I was recently told by a journalist who had worked for the Murdoch Empire that the articles they submitted would be rewritten to support the official line if they deviated.

The hard right media appears to promote the idea that any other media is ‘liberal’ (in the contemporary sense of vaguely left) in order to appear less biased, get their audience angry with other sources of news, and keep those audiences loyal, and dismissive of other media, other information or other modes of understanding. There is little free speech in such media. There is no shortage of extreme right wing radio or right wing internet news (from Rush to Alex). In Australia, right wing ‘shock jocks’ and late night broadcasts get high promotion even when their audiences are tiny. Again, these media corporations have the problem that the right wing ‘neoliberalism’ ‘free market’ guff, they support and as is practiced in politics today, can have no other effect than boosting corporate power and dispossessing ordinary people of a good life; thus abuse of others, “culture wars,” fakery and promoting anger is a way they try to keep people onside, angry and not thinking and purchasing their product and advertisements. It is vitally important that their audience be made to distrust anything else. Even if their audience does not trust them, they should trust others even less.

There is little to no large scale left wing media in the US. I wish those people who think there is such a thing could point me to this left wing media. Perhaps, the LA Times might count, but on the whole such media is small scale, amateurish and badly funded – think Mother Jones or The Daily Kos. People usually suggest things like The New York Times, or MSN but these are not particularly left – just more humanist and more likely to be pro-Democrat and polite than, say, Fox. Not every piece of right wing media is as extreme and devoted to promulgating pro-corporate views, as the Murdoch Empire. Some media even allows a bit of divergence.

There is better media and worse media. There is hard right media and soft right media which has a cursory acquaintance with truth. Some of the latter can occasionally be bothered to check whether some right wing politicians are using ‘real facts’ or just making things up. On the whole the soft right media do not like Trump – possibly because they know about his business history and Trump does not listen to all the corporate sector – he has marked favourites, and seems to be using the Presidency to boost his commercial success – which could be considered unfair. They may even suggest President Trump is corrupt, but they won’t run with it like they did for Clinton, even if Clinton was not possibly treasonous. They find it very hard to talk about business and corruption, because this is the nature of the capitalism they support, and as Trump is a wealthy businessman, he must be good. The soft right media can also recognise that Climate Change is a threat to stability of the corporate sector, and hence tend to report slightly more, but only a little more, news about it. However, they are not left, as they would not discuss how the organisational drive for profit is one of the major causes of climate change, or that we need to restructure the economy and social life to defeat it. That is too much to ask.

In Australia I read the Fairfax press more than the Murdoch Empire, and that press is full of right winger opinion pieces supporting the righteous coalition government, and attacking the opposition and the Greens. It has three regular columnists who belonged to the right wing Coalition and non from the parties of the ‘left’. It has regulars from right wing think tanks and only occasionally people from the left (there aren’t as many). However, its economics columnist does not always promote neo-classical economics, it has an ex-architect who is appalled at the way neoliberal policies produce bad design and ignore ordinary people’s needs. It also has a moderate muslim academic. As a result, the paper is branded Far Left by those in the Murdoch Empire.

However, despite the right wing inclination and the culture wars, there is very little real conservative input into media, as capitalism is not conservative. In capitalism the only virtue is profit and, as real conservatives realise, capitalism has no use for tradition if it gets in the way of markets and profits. Self-reliance, virtue, community, liberty, national unity, economic responsibility, there is nothing capitalism will not sacrifice to maintain profit. Thus there is a sense in which the media does appear ‘liberal’ in the old sense of liberal, as pro-free market.

Ultimately, the idea that there is a leftish media is another piece of fake news, spread about to make it easy for the Right to dismiss anything other than blatently pro-Right party-line news as biased.

Some classic books:
Alterman “What Liberal Media?: The Truth about Bias and the News”

Boehlert “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush”

Davies “Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media”

Hermann and Chomsky “Manufacturing Consent”

Kitty and Greenwald “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”

Kitty “Don’t Believe It!: How Lies Becomes News”

Oreskes and Conway “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”

Otto “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It”

Advertisements

On “Political Correctness”

March 5, 2019

“Political correctness” is the all round term of denunciation for any proposition which would like rightwingers to think, not be impolite, or not sanctify the suppression of someone, as in:

“Perhaps we should stop destroying our environment?”
“Oh stop being politically correct.”

“Maybe [racism, sexism, corporate power etc] needs to be recognized as a problem?”
“Shut up and stop being politically correct”

“The evidence suggests that the cardinal raped children, and suported other rapists.”
“Political correctness is everywhere. He’s the real victim.”

Gaining political support can often depend on people not thinking, so slur terms can spread and multiply, once you have decided on that approach.

Calling something “political correctness” is part of a general strategy in which Republicans and Republican media have done their best to shut down discussion over the years – from at least the Gingrich congress onwards.

We can see it in those rightwingers who continually scream their righteous abuse; who go after people because they made a remark they construed as “socialist” ie against corporate supremacy; or who make a big show of their righteous virtue while attacking people who object to a person being visciouly attacked for their opinion as “virtue signaling”; or dismissing someone as a “sjw” if they object to some blatant injustice; dismissing another line of thought they don’t like and cannot be bothered to try and read as “Cultural marxism”; stomping around angrily calling the media “biased” and “left wing”, if it slightly varies from the party line; giving death threats to climate scientists for not supporting the pro-fossil fuel, pro-pollution, position; shouting “libtard”; or screaming about how unamerican it was to object to the last Iraq war. And they have a president who slams any coverage which is not 100% behind him, as being made by enemies of the people.

We know through right whingers that they (with all their corporate backing) are the real victims and only women can be sexist and only black people racist. Similarly, it’s a “witch hunt”, when a guilty, or probably guilty, right winger is questioned instead of being let off to continue with their crimes. Through rightwingers we also know that all fact checkers, scientists and people who study society have a liberal bias, as presumably the way you get to be right wing is through total ignorance of reality. But then again we can be told by rightwingers that discussion, or finding the truth, is not what discussion is about; victory is the only thing that counts, with total annihilation of the other side. What is the point of discussion other than to reinforce your own biases and scream a lot?

The republican media, starting with Rush Limbaugh and Fox taught these techniques, partly as a way of marketing – get the audience angry and upset so they can’t think properly, and tell them that any other source (that might disagree with that anger or think it is misplaced) is biased and out to get them. You get your audience to stick with you whatever rubbish you spout.

Partly this technique was developed because the policies the right sells (what is called ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘privilege the rich and kick the poor and middle classes’), may not be that popular if they had been upfront about it.

To avoid people understanding their policy reality, they showed discussion was the endless headkicking of difference and invention of scandal. This builds fear of attack in their own group, because people see what happens to those who think for themselves, and they stay loyal or face the consequences. They constantly accuse their opponents of positions they do not hold, so as to make them seem more evil to their ingroup and reinforce their groupthink. The Right has been so free of facts and so full of denunciation they helped the polarisation of the US (and similar techniques were employed in the UK and Australia) and made way for a President who openly denies and denounces to covertly protect corporate polluters and the extremely wealthy.

After a while they created the sense that rightwing discourse should be conducted in an atmosphere of threat, and it became invisible to them; it was water to a fish. Eventually, after being abused and threatened for years, without any Republicans calling their side out for these techniques, the ‘liberal left’ began to respond in kind, and lo! Republicans suddenly became concerned about rudeness in discussion, after their years of silence on the issue.

These techniques have made the US vulnerable to Russian interference. People in the US don’t need Russia to divide them, because that was the Right’s aim and it has been achieved, but the Russians can, and have, increased those manufactured divisions for their own purposes. And yes we now have Trump, who they know is incapable of making anything great.

The difficulties of being climate aware: Social and Psychological

March 4, 2019

Official climate action is way too slow. Despite Rightist allegations that governments are pro-climate change because they could use it to increase their power and suppress dissent, on the whole governments seem extremely reluctant to do anything about climate change or ecological destruction. We can see them threaten scientists or others who talk out, remove useful information from official websites, appoint industry figures to investigate climate change or to lead departments of environment, attempt to destroy data, support coal mining and construction of coal power, change regulations constantly so as to make renewable ventures more difficult, make it easier to do more land clearing and emit more pollution and so on. There are few governments in the world who don’t exhibit at least some of these policies.

Why does this happen? For two main reasons.

  • 1) Dealing with climate change is difficult both practically and psychologically, and
  • 2) [a related factor] Dealing with climate change disadvantages quite a number of established powerful people who would have to stop making money from actions which lead to climate change. Change is threatening, as other people might displace them, or they might lose out on their current positions. Imagining change is psychologically disorienting for many people.
  • Those people who are interested in doing something about climate change, may need to remember that an extremely powerful and wealthy group of elites oppose them. Activists are the underdog, and this can be a hard position to accept.

    Corporations and Governments have (for about the last 100 years or so) been tied in with a model of profit and development which depends on fossil fuel consumption, the massive dumping of pollution on less powerful people (where possible) together with the destruction of natural resources, through mining, deforestation, housing development, industrial farming, modes of warfare, and so on.

    It should be hardly necessary to add that while this process has helped lift millions of people out of poverty, it has also forcibly dispossessed millions of people from relative self-sufficiency into wage labour and dependece, and stopped people from living a roughly sustainable life style. It has also produced truly massive inequalities of wealth. And massive inequalities of wealth lead to massive inequalities of power, confidence and apparent ability to act.

    Those wealthy people and organisations who get wealthy from producing climate change and ecological destruction as side-effects of their wealth generation, can buy governments all over the world. They are marked as wise and successful people by their wealth, they have access to governments, they can provide well-paying jobs for people who help them and so on.

    In most countries they own and control the media, and hence they either attack ideas of climate change, threaten climate scientists, provide money for ‘skeptical’ research, or at the best pretend that the science is undecided and hire opinion writers to scare people about climate science, the economic consequences of change, or the abuse and exile you will suffer if you oppose them. This occurs irrespectively of whether the media is supposed to be ‘left’ or ‘righteous’, as it is still largely owned by corporate people. This wealthy group also supports think-tanks which make money by providing arguments in favour of their aims.

    Government people often give more credence to endlessly repeated ‘information’ they read and hear, than they do to real research, and if governments were to act then they might lose media and donor support, so they could lose government. Governments (particularly in ‘developing countries’) also fear that if they did not maintain ecological destruction then it would be difficult to increase living standards for their people, and thus they would be replaced by governments who might be even worse. Investors might go on strike and take their money elsewhere. There is no obvious way forward – renewables may not work as well as fossil fuels.

    So you will find power and bought-information working against any progress towards not destroying our current ecology and eventually our civilisation.

    It almost goes without saying that realizing the world you depend upon is being destroyed, and that powerful people support that destruction or, at best turn away from it, is deeply depressing. It is also isolating as most people follow the lead established and find it difficult to talk about climate change, or will dismiss it as a ‘downer’; and it does hit people by reminding them of ends and mortality. Global ecological destruction is too upsetting for many people to face.

    Acting requires people to change their lives, and to admit that their children and grandchildren are endangered by ordinary life; you too are partially responsible for climate change, through how you live, what you buy, and what you consume. It is hard to keep psychologically functional and live with the realization that you face almost overwhelming power and overwhelming routine. Changing one’s life is threatening for both powerful and ordinary people. Climate change and its consequences may even satisfy any unconscious desires you have for self destruction.

    To some extent, continuing with climate change depends on you giving up, and accepting some other group’s superior power over your life and fate, and that too is hard to face.

    But, despite the overwhelming odds and difficulties, you have to continue to fight anyway, in whatever way you can. It is helpful to remember that many local communities are working together, sometimes rather anarchically, outside the system, or breaking the regulations, in order to do something. There are likely to be people in your local area interested in practical action, who are not blinded by the wealthy and powerful, and who just get on with things. They may be prepared to talk and express their feelings and recognize the difficulties even while they act. They act even if all seems dark, just as people have done when facing invasion or tyranny – and acting is a tonic providing you recognize the darkness within and do not suppress it or let yourself be taken over by it.

    See if you can find such groups and join in. If you don’t like a particular group, there will probably be some other groups you can link together with. It may be useful to engage in therapy, providing the therapist does not encourage you to isolate yourself from action, or the problem. It may be useful to learn how to work with your dreams as they reveal information, symbolically, that you may otherwise be unaware of. There is no reason why action cannot lead to a happier more contented self, once you realise the traps. The current state of affairs leads to a despondent, or suppressive, self. Moving to oppose, or get out of the system, may help you in every way possible.

    Climate Consensus?

    March 4, 2019

    The question often arises of “what does consensus mean in the usual talk of the consensus on climate change?”

    The answer is simple, but controversial. It means that almost everyone who works and publishes in climate science is convinced by the current evidence that climate change is happening, and that it is primarily caused by human beings.

    That is all. And yet that is quite significant, given the nature of science.

    The theory and supporting data has been around and largely unchallenged in general (specific points have been challenged and refined) for more than 50 years, and it goes back to the 19th Century. This general consensus is unusual, because most scientific theories are constantly under challenge from within their domains, as scientists can gain status for showing problems with theories and proposing persuasive new interpretations of data. Science tends to be fractured that way. Furthermore, there will always be problems with the data and its interpretation that need to be explained, and this gives an opening for new theories and approaches. Finally, in complex systems predictions are hard to make, and sometimes predictions have been conservative and wrong – although this is not discussed that much.

    When a scientific theory remains around for that length of time and the consensus is high, it’s usually pretty good. It is better than the alternatives.

    Now of course, the great thing about science is that people eventually change their minds when faced with better theories, or data which contradicts the theories. The theory can be abandoned. So far this has not happened. It could happen, but hoping that it could happen is not the best way to run your politics.

    The question people need to think about is: is climate change a conspiracy joining the notoriously factional UN (which usually can’t get its act together to do anything simple) with competitive scientists of all kinds of political persuasion (who often face hostility from governments who don’t want to act on climate change) to put forward a socialist conspiracy, or is it more likely that fossil fuel companies who (at best) have a dubious reputation for honesty and democracy, fund think-thanks to deny climate change, and promote climate change denial, because it is in their economic interest to do so?

    Climate change is one of the most highly probable pieces of contemporary science. It should not be rendered political, even though it is in some corporate interests to do so.

    Where climate change should be political and openly so, is on the question of how we try and prevent, or ameliorate, it.

    Three Objections to Covici

    March 1, 2019

    Final post, in this series, on Covici. I’ll try and move on to more detailed theorists of energy, entropy and economics soon. Here are some responses to objections to these positions, that I have seen.

    Objection 1) Covici ignores technological development and invention which means that energy can be used with greater effect, or that old ways of doing things can be superseded. For example, you do not need a car to transport a message. Similarly, Energy usage for any activity is not necessarily constant.
    This possibility implies economies can increase growth without more energy consumption.

    Answer: Technological development does not always occur because we need it. We cannot depend on hope or imagined tech, or imagine that the hoped for technology will be deployable in the limited time frames available to us. If such tech arises then good, but we cannot assume it will arise.

    Furthermore, the Jevons effect (the idea that the more energy can be produced cheaply the more will be used), seems demonstrated. There seems to be no evidence that energy efficiency has ever been used in capitalism to reduce energy consumption. Can anyone give an illustration of where more energy could be produced and was not used to produce more of the same, or to divert energy into producing other goods?

    Inventions like the internet may not have reduced energy usage. Not only is massive energy required to power the internet and store data, but internet shopping has massively boosted transport of packages to individual locations and probably increased transport energy demands.

    Progress does not always imply the end of all limits. If we could use oil ten times as efficiently as we do now, we will still eventually run out of oil, and it is (perhaps even more) unlikely that we will stop using oil before it runs out.

    Technological development may drive a demand for energy, and hence for ‘dirty’ and destructive energy production. It is also the case that dubious financial processes can support, otherwise uneconomic fuel collecting for periods of time, to reinforce the old system. This appears to be the case with fracking, shale oil, tar sands and so on.

    This latter point also implies we may also need to look at ‘lock-in’ and ‘path dependence’ as part of our problem, not just because history can limit our options, but because old technology and its organisation frequently supports relations of power, wealth and communication which actively oppose any transformation. Transformation is not simply a matter of people automatically doing what is best for their survival, but of political struggle for the right to survive and change those relations of power, wealth and communication, while dealing with the unintended consequences of established actions and supposedly transformative actions.

    Having said that, it appears that renewables are improving in terms of reliability, lifetime, cost and storage costs. This is helpful, but it does not mean it will be enough, or that powerful people and countries will not fight to expand fossil fuel consumption for their apparent profit, as China, Japan and Australia appear to be doing. There is also a temptation, especially in capitalism, to take cheap renewables which are made without regard to the energy, pollution and waste expending in their manufacture and transport – and thus give the appearance of transformation while keeping up the pressures of collapse.

    Objection 2) GDP may not decrease because of lack of energy, but energy usage may decrease because of decline in GDP (as with the financial crisis). When economic activity declines then energy usage will decline.

    Answer: It may well be true that a decline in GDP through a financial crisis, or lack of resources etc will depress energy consumption. We know CO2 emissions declined after 2008. But the argument is not that energy availability is the only factor involved economic activity or GDP, but that Energy availability is significant and should be part of our models. The whole point of Covici’s argument is that you cannot ignore the effect of limited resources, and that some vital resources can get used up. I also argue that entropy, waste and pollution and its distribution should be part of the models, as this affects (and possibly drives) economic activity and social health.

    Everything that is produced, or every service which exists, requires energy for its creation and performance. Without available energy there is no life, no culture, and no human exchange or economics.

    It seems it is clear that some relationship exists between economic activity and energy availability. It is, therefore, not completely without point or use to suggest the connection should be admitted.

    Objection 3) It is the contradictions of capitalism that are destroying the world.

    Answer: Energy consumption is destroying the planetary ecology because it involves burning fossil fuels, and energy consumption is a direct driver of economic growth and that too is destroying the planet through extraction, destruction and pollution (entropy). That this is the case, in all kinds of political and economic systems, does not mean that capitalism, especially neoliberal capitalism, is not a problem. However, we cannot just assume that if capitalism collapses then the problems will collapse with it.

    Capitalism may intensify the problem, because the only value it recognizes is profit. If it is profitable to pollute and destroy, then it will be done, without it necessarily being an unintended effect. Attempts to constrain destruction will be seen as a destructive attempt to constrain liberty.

    Cardinals and Crimes

    February 28, 2019

    An Australian Cardinal has just been convicted of child abuse/rape. It is possible he may be acquitted on appeal but this is not a comment on the Cardinal, but a comment on some of his supporters. Please note it is not a call to stop Christians from offering him forgiveness if he is not acquitted, but there is something which needs comment.

    He has been roundly defended by members of Australia’s Righteous establishment. They have argued things like he was convicted by an atheist or left-wing conspiracy, the case was bad (despite the well-known difficulties of getting unanimous convictions in such cases, and their ignorance of the testimony or the records of testimony) and so on. They almost universally refer to his character as making the charges unlikely. One ex-prime minister called his character ‘exemplary’.

    I do not know the man and have never met him. However, he is on record as having led the Church’s denial response to priestly rape. He has defended rapist priests, been unaware of rapist priests (even when he lived with them), attempted to silence victims, successfully argued that the Catholic Church was not a legal body which could be sued, limited compensation to $50,000 dollars, and smeared people who challenged him or presented evidence of abuse. He has fought fiercely to protect the Church from the appearance of scandal, while allowing the scandalous acts to continue for years. This implies that for the Righteous, institutions exist solely:

  • to promote the authority of those who hold office in them;
  • to defend the reputation of the institution and its office holders;
  • to treat those with less authority in the institution, or those who complain from outside, as sub-human;
  • to crush, isolate and silence those who are hurt by the institution, so it may continue to pretend there are no problems and allow its members to carry on the abuse;
  • to minimize any expenditure on reparation for those hurt;
  • to deny any responsibility for harm;
  • To issue reassuring lies that allow the institution to carry on, and keep its authority secure; and
  • to crush any form of dissent, even if the dissent is simply an attempt to get the institutions’ office holders to recognize there is a problem.
  • That this is considered ‘exemplary,’ I think, tells you a lot about Right wing politics and morality. It is about maintaining their authority, supporting the powerful when they fall, and headkicking those hurt by the system. There is little else to it, whatsoever.

    Covici on the problems with Renewables

    February 27, 2019

    I’m pro-renewable, but it is useful to know in advance what the likely problems with renewables are going to be. That way we can attempt to deal with them. Covici does not believe renewables can save the day. By which he might mean preserve our society in the way it is today, and allow everyone in the world to share that mode of living. This is possibly true. We need social change as well, and that will be difficult. Conscious social change is always difficult and prone to unintended effects. Sometimes it is relatively successful as the change from free market capitalism to democratic socialism in Europe after the Second World War. Unfortunately this was not stable in the face of sustained political attack and was replaced by “neoliberalism”. It would have been useful to have been prepared for this attack.

    Anyway, back to renewables. This is a little repetitive of my last couple of posts, because I want it to be understood without reference to them. Please forgive me, if you have struggled through the others.

    Please note I am not even attempting to evaluate his estimations of costs at this stage.

    Non-fossil fuels are needed because of massive problems with non renewables:

  • 1) Climate change will produce massive trouble for current economies, due to destruction of habitation, disruption of food supplies and so on.
  • 2) Climate change is produced by burning fossil fuels. So we need to stop burning them.
  • 3) Oil, which is the most efficient form of stored energy is running out, or will run out eventually.

    Once you have extracted and burnt a resource that takes several ten million to several hundred million years to renew, you have less.

  • 4) Oil is also used in many chemical processes such as plastic, synthetic materials, and fertiliser production. It is central to much industrial production and processing, not just as a fuel.

    when you eat a kilogram of beef, you kind of eat a kilogram of fossil fuels

    In that sense it is another polluter and currently necessary for growth.

  • 5) Coal is heavily polluting and deadly to humans, both in terms of mining and burning. The sickness and death rate from coal usage is not insignificant.
  • 6) Cheap easily accessible coal tends to be lignite which is more polluting, so there are always economic incentives to use this (where profit is central) and increase pollution.
  • 7) Clean coal burning requires further energy expenditure, lowers the efficiency of coal as an energy source, and is so far not successful enough to bother with. The same is currently true of carbon capture, which may be necessary to lower CO2 in the atmosphere and slow warming.
  • The prime problems with renewables are:

  • 1) The sun and wind energy is not freely available in the concentrated forms useable in industrial society by anyone who can dig it up and burn it. It has to be collected and transformed, and this takes energy.
  • 2) [Not in Covici] Changes in land use can disturb people and destroy environments they love. Renewable use is always less traumatic and disruptive than conversion of land to a coal or oil mine, or a fossil fuel power station, but it is not negligible. We are asking people to accept disruption of their relation to the environment to save the environment.
  • 3)[Not in Covici] If energy usage is important, we can expect that our patterns of power relations are embedded in that energy usage and the habits that it encourages and allows. If this is the case, then changes in the energy system will be heavily resisted, and attempts will be made to make any change replicate the existing system.
  • 4) Manufacture of renewables, especially solar PV requires large amounts of energy, currently being supplied by coal.
  • 5) Collection can never be constant, there will always be variation, and this causes a loss in efficiency.
    Far more energy needs to be generated than used, so that the energy can be stored to smooth out the variations in electricity generation. Attempting to store energy causes further losses in efficiency.
  • Storage
    The main potential forms of storage are battery, pumped hydro, and manufacture of hydrogen as fuel. All of these have ecological consequences, although hydrogen’s seem minimal and could possibly make use of the infrastructure we use for gas and petrol.

    Pumped hydro often consumes land for reservoirs dispossessing people or destroying biodiversity, unless it is limited by being constructed underground. It requires energy expenditure to build. It depends on water availability, which could be affected by Climate change. It also depends on there being excess renewable energy which can be diverted to make it useful, and it has significant losses of energy through efficiency issues.

    A conservative 30% of the initial electricity is.. lost into the storage process.

    In OECD countries, all this costs 5,000 to 6,000 euros per kW of pumping power, and the lifetime of the corresponding investment is roughly a century.

    Batteries, so far, require rare minerals – we don’t know for sure there is enough of these – and batteries also require renewable energy to be manufactured. They also have a shelf life. I do not currently know how much energy is required to make the materials reusable for new batteries – but it is probably significant.

    Hydrogen power is not being taken up, but it seems a reasonably interesting idea.

    For storage to be successful without too much disruption we need technological innovation (just as we do for CO2 removal). That we need this innovation, does not mean it will occur, but it is necessary to fund such research, and this adds to the expense of the transformation. Most massive technological innovation has depended on fairly high levels of State Funding and freedom from patents, at the initial stages at least.

    Grids

    Renewables also require refurbishment of the grid. The grid has usually been designed to be one way from producers to consumers, now it needs to be multiway. Furthermore as renewable plants are usually fairly small, it requires more installation. Covici remarks:

    it is much more expensive to install 500 lines of 100 MW each (magnitude of the nominal power of a set of wind turbines or a medium to large scale PV plant) than 20 cables of 2 GW each (magnitude of the nominal power of a nuclear reactor… or coal power plant): it requires much more materials, bulldozers and public works!

    And

    it seems reasonable to consider that for 1 euro invested in production, it will take about one additional euro for investments in the “electrical environment” in the broad sense (connections to the grid, additional low and high voltage power lines, transformers).

    And

    “decentralizing” production strongly increases the total amount of investments required, and thus the overall cost of supply.

    We are probably again in the situation in which the State needs to fund the necessary development of grids, yet this will lead to freeloading by established power companies. Perhaps the State needs to re-start its own power company to encourage competition?

    vs Nuclear

    Covici is pro-nuclear. Because the variation in energy emission is not significant we have to install a lot less of it, and we don’t need storage.

    He calculates that nuclear is at least 10 times cheaper than any renewable system. He is optimistic about ‘accidents’ based on the French record, and forgets the difficulty and cost of insurance. The problem is not that serious accidents are rare, but that when they occur they seal off land for a humanly significant period of time, cause illness, widespread fear, lack of confidence and suspicion of suppression of information.

    Covivi concludes that for everyone in the world to gain or maintain the standard of living familiar in the Western World today (with all its needed energy expenditure and energy available pretty much on demand) through renewables is prohibitively expensive. It is probably only possible in a world without energy, material, financial or social restraints. Given that we have to make the transition quickly then, he thinks, nuclear is the only option.

    With nuclear, replacing all coal fired power plants in the world (a little over 2000 GW presently) would cost 10,000 billion dollars. With wind and solar, it jumps to at least 100,000 billion dollars, knowing that the overall investments in the energy sector are now close to 1500 billion dollars each year.

    Summary

    We can summarise Covici’s position by saying that the cost of transformation into renewables to maintain current lifestyles and modes of social organization is prohibitive, especially when we are in the middle of an energy crisis and hence an economic crisis

    If point is correct, then as said earlier this means we need to be aware of the need to change our ways of life, as well, and this is difficult, and possibly politically toxic. It does mean State encouragement of renewable infrastructure is probably necessary. Research into the social transformations needed and possible is as necessary as research into storage and CO2 removal.

    Ultimately, however, we must not be distracted by climate change from other massive ecological collapses occurring. We must analytically face the problem of energy as central to economy, and to the entropic effects of economy. We cannot simply pretend that we do not create the disorder which is going to eventually end our economy, if we do not attempt to curb that disorder or compensate for it. Unintended effects do not arise solely because of planned action, they also arise through ‘free markets’ and capitalism.

    Jan Covici: version 3

    February 27, 2019

    Yet another attempt to summarise and elaborate Jan Covici’s general argument.

    Economies are not perpetual motion machines. They consume energy (or require energy input), transform materials and produce waste and other entropic (or ‘disorderly’) processes, by their functioning. These factors are not incidentals but necessary parts of the economy. Often it seems that economies are portrayed as endless circulations, without energy being consumed, without politics influencing markets as standard practice, without destruction, without waste, and without disruptive consequences arising from standardized actions. Complexity and the laws of thermodynamics cannot be ignored if we wish to be accurate.

    Constraints on energy constrains activity, while availability of energy increases possible activity. Energy is a driver of economic processes. If our technologies or bodies have no energy they cannot produce anything. Energy is necessary for transformation, and is released by transformations such as burning or chemical reactions etc.

    Energy is a necessary, although not sufficient for economic action. If we extend the notion of economy to cover ecology, as is frequently done to reduce ecology to economy, then this also true. While availability of energy is fundamental we do not expect to find life on Mercury or the surface of the sun.

    The industrial revolution involves many processes such as, changes in patterns of class and power relations, changes in technology, changes in patterns of living, but it is also about the growth of energy supply, and the growing transition away from human and animal labour to machine and fossil fuel ‘labour’.

    These processes are affected by both complexity and the laws of thermodynamics, and they are producing a series of crises.

    Firstly, industrialisation is bringing about an increasing noticeability, and consequence, of the entropic (or disorderly) processes which result from it, such as ecological destruction and climate change. Actions in complex systems have unintended effects, and this affects the system.

    Secondly, while we may be able to recycle materials (with increased energy expenditure), we cannot recycle energy. Energy, when used, cannot be used again. Once we burn oil or coal it has gone. Our cheap, easy, energy supply is being used up and is not renewable in human time frames. The energy, and other, costs of extraction will increase and this will have an effect on economic activity – possibly hindering it.

    Thirdly, further burning, or stretching the use of fossil fuels (primarily coal) will increase the entropic effects.

    The need for new energy sources remains. We can possibly harvest energy directly from the sun, or its consequences – but this also requires existing energy, as solar energy is not “ready to hand” or “ready to use” in the same way as fossil fuels can just be dug up and burnt. Furthermore, any transformation will cost a lot financially, in terms of effort, in reorganisation and political conflict as established powers attempt to protect their positions. This will be magnified by the consequences of ecological and climate instability

    Transition is difficult and made more difficult by the crisis. We cannot assume that markets alone will save us, as markets are under pressure.

    Further reflections on energy and entropy in economics – Jan Covici again

    February 25, 2019

    In the previous post, I suggested that Jan Covici insists that economists ignore energy availability, and this distorts their (and our) economic expectations.

    We can add that life and economics exist on this planet because of the slow self-destruction of our Sun. If the Sun emitted too much radiation (or the planet received too much radiation) it is doubtful that sophisticated life could exist anywhere on the planet – although possibly some life could survive deep underground or near vents in the deep oceans. If we received too little radiation, life might be similarly constrained. Eventually in the far distant future the sun will die, but this is way too far in the future for us to bother about at the moment.

    In this sense solar energy is fundamental. Manual labour (the basis of many economic theories) and human thought, experiment or design only exist because of the energy humans and creatures extract from food, and that ultimately depends upon the Sun’s radiation and self-destruction. Energy from the sun is stored by, amongst other things, coal and oil, and is released in fire.

    As we know, forms of organisation can massively magnify the power of human thought and labour (and massively disorganise them, or waste then, as well). Putting these points together, Covici’s argument declares that the energy we can extract through the ways we organise burning fossil fuels massively overshadows the power of human labour.

    To restate:
    Energy consumption and its organisation and implementation through social organisations and other technologies (the social aspects) is fundamental for the kind of economies we have today.
    We should note that we also adapt our economies to the kinds of availabilities of energy that we have to deal with. Cheap power is currently available at night because coal fueled electricity is not dispatchable or particularly variable and much energy is wasted.

    Changes in energy supply and availability will have economic and organisational consequences, and we currently need to change energy supplies because an unintended consequence of fossil fuel based energy supplies is climate change. There are other forms of ecological destruction happening which are as important, and which reinforce climate change, but I’m currently putting them to onside – not, I hope, ignoring them. The prime cause of climate change reintroduces the importance of entropy.

    Entropy is one of those scientific concepts over which there seems a fair bit of dispute, and a relative ease of misunderstanding. I’m warning any readers that this may be all be wrong. Please let me know if you know better. ‘Entropy’ is a description of a process, rather than a thing, so it is possibly better to talk about ‘entropic processes’ rather than ‘entropy’. The point of entropy is that any use of energy, any ‘work,’ engages entropic processes alongside that usage. These entropic processes are usually dissipated as heat (random molecular movement) and through reduction of what appears to be constructive order or demarcation.

    It is often postulated that entropic processes will lead to “universal heat death.” This is a state in which there is no more energy in one part of the universe than in another. Particles are completely randomly distributed. Whether this state is a state of total order or total disorder is up to you – the paradox is obvious and implies life is a ‘mess’ (or ‘balance’ if you prefer) of order and disorder.

    At the extreme this idea also implies that too much work will generate too many entropic processes and the planet will warm independently of what precautions we take. The use of air-conditioners in some Cities is supposed to increase the heat of those cities (as the heat that produces the cooling dissipates), and thus encourages more air-conditioning and more heating. The same may be true of automobiles (engines moving people around get hot, and dissipate that heat). An economy necessarily produces (semi-organized forms of?) dissipated heat.

    We all hope that this extreme fate is ultimately avoidable or far off, or avoidable because we have spare energy to do something about it. We could develop more efficient engines or ways of cooling, or better ways of organising those processes (but this can never stop excess heat being dissipated). Ordering processes can always create disordering processes – and we should not ignore the disordering processes simply because we like, or are impressed by, the order. What we define as order and disorder come together. Another problem here is that the more complex the processes we use to prevent the entropy we generate from overwhelming our order, then the more energy it may take to keep it going, and the more prone the system may be to accident or collapse.

    Entropy also suggests that, as we use energy to produce useful transformations, we also produce waste or pollution by breaking things down. This is furthered by forms of social organisation which make it acceptable to create waste, or allow waste and poisons to be allocated to ‘unimportant’ areas, and relatively powerless people, where the effects can be ignored. If you like, blockage of information (in this case about pollution) is as important a part of current economic life as is accurate and resolvable transmission of information.

    Just as wealth gets allocated by patterns and processes of ‘social class’, so does waste, probably in an inverse form; waste and risk of harm gets distributed away from wealth. However, as waste tends to randomness this distribution may not be quite as rigorous. Few will totally escape climate change.

    So we may say that the implications of Covici’s argument suggests orthodox economists not only ignore the availability and organisation of energy as important to economy (other than as labour), they also ignore entropic processes and waste and their forms of organisation.

    It therefore appears we need a new orthodox economics which deal with these things. So part of the next stage is to look at some criticisms of Covici and the work that has been done to factor energy and entropy into economics.

    Jan Covici and energy in economics

    February 25, 2019

    Jan Covici is a French Engineer, who has spend a lot of time writing about economics. His longer form work is not translated into English, but I thought it might be useful to try and summarise some of his thinking, to think about it. There should eventually be a sequel to this post criticizing or developing it. Occasionally, its more me than Covici (and material I have taken or misunderstood from my brilliant colleague Jeremy Walker), but I hope nothing would be unacceptable to either of them.

    Covici claims that the Western, and world, economies are based primarily on the availability of energy and only secondarily on the cost of energy. Availability of energy drives contemporary economic activity far more than labour or capital, although neoclassical economics largely ignores energy availability (and the ecological cost/destruction of economic activity) in favour of labour and capital. But:

    “if we have plenty of workers and plenty of capital, but no energy,… we won’t get any significant production!”

    Note this can mean that unless spending frees energy, it may have little effect on the economy.

    He defines energy as something which is produced by, or allows changes in, the world/system. Energy is about transformation.

    “As soon as the world that surrounds us (= ‘a system’) changes, energy plays a role, and the amount of energy involved measures the magnitude of the change of the system between before and after.”

    The greater the transformation, the more energy is involved.

    “Our economic system is nothing else than the transformation, on a very large scale, of natural resources into ‘something else’.”

    The laws of thermodynamics state that in a closed system, energy can neither be created, nor destroyed, but only be transformed. Therefore, “the energy used by a system has.. to come from outside the system”, and this has usually originated from the sun, causing the water cycle, being transformed and stored in plant material (and then into food, or through release by burning fossil fuels, or simply burning wood or feaces) and so on. This process is essentially ‘free’, although extracting energy takes some energy (and the construction of technology to apply that energy to extract the energy). Every time energy is used it ‘degrades’ and some is lost; this corresponds to the notion of entropy. Every transformation increases entropy, and entropy is sometimes seen as a degree of disorder, or a departure from the order demanded by humans. In a closed system entropy eventually wins out. [The entropy of an isolated system never decreases… Non-isolated systems may lose entropy, provided their environment’s entropy increases by at least that amount so that the total entropy increases, to quote wiki…]

    The use of machines and new organisations of production, during the industrial revolution to transform newly and plentifully available stored carbon and sunlight has magnified the amounts of transformation that humans can impose/make on the general system in a short amount of time. Much of this transformation has been declared good in terms of increasing human potential, and human power. Developed countries are able to exert power (military and trade)in the world with relative ease. This is why ‘developing countries’ who had not yet fully corralled this use of energy were, and are, so keen to instigate it. It provides some degree of security from active colonialism (in theory). Again, we can point to technological development as allowing an increase in the amount of energy we can extract – but this is hard to quantify. This is why previously dominant technological processes can lead to a social dead end; the cost of replacement of old tech with new tech seems excessive. The main point is that we are still not creating energy, only transforming it more efficiently and with greater effect on the world system.

    Humans today are facing a crisis because oil and gas are approaching, or have reached, peak production, and availability of energy is likely to decrease. Or the energy cost of energy production, and the destruction resulting from its production will increase. We have, unfortunately over the last 70 or so years been increasing human dependency on oil and coal.

    Continuing to use fossil fuels increases the likelihood of dramatic instability in weather patterns, sea level rises, water shortages, floods and agricultural shortages. This will likely increase movements of people and produce armed conflicts. Increased temperatures will, in many already warm places such as Australia, make outside labour difficult and possibly harmful for labourers; this will possibly slow production. It also needs to be added that there are other pressures on the ecology (as described by ‘Donut economics’ and planetary boundary theory: such as chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus cycle disruptions, biodiversity loss, particulate pollution and so on. Production of chemical fertilisers may not be energy efficient, when compared with the loss of nutriments through disposal of waste, as when phosphorus is flushed into the sea). We may also have stretched the use of other resources to near their limits, which make production that depends on them, harder and more expensive.

    With this growing scarcity of easily available energy (even without increased climate instability), economic growth and production (transformation of materials) will slow, and possibly decline.

    “A reasonable hypothesis is to consider that our economy will not be able to grow faster than the energy supply.”

    According to Covici’s figures (based on those provided by the World Bank), a decrease in the growth rate of GDP per capita, seems to have been happening in the developed world since the 1970s. World growth since then has largely come about through the increased use of energy in the developing world:

    “no major old industrialized country has done better than a 1% per year growth on average for the GDP per capita over the first decade of the 21st century.”

    With an economic slowdown, it will be harder to make a transition to a decarbonised economy and to lower pollution and climate instability. The capital will be less available and the costs of transformation are significant. They involve (at the least): changes in building insulation and design to lessen air conditioning and heating; energy efficiency; transformation of water use and slowing loss of drinkable water; transformation of agriculture; and changes in transport patterns (and massive replacement of fire driven vehicles) with corresponding changes in city layouts. There is also the cost of moving into renewables when this is a product which does not provide a new service or a significant price reduction, but does involve significant reorganisations of grid requirements, transfer of energy over distance, changes in landscape usage and energy transformation (and waste products) in manufacture and transport. Renewables and storage may also involve transformation of resources with finite and increasingly difficult supply, such as lithium (remember economies are about transformation of materials). It may be that energy output per energy input may be better for renewables, as we don’t need to gather the resources to power them, once installed, but I don’t know. However, in any case, price reductions can lead to more usage (Jevons effect), and hence further stress the system. In 2015 fossil fuels provided in general 80% of available energy, the rest was largely provided by hydro, nuclear, and biofuels; so the amount of work that needs to be done, and energy expended to transform, is huge.

    Some forms of renewable energy can feed into destruction, as when biofuels remove waste which would function as fertiliser or lead to deforestation and lessening of food production. Replacing all fossil fuel and outputs through burning (especially in transport) requires a major and possibly ‘excessive’ level of investment as renewables may need to be able to over-supply energy to guarantee a constant minimum transmission of energy (this may not be as necessary as people claim). This is likely to cause conflicts over land use. Storage and release always involves an energy loss, and may also lower the quality of the storage medium.

    Sustainability (whatever that is) requires resource and energy usage, and we do not know how much it will take to get there, or what culturally defined “needs” actually need to be satisfied.

    “Have we ‘met our needs’ when we have 100 square feet of heated living space per person, or will it be the case only when every inhabitant on Earth will own 1500 square feet with central heating, air con, plus a jacuzzi and a private spa?”

    These individual needs may conflict with collective needs for survival, with the governance processes for separating them being quite difficult. Similarly, is it possible to be ‘sustainable’ and experience perpetual growth in prosperity, or to extend current living standards (together with the energy use required) to everyone in the world? Will this also require a change in economics and governance? The speed of any such transformation will depend on the politics of distribution of economic proceeds of the change, or lack of change. Most of these changes involve changes in society, and threats to established power relations, which also brings up obstacles to them. If the owners and controllers of economic and energy machinery oppose transformation or suck away the profits, it will make transformation slower. This is what we are observing at the moment. There is a large popular awareness of the need for transformation, but there is little political will to engage in conflict with the power of resistant private capital. Given that money will be short, governments may need to promote public projects in renewable energy, and that requires the possibility of offending powerful and wealthy people and organisations. However, any project that depends on oil or coal production continuing to be cheap should not be encouraged.

    A sustainable economy must be able to extract the production of resources to keep the economy going. It must be able to provide energy for its machines, and food, shelter and relatively good health for the people within it.

    “if we don’t finance the ‘good’ transition, we will get an economic collapse,”

    and

    “The sooner we move in the direction of massive ‘decarbonization’ of Europe, the higher our chances are to export what we have found (techniques, systems, ways of thinking) elsewhere.”