Posted by Big Gav
The somewhat pointless Viridian vs Kunstler debate is in danger of starting again, with Dave Roberts at Grist making some pointed comparisons to hedgehogs regardling Mr Kunstler's prickly method of doomsaying.
A few days ago, Kevin Drum pointed to a Louis Menand review of a book called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by psychologist Philip Tetlock.
I haven't read the book, but the review is fascinating, and I highly recommend you read it before (or instead of) the rambling thoughts that follow.
Tetlock's basic thesis, based on a multi-decade study, is that expert predictions are no better -- and often worse -- than random chance or the predictions of casual news consumers. Just like everyone else, experts display confirmation bias, underestimate their past mistakes, and fall for basic probability errors.
Ah, fuel for anti-elitists everywhere ...
This is not a new psychological finding -- laymen often express surprise at it, but psychologists have known for years that experts are no more reliable than anyone else. But one new insight Tetlock brings to the table relates to Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between hedgehogs (which know a lot about one thing) and foxes (which know a little about a lot of things). From the book:Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who "know one big thing," aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who "do not get it," and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible "ad hocery" that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.
Now, that description of a hedgehog ... does that bring anyone to mind?
Anyone at all?
This is what concerns me about the notion of peak oil and the almost cultish following its accrued in some quarters. Too many peak oilers view themselves as Prophets who have stumbled on the Theory of Everything and view it as their mission to educate the blind, benighted masses.
The more I observe peak oil the more it becomes clear that for most (if not all) people the peak oil meme acts as like the "Philosopher's Stone" from Harry Potter, so they envisage the post peak future as something they would like to see happen anyway.
Kunstler has a deep seating loathing of suburban sprawl and modernity in general it would seem, so he sees peak oil as resulting in a semi-collapse that returns us to a future that resembles small town america of 150 years ago (plus wasted large cities and pirates ravaging the coasts of course).
He isn't alone in seeing what he wants to see of course - the Viridian camp sees a shiny green future awaiting us in the post oil world, old school oil guys like T Boone Pickens see a exploration and drilling bonanza, energy industry investors like Matt Simmons and Henry Groppe see soaring energy prices, gold bugs see rampart inflation and soaring gold prices, ferals and hippies see a return to living closer to nature, socialists see the revivial of marxism, conspiracy theorists see government/elite conspiracies and the rise of the new world order, primitivists see the collapse of industrial civilisation and human dieoff, libertarians see an opportunity for the market to bring new energy sources and technoloies to us, fascists see an opportunity for a return to authoritarianism and some of the uglier approaches to population control used by their ilk in the past, economists see suuply and demand issues being resolved by energy prices, military-industrial complex members see the need to militarily dominate the energy rich regions of the planet, end-times Christian fundamentalists see another symptom of the impending rapture and survivalists see an opportunity to say "I told you so" and finally get to use the skills and tools they've spent their lives practicing for.
Aaron Naparstek's article "Peak freaks: a report on three PO gatherings" tends to deomnstrate a lot of this sort of thinking in action. He does seem to be a little harsh on some of the participants at these conferences - but then again, with Mike Ruppert proclaiming that the end of the United States would occur within 3 weeks at the Petrocollapse conference (several months ago now - though I haven't seen any admission that he was a little hasty in this particular foretelling of doom) an impartial observer would have to admit that there are more than a few overly hasty peak oil prophets out there.
Energy Bulletin did point out at the time that the purpose of the likes of Kunstler, Ruppert and Lundberg is to wake people up - they can be quite effective at this but one downside is that they can also freak people out or, even worse, make people just dismiss peak oil as the fevered imaginings of people with a tenuous grasp on their sanity.
Phil Relig noted something similar to this in his comments on a thread at The Oil Drum at the same time (before embarking on a rant that sounds suspiciously like "the rapture is coming") .
Ruppert and Kunstler are both highly intelligent and well-informed men. Nevertheless, they are fallible, and I think the nature of their fallibility offers lessons for us all - and may make all of us no less "nutty" than they are in the end, to the extent that this is an apt description of them. I will also include Heinberg in this group, since the remarks I am about to make apply to him as well.
When I read them all (and I do read them all with great respect and attentiveness), I distinctly detect that their prognostications for the future are intimately affected by their underlying value systems. In Kunstler's case, this can be summed up as a hatred of suburbia and an idealization of small-town rural living. In Heinberg's case, this can be summed up as a hatred of 20th century American culture with all of its attendant deceit, brutality, and hypocrisy, and an idealization of a hunter-gatherer's intimate connection to nature. In Ruppert's case (with whom I personally identify most closely in this regard), this can be summed up as a passionate, visceral, bottomless hatred of lies, hypocrisy, brutality, and injustice masquerading as virtue and goodness.
Another example of this trend of people seeing what they want to see was demonstrated by Stuart Staniford at The Oil Drum, who told the story of "The Swift-Boating of Peak Oil" by professional extreme right propagandist and abiotic oil conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi of "Swift Boat Vets For "Truth"" fame (or infamy, depending on your viewpoint). Somehow this lunatic got his rantings published by Rigzone, in which he claims peak oil isn't a problem, due to the allegedly vast amounts of offshore deepwater oil and his belief that oil is abiotic anyway. Stuart dissects him neatly and gives a good collection of Coulteresque quotes from Mr Corsi just to put him into perspective for thos unacquainted with the wingnut party line.
Part of Dr Corsi's agenda seems to be to suggest that Peak Oil is a left wing movement (a point he expanded on last night). This simply is not the case. While there certainly are left wing peak oilers such as Richard Heinberg, believers in peak oil include the conservative republican Roscoe Bartlett, good capitalist economists such as James Hamilton, republican investment banker Matt Simmons, and that's not to even start on the neofascists. Peak Oil totally crosses the political spectrum, and I don't think Dr Corsi is going to make that particular framing of the debate stick, though I think we can expect him and whoever his allies turn out to be to make a vigorous effort.
If indeed the Swiftboating of Peak Oil is beginning, it is striking that the arguments are so very weak, and the champion so lacking in credibility. Is this really the best they can do? If so, it suggests things might be about to get very ugly, as mud is thrown in all directions in a desperate attempt to disguise the paucity of their position.
I thought the postscript was the best part - at least Rigzone has the sense to realise that being a mouthpiece for extremist propaganda isn't a good commercial decision given the brand damage the publication ultimately suffers (no doubt the New York Times is coming to understand this after the Miller saga as well - and who knows, maybe even the likes of News Corp will get it one day. Corsi's usual hangout World Nut Daily is another story of course).
Rigzone has deleted Dr Corsi's article, and fired the editors responsible for posting it (hat tip Mike A.). A copy of a very similar piece can be found here for historical interest.
Corsi's article on WorldNutDaily was followed up with a short barrage on their associated organ "Free Market News Network", which did look like the start of a trend of extreme right peak oil debunking, but it petered out quite quickly.
While I'm touching on conspiracy theorists (and by now you all know I can't resist dragging in the odd conspiracy theory occasionally), I might as well have my say on Rigorous Intuition's lambasting of peak oil in general and Richard Heinberg in particular as a tool for fascists and the new world order (which attracted a bit of discussion on the more peak oil friendly environment of Peak Oil.com).
While I thought this particular piece wasn't very well reasoned (even by the far from everyday standards of posts at RI) and Richard Heinberg in particular was a pretty unworthy target to go after (though not as unworthy as Noam Chomsky, who also got dragged into it somehow), it did raise a few interesting topics.
First was his "peak oil is a scam - we will run out of oil but 'exotic alternative of anti-gravitic propulsion apparently already exists, deep in the black budget of Defense establishments' and this won't ever filter down to the masses" (which partially prompted my little aside a little while ago). Completely crazy of course but I do occasionally wonder where this particular meme got started (E-P - got any of your debunking sites to hand for that one ?).
And second is that it (and this earlier piece which also mentioned peak oil) did somewhat clarify the difference between the (for lack of better words) left wing and right wing versions of the NWO conspiracy theory. The left version seems to dread a fascist world governmnet, presumably with its roots in European aristocracy and secret societies, while the right version dreads a socialist world government (somehow intertwined with Jewish "international finance", even though the 2 - theoretical - concepts would seem to be mutually exclusive to me). Its not quite that simple though, unfortunately, as the "left" version also seems to get mixed into the "eco-fascist" meme sometimes, which usually seems to be an unjustified right wing attack on greenies whenever I see it in the wild, but does seem to have some foundation in the deliberate population reduction camp (which I'm thoroughly against) which conspiracy theories about the Club of Rome seem to focus on.
Anyway - its probably bad for your brain to read those links and the associated comments so I apologise to anyone who regrets reading them but I thought they were a bit of a change from the usual depletion updates, global warming news and green technology stuff I normally go on about (and I did quite like Jeff's term "brain mole" for Heinberg's purportedly Nazi thoughts).
While I'm ranting about fascism again, I'll close with an interview with John Le Carre (which doesn't touch on peak oil in any way), another person I'd view as an old-school conservative who is dismayed by the new party line in vogue in the Anglosphere.
"our tragedy as a nation is bigger than Blair ... I think it is becoming not just a social but a patriotic duty to attest to the shit that we are being subjected to." Nonetheless, he says of England: "It made me and ultimately I love it."
Reading The Constant Gardener, it is hard to detect a man who loves his homeland. Widely hailed as his best novel for many years, it depicts the British high commission in Nairobi as working hand in glove with the most contemptible mutations of late capitalism, the international pharmaceutical industry. Cornwell finds such government collusion with corporations nauseating. "Mussolini's definition of fascism was that when you can't distinguish corporate power from governmental power, you are on the way to a fascist state. If you throw in God power and media power, that's where we are now."
Is he saying Britain is a fascist state? "Does it strike you as democratic?"
Update: I forgot a few items when I was finishing up last night, but I figure I'll throw them in the mix along with some links from today.
First off - JD of the inaccurately named "Peak Oil Debunked" is also prone to accusing various parts of the peak oil world of fascist tendencies based on all sorts of wild reasoning. He has slagged off quite a few of the more prominent original peak oil writers in his personal jihad against the doomer camp in what he describes as the "fascist underbelly of peak oil".
Jay Hanson is one of the people he seems particularly vexed with, so on a whim one day (having noted a few times recently myself that Jay seems to have gone off the deep end with some of his pronouncements) I decided to venture into Jay's lair and ask him if he is indeed proposing fascism as his solution to a post peak dieoff (note - don't try this at home - I wouldn't suggest asking the same question to, for example, Jerome Corsi or Dick Cheney, as it could have unwanted side effects).
Now - it is probably a bit rude to go and ask someone "are you a fascist ?" so I tried to be as polite as possible, figuring that someone who spends his time contemplating the demise of a large part of the earth's population won't be overly likely to get offended by the small stuff.
His first answer wasn't entirely helpful given my tendency towards wanting to declare him innocent (the overshoot / dieoff meme is rather misanthropic but doesn't necessarily imply a fascist political movement in my view):
... it does seem that an argument could be made that your recent proposals for a military, "common interest" government, along with some of your statements about the need to organise around corporations could be viewed as a form of national socialism or corporatism (ie. the forms of government traditionally associated with fascism).
So my question is - do you think that you are advocating fascism, and if not, how would you categorise it ?
Am I advocating Fascism? If Fascism means business running government, then we have always had a Fascist state. America was founded as a Fascist state. If business is going to continue running America, then it should accept responsibility for it. However, ending "the market" (ending business) could hardly be called Fascist. Call it "newism". I am advocating a form of government that the world hasn't seen before: newism.
Followed a little while later by:
America was founded by brilliant philosophers during the "Age of Reason". Thinking was in fashion at the time, men with property were literate, and (apparently) enjoyed critical thinking. Unfortunately, the Age of Reason has died and we have entered the "Age of Belief" -- the age of uncritical belief in ideologies.
Nowadays, thinking and reason are out of fashion everywhere. People with property are illiterate and avoid critical thought like the plague. Bring up a serious topic at a dinner party and you might as well throw pies at people.
It would be impossible to found America today because there are no brilliant philosophers today. Today, the world is run by believers instead of thinkers -- by Machiavellian men who are interested in filling their pockets instead of philosophical thought. Naturally, the "Age of Belief" leads to the "Age of Dieoff"...
How could it be otherwise?
These responses didn't really answer the question to my satisfaction (what the hell is "newism" then anyway ?), so I tried again:
I'm a bit lost when you say you are advocating ending "the market" but, as I understand it, not ending corporations and in fact increasing their role in society (I've only read a small amount of the posts here so I may well have missed a lot of the relevant information). How do you propose goods and services are exchanged in a "post market" world ?
Is a system of political organisation that is run by corporations absent a market different in any significant way to "Corporatism" as proposed by Mussolini for example ?
I have said many times that the type of democracy we have today ("people democracy") doesn't work (in the sense of planning (e.g., land use planning) and problem-solving (e.g., infrastructure)) because it selects "popular" people. Moreover, these popular, unqualified people are "incoherent" (operate with diverse goals). On the other hand, a corporation IS (more-or-less) a meritocracy with "coherence" (i.e., everyone works to increase company profit).
I have suggested that local government would be MUCH IMPROVED if state and local lawmakers and administrators were simply done away with and local administration were given to a new type of corporation whose bottom line was dependent on specific measures of progress (Google for "redefining progress").
The specific goals to be addressed could be decided by local election. It's a new type of democracy that could be called "goal democracy" (instead of "people democracy"). It's a way to level the local playing field by pitting a coherent organization of professionals (instead of elected fuckups and their cronies) against well-organized, professional special interests.
On the national level, an improvement would be simply do away with the elected fuckups and their cronies altogether and let the lobbyists make the laws and run the country. Same result, but cheaper.
As far as "ending the market" ("Newism"), none of the improvements above would increase the longevity of America significantly. However, we could reduce resource consumption by at least 90% -- and add decades to America's lifespan -- by "ending the market". Recall that "the market" is fundementally a POLITICAL system -- not a production system -- that has greatly outlived its usefulness.
The market is producing "bads" much faster than it's producing "goods". The key here is to stop requiring people to work in order to receive food, water, shelter, and health care. It's just an idea that need much more thought, but the only other way to keep this country from anarchy is for us is to annihilate the competition for resources.
I'm still not getting it, so I perservere, at the risk of getting annoying:
One more question if you don't mind - who decides the composition of the management of the local "corporation" and how is this decision made ? And how is the corporation restructured if it doesn't perform adequately ?
(Keep in mind, that this is just an idea, but local governments today are totally dysfunctional.) This new type of "Commons Management" corporation would make a profit by producing "redefining progress" results, paid with federal taxes, and compete with each other for the business. Local voters could select the corporation but NOT screw with the personnel. These corps could be limited to, say, two terms of five years so they wouldn't become too friendly with local developers or managers of private utility companies.
It a way to get rid of the elected fuckups and cronies, and give local communities a professional management team to represent their interests and protect their commons (e.g., schools, open spaces, and other infrastructure.
While I don't think all this has been thought through and a fair chunk of it seems to reflect Jay's disgruntlement with local politics after his attempts to get involved with it in the past, I would say that it doesn't really sound like the forms of national fascism that we've seen previously and he doesn't ever show any signs of nationalist or racist beliefs, so I'm declaring him innocent of JD's charges.
Moving on, I've managed to resist the temptation to post on any of the local mutterings about fascism that have been floating around in the wake of the government's new "terror" and industrial relations laws, but as the Rodent's old advisor Gerard Henderson has done a good job of summarising some of them (then failing to understand the point), I'll provide a rare link to one of his opinion pieces.
So it has come to this, apparently. The passing by the Senate of the Federal Government's industrial relations legislation, and the likely passing this week of its national security legislation, has led to the creation of the Howard fascist police state. All courtesy of Mark Latham's disastrous performance as ALP leader in last year's election, which led to the Coalition obtaining a Senate majority.
It is quite understandable that the union movement, the Labor Party, church groups and extant members of the industrial relations club oppose the WorkChoices program. And it comes as no surprise that civil libertarian lawyers, artists and the like have taken a stand against the sedition provisions of the anti-terrorism legislation.
Let's face it. If the ACTU leaders Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow are correct about the impact of the industrial relations legislation, then the Coalition will lose the next federal election (whether led by John Howard or Peter Costello). It is all but impossible to imagine a government surviving if it had presided over significant wage reductions and widespread unfair dismissals.
A government could win an election, in the present climate, if it had brought about a situation which had led, say, to the jailing for sedition of such playwrights as Hannie Rayson and David Williamson. Yet such a government would be discredited among virtually all opinion leaders.
The problem with the cases being put by many of the Government's leading critics is that the level of their intensity has affected their judgement. Overstatement invariably creates media attention in the short term, especially when a clear majority of journalists oppose the Government, as is the case on industrial relations and national security legislation. However, if the dire prediction fails to materialise, exaggeration can be counterproductive.
Senior journalists have declared the US "has slid" into "fascism" (Alan Ramsey) and have referred to Howard's "totalitarian grip" over information (Mungo MacCallum).
The playwright Stephen Sewell has claimed that "every Australian" faces "the prospect of being disappeared to who knows where". The lawyer Cameron Murphy has said Australia is becoming a "Stalinist police state". The former diplomat Tony Kevin has criticised Kim Beazley, who broadly supports the Government on national security. Kevin says the Labor leader is taking Australia down the path of "the Cracow and Warsaw ghettos" which "was the first step towards the death camps". And so on.
The cartoon below is from a post about Henderson's comments and also refers to one of yesterday's lead news stories - that one of Saddam Hussein's bodyguards is living in Australia. Worst of all the git is moving in just around the corner from me. There goes the neighbourhood...
I'll close with some comments from the world's number one authority on security matters, Bruce Schneier, who makes some interesting points about all-knowing surveillence states in the comments of a post asking if the FBI now "has the right to approve all software ?".
"Scott McNealy famously said something along the lines of 'We all have no privacy now, get over it.' Perhaps we should be working towards a (liberal) society where all of our actions and conversations were public. Lack of privacy is normally depicted as a tool of oppression, but with the right attitudes, it could be very liberating. Societies where free thought is more common tend to have been more highly regarded."
This is pretty much the argument that David Brin makes in "The Transparent Society." I think it's a very wrong one. Basically, the problem is that there are still power imbalances in society, and privacy is one way to deal with those imbalances. (If a policeman demands to see your ID, demanding to see his first does not make the situation "fair.")
I will write something about this. But in the meantime, I recommend you read "A Taxonomy of Privacy" by Daniel Solove. He discusses the many different types of privacy in our society. It's easy to see their value. The link is here: