Fantasyland 6. New Age, alternative medicine, and supernatural madness

Preface. This is the sixth of nine posts about this very important book on how and why a large percent of Americans have has been irrational for 500 years.

New Age and supernatural beliefs are the religion of people who can’t swallow Biblical or any other mythology.     

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

The New Age, alternative medicine, and other Supernatural beliefs

At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.

At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.

Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.

As modern science begat modern technology, the proof was irrefutably in the pudding: we got telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anesthesia, more. We were rational and practical. We were modern.

Snake Oil, Homeopathy, and alternative medicine charlatans

During the First Great Delirium, the marvels of science and technology didn’t just reinforce supernatural belief by analogy or as omens—they inspired sham science and sham marvels. Especially when it came to medicine. Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers

If the patients also had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

America had hundreds of water-cure facilities, for instance. But then we lost faith in hydropathy and stopped wrapping people in sheets drenched in cold water in order to cure rheumatoid arthritis, heart and kidney and liver disorders, smallpox, gonorrhea, and dysentery. Yet from this nineteenth-century miasma emerged one school of quackery that became huge in America and never faded away. Homeopathy was the original “alternative medicine.

Of course, swallowing arsenic or other poisons could harm patients, but homeopathy had that figured out. The medicines were made by diluting the ingredients in water or alcohol, shaking the mixture (that is, “potentizing” and “dynamizing” their “immaterial and spiritual powers”), then diluting it again, shaking, diluting some more, on and on. The dilution ratios were (and are still today) so extreme—billions and trillions to one—that the finished elixirs are just water or alcohol, containing essentially none of the named ingredient. A typical recommended dilution is literally equivalent to a pinch of salt tossed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.

Such pseudoscientific practices harmed healthy people no more frequently than they cured sick people, but their popularity derived from and fed the big American idea that opinions and feelings are the same as facts.

Out of this cross-fertilization of pseudoscience and spirituality came new sects and eventually one whole new American religion. In the 1830s in Maine, a clockmaker and inventor with the irresistible name Phineas P. Quimby found out about mesmerism. He became a practitioner, hypnotizing sick and unhappy people and persuading them to feel better. Quimby’s work and philosophy were a wellspring of the New Thought movement, a nineteenth-century American precursor to both Scientology and the New Age movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. New Thought believers figured that belief conquers all, that misery and bliss are all in your head. Some disciples were specifically Christian, some weren’t, but they all pitched themselves as scientific as well as mystical, providers of practical tools for individual perfection.

An individual mesmerist or phrenologist or hydropathist could make a decent living, but selling professional services was not really scalable as a national business. Inventing a religion, as Mary Baker Eddy did, was one way to scale. Manufacturing and selling miraculous products was another, as American wheeler-dealers figured out in the 1830s and ’40s, when branded miracle cures became an industry. Small and large businesses started selling all sorts of elixirs, tonics, salves, oils, powders, and pills. The principal ingredient of many so-called patent medicines was sugar or alcohol; some contained opium or cocaine.

One typical small-time nineteenth-century medicine-seller was a man from upstate New York who traveled the country selling nostrums. “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, the Celebrated Cancer Specialist,” his sign announced. “Here for One Day Only. All cases of cancer cured unless too far gone and then can be greatly benefited.” (His sons John D. and William Jr. became businessmen of a different kind, founding the Standard Oil Company.)

Another of the elder Rockefeller’s medicines, dried berries picked from a bush in his mother’s yard, was prescribed to women; the berries’ important contraindication—not to be taken during pregnancy—appears to be a perfect con man’s way to market fake abortifacients.

Rockefeller was a typical small-time grifter. On the other hand, Microbe Killer, a mass-marketed pink elixir, which came in large jugs and consisted almost entirely of water, sounded plausibly scientific, the way mesmerism and phrenology and homeopathy had science-y backstories: germ theory was new science, and microbe a new coinage. Microbe Killer’s claims were extreme, simple, ridiculous: “Cures All Diseases.” The inventor built Microbe Killer factories around the world and became rich.

Benjamin Brandreth got even richer. At 25, as soon as he’d inherited his English family’s patent medicine business, he moved it and his family—of course—to America. Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills were supposed to eliminate “blood impurities” and were advertised as a cure for practically everything: colds, coughs, fevers, flu, pleurisy, “and especially sudden attacks of severe sickness, often resulting in death.” One ad describes “a young lady” who’d been ill for years, “her beauty departed,” but after two weeks of swallowing Brandreth’s Pills, “her health and good looks recovered.” Brandreth advertised extensively and constantly in America’s new cheap newspapers. A few years after his arrival, a contemporary wrote that “Dr. Brandreth figures larger in the scale of quackery, and hoists a more presuming flag, than all the rest of the fraternity combined.” A decade later Brandreth was elected to the New York Senate, founded a bank, and had his pills mentioned in Moby-Dick.

In 1838 a prominent physician and public health innovator published Humbugs of New York.  He understood that in America, criticism and debunking were unfortunately fuel for the madness. “Persecution only serves to propagate new theories, whether of philosophy or religion,” he wrote. “Indeed, some of the popular follies of the times are indebted only to the real or alleged persecutions they have suffered…even for their present existence.

The author of another book of the era, Quackery Unmasked, nailed patent medicines as that industry headed toward its peak: The American people are great lovers of nostrums. They devour whatever in that line is new, with insatiable voracity. Staid Englishmen look on in astonishment. They call us pill-eaters and syrup-drinkers, and wonder at our fickleness and easy credulity; so that we have almost become a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world.

In 1815 news of peace reached New Orleans. A guy who heard it early made a deal to buy fifty tons of tobacco from a man who didn’t yet know the blockade was ending. The seller, feeling cheated afterward, sued the buyer, but in one of its most important early opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided the plaintiff had no recourse: sorry, sucker, in this free market, buyer and seller beware. Telling less than the whole truth—hustling—had received a blanket indemnity. In commerce as in the rest of life, when it came to truth and falsehood, America was a free-fire zone.

By 1848, Americans’ appetite for the amazing and the incredible had been whetted by two decades of transformative technologies and by the manic fabulism of dime museums and medicine shows and newly sensationalist newspapers. A credulity about E-Z self-improvement—swallowing pills or feeling the Holy Spirit to end one’s suffering magically—had been normalized during the First Great Delirium.

We think of the Beats as un-American creatures, the anti-1950s exceptions who proved the rule. But they were highly American. For one thing, the founders became enduring pop celebrities. More important, their animating impulses grew out of that old American search for a sense of meaning that devolved into dreamy, grandiose unreasonableness.

This is what made the Beats such an American phenomenon. They were all about their mystical, individualist beliefs, and all in. They rejected bland rules to live lives of anti-materialist and quasi-religious purity. They were like some freaky renegade Protestant sect who didn’t focus on Jesus but otherwise took the original priesthood-of-all-believers idea to the max. The Beats’ self-conception descended from a particular American lineage—mountain men, outlaws, frontier cranks, lonely individualists, and narcissistic outsiders sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world. The hippie dream that followed drew as well from a parallel lineage—Cane Ridge, the communes of the 1830s and ’40s, Transcendentalism, pastoralism, Thoreau. Both were enactments of classic American fantasies.

Like mesmerism and homeopathy in the nineteenth century, orgone therapy was an import from German Europe. Its inventor was the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a protégé of Freud—who finally concluded Reich was nuts: he “salutes in the genital orgasm,” Freud wrote a colleague, as “the antidote to every neurosis.” He got nuttier, announcing he’d discovered fundamental new substances—“bions” and, after he emigrated to the United States, “primordial, pre-atomic cosmic orgone energy,” the very source of human vitality. In America he was taken seriously for a while and not just by the Beats. His work was cited in the major medical journals. Cancer victims came to be cured in his orgone accumulators. Farmers paid him to point his “cloudbuster” at the sky to unleash atmospheric orgone energy and make it rain, and he also said it’d work to ward off extraterrestrial invaders. He believed  a secret cabal of highly placed allies in the federal government would save him from his enemies the Rockefellers, Communists, FDA, and Justice Department.  The feds ordered him to stop advertising and selling his quack medical devices; he refused; they prosecuted and finally imprisoned him.

American religious leaders have always sold their crazy ideas by spinning off independent enterprises to promote them.

The new age has done the same thing, with millions more businesses.  It too is a religion that has mystical and supernatural beliefs and a pursuit of truth, bliss, self-improvement, and prosperity.  There are hundreds of New age start-ups, sects, practices, and prophets.  It is Establishment even though it likes to think of itself as the opposite.  It is yet another part of the fantasy-industrial religions, where none of us “are sticklers for reason”.

But unlike most religions, there isn’t a single supreme being or messiah.

Fake medicine techniques also sold politicians

William Henry Harrison was the first fully merchandised candidate. He had grown up rich and was the nominee of the elites’ Whig Party. But his spin doctors sold him to voters as the opposite—a common man, a rough regular guy, with on-message campaign songs and chants, one about his “homespun coat” and “no ruffled shirt.” They branded him with life-size and miniature log cabins, and they gave out whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins and shaving soap called Log-Cabin Emollient

His opponent’s upbringing really had been humble, but he was the incumbent president and thus could be framed as an elitist. Harrison won by a landslide.

What was working for patent medicines also worked for a political candidate. And essential to both were the new, large-circulation newspapers and magazines that much faster, bigger, steam-powered presses had made possible. These cheap daily papers didn’t scruple about the advertising they published, and they had loose standards of accuracy and truth in their news reports as well. They were beacons of a new American audacity about blurring and erasing the lines between factual truth and entertaining make-believe.

From fake medicine to entrepreneur’s and hustlers

As with the American habit of wishfulness in general, a confirmation bias kicks in: from Ben Franklin to Mark Zuckerberg, the stories of the supremely successful entrepreneurs obscure the forgotten millions of losers and nincompoops.

A part of every entrepreneur’s job is to persuade and recruit others to believe in a dream, and often those dreams are pure fantasies. A defining feature of America from the start, according to McDougall’s Freedom Just Around the Corner, was the unprecedented leeway and success of its hucksters—“self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventors,” as well as “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers.” He writes that “Americans are, among other things, prone to be hustlers,

A large pool of hustlers to be successful, of course, requires a large population of easy believers.

Once there was an industry based on moving Americans west—the transcontinental railroads—a large and continuous stream of travelers and settlers was required to sustain those new entrepreneurial businesses. Which meant that the railroads and their allies needed to sell the settlers fantasies, as the original New World speculators had done to prospective Americans back in the 1600s. Occasional new discoveries of gold and silver could pull the most excitable, but the main lure was land, cheap or even free, and not just to tediously farm. All over the empty West, the promoters promised, land could make you rich.

A generation later more of my ancestors arrived in Nebraska from Denmark, right before the Panic of 1893. That financial panic, which triggered a huge economic depression, was caused in part by the unsustainable overbuilding of the western railroads and the popping of that railroad bubble. Which had been inflated by the western real estate bubble. Which happened even though just twenty years before, the Panic of 1873 had been caused by the popping of a previous railroad bubble. Americans, predisposed to believe in bonanzas and their own special luckiness, were not really learning the hard lessons of economic booms and busts.

Technology that seems magical and miraculous can encourage and confirm credulous people’s belief in make-believe magic and miracles.  Yhe Fox sisters communicated with a ghost haunting their house by means of a kind of knock-knocking Morse code. (Like so many of my nineteenth-century characters, they were in western New York State, the next town over from where Joseph Smith first spoke to God.) The Fox sisters became famous mediums and helped launch a national movement of “spiritualists” communicating with the dead.

If some imaginary proposition is exciting, and nobody can prove it’s untrue, then it’s my right as an American to believe it’s true.

P. T. Barnum was the great early American merchandiser of exciting secular fantasies and half-truths. His extremely successful pre-circus career derived from and fed a fundamental Fantasyland mindset.

His American Museum’s combination of fake and real was more pernicious than if he’d exhibited sideshow humbug exclusively. For decades, it was at the respectable center of the new popular culture, reflecting and reinforcing Americans’ appetite for entertaining fibs and a disregard for clear distinctions between make-believe and authentic. And as Neal Gabler notes in Life: The Movie, “by the mid-nineteenth century the popular culture here was much vaster than in Europe and had permeated society much more deeply.” Barnum’s humbuggery was influential.

The pseudo-pharmaceutical industry, already booming, took his pop cultural big idea and made it both narrower and broader. Each traveling medicine show was devoted to selling a particular manufacturer’s patent medicines, but the shows appeared all over the country, especially in small towns. Whereas Barnum’s business model was straightforward and traditional—buy a ticket, be entertained—the innovation of the medicine show was closer to that of the advertising-dependent penny press: pay nothing to be entertained by musicians, magicians, comedians, and flea circuses in exchange for watching and listening to interstitial live advertisements for dubious medical products

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Fantasyland 5. Why Americans are so prone to believing in conspiracies

Preface. This is the fifth of nine posts about this very important book on how and why a large percent of Americans have has been irrational for 500 years.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

Why American religion also led to a belief in conspiracies

For starters, consider Protestantism—an alternative system of truth-telling to replace the Vatican conspiracy’s false and corrupted version. The Puritans, oppressed by conniving elites, developed a self-identity focused on victim hood that sent them into American self-exile. When the Dissenters’ new American society promptly produced its own dissenters, the subversives and oppressors each saw the other as a conspiracy.

Christian religiosity itself, in particular our pseudo-hyper-rational kind, amounts to belief in the grandest and greatest conspiracy of all: God the mastermind plotting and executing His all-encompassing scheme, assisted by a team of co-conspirators, the angels and prophets. Like religious explanations, conspiratorial explanations of the world tend to connect all sorts of dots, real and imaginary, drawing lines to impute intention and design and purpose everywhere, ignoring the generally greater power of randomness and happenstance.

During their first century, Americans believed themselves beset by satanic conspiracies of witches and Indians.

Conspiracy thinking

The recipe for what came to be America—our peculiar history, our peculiar psychology, the symbiosis between them—was also specifically a recipe for a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

Fantastical conspiracy theories tend to imagine secret plots of colossal scale, duration, and power. Beliefs in American conspiracies in the 1800s, the Yale historian David Brion Davis has written, usually consisted of hard grains of truth connected with a mucilage of exaggeration and fantasy. But the central theme, which is so central to the paranoid style, is the conviction that an exclusive monolithic structure has imposed a purposeful pattern on otherwise unpredictable events. One suspects this conviction is a product of the liberal faith, inherited from the Enlightenment, that history can be shaped in accordance with a rational plan…. When the irrationality of events proves that the children of light have lost control, then the children of darkness must have secretly seized the levers of history….

Another result of America’s Enlightenment roots is that thick strain of skepticism. That reflex, to disbelieve official explanations, seems antithetical to religious belief and faith in hidden purposes and plans. Skepticism, after all, is an antonym for credulity. But when both are robust and overheated, they can fuse into conspiracy-mindedness. Take nothing on faith—except that the truth is deliberately hidden and can be discovered and precisely diagrammed.

During America’s second century, there were panics about foreign conspiracies—despotically inclined leaders in league with European monarchs, other despotic leaders in league with European revolutionaries. Americans learned of the all-powerful master cabal controlling the European subversives from a 1797 book called Proofs of a Conspiracy, about the Freemasons and Illuminati.

Dangerous nonsense, other conspiracy theorists insisted—the Illuminati conspiracy was imaginary, concocted by Alexander Hamilton in conspiratorial league with the British to incite American panic.

In 1798 Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien Acts, giving him the power to imprison or deport any suspicious foreigner—especially French ones, whose recent revolution, people said, had been an Illuminati undertaking.

Besides, the French were nearly all Catholic, and paranoia about the Vatican conspiracy to destroy our nation went into overdrive during the 1800s. The pope’s agents in America—that is, Catholics—were doubling every decade.

At the same moment, Americans also awoke, finally, to the elder Morse’s warnings about the Freemason conspiracy. Masonic lodges, which had started in England, were then more or less what they are now: adult fraternities, clubs where public-spirited men gathered to eat, drink, network, and perform goofy secret rituals. George Washington and dozens of signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution had been Masons. “Their Grand Secret,” the young Freemason Ben Franklin said, “is that they have no secret at all.

The abolitionists were just as convinced of an all-powerful conspiracy on the other side. In 1852 the abolitionist party’s presidential candidate saw that “the inexplicable labyrinths of American politics for the last sixty years,” including the War of 1812 and the dismantling of the national bank, were all explained as parts of the slaveholders’ perfect plot, because “the Slave Power, like the power of the pit, never lacks for a stratagem.” In the 1850s it seemed obvious to many Northerners that the current president and previous president had conspired secretly with the chief justice of the Supreme Court to entrench the Slave Power conspiracy.

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Fantasyland 4. American churches go from crazy to insane and unhinged: 1800 to present

Preface. This is the fifth of nine posts about Fantasyland. This is a very important book on how and why a large percent of Americans have has been irrational for 500 years.

Evangelism threatens to create a non-democratic, authoritarian government, so the history of how nutty religious history has been since 1800 explains a lot about how evangelism could even exist. 

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

In Kentucky in 1801, a Holy Fair was held with dozens of ministers. As many as 20,000 people arrived and stayed to hear the gospel, to be saved, to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime human carnival, an unprecedented lollapalooza.

Things really got rolling 24 hours in, as Saturday afternoon turned to dusk. Campfires and bonfires burned. Darkness descended. Preachers preached from trees and wagons, several at once. Dozens of ordinary people—women, children, anyone moved by the Holy Spirit—were self-appointed “exhorters,” shouting the truth of the gospel as they believed or felt or imagined or otherwise knew it. People screamed uncontrollably. People ran and leaped, barked and sang uncontrollably. People laughed and sobbed uncontrollably. Hundreds were overcome by “the jerks,” convulsive seizures of limbs and necks and torsos that sometimes resolved into a kind of dance. And of course, hundreds or thousands of sinners found Christ and repented.

An equivalent American gathering today, as a fraction of the U.S. population, would be more than a million people. As the Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin and Harold Bloom of Yale have both noted, Cane Ridge was the Woodstock for American Christianity, an anarchic, unprecedented August moment of mass spectacle that crystallized and symbolized a new way of thinking and acting, a permanent new subculture.

More Baptist and Methodist preachers organized more camp meetings all over the country, but especially in the South, and more mobs of people assembled to go over the top and out of their minds.

They committed to a version of Christianity more thrilling and magical right now, as well as a sure-thing payoff for eternity. Thus the new American way: it was awesome, it was democratic, you’re a winner if you believe you’re a winner.

Like his pioneering predecessor Whitefield a century earlier, he understood that in America Christianity should be a kind of show business: “to expect to promote religion without excitements,” Finney wrote, “is…absurd.

The religious divergence of Europe and America became more pronounced, as Europeans swung toward the calm and reasonable, Americans toward the excited and fantastical.

By means of hundreds of end-is-nigh pamphlets and books and periodicals and tent meetings, Miller acquired almost a million American believers, as many as one in ten northeasterners. After 1843 came and went normally, Miller and company decided they’d miscalculated the date and changed it to the following April—no, wait, October, 1844. But October 22 turned out to be just another Tuesday. The disappointed masses who kept the faith broke into different factions, one of which was the Seventh-day Adventists.

But the big, long-lasting impact was the mainstreaming of the belief among modern American Christians that they might personally experience the final fantasy—the end of days, the return of Jesus, Satan vanquished. Around the same time, another Protestant minister was devising an even more complicated version of end-of-the-world prophecy. The Reverend John Nelson Darby, by means of two decades of cross-country preaching tours, permanently embedded the Bible’s end-time prophecies into the heart of American Christianity.

Darby recast the apocalypse in a far more appealing light—for believers. All so-called premillennialists agree that an ugly period of worldwide tribulation will be humankind’s existential denouement—war, famine, pandemic disease. But Darby more or less invented the idea of “the rapture,” a moment just before all hell breaks loose when Jesus will arrive incognito and take Christians away to heavenly safety to wait out the earthly horrors. Then He and the lucky saints return to Earth for the happy ending.

Americans often resist the idea that educated experts can tell them what is and isn’t true, but from the Puritans on, we’ve also been more than happy for scholarly fellow believers to confirm our beliefs and make them more impressively complicated. It is a modern wish for proof of one’s premodern fantasies. “The enduring appeal of prophecy belief for evangelicals,” as the historian Paul Boyer has written, is its “quasi-empirical ‘scientific’ validation of their faith.” Explainers like Darby “explicitly portrayed their endeavor…as a science.

The Shakers were among the more successful of dozens of smaller American sects and cults in this period, each led by an electrifying individual who claimed to have a direct line to God or His angels. A large fraction of Americans wanted or needed to believe they lived in an enchanted time and place, that the country swarmed with supernatural wonders, and that mid-nineteenth-century America was like the Holy Land of the early first century,

The All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith, Prophet

Smith published the Mormon “bible” in 1830, the year after he dictated it. It’s a doozy. A heretofore unknown prophet named Lehi escaped besieged Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. and sailed with his family and friends to the Americas, where their descendants founded a civilization. The civilization split into two warring peoples, one white and the other dark-skinned. The freshly resurrected Jesus Christ appeared among the white half, appointed twelve of them as his new, second set of apostles, and repeated the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks to Jesus’s visit, the light- and dark-skinned American nations reunited for a while, but then in the fifth century A.D. they went to war again, the darker people annihilating the whiter people. Smith’s interlocutor Moroni was one of the last whites alive when he buried the plates. (Smith said later that God told him American Indians are descended from the dark-skinned group.)

American Christians from the start tended toward the literal and hysterical and collectively self-centered. Joseph Smith met that bid and raised it a million. Like the American Puritans as well as the new millennialists of his own era, he prophesied that Armageddon was coming soon. “The heavens shall shake and the Earth shall tremble,” he said God had informed him, and for the unlucky, “flesh shall fall from their bones, and their eyes from their sockets.

The grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds. He said that “God…has flesh and bones,” and he suggested that Jesus was conceived by means of literal sexual congress between God and Mary.

American Christians had always nudged the Bible in the direction of America. Smith made America a literal second Holy Land, settled by literal Israeli émigrés and visited by the literal Jesus Christ.

If one considers the Bible, in the main, to be historical fiction, then what Joseph Smith produced was a monumental and pioneering work of fan fiction, the most successful ever.* Fan fiction, as one scholar has written, is created by fans to “fill the need” among other fans for “narratives that expand the boundary of the official source products.” Smith’s official source products were the Old and New Testaments.

One could argue that the New Testament itself was a collaborative anthology of fan fiction inspired by the Old Testament—We’ll give Jehovah a son, part god and part human!) But it took hubris of a particularly entrepreneurial American kind for an individual to produce such a comprehensive work of fan fiction over the course of just a few years, one purporting to have been dictated in part by the original author, God himself. According to Smith, according to God, Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden was not the tragic Fall of Man but a good thing, because it enabled ordinary pleasure and joy, let humans be human.

The term fan fiction was coined in the 1960s to describe stories written by fans of a science fiction series, and Smith’s Heaven is very sci-fi. It has distinct quality levels, like American Express cards—one for run-of-the-mill people who don’t deserve Hell, one for good Christians, and a super-premium level for Mormons. There you’re not just one of a mass of a billion indistinguishable souls in some ethereal netherworld, but a king or queen of your personal planetary fiefdom as a resurrected immortal physical being, continuing to produce princes and princesses. God lives near an actual celestial object called Kolob, a definite number of miles away from Earth.

Plus, any dead friends or relatives can be posthumously baptized and sent along to Heaven as well. Better history, better future—and at least for men, a better present, now that sex with multiple women was no longer a sin but a holy commandment.

America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies. No Joseph Smiths emerged elsewhere in the modern world. And if they had, where else would so many responsible people instantly abandon their previous beliefs and lives and risk everything on the say-so of such a man making such claims?

The new American Christianity emphasized not just the ancient miracles but miracles right now, feeling the supernatural by believing in it strongly enough. We had become a country where millions of evangelical Christians were rising up breathlessly from the sinners’ “anxious bench” to channel the Holy Spirit and be born again instantly. We were a practical country, so along with moral lessons and promises of an eternal afterlife, churches in the early 1800s were providing instant solutions, miracle cures for feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness.

Quack alternative medicine affected Christianity too: the Church of Christ Scientist

Mrs. Patterson hurt her back in an accident. After reading the Bible’s account of Jesus curing a paralytic, she found her own injury cured. She set about inventing her own quasi-Christian pseudoscientific belief system, which she presented in a book called Science and Health. There’s only “belief in pain.” “We say man suffers from the effects of cold, heat, fatigue. This is human belief, not the truth of being, for matter cannot suffer,” and “what is termed disease does not exist.” And not just pain, not just illness, but dying and matter itself—none of it is real.

Mary Baker Eddy, and founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. Her followers, forming more than a thousand Christian Science churches in America within thirty years, were called not believers but scientists.

An individual mesmerist or phrenologist or hydropathist could make a decent living, but selling professional services was not really scalable as a national business. Inventing a religion, as Mary Baker Eddy did, was one way to scale.

Southern Christianity

Southerners turned ever more to their churches for definition as Southerners. Revised hymns and new stained-glass windows conflated Christian and Confederate imagery and themes. White Southern religious culture became kind of a rump Confederacy. Believers doubled down on the supernatural, looking toward a miraculous do-over, an ultimate victory on Judgment Day and in the hereafter. Instead of squarely facing the uncomfortable facts—slavery was wrong, secession a calamitous mistake—they shifted into excuse-and-deny mode. For a great many white Southerners, defeat made them not contrite and peaceable (like, say, Germans and Japanese after World War II) but permanently pissed off. Which in turn led them to embrace a Christianity almost as medieval as the Puritans’.

Christianity grows more extreme

In America, even as the moderns declared victory, the committed magical thinkers weren’t giving up. And they fell back on one of the original Protestant and Puritan reflexes: if the decadent elite was stigmatizing believers as bumptious zealots, persecuting them for their unfashionable faith, the believers would go even more hardcore.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, millions of backlashing Americans became more invested in the idea that God had dictated the Bible, that it was 100% nonfiction, and that reading between the lines was permissible only if it confirmed their belief that Christ would return soon to stop the torrent of modern demonic corruption once and for all.

Moody’s most important protégé was a corrupt and alcoholic Kansas lawyer and politician named Cyrus Scofield. After deserting his wife and children, he became an evangelical minister, cofounding his own Bible schools, launching his own correspondence course, and finally, in 1909, publishing his own Bible. This wasn’t a new translation; rather, he took the King James Version and, in his lawyerly way, filled almost half of each page with explanatory text, publishing his take on the new evangelical take on the meaning and timing of the scriptural stories and prophecies—including the calculation that God created the world in the autumn of 4004 B.C.E. All those footnotes made the most outlandish versions of Christian myth appear more bona fide. It was published by Oxford University Press and became a phenomenal bestseller.

Science had proved that humans descended from animals—which is tough to reconcile with a literal reading of Genesis, in which God forms man from the dust of the ground by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. In the half-century since Darwin’s The Descent of Man, intellectually supple Christians around the world—the “modernists”—had reconciled Scripture with scientific evidence: the astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, and biologists were simply discovering the operational details of God’s miraculous creation.

So God in his amazing way created man, but not in a single day, and not by blowing on a dirt statue.

A large fraction of American Christians, however, refused to move beyond the picture of human creation they’d had as children. “I don’t believe your own bastard theory of evolution,” Billy Sunday snarled. “I believe it’s pure jackass nonsense.” In the winter of 1925, he preached for two weeks in Memphis, where 250,000 people (in a city of 200,000) turned out to hear him rail against Darwin and godless biology. Immediately the state of Tennessee enacted the strictest of several (Southern) laws that criminalized science’s bastard theories, making it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities…and all other public schools of the State…to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal.

As grassroots Christian beliefs grew more implausible in opposition to the liberalizing mainstream, some of the grass roots yearned for more implausible and flamboyant Christian practice

Forming their own churches, one-off and regional operations that shared a brand (the Church of God), but even more decentralized than the Baptists, with no national leadership or headquarters, every church free to do its own thing. This kind of self-franchising felt correct, more righteous and American. Members wanted to live strictly virtuous lives—without liquor or tobacco, without singing or dancing, without theater or movies. And at their services, they weren’t content just to hear sermons, get baptized, and pray. Indeed, maybe to compensate for the everyday asceticism, the lack of intoxicants and fun, they sought another sort of mind-altering and mind-altered entertainment: camp meetings, traumatic and ecstatic public conversions, faith healing. They were Americans, so they wanted more. They’d read in the Bible’s Book of Acts that some weeks after Jesus’s crucifixion, His apostles were temporarily granted supernatural powers to perform “wonders and signs”—the so-called Pentecost. Among those miraculous powers had been the ability “to speak with other tongues”—instant fluency in all the languages spoken at that time in multicultural Jerusalem.

Four hundred years after Luther said that “we are all priests,” Americans took the notion a hysterical step further: every believer could now be a prophet as well, each equal to one of Jesus’s apostles, commissioned to perform and reveal miraculous wonders and signs, and not just temporarily.

The two main founders of Pentecostalism were a pair of young evangelists, former Methodists by way of the Holiness Movement. Charles Parham had set up a little Bible college in Topeka for people “willing to forsake all, sell what they had, give it away, and enter the school,” where he taught that the end-time was near. On the very first day of the twentieth century, this twenty-seven-year-old put his hands on a student, a thirty-year-old woman, and, according to him, “a halo seemed to surround her head and face, and she began speaking in the Chinese language and was unable to speak English for three days.” Although a local Chinese person said that what she spoke wasn’t Chinese at all, the believers believed, and soon more Topekans, including the minister and his clerical peers, were excitedly speaking dozens of different made-up foreign languages.

The new L.A. church, in a ramshackle building in Little Tokyo, was instantly successful. Thousands made their way downtown for the nonstop performances. Two weeks into the madness, the great 1906 earthquake leveled San Francisco and shook L.A.—a coincidence that encouraged the believers on Azusa Street to believe they were receiving bulletins from God about Armageddon and Christ’s return.

A North Carolina preacher who’d recently switched from Methodist to Holiness in order to accommodate his beliefs in faith healing and the imminent end-time crossed the country to witness the free-for-all in L.A. Immediately converted, he returned home and barnstormed the South to recruit other evangelical ministers for the new sect—who in turn set up Pentecostal denominations that endure today. Within a decade, the main Pentecostal denominations had millions of American members.


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2016 Republican party platform: the most extreme ever

Preface. There are two articles below: the New York Times editorial on the 2016 Republican platform (they call Republicans Extremists too), followed by the 50 platform policies.

Basically, the GOP 2016 platform would make Christianity the official American religion, replace sex education with abstinence-only advice, privatize almost all areas of federal services, cut taxes and regulations for the rich and titans of industry, and impose a belligerent foreign policy and military build-up.

This is an EXTREME platform. The GOP 2016 policies would cut taxes of the rich (done), redistribute wealth from the middle class and poor to the already wealthy (done), repeal environmental laws (ongoing), remove gun controls (ongoing), shrink health care for tens of millions and all women (ongoing), and eventually privatize government services.

If the evangelists keep gaining more control over the Republican, one of their many goals is to abolish the first amendment and make Christianity the official American religion. This would require many things, such as Bible study in schools.  Goodbye democracy, hello fascist theocratic authoritarian plutocracy!

I’ve cut out some of the detailed description containing the exact language in the platform and organized the 50 platform proposals into categories.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Editorial Board. July 18, 2016. The Most Extreme Republican Platform in Memory. New York Times.

For all the disruption and damage that Donald Trump has meant for Republicans, the party’s statement of its views in its newly written convention platform rivals him for shock value.

It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position. Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.

Mr. Trump’s anti-Muslim phobia and fantasy wall across the Mexican border are front and center, along with his protectionist views, which deny long-held positions of the party. No less alarming is a raft of planks that ideologues pushed through to banish any notion of moderation and present-day reality from the party’s credo.

This majority has triumphed in securing retrograde positions that include making no exceptions for rape or women’s health in cases of abortion; requiring the Bible to be taught in public high schools; selling coal as a “clean” energy source; demanding a return of federal lands to the states; insisting that legislators use religion as a guide in lawmaking; appointing “family values” judges; and rejecting the need for stronger gun controls — despite the mass shootings afflicting the nation every week.

The platform also makes homophobia and the denial of basic civil rights to gays, lesbians and transgender people a centerpiece, repudiates same-sex marriage, and more.


Rosenfeld, S. July 18, 2016. 50 Shockingly Extreme Right-Wing Proposals in the 2016 Republican Party Platform. What Trump, a GOP Congress and GOP-appointed Supreme Court would do to America. AlterNet.

Loosen gun controls nationwide.

Repeal environmental laws.

Redistribute the wealth to corporations and the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor

  • Tax cuts for the rich.
  • Deregulate the banks (by getting rid of Dodd-Frank and so on).
  • Stop consumer protection: Abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was “deliberately designed to be a rogue agency”, answering to neither Congress nor the executive.
  • Add work requirements to welfare and cut food stamps.
  • Loosen campaign finance loopholes and restrictions on dark money: “Freedom of speech includes the right to devote resources to whatever cause or candidate one supports. We oppose any restrictions or conditions that would discourage citizens from participating in the public square or limit their ability to promote their ideas, such as requiring private organizations to publicly disclose their donors to the government.”
  • Dramatically increase Pentagon budget
  • No change in federal minimum wage: set it at the state and local levels.
  • Cut government salaries and benefits
  • No increasing Social Security benefits by taxing the rich

Health Care & Privatization [ which also diverts money to the rich and impoverishes everyone else ]

  • Privatize Medicare, the health plan for seniors [ i.e. get rid of it ]
  • Turn Medicaid, the poor’s health plan, over to states.
  • Repeal Obamacare
  • Privatize federal railway service (get rid of Amtrak).
  • Privatize government services
  • Replace traditional public schools with privatized options 
  • Privatize student loans instead of lowering interest rates.

Abolish the first amendment

  • Make Christianity a national religion. [ in other words, replace democracy with theocracy.  Despite the constitution prohibiting this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  The intentions of the Founders are clear elsewhere, see this Atlantic article here. ]
  • Require bible study in public schools.

Women’s rights and health care

  • Pass an anti-choice constitutional amendment: “We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth.”
  • Appoint anti-choice Supreme Court justices.
  • End federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
  • Allow states to shut down abortion Clinics.

Energy & Climate Change

  • Open America’s shores to more oil and gas drilling.
  • Build the Keystone XL Pipeline.
  • Expand fracking.
  • Bury nuclear waste. [ I strongly agree with this. See this post here for why this is the right thing to do ]
  • No tax on carbon products.
  • Ignore global climate change agreements: “The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”

Immigration & Voting

  • Make English the official U.S. language.
  • No amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
  • Build a border wall to keep immigrants out.
  • Require government verification of citizenship of all workers.
  • Penalize cities that give sanctuary to migrants.
  • Require citizenship documents to register to vote: “We support legislation to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote and secure photo ID when voting. We strongly oppose litigation against states exercising their sovereign authority to enact such laws.”
  • Ignore undocumented immigrants when drawing congressional districts.
  • Oppose efforts to end the electoral college: “We oppose the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and any other scheme to abolish or distort the procedures of the Electoral College.”


  • Replace sex education with abstinence-only approaches [ if you do a search on abstinence-only nearly all the results are from peer-reviewed journals showing this approach has been proven over and over not to work ]
  • Appoint anti-LGBT and anti-Obamacare justices.
  • Legalize anti-LGBT discrimination. 
  • Support traditional marriage but no other families
  • Oppose stem cell scientific research

Oppose executive branch policy making: “We condemn the current Administration’s unconstitutional expansion into areas beyond those specifically enumerated, including bullying of state and local governments in matters ranging from voter identification (ID) laws to immigration, from healthcare programs to land use decisions, and from forced education curricula to school restroom policies.”

Other platform policies

  • No labeling of GMO ingredients in food products.
  • Puerto Rico should be a state but not Washington DC
  • Restore the death penalty
  • Cancel Iran nuclear treaty and expand nuclear arsenal
  • Reaffirm support for Israel 
  • Give internet service providers monopoly control
  • Shrink unions and union labor.


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The evolution of the Republican party from 1960 to 2012: from moderate to extreme

Preface (long). Summary of changes in Republican platform from 1960 to 2012:

  1. Although their business-oriented and strong defense beliefs are unchanged, they’ve gone from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.
  2. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the GOP platform includes vigorous support for an equal-rights amendment to protect women. Then, in 1980, the party stalemates: “We acknowledge the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification.
  3. In the 1960s and ’70s, the party positioned itself as a strong advocate for voting rights in the Senate as well as the House. Then, in 1980, all mention of voting rights vanishes; the subject has not appeared since.
  4. In 1960, Republicans give “firm support” to “the union shop and other forms of union security” and say that “Republican conscience and Republican policy require that the annual number of immigrants we accept be at least doubled.”
  5. For decades, the party presented itself as “moderate” or even “progressive.” The 1960 plank listed “progressive Republican policies” such as “liberal pay” and that the government “must be truly progressive as an employer”.
  6. From the 1960 platform: “We have no wish to exaggerate differences between ourselves and the Democratic Party.” In 1964: “Let the Democratic Party stand accused.
  7. The 1960 plank says nothing about religion; suddenly in 1964, “faith” is one of the most frequently used words, along with “heritage” and “freedom.  In 2000, religion plays an even larger role in the platform as the party goes beyond supporting prayer in public schools by seeking to allow them to post the Ten Commandments.
  8. In 1960, the party pledges to “support and strengthen the United Nations”. In 1964, foreshadowing the 1990s skepticism of the U.N. the platform warned that “Republicans will never surrender to any international group the responsibility of the United States for its sovereignty.
  9. In 1964, the GOP bashed Democrats for being “federal extremists” wedded to an ever more intrusive central government.
  10. The 1968 platform would strike many voters today as a Democratic agenda — addressing air and water pollution, crowded slums, and discrimination against minorities, all with “a new mix of private responsibility and public participation in the solution of social problems.  The ’68 plank also proposes to expand Social Security by lowering the age for universal coverage from 72 to 65. Future platforms remain supportive of maintaining benefits until 2004, when the party endorses George W. Bush’s proposal to shift to personal retirement accounts.
  11. The 1972 platform celebrated a doubling of federal spending on manpower training, and a tripling of help to minorities.
  12. The 1972 platform opposes quotas to achieve racial balance in college admissions and hiring, and rails against liberal hegemony on campuses. (That theme remains through 2008, when the platform says that “leftist dogmatism dominates many institutions.”)
  13. The word “abortion” doesn’t enter the Republican Party platform until 1976, when the party concedes that it is deeply split between those who support “abortion on demand” and those who seek to protect the lives of the unborn.  This mainly happened because Nixon wanted to get re-elected and partnered up with Catholic clergy to be against abortion in exchange for them getting their parishioners to vote Republican.
  14. In 1980, the GOP sought a constitutional amendment protecting “the right to life for unborn children.” By 1992, the platform called for appointing judges who oppose abortion.
  15. The watershed platform of 1980 introduces tax cuts and an increasingly critical attitude toward government. “The Republican Party declares war on government over regulation,” it says.
  16. The 1960 plank calls for government workers to receive “salaries which are comparable to those offered by private employers.” In 1984, public-sector workers are renamed “bureaucrats” and “Washington’s governing elite,” and are blamed for “an epidemic of crime, a massive increase in dependency and the slumming of our cities.” Republicans pledge a major cut in the government workforce.
  17. For decades, Republicans emphasized federal funding for public transit. Then, in 1980, a turn: “Republicans reject the elitist notion that Americans must be forced out of their cars. Instead, we vigorously support the right of personal mobility and freedom as exemplified by the automobile.
  18. Antipathy toward high taxes strengthens, resulting in 1992 in an explanation of how lowering taxes on the wealthy would lead to job creation, adding a simple declaration: “We will oppose any attempt to increase taxes.
  19. In 1992, reforms of campaign finance include the elimination of “political action committees supported by corporations, unions or trade associations.” By 2000, that position morphs into one championing “the right of every individual and all groups to express their opinions and advocate their issues” — a veiled reference to efforts to eliminate limits on campaign contributions.
  20. By 1992, “family values” become a major theme. The platform states that “the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the Democrat Party are waging a guerrilla war against American values”, and is the first time same-sex relationships are mentioned, rejects any recognition of gay marriage or allowing same-sex couples to adopt children or become foster parents.  The passages about marriage grow every more strident until in 2008 an amendment is called for that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
  21. From 1996 through 2008, Republicans repeat that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.

Fisher’s article describes the Republicans as going from moderate to conservative, but I think the word extreme is better. Let’s call Republicans Extremists in the next election.

If that sounds extreme, consider the definition of extremist: a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action. “political extremists” synonyms: fanatic, radical, zealot, fundamentalist, hard-liner, militant.

Today the Extremist partie’s main voters are Evangelists and the National Rifle Association (probably a large overlap). NO COMPROMISE has become the platform of the Republican Party.  Sure seems Extremist to me.  Consider these facts as well:

  • The GOP today are the first political party in history to explicitly endorse a religion.  Despite the efforts of the founding fathers to prevent this. The First Amendment is an explicit statement of separation of church and state.
  • The last two GOP platforms have had anti-Agenda 21 planks, and a dozen state legislatures have passed resolutions cursing it. Agenda 21 was a 1992 United Nations Earth Summit paper with a list of ideas for sustainable development and improving the environment in areas like deforestation, protecting fragile environments, the atmosphere, and biodiversity, controlling pollution, and minimizing radioactive wastes.  But FOX and the Republicans accuse Agenda 21 of being a plot for one-world totalitarian and Communist domination.
  • Republicans are the party of Misogyny: Prevented the Equal Rights Amendment from happening, destruction of women’s rights by taking away birth control and abortion, trying to eliminate Planned Parenthood, and much more, see wiki’s War On Women.
  • And it can be hard to tell the Republicans apart from radical Muslims after they tried to stop women in Congress from wearing sleeveless dresses.
  • The Republicans are the party of Gun Nuts, the National Rifle Association, who are absolutely opposed to any restrictions, no matter how reasonable. This no compromise attitude now encompasses all Republican platforms.
  • The only goal of Republicans during Obama’s administration was to prevent him from doing anything, appointing judges, working with members across the aisle, yet didn’t have alternative proposals.  This is dysfunctional, unprecedented in all of U.S. history.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Marc Fisher. August 28, 2012. GOP platform through the years shows party’s shift from moderate to conservative. Washington Post.

The Republican Party, viewed through its quadrennial platform documents, is consistently business-oriented and committed to a strong defense, but has morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith.

Influenced by the rise of tea party activists, this year’s platform, adopted Tuesday at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, has shifted to the right, particularly on fiscal issues. It calls for an audit of the Federal Reserve and a commission to study returning to the gold standard. There are odes of fidelity to the Constitution but also calls for amendments that would balance the federal budget, require a two-thirds majority in Congress to raise taxes and define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

The new plank urges the transformation of Medicare from an entitlement to a system of personal accounts, increased use of coal for energy and a ban on federal funding to universities that give illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates.

What it means to be a Republican has changed enormously over the past half-century. The GOP opposed a Palestinian state as late as 1992, went silent on the issue for eight years, then endorsed the idea in its past two planks. During the George H.W. Bush presidency, Republicans acknowledged global warming and boasted of efforts to commit billions of federal dollars to finding solutions. The party then spent two election cycles saying there was too much “scientific uncertainty” before accepting in 2008 that humans have a role in altering the climate.

The GOP, like its opposition, has responded to ideological, demographic and social changes by hardening some of its positions and adopting entirely new planks, all part of an effort to create a coalition capable of winning national elections. In the Republicans’ case, that meant adapting and appealing to a new base in the South from the 1970s forward, becoming the dominant party of white suburbia, and finding ways to marry its traditional pro-business foundation with less affluent, more socially conservative voters.

Many positions Republicans often tout as traditionally conservative are actually relatively new to GOP ideology. Indeed, although the party’s stance on the issues has shifted rightward over the past 20 years, Republicans have studiously avoided using the word “conservative” in platforms.

Even the party’s most conservative platforms avoid the word conservative, which first appears in 1992. From the 1960s to 2008, platforms liberally criticize “liberals,” but “conservative” is used almost exclusively to refer to judges.

From the 1960s through the ’80s, each plank reads like a snapshot of its time, capturing the frustrations of the party or the pride of those in power, sometimes wryly needling Democrats, other years slamming them hard. But from the 1990s forward, the platforms exhibit a sameness of rhetorical style, a reflection of the cut-and-paste reality of the computer age, in which entire sentences appear over and over in successive planks.

Even as ritual expressions of solidarity with the Philippines or calls to abolish inheritance taxes survive each round of platform construction, the party line changes markedly on many issues.

The platforms of 1980 and 1992 are the party’s big pivots, both in positions and rhetoric. But the roots of today’s Republicanism become clear during the 1964 conservative uprising that led to Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination.

The optimism of 1960 — brimming with hope about new nations, weapons and ideas — gives way four years later to worry about “moral decline and drift” born of “indifference to national ideals rounded in devoutly held religious faith.”

In 1960, the platform calls for “vigorous support of court orders for school desegregation” and affirms the rights of civil rights protesters. The 1964 plank calls for “discouraging lawlessness and violence” and “opposing federally sponsored ‘inverse discrimination.’

On foreign policy, Republicans remain mostly consistent, calling for increased defense spending to combat communism.

If the fiery rhetoric of 1964 presaged the Reagan and tea party revolutions, the path was not smooth. The Richard M. Nixon years brought a return — in the platform, if not in the coarser approach revealed in the Nixon White House tapes — of a more moderate message.

And the party’s attitude on the balance between civil liberties and aggressive security measures shifts dramatically after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 1996 and 2000 platforms oppose President Bill Clinton’s decision to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, promising to reopen the street. But later platforms embrace George W. Bush’s emphasis on the vigorous expansion of the government’s role in homeland security.

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Fantasyland 3. History of increasing craziness of U.S. religion from 1517 to 1800

Preface. In another post about critical thinking, “What percent of Americans are rational?”, I list the results of 10 polls about what Americans believe. Here are the questions about Christianity.  When there’s more than one figure, they’re from different polls:

  • Angels: 77%,  72%, 72%   88% of Christians, 95% of evangelical Christians
  • Creationism: 36%
  • Devil: 61%, 60%, 58%
  • Heaven: 71%, 75%
  • Hell: 64%, 61%
  • Jesus born of a virgin: 73%, 61%, 57%
  • Jesus is God or son of God: 73%, 68%
  • Jesus’s resurrection: 70%, 65%
  • Life after death: 71%, 64%
  • Miracles: 76%, 72%

Only 48% of people agree with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today. The rest believe evolution happened via the hand of God.

A quarter believe that president Obama was, or is, the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables.

What follows are the parts of Fantasyland that cover the early history of Christianity in the U.S.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

The Conjuring of America: 1517–1789.  I Believe, Therefore I Am Right: The Protestants

America began as a fever dream, a myth, a happy delusion, a fantasy. In fact, it began as multiple fantasies, each embraced around 1600 by people so convinced of their thrilling, wishful fictions that most of them abandoned everything—friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world—to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.

After the launch of this new Christianity, the new printing enabled its spread. Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phony VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

Out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything

Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people—that is, critically expanding individual liberty—Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a good Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

Although Raleigh never visited North America himself, he believed that in addition to its gold deposits, his realm might somehow be the biblical Garden of Eden. English clergymen had calculated from the Bible that Eden was at a latitude of thirty-five degrees north—just like Roanoke Island, they said. And there was still more fresh (hearsay) evidence of divine magic in Virginia: a botanist’s book, Joyful News of the New Found World, reported that various plants unique to America cured all diseases. A famous English poet published his “Ode to the Virginian Voyage,” calling Virginia “Earth’s only Paradise” where Britons would “get the pearl and gold”—and plenty of English people imagined that it was literally a new Eden.

Alas, no. A large fraction of the first settlers dispatched by Raleigh became sick and died. He dispatched a second expedition of gold-hunters. It also failed, and all those colonists died.

In 1606 the new English king, James, despite Raleigh’s colonization disasters, gave a franchise to two new private enterprises, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, to start colonies. The southern one, under the auspices of London, they named Jamestown after the monarch. Their royal charter was clear about the main mission: “to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold…And to HAVE and enjoy the Gold.   Two-thirds of those first hundred gold-seekers promptly died.

The gold fantasy wasn’t limited to colonists in the South. Those dispatched at the same time by the Plymouth Company, 120 of them, landed up on the Maine coast, also looking for gold

Unlike their Virginia compatriots, however, the English colonists in Maine quickly accommodated reality and admitted defeat. Half left a few months after arriving, the rest six months later. They were not credulous or imaginative enough to become Americans.

But…maybe they just hadn’t talked to the right natives! Or looked in the right places! In 1614 yet another Plymouth Company expedition sailed to New England, this one exclusively in pursuit of gold. They had an inside man aboard, a native who’d been captured and enslaved by an earlier Plymouth Company ship off Cape Cod. The Indian had spent his time in captivity in London learning English and the nature of his captors’ shiny-metal fixation, so he concocted a story just for them: There’s a gold mine on my own island, he lied, and I’ll take you back there to claim it. When the English anchored off Martha’s Vineyard, he jumped ship, and his tribal brothers covered his escape with bow-and-arrow fire from canoes. The Englishmen realized they’d been played and sailed home.

Down in Virginia, meanwhile, more than 6,000 people had emigrated to Jamestown by 1620, the equivalent of a midsize English city at the time. At least three-quarters had died, but not the abiding dream. People kept coming and believing, hopefulness becoming delusion. It was a gold rush with no gold. Fifteen years after Jamestown’s founding, a colonist wrote a friend to request a shipment of nails, cutlery, vinegar, cheese—and also to make excuses for why he hadn’t quite yet managed to get rich: “By reason of my sickness & weakness I was not able to travel up and down the hills and dales of these countries but doo now intend every day to walk up and down the hills for good Minerals here is both gold [and] silver.

But back in England the investors and their promotional agents continued printing posters, hyperbolic testimonials, and dozens of books and pamphlets, organizing lotteries, and fanning out hucksterish blue smoke. Thus the first English-speaking Americans tended to be the more wide-eyed and desperately wishful. “Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century,” according to the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall’s history of America, Freedom Just Around the Corner, “did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.

The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further, suggesting that “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.

In his London circles, Bacon said, it was all “gold, silver, and temporal profit” driving the colonization project, not “the propagation of the Christian faith.” For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.

Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth—these can never be disproved.

Unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable,

When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of the Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity naturally led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.

What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner.) Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity. The most extreme of the

But changing where they lived didn’t change who they were—sticklers and malcontents. They lived in Leiden, a place full of all the normal real-world ungodliness of a large Dutch city. Leiden was also the center of a liberal sect of Protestants. In other words, the English Puritans in Holland were surrounded by a new species of disgusting heresy. For them, hell for now was other people who didn’t share their beliefs with full fervor.

America was founded by a nutty religious cult.

It’s telling that Americans know and celebrate Plymouth but Jamestown hardly at all. The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies. The more run-of-the-mill people seeking a financial payoff, who abandoned their dream once it was defunct? Eh. We also prefer to talk about Pilgrims rather than Puritans, because the former has none of the negative connotations that stuck permanently to the latter.

The Puritans are conventionally considered more “moderate” than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS.* The Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans’ theology was really no less mad.

The Middle Ages are generally reckoned to have ended at least a century before America’s founding. By the 1620s in the Old World, literal belief in biblical end-time prophecies was fading, along with other medieval artifacts. But not among the Puritans. They took the Bible as literally as they could, especially this most spectacular piece of it. That the Catholics had for centuries downplayed end-of-the-world prophecies was, for Puritans, all the more reason those prophecies must be true.

Christ’s return and reign wouldn’t be some airy-fairy symbolic spiritual thing but a real kingdom on real Earth. And ground zero of the coming Apocalypse, God versus Satan, would be in America.

The Boston Puritans’ first leader, John Winthrop, was talking to his shipmates about the end-time.

His most important successor as a leader of the New England theocracy, Increase Mather, also preached “that the coming of Christ to raise the dead and to judge the Earth” might happen any minute now. Mather even had evidence: meteors or comets visible in the skies over Boston, for instance, could be signs of God’s unhappiness and “presage great calamities.” As the religious historian Paul Boyer says, “The Puritans really expected the end of time to come very, very soon.

Cotton, who’d been preaching sermons since he was sixteen, took over for his father as pastor of Boston’s main church. The younger man soon began issuing specific dates for the end of days and kept doing so for the rest of his life. Six years from now! Okay, thirty-nine years from now—no, wait, fewer than twenty! And when that year passed normally, Cotton Mather announced it would actually be the following year.

Enlightened and emboldened, her followers took to walking out of church in the middle of sermons by ministers they weren’t feeling. Anne Hutchinson, resident in America for only a thousand days, was leading a movement to make her colony of magical thinkers even more fervid. Protestantism had started as a breakaway movement of holier-than-thou zealots—and in the even-holier-than-thou zealots’ state-of-the-art utopia, they now had a still-holier-than-thou mystic militant in their midst.

Once a faction of the colony’s leaders signed on to Hutchinson’s more magical, passionate, extra-pure Puritanism, she became problematic.

Anne Hutchinson had gone rogue. She was charged and tried for defaming ministers

When her trial resumed the next day, she let it all hang out. It wasn’t just the Bible that guided her but the Holy Spirit—that is, God, speaking to her personally, just as He had spoken to people in the Bible. It was, she told them, “an immediate revelation….by the voice of his own spirit to my soul….God had said to me…‘I am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lion’s den, I will also deliver thee.’?” Governor Winthrop and his forty fellow judges had assembled to convict her of something, and now she’d made it easy. Furthermore, she threatened them and their misguided regime with God’s own wrath: “Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.

“Mistress Hutchinson,” a once and future Massachusetts governor among the judges said during the trial, “is deluded by the Devil.” And a witness against her, one of her fellow shipmates on the passage from England, testified that she’d made “very strange and witchlike” pronouncements when they’d landed in America three years earlier. The court might have brought a conviction for witchcraft and executed

“This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief,” Winthrop bellowed, pointing at her. And also: “I am persuaded that the revelation she brings forth is delusion.” We’re all irritating, self-righteous Christian nuts, he did not add, but good God, woman, even we have our limits.

Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality. She’s so American because, unlike the worried, pointy-headed people around her, she didn’t recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true.

Anne Hutchinson lost her battle in Cambridge but would finally win the war. For the Puritan leaders, it was their way or the highway. But in America there was an infinity of highways and new places not so far away where outcast true believers could move.

The Quakers’ famous civic reasonableness—tolerant, democratic, pacifist, proto-feminist, abolitionist—tends to obscure their own founding zealotry: each person could directly commune with God, which variously took the form of prophecies, trance-like rants, and convulsions.

Individual freedom of thought in early America was specifically about the freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished. Four centuries later that has been a freedom, revived and unfettered and run amok, driving America’s transformation.

A Puritan minister had warned that “Satan visibly and palpably reigns” in America “more than in any other known place of the world.” What? Yes, another Puritan leader explained, as Christianity had spread through Europe during the previous fifteen hundred years, taking market share, the devil at some point arranged for a swarm of Asian infidels to cross the Pacific Ocean to America—“

The American Indians, in other words, weren’t merely unbelievers—they were Satan’s soldiers.

For their first sustained war on Indians, however, the colonists recruited other presumed demons to help them exterminate a tribe of definite demons, the Pequots. The Pequot War’s most famous episode was a one-day massacre in 1637 of hundreds of native people, including women and children. According to Increase Mather, his side won this war fought before he was born due “to the wonderful Providence of God.

Over the next two generations, as the English population quintupled, exceeding the Indians’, the natives naturally grew…restless. As a result, after a half-century the settlers’ long-standing fantasy of a pan-Indian conspiracy became self-fulfillingly real: the natives finally did form a multi-tribal alliance to fight back. The public case for wiping out the newly militant Indians remained supernatural, however. For Christians who imagined themselves battling satanic beasts, conventional rules of war no longer applied.

Yet another Harvard-educated minister, serving as chaplain to one of Massachusetts’s military units, exhorted his soldiers to “kill, burn, sink, destroy all sin and Corruption…which are professed enemies to Christ Jesus, and not to pity or spare any of them.

Cotton Mather happened to see a cabbage root with two branches, which looked to him like swords and an Indian club—clearly a warning from God of this imminent new battle against the hounds of Hell, he preached, a “prodigious war made by the spirits of the invisible world upon the people of New-England…[by] the Indians, whose chief[s]…are well known…to have been horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and…conversed with demons.

The big piece of secular conventional wisdom about Protestantism has been that it gave a self-righteous oomph to moneymaking and capitalism—hard work accrues to God’s glory, success looks like a sign of His grace. But it seems clear to me the deeper, broader, and more enduring influence of American Protestantism was the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty.

The scientific method is unceasingly skeptical, each truth understood as a partial, provisional best-we-can-do-for-the-moment understanding of reality. In their travesty of science, Protestant true believers scrutinized the natural world to deduce the underlying godly or satanic causes of every strange effect, from comets to hurricanes to Indian attacks to unusual illnesses and deaths. For believers in the new American religion, the truth was out there: everything happened for a purpose, and the purpose wasn’t so hard to suss out.

Edwards was all about obsessively believing and feeling the magic. He was, Mark Twain wrote to a pastor friend, a “resplendent intellect gone mad.

According to Edwards’s reading of Revelation, the golden age of Christianity wouldn’t begin for hundreds of years, and Jesus would still be the absentee overlord until he returned as the king of the remade planet another thousand years after that. Yet under such a “post-millennial” scheme, the glorious happy ending is so far in the future it might as well be…imaginary, metaphorical. Which is to say, for a lot of Americans, too boring. A religion that doesn’t get the believer’s blood pumping right now can be like a marriage without sex.

Edwards is known as the Last Puritan, he was also somewhat Anne Hutchinsonian, a mystic visionary, consumed by the Bible but also by the totally subjective visionary experience of holiness.

Five generations after the first Puritans arrived, the zealotry had diminished. Americans still read the Bible and went to church, but the religious boil had become more of a simmer. Reverend Edwards found he could turn up the heat, whipping proper New Englanders into ecstatic and agonizing deliriums that he and they took to be miraculous proofs of God.

More preachers awakened more congregations. Their listeners didn’t just pledge to stop sinning and believe more strongly in God. They didn’t just read and discuss the Bible and the sermons. In the middle of church services, respectable people felt the Holy Spirit, which produced “the Affections”—moaning, weeping, screaming, jerking, fainting.

Edwards, this sudden madness of the crowd was also evidence of the supernatural big picture manifesting. “?’Tis not unlikely,” he wrote, “that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture”—that is, the slow-but-sure final act. “There are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.

A Whitefield appearance was fabulous theater—but his was apparently authentic emotion, a channeling of the Holy Spirit, a reality show. Most of his audience arrived with disbelief pre-suspended, and his performances let them believe the fantasy. At least as much as Edwards’s and Wesley’s sermons, Whitefield’s preaching made people involuntarily twist and shout.  Whitefield was the pioneering multimedia evangelical marketer of himself. Newspapers advertised his sermons and published accounts of the ecstatic mobs he attracted. He published a successful autobiography at 26—the first of several. Within a couple of years of his arrival, Whitefield may have been the most famous person in America.

By quoting again and again the biblical passage where Jesus tells a chief rabbi that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Whitefield implanted in American Christianity one of its big ideas.

As the Great Awakening spread, the Christian Establishment loathed all the embarrassing emotional displays of me me me fanaticism—as one critic at the time wrote, these awful “perturbations of mind, possessions of God, ecstatic flights and supernatural impulses.” Sure, the religion was founded on stories of miracles and individual visions and revelations, but whoa…miracles and revelations right here, right now? To which the delirious mob responded yes, exactly. Whitefield wrote that the “screaming, trembling” that he and other evangelists provoked were surely just like the “sudden agonies and screaming” that Jesus provoked among His converts. “Is not God the same yesterday, today, and forever?” It was Anne Hutchinson’s argument all over again. Give us the magic now!

“The most distinctive characteristic of early American Methodism,” according to one of its modern historians, was “this quest for the supernatural in everyday life.” Early American Methodists thus put “great stock in dreams, visions, supernatural impressions, miraculous healings, speaking in tongues.” Of course, each preacher and believer of every sect knew that his or her idiosyncratic version of the truth was the truth.

If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reductio ad absurdum of American individualism

Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way.

John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity.

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”  Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth.

Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting. Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.

“As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion which has ever infected this world.

Christians, instead of seeing telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anesthesia and so on as part of the Enlightenment and moderating their beliefs, saw God in these developments, that these marvelous things had happened because well obviously—God was with us.

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Fantasyland Part 2. How America Went Haywire. A 500-Year History.

Preface. This is the second of nine parts about the book “”Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History”, mostly the introduction.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House. 440 pages.

The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of his first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing populist character, performed a feature called The Word in which he riffed on a phrase. “Truthiness,” he said. Now I’m sure some of the “word police,” the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart….Face it, folks, we are a divided nation…divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart…Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed in this particular, peculiar way,

We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will.

Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago. At the turn of the millennium, our financial industry fantasized that risky debt was no longer risky, so many tens of millions of Americans fantasized that they could live like rich people, given our fantasy that real estate would always and only increase in value. We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality. We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.

More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.

That the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.

A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election, and a fifth that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

When I say that a third believe X or a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the U.S. population.

Why are we like this? That’s what this book will explore. The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable

The proliferation of delusions and illusions concerning the large subjects that people have always debated—politics, religion, even science—is connected to the proliferation and glut of the fictional and quasi-fictional coursing through everyday American life.

Truth in general becomes flexible, a matter of personal preference. There is a functioning synergy among our multiplying fantasies, the large and small ones, the toxic and the individually entertaining ones, the ones we know to be fiction, the ones we kinda sorta believe, and the religious and political and scientific ones we’re convinced aren’t fantasies at all.

We like this new ultra-freedom to binge, we insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrong-headed fellow Americans abuse it. When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule. — THIS IS NOT unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds.

Our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.


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Fantasyland Part 1. How America Went Haywire. A 500-Year History.





Preface. The next 8 posts will review the book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History” because it’s one of the most important, and fun to read, books I’ve read in a long time.  A lot of American history out the be revised to explain what happened in the past and today, more than ever. Since the book is 400 pages, even with 9 posts I can’t do the book justice.  A related post is “What percent of Americans are rational?“

I place the blame on the crazy religious beliefs in America partly on corporations.  Otherwise, we’d probably be as rational as Europeans. To see why, see my post “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America”.

Andersen bashes Republicans a lot. But he’s right about what he says, additional proof can be found in my review of science writer Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality”. Mooney has scientific evidence that Republicans are wired to think the way they do.  They want certainty. They make up their minds and are reluctant to change them. For most of human history, being cautious and sticking to the tried-and-true ways was  a good strategy and helped people survive.

I honestly think that this new “Republican” party, which kowtows to Evangalists because they are the majority of their voters (as well as white catholics and right-wing protestants) needs to have another name: Extremists.  Mark Fischer wrote in the Washington Post in 2012 about how far they’d shifted from moderation to extremism: “The word “abortion” does not appear in a Republican Party platform until 1976, when the party concedes that it is deeply split between those who support “abortion on demand” and those who seek to protect the lives of the unborn. The quest for lower taxes does not define Republicanism until the 1980s, and matters of faith play almost no role in the GOP’s plank until the 1990s. The Republican Party, viewed through its platform documents, is consistently business-oriented and committed to a strong defense, but has morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith”.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

So what’s the harm?

It’s literally costing us our lives. The U.S. is 26th out of the 36 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), yet we are the richest nation that has ever existed, or ever will exist.  There’s no better sign of a country’s health and wealth than height. Americans used to tower over all other nations, now we are 40th due to poor health care and diets.  We are 108th of 140 nations in happiness.

Two hundred innocent people went to jail and lost their careers, businesses, and families after being accused of being satanic cult baby killers in the 1980s and 1990s (and meanwhile Catholic priests were getting away with raping children).  This was as bad, if not worse than the Salem Witch Hunt, which lasted just months.  But these satanic baby killing cult trials went on for a decade.  For example, these cases:  Kern County child abuse cases, McMartin preschool trial, Ricky Kasso, West Memphis 3, Little Rascals Day Care Center, Oak Hill satanic ritual abuse trial, Fells Acres Day Care Center preschool trial, and Pace memorandum.  A third of Americans saw Geraldo Rivera’s TV show where he estimated that there are over 1 million Satanists in America linked in a highly organized secret network dedicated to satanic ritual child abuse and satanic murders.  Americans agonized for 3 centuries over the Salem witch trial, but I haven’t read anything or heard anyone talk about this since then.  And there are still regular satanic ritual abuse conferences.

The loss of basic rights: birth control and abortion, Republican gerrymandering of districts to gain an unfair advantage, as well as Koch brothers and other dark money allowed after Citizens United, and so on.

Thomas Jefferson once said that as long as a belief didn’t pick his pocket or break his leg, he was fine with it.  But these nutty beliefs are picking our pockets (deregulation, cutting the budget of the FDA and other watchdog agencies) and breaking our legs (getting rid of affordable health care, not getting children vaccinated, alternative medicine, and in 2017 the Republicans want to cut SNAP, the food stamp program, that in 2012 fed 45 million people).

Superstition is fun, isn’t it?

For most of human history there was no choice but to rely on myths and superstitions. And if you read anthropology you’ll run across a great deal of information on what it is like. It sure doesn’t sound like any fun to me. To be religious / superstitious is to be in constant fear of bad spirits. For leaders to justify taxing and starving and killing others.  In many societies the death of a member is blamed on a someone in another village and the tribe attacks the town in revenge, killing even more people and starting blood feuds that can go on for decades or even centuries.  To feel at all times that a mistake could result in demonic punishment, to be told that you are responsible for a drought and consequent famine because you didn’t obey taboos to the letter, is to feel out of control, to live in constant fear.  More on this can be found in Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark”.

The wacko beliefs in America go all the way back to our founding 500 years ago by people with religious beliefs so extreme they weren’t welcome in their own societies — for good reason. This is best described in Bernard Bailyn’s “The Barbarous Years. The peopling of British North America: the conflict of civilizations, 1600-1675”. My comment: Let’s hope we’re not doomed by our DNA, Andersen never says this.

In the good old days the centrist Republicans and media stepped in to nip nuttiness in the bud, such as the John Birch Society.  But now that media is profit driven, which means only presenting information that we the ignorant public want to hear, and no longer believes that serving the public good is a paramount duty, all hell has broken loose as Fantasyland spins out of control into more and more madness.

Even academia has abandoned reason as one of the pillars they stand for.  Heaven forbid they trample on any student’s right to believe in anything by criticizing it.  All truths are equal. My comment: Andersen covers how this came to be at great length, with a long history of scholars who brought universities to such depths.

And so the gyre keeps widening and spinning into self-induced madness, rather than toward the The Enlightenment as in nearly all other developed nations.

The Tea Party, National Rifle Association, and right-wing evangelist and fundamentalist churches have ratcheted up the insanity, and totally cowed the more middle-of-the-road, reasonable old school Republicans.  Chapter 40 is all about how the GOP went off the rails, responsible for much of this.

The GOP today are the first political party in history to explicitly endorse a religion.  Despite the efforts of the founding fathers to prevent this. The First Amendment is an explicit statement of separation of church and state.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe in conspiracies.  For example, consider Agenda 21, a United Nations 1992 Earth Summit paper full of ideas for sustainable development and improving the environment in areas like deforestation, protecting fragile environments, protecting biodiversity, controlling pollution, minimizing radioactive wastes, and protecting the atmosphere.  But FOX and the Republicans accuse Agenda 21 of being a plot for one-world totalitarian and Communist domination. The last two GOP platforms have had anti-Agenda 21 planks, and a dozen state legislatures have passed resolutions cursing it.

Nor are there enough rational congressional staff to advise our leaders at every level of government, because in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich began what is now the Republican practice of cutting the budget for staff. This is why politicians have to get advice from lobbyists instead.

Republicans are also especially good at cherry-picking: let business do whatever it wants, but don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs, and Ayn Rand is a blueprint for many of them (House speaker Paul Ryan and his son Ron Paul, Ronald Reagan, Justice Clarence Thomas, Alan Greenspan, and so on).

The overarching harm Republicans have done is to convince voters that the media can’t be trusted, to ignore facts about their policies – inflexible and absolutely hysterical like the gun lobby.  “Reasonable Republicanism was replaced by absolutism: NO new taxes, NO regulation, ABOLISH the EPA, IRS, and Federal Reserve, FORBID funding of studies on guns or global warming.”

There’s simply no evidence that Democrats are doing as much harm or believe in as many bizarre conspiracies or religious beliefs.  Polls have shown this.  Those who accuse Democrats of being socialists conveniently forget that Denmark is a real country, and like other “socialist” Scandinavian nations are the happiest, healthiest, and wealthiest per capita nations on earth.

This nuttiness may even be a sign of collapse.  If you look at the Greeks, the age of reason only lasted for 200 of the 700 years they existed.  After that  period, Greeks returned to astrology, magical cures, and alchemy, perhaps because they found freedom too scary, and were too frightened by the idea that their lives and fates weren’t predestined or managed by gods – of being on their own.

America’s Age of Enlightenment also appears to have only lasted for 200 years, from roughly 1800 to 2000.

Below are some, but by no means all, of the fantasyland topics Andersen covers. Some of them will be discussed in the next 8 posts, but not all of them.

  1. Evangelical Christian’s involvement in national politics.
  2. Drug use: speed, weed, psychedelics, tranquilizers, etc
  3. Scientology and what their main beliefs are (will save you tens of thousands of dollars to learn from this book rather than take courses…)
  4. The McCarthy persecution of imaginary communists, with Hollywood cooperation, ruining the careers and lives of many innocent people.
  5. Preacher Billy Graham: “communism was master-minded by Satan”.
  6. Since the 1920s, a hundred evangelical Bible institutes, plus colleges had opened.
  7. Fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches multiplied.
  8. Eisenhower was baptized at age 63 while President, appeared at 1st National Prayer Breakfast organized by fundamentalist Christians, added “under God” into the 87-year-old Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on the currency, made prayer a regular part of cabinet meetings
  9. Norman Vincent Peale: one of the first who marketed magical thinking about wealth and success, such as repeating bullet-point affirmations over and over
  10. Oral Roberts bought time on hundreds of TV stations to faith-heal people
  11. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network
  12. Jim Bakker & Tammy Faye
  13. Satan and the antichrist were taking over the world (the late great planet earth), which led to endless new satanic agents after that: China! Iran! Vaccines! Obama! Pope Francis! ISIS!
  14. Craziness existed on both the left and right. Anything goes meant leftist beliefs were just fine if you wanted to believe them, i.e. New Age shamans, astrology, ESP, homeopathy, healing crystals for particular invisible bodily chakra’s, non-christian faith healing via Reiki, channeling the spirits of the dead, channeling totally fictional people who never existed like Seth and Ramtha, getting touch with past lives.
  15. Dr Oz and half or more of everything he ever said on Oprah or his own TV show. He promotes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, psychics who communicate with the dead, green coffee beans as a magical weight-loss cure, vaccines cause autism and other illnesses.
  16. Andrew Weil: Reiki, herbal, aromatherapy, magical energies.
  17. Alternative medicine. Replace the word “alternative” with “untested”.  Why can’t supplement companies and others selling snake oil who are earning billions of dollars afford to test what they’re selling, to not only make sure it’s effective, but SAFE?
  18. The Secret: the law of attraction. If you crave anything hard enough, it will become yours! This book sold 20 million copies! Guess what, the only reason a person doesn’t have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with your thoughts. Leave the details to the Universe about how it will happen.  But this magic can be wrecked by understanding the real world, such as watching the news or reading newspapers.
  19. Since reality was whatever you liked, this even more increased right wing extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, capitalist removal of regulations and taxes than beliefs on the left .
  20. Both left and right abandoned claims of reason and rationality.
  21. But the right used the anything goes idea to believe in far more dangerous and crazy things: gun rights, black helicopter conspiracism, climate change denial, biblical literacy, white supremacy, speaking in tongues, driving demons out of the possessed, Creationism and the denial of evolution, FEMA concentration camps, heaven, angels, hell, and Satan are REAL. Homeschooling and bible churches to teach creationism and keep children from being exposed to science.
  22. The setting of dates for The End of the World: the 2012 Mayan calendar, and too many cult and PEFC dates to list
  23. In the 1960s the idea that you could believe whatever you wish blossomed. Find your own truth. Mistrust authority. This empowered the right way more than the left.
  24. Esalen: a mother church for people who don’t like churches or religious but still want to believe in the supernatural. Especially other understandings of reality, such as Native American, Asian, or shamanistic traditions. Invisible energies, past lives, astral projection, Gestalt therapy,
  25. Mental illness as a superior way of perceiving reality and the dismantling of U.S. mental health facilities, science is a sinister scheme.
  26. Guru Maharaj Ji: followers were told that believers would be able to lift the Astrodome from the earth, and that Majaraj Ji would soon be revealed to be the One who was waited for by every religion for all times.
  27. The role of LSD and other drugs in helping to turn America into Fantasyland
  28. Flying saucer cults and abduction by aliens
  29. Starting in 1961, academics such as Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Tart, and too many mentioned in the book to list, promoted the idea that all beliefs and approximations of truth, science as much as fables or religion, are merely stories devised by people to suit their own needs or interests. Reality is itself a social construction of useful or wishful myths that members of society have been persuaded to believe. Superstitions, magical thinking, and delusions are as legitimate as the supposed truths contrived by Western reason and science.
  30. In short, academia said that you can believe whatever you want, because it’s pretty much all equally true and false.
  31. Anthropologists decided that oracles, diviners, incantations, and magical objects should be not just respected by considered equivalent to reason and science.
  32. Carlos Castaneda “Teachings of Don Juan”
  33. Parapsychology at UCLA, Princeton
  34. The war in Viet Nam longer than need be due to McNamara and Herman Kahn believing their shiny computerized approach was telling them the truth and solving complex military problems by feeding in the right variables. Lack of realizing that emotion drove the war far more than reason, as well as exaggerated fear of communism and concern for America’s superpower reputation
  35. SDS and other underground militant cells setting off hundreds of bombs and robbing banks
  36. John Birch Society. They believed 50-70% of the federal government was under the control of the Communist party, as well as academia, foundations, news media, the AMA, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Communism was a part of a greater global master conspiracy going back to the 18th century Illuminati. Even Eisenhower was obeying Communist orders, and had been for his whole life! But because the rise of the Birchers happened in the early 60s, before the forces of reason really started losing control, the mainstream media was able to quash it.  Especially by the establishment right, leaders of the conservative movement such as William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk.
  37. Not that it did any good. The book “None dare call it treason” authors accused a conspiracy of wealthy, educated, cultured insiders like the Rockefellers, Rothschilds, academia, mass media, and Illuminati were intent on creating a “world supra-government”.
  38. JFK conspiracies
  39. Christian home schooling to keep them within Bible-based bubbles of family and church
  40. Convicted their and embezzler Erich von Daniken’s book “Chariot of the Gods” which said that extraterrestrials had built the pyramids, Stonehenge, and more – this book sold tens of millions of copies.
  41. Fantasyland was further magnified by TV, movies, the internet, computer games, and other media. Disney land, civil war re-enactments, Middle Ages Society for Creative Anachronism.  Theme shopping malls, Old West steakhouses, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, and architecture. It permeates our society.
  42. Lotteries, gambling, pornography, cosmetic surgery, pro-wrestling, Celebrities, Reality TV,
  43. Casino fantasy themes – ancient Egypt (the Luxor), medieval England (Excalibur), 17th century Caribbean (Treasure Island), Renaissance Italy (Venetian) and so on.
  44. Adults wearing costumes at Halloween, reading comic books, fantasy sports and camps,
  45. True right-wing believers had a fundamentalist religious faith in markets, a knee-jerk opposition to the government making markets work more fairly and better, and taxes of any kind. Now selfishness could be cloaked as righteousness, as Gordon Gekko proclaimed in the fiction book “Greed is good”. Real people claimed their moneymaking lust and skill made the virtuous.
  46. Ronald Reagan who made it known he expected apocalyptic biblical prophecies to be fulfilled soon due to his Christian end-of-days beliefs since the late 1960s. His many end-time proclamations would have been a shocking national embarrassment a decade earlier.
  47. The end of the Fairness Doctrine, which allowed Rush Limbaughs national right-wing radio show to flourish in 1988, followed by Fox News.
  48. In 1992 when author Andersen was reporting in Time magazine about talk radio, Roger Ailes was at NBC (later Fox). Ailes phoned Andersen out of the blue to yell at him about an article that didn’t exist. He said “How would you like it if I sent a CNBC camera crew to follow your kids home from school?” My daughters were four and six.  Anderson replied “Wow, I’m sure Jack Welch, the CEO of GE which owned NBC, would be interested to hear that his new news executive is planning to stalk a journalist’s children.
  49. Limbaugh and Fox meant that media stopped serving an important Democratic function – the presentation of a shared set of facts.
  50. Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. David Koresh took 75 of his disciples with him.
  51. Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber
  52. 9-11 was a government conspiracy
  53. Vincent Foster’s suicide
  54. Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM which hosts conspiracy theorists and promoters of political, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and apocalyptic beliefs of all kinds
  55. Alex Jones who rants against gun regulation, government subsidized healthcare, taxes, climate change is a hoax, Sandy Hook never happened and was staged with fake actors, cancer viruses in vaccines, and is followed by President Trump!!!!
  56. Conspiracies in The New World Order and Behold a Pale Horse about everyone from the Illuminate to the Federal Reserve in league to create a satanic one-world government as predicted in Revelation
  57. recovered memories of daughters that led them to accuse their fathers of raping them and participating in satanic rituals of human sacrifice and cannibalism, the invention of the fake diagnosis of multiple personality disorder,
  58. Shape shifting reptilian humanoids (see Time magazine’s article “The Reptilian Elite
  59. A movement called the Third Wave or dominionism to replace secular laws and constitutions with Biblical laws and a fully theocratic nation
  60. Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and was a Muslim
  61. The Tea Party, Drudge Report, Infowars, Breitbart
  62. Spy magazine wrote dozens of articles about Trump from 1986 to 1993, exposing his lies, brutishness, egomania, and absurdity. In return he sent threating letters and called them in public “a piece of garbage”.  Trump is driven by resentment of the Establishment. He doesn’t like experts because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts, to FEEL the truth. He sees conspiracies everywhere. He exploits the myths of white racial victimhood.  He’s a spoiled, impulsive, moody, 70-year-old BRAT.  And many more pages about Trump that are great but too long to paraphrase.




Posted in Collapse of Civilizations, Critical Thinking, Critical Thinking and Scientific Literacy, Human Nature, Religion, Social Disorder | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peak Oil, Coal and Natural gas in China

[ I provide a short, 2 page overview of the paper Wang, J.L, et al. 2017 after my analysis of “A review of physical supply and EROI of fossil fuels in China”, Petroleum Science.  A more detailed, more wide ranging review can be found in the excellent post by Nafeez Ahmed’s review here

My overview:

If you read this paper you will see that the models, estimates, and estimates of Ultimately recoverable resources (URR) are so wide-ranging, and Chinese government estimates of reserves and resources extremely unreliable, since they don’t consider whether a resource is economically available, don’t calculate resources using international standards, and much of the data is weak — very few papers have been published on unconventional gas and oil.  So the authors warn the estimates are not likely to be exactly right, but they explain how they’ve come up with a recommended result that’s likely to be in the ballpark.

Another huge problem with all of the peak estimates is that less may be produced than expected, because of environmental problems.  For example, Wang et al (2017) point out that extracting shale gas may result in increased methane emissions, water use, water pollution, and induced earthquakes. Among these, water issues may be the most significant constraint. Just one well of hydraulic extraction of low permeability shale consumes on average 20,000 cubic meters of water.  China faces serious water shortage issues, so large-scale development of shale gas will certainly have serious impacts and is likely to constrain for shale gas development.    

This paper doesn’t mention that 85% of China’s coal reserves and resources are in water stressed regions, and that coal mining, coal to gas, coal to chemicals, and coal to liquids use a lot of water, though not as much as tight “fracked” gas.  Nor the impact of water scarcity will have on food production.  

Nor do the peak forecast papers consider the potential supply constraints of China’s coal resources, such as the EROI of coal production going down to the depletion of the easy, shallow coal.

I don’t know of the Chinese government realizes peak fossils are approaching, but they are increasingly turning to natural gas transportation to cut emissions.  In 2017, 93.8 thousand LNG trucks were produced in China, and by the  end of the 13th 5-year plan (2020) it’s expected that 700,000 will be produced a year, as well as increasing amounts of gas storage, fueling stations, dispensing technology, pipelines, and so on. 

So I’d nominate China to be the Last Nation Standing, since perhaps they can import Russian and other Middle Eastern natural gas after oil and coal peak.  As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the Last Nation Standing.  He wrote:  “I thought that world leaders would want to keep their nations from collapsing. They must be working hard to prevent currency collapse, financial system collapse, food system collapse, social collapse, environmental collapse, and the onset of general, overwhelming misery—right? But no, that’s not what the evidence suggests. Increasingly I am forced to conclude that the object of the game that world leaders are actually playing is not to avoid collapse; it’s simply to postpone it a while so as to be the last nation to go down, so yours can have the chance to pick the others’ carcasses before it meets the same fate.”   Richard Heinberg. February 2010.  China or the U.S.: Which Will Be the Last Nation Standing? Museletter #213.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Wang, J.L, et al. 2017. A review of physical supply and EROI of fossil fuels in China. Petroleum Science.

This paper reviews China’s future fossil fuel supply from the perspectives of physical output and net energy output, also known as energy returned on invested (EROI).  For society, net energy – the energy available to society after subtracting the energy needed to produce the energy–is the only true energy.

Net energy analyses show that both coal and oil and gas production show a steady declining trend of EROI (energy return on investment) due to the depletion of shallow-buried coal resources and conventional oil and gas resources, which is generally consistent with the approaching peaks of physical production of fossil fuels.

Peak dates in the literature very considerably due to different assumptions about ultimately recoverable resources (URR), what kind of model was used, and differences in the historic production data.  For example, peak oil production has been predicted to occur from 2002 to 2037 with peak production rates from 140 Mt/year to 236 Mt/year.  So this paper rejects both the very high and very low forecasts, papers that didn’t consider economic factors, and then uses the average result of the remaining studies to come up with these recommended results:

  • 2014: Oil production (conventional) peak of 170 Mt/year.
  • 2021: Oil production (unconventional) peak 65 Mt/year (based on very few papers)
  • 2018: Oil production (conventional and unconventional) peak 230 Mt/year.  9.6 EJ/year)
  • 2040: IEA peak demand 780 Mt/year

Similarly, conventional natural gas production peak estimates range from 2018 to 2049 and peak production from 100 to 400 billion cubic meters (bcm)/year. Recommended results:

  • 2030: Natural gas production (conventional) peak of 190 Bcm/year
  • 2058: Natural gas production (unconventional) peak of 270 Bcm/year.
  • 2040: Natural gas peak. 350 Bcm/year. 13.6 EJ/year
  • 2040: IEA demand 600 Bcm/year

Coal production peak estimates range from 2010 to 2039 at production rates from 2314 to 6096 Mt/year.  In China in 2014, coal provided 73% of total energy supply and 66% of total energy consumption.

  • 2020: Coal peak. 4400 Mt/year.    91.9 EJ/year)

China has had an average annual GDP growth rate of 9.8% from 1978 to 2014 due to an increase in annual energy consumption from 570 million tonnes of coal equivalent per year (Mtce/year) to 4260 Mtce/year, at an average annual growth rate of 5.8% (NBSC 2015), with fossil fuels accounting for 90% of energy consumption.

It’s likely that the role of natural gas will increase, coal will decrease, and oil remain the same share of fossils consumed.   China has been a net oil importer since 1993.

[ My comment: That is, as long as imports are available.  Oil producing nation populations and petrochemical industries have been growing for decades.  If China increases their oil imports, this will affect all other nations, since after oil production nations peak, exports are expected to decline rapidly, i.e. the Export Land Model ].

Net energy or energy  (energy output minus energy input to get that energy)

In the past, fossil fuel resources with high quality (which means very little energy inputs required to extract these resources) were abundant, and their EROI values were usually greater than 30, and up to 100 and over. So there was no great need in the past to be concerned with the fossil fuel net energy outputs or EROIs. However, we have now become aware that the EROI, and hence the amount of energy surplus of fossil fuels to society, has changed recently, due to the rapid depletion of high-quality fossil fuels after 2000 (Wang et al. 2017).

The EROI of China’s overall oil and gas is much lower than that of coal and was forecast to be 9.9 in 2012. Unfortunately, there are no separate studies for the individual oil and gas industries at a national level because oil and gas are usually concomitant and their input data are also mixed. If the input data for oil and gas can be collected separately, it can be expected that the EROI of oil will be lower than gas since China’s oil industry has been developed for years and has entered its mid- and late period, while gas industry is still in its middle and early period.

The energy inputs during the mid- and later period are much larger. For example, the Daqing oil field, the largest oil field in China, has been developed for nearly 60 years and entered its late period. To maintain its production level or reduce its production decline rate, the Daqing oil field has been using advanced enhanced oil recovery (EOR) methods for many years, such as polymer flooding and the alkaline-surfactant-polymer (ASP) flooding method. These methods are well known for their high cost and environmental impact, which in turn leads to lower EROI and declines in the Daqing oil field’s EROI, which is down to 6.4 in 2012.






Posted in EROEI Energy Returned on Energy Invested, Peak Coal, Peak Natural Gas, Peak Oil | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Richard Heinberg: Energy and Authoritarianism

Preface. Heinberg wrote this a year ago. Brilliant and well structured, he conveys as much in this article as many books, and consolidates what must be many years of research. But Heinberg is not the only one to wonder if peak oil means the end of democracy.

The 2010 German military study said “…people will experience a lowering of living standards due to an increase in unemployment and the cost of oil for their vehicles. Studies reveal that only continuous improvement of individual living conditions provide the basis for tolerant and open societies. Setbacks in economic growth can lead to an increase in the number of votes for extremist and nationalistic parties.”

In his 1981 book “Energy and the National Defense”, University of Kentucky Press, Howard Bucknell said that just as democracy in Greece was founded on slave labor, democracy here was founded on cheap and plentiful energy. Energy decline will be the “most serious and far-reaching challenge faced by our nation since the Civil War”. Democracy requires a large and strong middle class, but an energy decline will shrink the middle class and make it more likely the United States will not be stopped from undertaking military adventures. In times of emergency, the actions we take change our form of government, such as when we sent many Japanese to internment camps during World War II. Bucknell wondered what an energy crisis that lasted for a decade or more would do to our government.
Bucknell doubts a democracy can make the decisions needed to survive before being overwhelmed by the obviously coming energy crisis, because the public’s understanding of the energy situation is so far removed from reality. When given uncertain and contradictory information, the public believes what they want to believe. And politicians rarely attempt to educate the public factually.

How the transition is made is important as well – if prices are used to change energy consumption, there are issues of economic and social inequality. If oil exporters set prices, we risk economic instability, which is likely to lead to social and political instability, which then leads to “demagogues and terrorism”.

The only way dictatorship can be avoided and democracy survive, is to start early and begin moving forward. The faster the transition is made, the less social disorder there’ll be, and time may be shorter than we think.

Bucknell concludes his book with a call to all of us as citizens to intelligently work hard together during the dangers of the next decades. It would be a shame if the epitaph of the great American experiment in democracy were “Canceled due to a lack of energy”.

To see the full length posts on energyskeptic of the German military peak oil study and a book review Bucknell’s book, see:

Summary of German Armed Forces Peak Oil Study

Déjà vu – Lessons learned from the “Peak Oil” crises of 1973 & 1979

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Richard Heinberg. September 16, 2017. Energy and Authoritarianism. PostCarbon

Could declining world energy result in a turn toward authoritarianism by governments around the world? As we will see, there is no simple answer that applies to all countries. However, pursuing the question leads us on an illuminating journey through the labyrinth of relations between energy, economics, and politics.

The International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Energy) anticipate an increase in world energy supplies lasting at least until the end of this century. However, these agencies essentially just match supply forecasts to anticipated demand, which they extrapolate from past economic growth and energy usage trends. Independent analysts have been questioning this approach for years, and warn that a decline in world energy supplies—mostly resulting from depletion of fossil fuels—may be fairly imminent, possibly set to commence within the next decade.

Even before the onset of decline in gross world energy production we are probably already beginning to see a fall in per capita energy, and also net energy—energy that is actually useful to society, after subtracting the energy that is used in energy-producing activities (the building of solar panels, the drilling of oil wells, and so on). The ratio of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for fossil energy production has tended to fall as high-quality deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas are depleted, and as society relies more on unconventional oil and gas that require more energy for extraction, and on coal that is more deeply buried or that is of lower energy content. Further, renewable energy sources, especially if paired with needed energy storage technologies, tend to have a lower (some say much lower) EROEI than fossil fuels offered during the glory days of world economic growth after World War II. And renewables require energy up front for their manufacture, producing a net energy benefit only later on.

The quantities and qualities of energy available to any society have impacts that ripple through its economy, and hence every aspect of daily life. As Lynn White, Marvin Harris, and other anthropologists have shown, the political and social institutions of every society are determined—in broad strokes, though certainly not in the details—by what Harris called its infrastructure, or its ways of obtaining energy, food, and materials. Abundant, easily transported and stored energy from fossil fuels made industrial expansion possible during the twentieth century, and especially after World War II. This period of turbo-charged economic growth had repercussions in fields as diverse as manufacturing, farming, transportation, and even music (via the electrification of live performance as well as the flourishing of the recording industry). That’s right: your favorite rock band is an epiphenomenon of fossil fuels.

Further, as archaeologist Joseph Tainter has pointed out, societies often use complexity (an increase in the variety of tools and institutions) as a means of solving problems. But complexity carries energy costs, and the deployment of complexity as a problem-solving strategy is subject to diminishing returns. Tainter argues that this is a comprehensive explanation for the historic collapse of civilizations—one that has obvious implications for our own society: clearly, if its energy supplies are compromised, its capacity to successfully deploy complexity to solve problems will be impaired.

All of which suggests that if and when energy sources decline, industrial societies will face systemic challenges on a scale far beyond anything seen in recent decades. In this essay, I propose to examine just one area of impact—the realm of politics and governance. Specifically, I address the question of whether (and which) societies will have a high probability of turning toward authoritarian forms of government in response to energy challenges. However, as we will see, energy decline is far from being the only possible driver of authoritarian political change.

The Anthropology and History of Authoritarianism and Democracy

It is often asserted that democracy began in ancient Greece. While there is some truth to the statement, it is also misleading. Many pre-agricultural societies tended to be highly egalitarian, with most or all members contributing to significant decisions. Animal-herding societies were an exception: they tended to be patriarchal (men made most decisions), and, among men, elders and those with more property (women, children, and captives were treated as chattel) held sway. (Herders, whose social relations reflect the harshness of their environment, typically live in places unfit for farming, such as deserts.) A good example of democracy completely independent of the Greek tradition is the Iroquois confederacy of the American northeast, whose inclusive decision-making system incorporated checks and balances; it served as an inspiration for colonists seeking to design a democratic government for themselves as they threw off the yoke of British rule.

Early agricultural societies were often rigidly authoritarian. Marvin Harris explained this development in infrastructural terms: stored grain surpluses required management and distribution authority, as did irrigation systems. But the appropriation of so much power by an individual or family required further justification; hence new sky-god religions emerged, valorizing kings and pharaohs as wielders of divine power. Greece, however, differed from Egypt and other “hydraulic” civilizations (i.e., ones based on huge irrigation systems): it enjoyed enough rainfall so that irrigation wasn’t required. Farmers could grow diverse crops independently, without relying on state controls over water and grain. Hence it was in Athens that democracy emerged (or re-emerged) as a political system—imperfect though it may have been (Attica’s total population was likely between 150,000 and 250,000, but free citizens numbered only 20,000 to 30,000: women, slaves, and foreigners could not participate in the public process of making decisions).

Prior to the fossil fuel era, Europe enjoyed a significant injection of wealth from its sail-based pillaging of much of the rest of the world. Merchants, as a social class, began to jostle against the aristocracy and clergy, previous holders of political power. Wealth and abundant energy supported the development of science and philosophy, which—when combined with newer technologies like the printing press—helped usher in the age of reason. The autocratic rationale for rule, “because God granted me divine power,” no longer seemed reasonable. In Britain, the monarchy began reluctantly to cede some of its authority to parliament during the mid-seventeenth century; then, a little over a century later, thirteen of Britain’s colonies in North America rebelled and formed a federated republic. Revolution in France further stoked demands throughout Europe and elsewhere—by philosophers and commoners alike—for wider distribution of political power.

In modern times, industrial expansion based on abundant energy from fossil fuels has led to urbanization and to the employment of much of the population in factory, sales, and managerial positions. This detachment of people from land has in turn produced greater geographic and social mobility, as well as opportunities to organize collective demands for power sharing (via trade unions and political organizations of all kinds), including women’s suffrage. Democracy has spread to more and more nations—always kept at least partly in check by centralized economic and military power. Meanwhile, an ever-greater mobility of capital, goods, information, and people has also led to the geographic expansion of polities—nations of larger size, alliances between nations, trade blocs, and an intergovernmental organization offering membership to all countries (the United Nations).

Now, in all likelihood, comes an era of declining and reversing economic growth, as well as reduced mobility. Existing forms of government will be challenged. Ultimately, larger political units may tend to break up into smaller ones, and many democracies may be vulnerable to authoritarian takeover. But the risks will vary significantly by country, based on geography and local history.

How Nations Succumb to Authoritarian Takeover

Before exploring those risks, it may be helpful to review the four main ways in which democracies have changed into authoritarian regimes in recent history.

  1. Election of a dictator. Mussolini initially came to power in Italy through election, as did Hitler in Germany, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti. Why do people elect authoritarians? Typically, they do so because they feel threatened—by a foreign or domestic enemy, or by hard times—and want a strong man to take charge. Usually the elected authoritarian-in-waiting only assumes dictatorial power later, without asking the consent of the electorate. For example: in a recent essay, Ugo Bardi recounts how declining exports of British coal to Italy after World War I led to an energy famine, which in turn resulted in riots, shifting political alliances, and the rise of Mussolini and the Fascists.

The following brief representative picture of how an authoritarian leader can take total power following election is from journalist Tim Rogers, recounting Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega’s ascendancy:

“When Daniel Ortega was elected president in 2006 with a twiggy 38 percent victory, Nicaragua had a constitutional ban on consecutive reelection as a safeguard against dictatorship. . . . Eleven years later, Ortega is starting his third consecutive term as president after rewriting the constitution, banning opposition parties, and consolidating all branches of government under his personal control. Ortega orchestrated his power grab by polarizing the country, dividing the opposition, attacking congress, demonizing the press, forbidding protest, demanding personal loyalty from all government workers, and turning all his public appearances into campaign rallies for his core base of supporters. He institutionalized his cult of personality and normalized . . . threats of violence and chaos. . . .”

  1. Military coup. The list of military dictatorships in recent decades is long. Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell maintain a coup dataset, according to which there were 457 coup attempts worldwide from 1950 to 2010, most by military factions. Of these, about half were successful. The reason military putsches are so common is not hard to discern: the taking of power by armed force is likely to be most often—and most successfully—attempted by those who are already professionalized wielders of weaponry.
  2. Foreign interference or foreign support for a coup. If a powerful nation wishes to exert near-total control over a weaker country, one of the most effective ways to do so is to install a puppet dictator who can then be bribed and threatened. This is a strategy the United States has deployed often, beginning early in the twentieth century with its support for dictators in Central and South America. Also, in the early 1950s, the U.S. supported Shah Pahlevi over Iran’s elected President Mohammad Mossadegh, leading to decades of dictatorship there. However, the U.S. is far from the only country to have ruled other nations by remote control: Britain, France, and Russia/USSR did the same in one instance or another.
  3. Revolution. Most revolutions are fought against authoritarian regimes or foreign rulers. On rare occasions, however, the people—typically a rambunctious faction of the people—attempt to overthrow an elected government in favor of a would-be dictator. Such revolutions are usually more accurately described as civil wars. Coups in which an elected leader is overthrown in favor of an authoritarian with the help of foreign influence can be stage-managed to appear as revolutions (this happened in the case of Mossadegh in Iran). More frequently, however, revolutions that are widely intended to result in democratic reforms eventually result in the coalescing or emergence of an authoritarian regime (for example, in France at the end of the 18th century, in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, in Cuba in 1959, and in Cambodia in 1963).

Risk Factors for Authoritarian Takeover

Economic decline led by energy decline probably won’t automatically result in despotism, just as industrialism and economic expansion didn’t everywhere lead to democracy. What are the circumstances that are likely to push nations to adopt more authoritarian governments?

Below are some notable risk factors (this is not an exhaustive list). From here on, I will occasionally refer to the Democracy Index (compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit), which seeks to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries based on 60 indicators.

  • Economic decline or instability. Periods of high joblessness, disappearing savings, and declining incomes can lead to widespread dissatisfaction with government, offering an opening for demagogues, military coups, revolutions, or foreign takeovers.
  • Weak democratic institutions with a short history. Democracy is a habit that needs reinforcement. It also needs institutions—parties and election machinery (polling places, fair counting of ballots, etc.). If those institutions have shallow roots, it is easier for them to be undermined or corrupted.
  • Dysfunctional media. Democracy only functions if the public is well informed with regard to issues and the actions of government. Media organizations can become weak, dominated by special interests, polarized, or suppressed by government. Their ownership can be consolidated by a few companies with similar political interests. In our current age of electronic information, media are vulnerable to outright propaganda, “fake news” (i.e., reporting characterized by ideologically spun, inaccurate, or even wholly invented stories), and the clever use of social media (bots and trolls).
  • High and growing levels of economic inequality. Some of the early observers of democracies, including Toqueville, noted that procedural democracy (equality before the law, universal voting rights, the right to express oneself in the political sphere) can be undermined by the power of wealth. Rich people can buy influence in ways both obvious and subtle. This is why healthy democracy is often correlated with progressive taxation and the availability of government-run social programs for those who are unemployed, retired, or sick.
  • Simmering resentments among social/racial/religious/ethnic groups, offering fodder for scapegoating. In hard times, demagogues can play upon such resentments to gain support and take power.
  • Deep political polarization. Polarization drains people’s attention from areas of shared interest and potential cooperation, and focuses it instead on points of disagreement. As each party demonizes the other, former political extremists may find their way into the mainstream. Polarization can offer an opening for a demagogue who promises to trounce the opposition party once and for all, if given dictatorial powers.
  • Weak financial systems heavily dependent on debt. As economic historians have shown, heavy reliance on debt always results in an eventual financial crash. See “economic decline” above.
  • Special vulnerability to foreign influence or takeover. If a country is militarily weak but has a strategically significant geographic location (for example, along the route of an important oil or gas pipeline), or if the country happens to possess strategically important resources (minerals or fossil fuels), more powerful nations are likely to have a keen interest in keeping that country controllable.
  • A powerful military with a history of domestic intervention. If social chaos ensues for whatever reason, the military is likely to step in; and when it does it is more inclined to install a dictator than to restore or build a democratic system. That’s because the military itself, in virtually every nation, has an authoritarian internal structure. (The Iroquois insisted that peace chiefs be different from war chiefs—an idea borrowed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which specifies that no acting military leader may assume the presidency).
  • Special vulnerability to climate change or other environmental disasters. People don’t inevitably turn to strong leaders after natural disaster. Over the short term, they tend instead to band together. Old grievances tend to be temporarily forgotten, and distinctions between rich and poor are at least somewhat erased. However, over the longer term, ecological disruption can lead to scapegoating and either revolution or a turn toward strong men who promise to restore order. For example, the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, was preceded by a long and devastating regional drought linked to climate change; refugees from the countryside flooded cities, straining infrastructure already burdened by the influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War. These refugees provided recruits for the Free Syrian Army, which rebelled against the authoritarian Assad regime.
  • High population growth rate. Nations with high fertility rates typically find it difficult to overcome poverty, absent a robust resource-exporting economy. Indeed, of the ten nations that currently have the highest population growth rates (Lebanon, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Jordan, Qatar, Malawi, Niger, Burundi, Uganda, and Libya), seven have fully authoritarian regimes according to the Democracy Index, while three have “hybrid” governments; only two (Qatar and Lebanon) have a per-capita GDP higher than the world average. As world energy declines, countries with fast-growing populations will probably see higher-than-typical per-capita decline rates in energy usage, likely leading to economic and social instability.

Most of the above might be considered generic risk factors, in that they apply to all societies even without taking energy decline into account. Other risk factors are more directly related to potential energy supply problems:

  • A high dependency on food imports. History has shown (for example, in Egypt in 2011) that food shortages can rapidly lead to social unrest and ultimately to revolution or authoritarian takeover. High food import dependency is therefore a point of vulnerability in societies given the likelihood that energy decline will also entail a decline in mobility, including the movement of food and other necessary goods.
  • Government’s budget tied to fossil fuel export revenues. If a government derives most of its revenues from fossil fuel exports, it will eventually face a declining revenue stream. Even Saudi Arabia, which has been a top oil exporter for decades, recognizes this (it is an authoritarian monarchy; several other major oil exporters are likewise classified as authoritarian regimes by the Democracy Index). Norway has sought to prepare for the inevitable by saving its oil export revenues in a permanent investment fund; currently that nation enjoys the highest rating of any country on the Democracy Index, and its citizens also rank high in terms of per capita income and self-reported happiness.
  • High per capita energy usage. Countries that have high per capita rates of energy usage have further to fall as energy becomes harder to produce. Countries with low rates of per capita usage typically already have ways of meeting basic needs relatively simply and directly—with a higher percentage of the total population engaged in food production, and a more robust informal economy.
  • High dependency on energy imports. If heavy dependence on revenue from fossil fuel exports can constitute a vulnerability for democracies, heavy dependence on imports can as well. Even though the U.S. was a major oil producer throughout the twentieth century, by 1970 it was increasingly dependent on imported crude; hence it faced economic hardship due to the 1970s Arab oil embargo.

There is something missing from these lists that is hard to define but nevertheless crucial to our present discussion. Perhaps Pankaj Mishra captures it best in his recent, difficult book, The Age of Anger. There he describes how, from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, modern capitalist, urban, industrial life disrupted previous patterns of settled existence. People lost their connections with land and tribe, and traditional livelihoods, and hence some essential aspects of their identity. In return, economic liberalism promised mobility, comfort, and intellectual and moral advancement. Instead many experienced anonymity and alienation, and the result was widespread resentment. This in turn led to decades of revolution and terrorism in Europe throughout the nineteenth century, with many prominent assassinations (U.S. President McKinley, French President Marie François Sadi Carnot, Bavarian Prime Minister Kurt Eisner, Russian Czar Alexander II, Serbian King Aleksandar Obrenović, Spanish Prime Minister Juan Prim, and many others) as well as bombings and other violent events.

Today urbanization, commercialization, and technological disruption are proceeding at a faster pace than ever and reaching billions in formerly rural nations in East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Millions of young people are being educated for life as consumers and workers, yet are finding the promises of “development” ringing hollow. Unemployment rates among young males are often very high in these nations, and young men educated for urban industrial life are being attracted to militant fundamentalism. The rise of militant fundamentalism, along with high rates of immigration from fast-urbanizing countries, generates fear in the first-wave industrialized countries—a fear that leads to a rise in “traditionalism” and a turn toward authoritarian leaders who promise to suppress terrorism and reduce immigration. In effect, for both the young Islamist radical and the older Trump voter, tribalism is a powerful motivator. We will return to this subject later as we consider ways to counter or mitigate risks to democracy.

Typically, a surplus of unemployed young males also increases the likelihood of war. During wartime, the combatants gain a sharper sense of meaning and purpose. Democracy seldom flourishes during war, though it can persist and blossom anew afterward.

Clearly, nations are in widely varying circumstances, with different areas and degrees of vulnerability to energy decline; and they are thus likely to react differently to the ensuing economic stresses. Full “democracies” according to the Democracy Index (Norway, Canada, New Zealand, etc.) are probably best situated to respond in ways that preserve democratic institutions and traditions. Nations currently listed by the Democracy Index as “flawed democracies” (United States, Philippines, Indonesia, etc.) are probably most at risk of shifting further toward authoritarianism via election. Countries that are currently “hybrid states” (Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, etc.) or “authoritarian” (Russia, Egypt, China, etc.) are more likely to experience revolutions or coups.

Countering the Risks to Democracy

How could nations in the “democracy” or “flawed democracy” categories resist a tendency to slide toward authoritarianism? It stands to reason that, if risk factors are present, reducing vulnerability would entail countering those factors as much as possible:

  • Build and support independent media. Governments and leaders should resist the temptation to favor media outlets that simply parrot their own talking points, or that disparage current leaders’ enemies. Maintain full press freedoms, including legal protections for journalists.
  • Work to limit climate change and other ecological drivers of human misery. This includes not only efforts to adapt to higher sea levels, but also to reform agricultural practices (carbon farming) and dramatically reduce carbon emissions in transportation and manufacturing.
  • Work to reduce extreme political polarization. Avoid wedge issues. Nations with more than two major parties sometimes fare better at avoiding polarization.
  • Support and strengthen democratic institutions. Prioritize fair elections (universal voting rights, public financing of campaigns, limits to campaign contributions, plenty of accessible polling stations that are open a sufficient number of hours, transparent methods of ballot counting).
  • Promote tolerance. For a nation, ethnic, religious, and cultural homogeneity can be an asset in avoiding political unrest during hard times. But many nations are ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse, and any effort to reduce that diversity would necessarily entail human rights violations. Nations with diverse populations must simply make the best of the situation, celebrating and honoring their diversity and protecting minorities.
  • Discourage inequality. Most nations already counter economic inequality through progressive taxation and social welfare programs. But economic stresses from energy decline will require more creative thinking and experimentation, including encouraging worker-owned cooperatives and discouraging shareholder-owned corporations; implementing high inheritance taxes with no loopholes; and finding ways to reduce the role of debt in society.
  • Minimize power of military and intelligence agencies. Keep the military separate from governance institutions. Keep the military budget within modest bounds. Don’t over-glamorize the military. And don’t permit “black ops” or domestic surveillance.
  • Build low-energy infrastructure, habits, informal economy. This implies a change of direction for most nations, which tend to be hooked on large-scale infrastructure projects (highways, airports) that lock in energy dependency. Promote low-energy ways of providing for basic human needs, such as solar hot water heaters and cookers, walking, and bicycling.
  • Promote population stabilization. Support family planning and elevate the social status of women.
  • Build local food production capacity. Support small farmers, local food, and agriculture that minimizes dependence on fossil fuel inputs.
  • Stabilize the financial system. Reduce reliance on debt in every way possible, shrinking the size of the financial system relative to the “real” economy of goods and services.
  • Decentralize both the economy and the political system. Encourage distributed energy, local currencies, and local food. Allow city and regional governments to make all decisions except those that require national or international deliberation.
  • Avoid being the target of foreign political meddling. Maintain vigilance with regard to electronic and propaganda warfare. Don’t take on big international loans.

These recommendations are far easier to spell out than to carry out. And at least two of them are seemingly at odds with each other: a nation that keeps its military and defense budgets at minimum levels might be more likely to be the target of foreign meddling or intervention. Further, while most democracies are making at least some efforts along some of these lines, in many cases they are being overwhelmed by trends toward increasing polarization of politics and media, and increasing economic inequality.

Further, most of the above recommendations fall within the bounds of modern liberal norms and discourse. But, as we have seen, the entire project of industrial and social “progress,” as framed within the liberal economic tradition, has produced whole classes of casualties and rebels. The endemic risks to urban, capitalist, industrial societies stemming from the resentment and alienation described by Mishra—that lead increasingly to terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and authoritarianism—are inherently difficult to track or counter. To defuse this deep, amorphous threat to democratic values and institutions, perhaps something more is needed beyond the mere strengthening of media and democratic institutions—something that ties people back to the land and gives them both a “tribal” identity and a larger sense of purpose. A new religion might fit the need, but it is difficult to summon one at will. If advocates of democracy and cultural pluralism continue to fail to fill this void, authoritarians of various stripes will certainly seek to do so.

Are Dictatorships or Democracies Better at Responding to Energy-Economy Decline?

In the contemporary world, democracy is widely (though not universally) prized over authoritarian forms of government. This is certainly understandable: authoritarianism leads to the regimentation of thought and behavior, and often to the subjection of large segments of the population to psychological and/or physical violence. But are democracies inherently superior to authoritarian regimes in dealing with crises such as energy decline, climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, and financial instability?

To adapt proactively to environmental limits and impending scarcity, governments may have to do some unpopular things. Restrictions on consumption (such as rationing) may be required, along with the encouraging of smaller families. Such policies cannot help but rankle, following decades of rising economic expectations. Economic redistribution could help reduce the stress of scarcity for a majority of the populace, but many will still resent the new conditions. Elected leaders may find it difficult to maintain sufficient popular support for such policies. Could authoritarian regimes fare better? A few historic examples come to mind.

During the early 1990s, Cuba saw a sharp decline in energy supply due to a cutoff of low-cost oil imports from the now-defunct Soviet Union. At the time, Cuba’s food system was highly centralized and dependent on oil-fueled farm machinery and food transport. Cuban leaders responded to the crisis by decentralizing food production, reducing fuel inputs, and encouraging urban gardening. The result was a rapid and thorough restructuring of the nation’s food system that averted widespread famine. It is unclear whether such measures would have been feasible outside a command-and-control authoritarian political context.

Both China and Iran managed to substantially reduce their nations’ high birth rates—China (beginning in the 1970s) via its compulsory one-child policy, and Iran (starting in the 1980s) through vigorous but voluntary family planning efforts. Both nations formulated and managed these programs via top-down, centralized, and authoritarian methods.

These examples might suggest that authoritarian regimes are inherently more resilient than democracies. However, there are instances where authoritarian regimes have instead proven brittle. For example, when Soviet Union failed to deal with economic decline in the 1980s the government collapsed, as did the nation’s economy. In contrast, some democracies (such as the U.S. during the Great Depression and Britain in the 1930s and ’40s) have persisted during privation, though somewhat authoritarian temporary measures were instituted, including greater control of the media by government.

Many authoritarian regimes are poorly situated to help the populace weather economic crisis simply because their leaders are too obsessed with self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, and self-protection. It could be argued that if a society is already impoverished due to the incompetence of its authoritarian leadership, its people will have fewer expectations to be dashed, and their standard of living will not have as far to fall before hitting subsistence level. But this is faint encouragement. There must be some better recommendation for today’s nations than “crash your economy and suppress your people’s aspirations now, so that they won’t be disappointed later.”

*          *          *

The relationship between energy, the economy, and politics is messy and complicated. There is not a simple 1:1 correlation between energy growth and economic growth: the Great Depression occurred in the United States despite the presence of abundant energy resources. Similarly, there will probably not be a strict correlation between energy decline and economic contraction.

One important wild card is the role of debt: it enables us to consume now while promising to pay later. Debt can therefore push consumption forward in time and (for a while, at least) make up for declining energy productivity. It would appear that the “fracking” boom of the past decade, which probably delayed the world oil production peak by about a decade, depended on the power of debt. But when debt defaults cascade, an economy may decline much faster than would otherwise be the case (default-led financial crashes have occurred repeatedly in modern history). And debt defaults can cripple the financial and thus the economic system of a nation with plenty of energy resources (as happened in the U.S. in the 1930s).

As we have seen, dictatorships can sometimes adapt well to scarcity. We can only hope that, if scarcity does indeed lie in our immediate future, authoritarian leaders will minimize rather than add to their people’s suffering. Similarly, we should hope that everyone in democracies has access to information that helps them make collective choices that lead to successful adaptation to inevitable, impending scarcity. Unfortunately, flawed democracies may be particularly vulnerable when energy supplies decline. Given their political polarization and saturation with “fake news,” they are more likely to succumb to demagogues who promise to return the nation to a condition of abundance if granted extraordinary powers.

It is highly likely that, as events unfold, the causal criticality of energy decline will be hidden from the view of most observers, whose attention will be fixed instead on shocking but comparatively superficial and secondary political and social events. A more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society, and of the likely limits to future energy supplies, could be extremely beneficial in helping the general populace adapt to scarcity and avoid needless scapegoating and violence. Perhaps this essay can help in some small way to deepen that understanding.

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