The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks

Preface. I’m fascinated by system risks, so I’ve included this, though there’s no awareness at all of peak oil or limits to growth or that energy, not money, is the basis of civilization and foundation of every single widget made and transported.  But since the next economic collapse may well be due to the financial system, and since money is how most people view the world, here are my Kindle notes.  David Korowicz has the best articles about systemic risk, I review three of his publications here.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Ian Goldin & Mike Mariathasan. 2015. The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It. Princeton University Press.

We are so accustomed to globalization that we take for granted the products and services we consume from around the world.

Our information technology (IT) services may run on Israeli software provided from Mumbai as we consume entertainment from Los Angeles filmed in South Africa on computers manufactured in China or Taiwan assembled from parts from more than 20 countries.

Individual and local choices have global impacts and vice versa: what happens outside our borders has direct daily consequences for each of us, every day. These connections are complex, frequently opaque, and often beyond our control. Yet together they are shaping how the world develops. As we will see, there is a growing likelihood that events in one place will have cascading effects in other areas, jumping across national borders and sectors

Globalization can generally be understood as the process driven by and resulting in increased cross-border flows of goods, services, money, people, information, technology, and culture. 2 These flows are multi-dimensional, and the number of connections between them is unprecedentedly large and growing exponentially. It is becoming deeper in that these connections penetrate a growing range of human activities. Increasingly not only people but also things are being connected—cars, phones, merchandise, and a rapidly widening range of inanimate objects and sensors.

two additional examples of global connectivity that we feel are unique and have significantly lowered the transaction costs of economic integration. The first is innovation and technological progress, particularly with respect to computing power and information technologies.

The global movement of goods and people has been facilitated by the expansion and development of an increasingly complex system of roads, railways, shipping routes, and air traffic. In 2008 world container port traffic surpassed the threshold of 500 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) for the first time and was seven times greater than in 1988. World air travel has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. Over the same period, the real value of world trade has more than quadrupled as the demand for high-value traded goods has risen more rapidly than incomes, and production processes have fragmented geographically with the rise in global value chains, facilitated by more efficient logistics.

Finance, too, has seen a rapid expansion in connectivity and integration. An illustrative measure of volume is the interbank market activity conducted through the Federal Reserve System’s Fedwire interbank payment network. There are an extraordinary 70,000 links in just one day. The right-hand side depicts the core links at 75% of the day’s activity. A more global picture of integration in the financial sector emerges when we consider finance at the multinational level. As well as increased linkages within nations, in the figure we see the corresponding evolution of foreign direct and portfolio investments. The picture that arises from these graphs is one of cross-border capital flows increasing from the late 1980s onward.

Global integration has been a key contributor to recent improvements in living and health standards, but these improvements have for a long time also concealed a mutual interdependence. More than simple connectivity, our increasing interdependence represents complexity.

Our actions are bound to have systemic consequences that we cannot foresee before they occur and often fail to understand afterward; this is true for us individually, but potentially even more so for policy makers and institutions seeking to provide guidance and management in this highly complex environment.

The potential for mutual influence leads us to the second important consequence of complex linkages, an erosion of responsibility that occurs because our actions lead so indirectly to their effects. If a natural disaster disrupts a tightly linked global supply chain, who is to blame for the resulting shortage of cars, computers, or customized machinery? Is the owner responsible for not taking sufficient precautions? Is the manufacturer to be held accountable for operating in a risky location? Is the distributor at fault for using the supply chain without backups? Did the local government fail in its urban management duties by licensing an exposed area for industrial use? Is climate change the reason the disaster occurred in the first place? In this area, as in the case of financial crises, pandemics, and other highly complex cascading risks, it is increasingly difficult to identify the root cause of a hazard or even the channels of its transmission. Increasing global integration is making this task harder.

Complex system researchers Dirk Brockmann, Lars Hufnagel, and Theo Geisel simulated the effects of a single individual infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) placed anywhere in the world using data that accounted for 95 percent of the entire global civil aviation traffic and assuming virulence equivalent to that of SARS. 32 Whereas in previous centuries the insular nature of parochial communities would contain such an infection and give the authorities time to consider their options, now two plane journeys on average would require the vaccination of 75 percent of the world’s population to avoid a global pandemic. After three flights, global vaccination would be required.

Analogous patterns of infectious risks spreading throughout the world can also be observed within the economic and infrastructural spheres. By 2009 the global financial crisis that began in 2007 had triggered losses of $4.1 trillion, with its effects felt in every world market. 34 Earlier events exhibited the same pattern of system-wide failure. The widespread implications of the 1929 Great Crash and the more recent 1987 stock market crash show how, already in the twentieth century, world systems were integrated and highly sensitive to distant shocks. More recently the turmoil of 1997–98 that began with the devaluation of the Thai baht led to the financial contagion associated with the Russian loan default, the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, and crises across Asia.

the specification of contingencies becomes progressively more difficult as transport, communication, and financial and other world systems become increasingly integrated. This is because we start to lose sight of the effects of individual actions, introducing uncertainty and hazard. Given the pace of change, the traditional concepts of risk have become increasingly inappropriate as a basis of modern global governance. This means that the notion of risk needs to be expanded to include nonstochastic elements that cannot be easily quantified or defined using traditional tools and formulas from probability theory and mathematics. The classical distinction between risk and uncertainty is beginning to unravel, in our view, due to rising complexity and the difficulty of classifying real-world phenomena as either of these two. Additional concepts are increasingly required to understand the “possibility” or risk of failure in an increasingly complex and connected world where assigning probabilities to risks is becoming more difficult.

Systemic risk refers to the prospect of a breakdown in the entire system as opposed to the breakdown of individual parts. Implicit in this definition is the understanding that risk and uncertainty become more virulent in systems as the number of linkages grows. A “systemic risk” is a risk of a “common shock which is not the result of direct causation but … [of] indirect impacts.”  This distinction is crucial because it underlines the fact that it is increasingly difficult to identify direct causality for outcomes.

  1. A large shock or “macroshock” triggered when relatively modest tipping points, breaking points, or regime shifts hit their thresholds and produce large, cascading failures in most or all of the system.
  2. A shock propagated through a network via risk sharing (transferring) or contagion (transmission and amplification). The latter involves a cascading failure, that is, the “cumulative losses [that] accrue from an event that sets in motion a series of successive losses along a chain of institutions or markets comprising a system.” 46 3. A “common shock,” which is the result not of direct causation but of indirect effects. These indirect effects can be just as important as direct effects if not more so. 47 Systemic failure is also characterized by “hysteresis,” whereby the effects are much less resilient to recovery and are in some cases irreversible.

Geographical Risk

efficiency concerns rather than strategic political choices or logistical issues that determine the locations of production facilities, financial centers, and organizational hubs. These efficiency concerns have created a new class of geographical or spatial risk. We can divide this new type of risk into two categories: vector risk and density risk.

urbanization and heightened population density in cities. The risk that arises from these is illustrated best in the context of biological hazards and the transmission of viruses and diseases. One noteworthy study estimates that the breakdown of biogeographic barriers and the introduction of invasive species cost the world in excess of $120 billion annually. This cost includes that of the rise of pathogens that directly affect the health of humans, livestock, and animals.

vector risk

second geographical risk, density risk, relates to the growing concentration of activities in solitary or a small number of world epicenters. The global financial system is effectively rooted in New York and London, and global electrical manufacturing is concentrated in certain regions of China and Hong Kong, while Thailand produces 40 percent of the world’s hard disk drives. Silicon Valley continues to be the central hub for most IT engineering and innovation.

When the Nock-ten typhoon hit Thailand in 2011, it affected car and computer manufacturers all over the world because profit-driven outsourcing had led many firms to the same cost-efficient location.

What these instances had in common is that the source of the economic hazard in each case was entirely geographical. Had the financial system been less concentrated in lower Manhattan, the impact of the 9/11 attacks would have been felt, but the financial repercussions would have been lessened.

There are numerous reasons to be concerned about globalization. Our focus is on the systemic risk that is embedded in the current wave of globalization and the complexity it engenders, which give rise to uncertainty and unintended consequences, including the erosion of the responsibilities of individuals and firms. These unintended outcomes are “externalities” because profit-maximizing agents do not incorporate these social costs in their cost–benefit analyses. Systemic risks may thus be considered a contemporary manifestation of the tragedy of the commons. Exploiting Ricardo’s comparative advantage creates efficiency gains but simultaneously fosters interdependence. Using the benefits of trade leads to output growth but also to inequality.

The Internet has increased transparency and the flow of information but equally has the potential to facilitate the spread of rumors and panics as well as cybercrime and aggression.

Container traffic accelerates the transport of goods but enables the proliferation of illegal trade in weapons and spreads viruses and diseases.

Efficiency promotes “monocultures” of products and production and removes the fat that provides a cushion against shocks. Although in agriculture it has long been understood that monocultures are particularly susceptible to disease and extreme weather conditions, these simple insights have been neglected in other domains.

The global financial system has become more interconnected than ever before over the past decade due to policy and regulatory changes that have opened markets combined with the massive surge in computer power described in chapter 1. The increase, however, comes at the expense of a much higher potential for cascading collapse,

It also has been associated with a higher level of dependence on computer systems, which increases the vulnerability of markets to technical failures, human error, and cybercrime. More computing power implies greater complexity in code, increasing the potential for breaches of cybersecurity and also the potential for bugs.

Errors occur not only due to poor programming or interfacing problems but also as the result of human interaction with computers. The most notorious of these mistakes are so-called fat-finger trades, which occur when a trader mistakenly enters the wrong amount for a trade, for example, by keeping a finger on the “0” key on the keypad and adding an additional order of magnitude. On 18 September 2012 a fat-finger trade caused major market volatility when the shares of Rowan Cos., National Oilwell Varco Inc., and other oil drillers and equipment manufacturers jumped between 3 and 9%.  Relying heavily on computer systems carries the inherent risk of unanticipated errors and mistakes as well as increasing vulnerability to cyberfraud or cyberaggression.

Global financial concentration also increased. The share of the top three banks increased from 10% in 1990 to 40% in 2008 in the United States and from about 50% in 1997 to almost 80% in 2008 in the United Kingdom.  Such significant increases in market concentration lead to implicit bailout guarantees by the state in the event of insolvency. These guarantees, as the 2007/2008 crisis shows, can quickly turn into explicit guarantees that erode market discipline and encourage the largest banks to take on excessive risks, safe in the knowledge that they will be rescued if something should go wrong. Moral hazard thus fuels systemic risk

Concentration as a source of systemic risk is not found just in the financial system, however. A number of studies show how concentration in commodity networks also enables firms to exert control over suppliers, “making them captives.”

Financial traders have invented new ways to trade and to gain access to credit. Though marginal at the turn of the century, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and the resale market for capital had all become ubiquitous operations by 2008. In less than a decade the over-the-counter derivative market expanded to 10 times global GDP, or roughly $600,000 billion.

Until 2002, banks issued more corporate debt than asset-backed securities. In 2005, however, banks issued almost twice as much in complex asset-backed securities as in corporate debt. The same trend can be observed when looking at the global issuance of collateralized debt obligations, which increased by a factor of five between 2002 and 2006

Securitization is the process in which banks repackage a number of risky assets (for example, mortgages, credit card receivables, and student loans) and sell claims to different parts of the return stream. Although securitization in itself might not be destabilizing, excessive securitization has a number of detrimental effects, including excessive opacity and complexity. One important reason for the excessive transfer of risk through securitization was that this process was a convenient method to reduce the amount of capital required for a certain risk. The models on which regulatory capital requirements relied had a tendency to overlook tail risks.  This loophole was exploited by banks that took $100 worth of loans for which they had to hold $8 of capital to generate a $100 security for which they had to hold much less, if any, capital. This regulatory and ratings arbitrage made it increasingly attractive for banks to engage in securitized lending. It also implied that the banks’ assets received favorable pricing.

With the endorsement of rating agencies, banks were able to combine small, risky individual mortgages into one large apparently riskless security.

When banks started issuing securitized assets they engineered a way to increase the share of highly rated assets and subsequently reduced the amount of capital they had to hold. In combination with light-touch regulation, securitization allowed banks to leverage up to unprecedented levels. Through securitization, risks could also be transferred to legal entities called special-purpose vehicles (SPVs). These vehicles in certain respects were like a bank, with the crucial difference that they were not subject to regulation. Moving risks to these SPVs was possible due to loopholes in the existing regulatory framework. And even if regulators had wanted to go after such SPVs they could not have done so because these legal entities were set up in places like the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein, and other regulatory and tax havens. Banks then issued guarantees to the SPVs, which in turn enabled them to issue short-term liabilities (so-called asset-backed commercial papers) to outside investors.

These investors often were very large insurance companies or mutual funds that could not have invested in risky loans but were allowed to purchase these seemingly riskless securities. This apparently endless cycle resulted in a systemic maturity mismatch that ultimately led to a breakdown of markets once “the fuse was set on fire” and Lehman Brothers filed for insolvency. Securitization allowed banks to transfer large risks off their balance sheets, making credit available to investors with a seemingly insatiable appetite for allegedly riskless assets. When banks started leveraging instead of creating larger capital cushions, they were able to expand their balance sheets substantially. More and larger deals led to higher profits for the banks. Yet most of the profits from leveraging were not used to capitalize the banks but were paid out either as dividends or as bonuses, typically based on short-term successes such as revenue increases in a given quarter.

The maturity mismatch that ultimately led to a breakdown of markets once “the fuse was set on fire” and Lehman Brothers filed for insolvency. Securitization allowed banks to transfer large risks off their balance sheets, making credit available to investors with a seemingly insatiable appetite for allegedly riskless assets. When banks started leveraging instead of creating larger capital cushions, they were able to expand their balance sheets substantially. More and larger deals led to higher profits for the banks. Yet most of the profits from leveraging were not used to capitalize the banks but were paid out either as dividends  or as bonuses , typically based on short-term successes such as revenue increases in a given quarter.

Bankscope, .  A major contributor to instability was the fact that poorly designed remuneration schemes for senior executives and traders favored short-run profits and asset accumulation over prudence and stability. Bankers responded to these incentives, so it should not come as a surprise that they were primarily concerned with maximizing their returns (for example, through leverage) and minimizing each individual’s risk exposure. With the rise of securitization, bonuses on Wall Street tripled within six years, reaching an all-time high of nearly US$35 billion in 2006. The trend did not stop there, though. Even when bonuses were declining, generous dividends were still paid. In 2008, when the crisis reached its pinnacle when the insolvency of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers was declared on 15 September, bonuses and dividend payments totaled about US$130 billion.

The rapid expansion of the sector was aided by a political culture that favored deregulation at the national level, along with resolute noncommittal to international regulation. Due to international competition among the various financial hubs around the globe, a race to the bottom led to the reduction in already weak regulatory standards. In the short term this provided more financial activity, higher revenues, more taxes, and more growth and explains why so many policy makers argued that their domestic financial system had to become “more competitive,” which they took to mean bound by less regulation.

The culture of deregulation became entrenched worldwide despite the efforts of groups such as the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and warnings of a number of the world’s foremost economists. 3At the height of subprime lending in the United States, the attorneys general of all 50 states were seeking to investigate these risky practices but were “blocked by a coalition of major banks and the Bush administration,” which used the archaic National Banking Act of 1863 to prevent state-level action.  In the United States, the world’s largest national financial market, legislation such as the Glass-Steagall Act had aimed to foster financial stability since the Great Depression. Commercial and investment banking activities were separated, reducing speculation and risk taking by stopping banks from “gambling” with savings. In the decades after Glass-Steagall’s ratification, however, administrations convinced of the merits of uncontrolled capital flow began to undermine such efforts. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999 constituted the final removal of the divide between commercial and investment banking.

Now nothing prevented multiple claims from being made against debtors or the implicit extension of deposit insurance.

In order to remain competitive with the U.S. financial market, the European economies felt compelled to create matching opportunities for investors and similarly succumbed to deregulatory pressures.

National deregulation and an integrated market led to a global financial network that Andrew Haldane from the Bank of England has described as a “monoculture.”


At the same time that regulators were stumbling, the collapse of the U.S.-based hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management following the 1997–98 financial crisis signaled that banks deemed “too big to fail” could expect to be bailed out by national governments.

Implicit government guarantees had a substantial impact on banks’ funding costs. One estimate puts the yearly reduction in funding costs due to implicit guarantees at between US$70 billion and US$120 billion between 2002 and 2011. Implicit guarantees are effectively a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the financial system.

In the buildup to the crisis, the global financial network could be likened to “the dynamics of ecological food webs” or “networks within which infectious diseases spread.”  Within these networks an increasing number of nodes and links, along with the corresponding opportunities to trade and share risks, created the illusion of enhanced financial stability.

In a model of fire sales and market breakdowns, banks face an inherently uncertain environment when assessing counterparty risk. In a network of interbank lending the default risk of a bank depends on the default risk of all the banks’ counter parties. This, in turn, depends on the default risk of the counterparties of counterparties, and so on. It follows that complexity can make healthy banks reluctant to buy, which can lead to the evaporation of liquidity and the breakdown of markets.

Regulation itself has become increasingly complex.  Whereas Basel I, the predecessor of the current Basel III agreement, had a total length of 30 pages in 1988, by the time Basel III is fully implemented in the United States it will take up to 30,000 pages.

The connectivity that had enabled rapid growth suddenly turned to amplifying and spreading systemic risks.

Haldane argues that connectivity is a knife-edge property. Up to a certain point, financial networks and interbank linkages serve as a form of mutual insurance of the financial system and thus contribute to systemic stability. Beyond this point, the same interconnections might serve as shock amplifiers and thus increase systemic fragility.

If a number of banks hold identical or similar assets, this correlation between their portfolios can give rise to a fire sale that is typically associated with significant losses for a large number of banks.

The main idea behind information spillovers is that the insolvency of a bank can increase the re financing costs of the surviving banks—especially in times of crises, when financial markets exhibit herding behavior.

Although a growing chorus of economists cautioned against unchecked deregulation, the mainstream of the profession saw the lowering of transaction costs as economically sensible. These economists provided cover for those in government and business who were un willing to curtail the flow of cheap credit that was driving consumers’ confidence and sense of good fortune. It is never easy to turn off the music or take away the punch bowl while a party is in full swing. Politicians who profited from the bubble in credit and expectations, along with bankers who were intoxicated by bonuses, not surprisingly resisted attempts to enforce tighter standards. Profit overtook reason and common sense. It was not simply the case that institutional procedures were too sluggish to respond to policy directives, or even that politicians and regulators simply ignored expert warnings.


Globalization has facilitated the widespread creation of extensive supply chains, defined as systems of organizations, people, technology, activities, information, and resources involved in moving a product or service from supplier to customer.

China used the power of its economic dominance in the production of this key commodity during a maritime conflict with Japan and blocked the exports of rare earth elements. This episode shows how supply chain dependencies can be exploited to achieve strategic geopolitical goals.

“Globalization requires greatly increased co-ordination of transport by road, rail, sea, air and now also by an entirely new route to market: the internet. This makes logistics vastly more complex. The job of ensuring that all these things work together is known as supply-chain management.”

Between 1951 and 2004, the average annual growth rate of world trade was 5.7 percent.

Declines in the cost of shipping and air transport now make it both possible and profitable for supply chains to operate across a wider range of countries. Companies today function transnationally, outsourcing everything from manufacturing to engineering as raw and processed materials flow from one continent to another.

There was an extraordinary eight-fold increase in China’s exports between 1999 and 2008.

The standardization of container size and freight technology made international transport easier by substantially reducing transaction costs, the virtual world experienced a parallel standardization with the invention of the Internet Protocol Suite, which significantly simplified communication between disparate networks and across borders. World container traffic was almost seven times as high in 2008 as in 1988; in the intervening period, the Internet fundamentally transformed our commercial habits. These two trends were not unrelated.

Toyota relied on efficient transportation platforms and data exchange networks to deliver parts when they were needed but not before. This “just-in-time” manufacturing helped to cut muda and was essential to the “Toyota Way.” Toyota also pioneered the practice of supply chain fragmentation, outsourcing the manufacture of various components to subsidiaries around the world. It was the first company to recognize that by leaving the production of individual parts to specialized suppliers it could optimize efficiency and operate more cost-effectively. This quest for efficiency moved Toyota to open multiple manufacturing facilities in over a dozen countries worldwide. The firm overcame geographic, linguistic, and cultural barriers to search out the most cost-efficient locations, balancing production costs, speed to market, and access to labor.

The prevailing logic of supply chain management today is that the production of goods, where possible, should be outsourced to the most cost-efficient provider.

The strategy of fragmenting supply chains into outsourced locations has proved so profitable that it is now a management standard in many manufacturing industries. The example of flooding in Thailand illustrates what can happen when centers for outsourcing experience problems or, as the Economist puts it, “when the chain breaks.”  The reason that so many different industries were so severely affected by the floods was that cost-minimizing locations such as Thailand tend to be seen to address a range of efficiency concerns. Low taxes, low wages, liberal regulation, and other incentives make specific locations attractive across industries. Although one generally thinks of globalization as a process involving a multiplicity of locations, and thus a geographical diversification of risk, in practice it has also resulted in a concentration of risk and instability. By allowing these nexuses to arise, the world is literally putting all its eggs in one basket and leaving itself vulnerable to highly disruptive hazards.


It can be highly beneficial for an individual student or firm to learn from techniques and procedures that have proven to be successful in the past (the use of best practices). The standardization of management education, however, impairs the ability of graduates to draw from their diverse backgrounds and to react to unexpected circumstances. Uniform teaching of textbook techniques ensures efficiency during standard periods and thus responds well to standard tests. These techniques, however, are unprepared to respond to unexpected circumstances or to react to rare events. With the proliferation of management education, there is standardization and shared models of how to deal with risk. This means that when an event occurs that is not predicted by textbook analysis (and we know from our discussion of global complexity that this is increasingly likely), all managers will be similarly unprepared and will respond in a similar fashion. Systemic risk is, by its nature, surprising. In the face of unusual challenges, there is no manual or textbook response. Ingenuity and the pooling of different perspectives are required. Responding to systemic risk requires managers who can think originally and draw on a heterogeneous set of perspectives to come up with novel solutions to often uniquely testing circumstances.

Researchers at the WTO, for instance, have shown that there is a “resonance effect” between supply chains and monetary circuits. 38 They provide evidence of cross-sectorial systemic risk and identify international supply chains as potential conduits for the spread of financial shocks.

National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security issued by the White House in January 2012 marks an important step toward containing supply chain risks.

it also raises awareness of the threat of an “adverse impact” on “global economic growth and productivity” that would result from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.


As in the financial sector, it appears that highly interconnected firms lack the resources to appraise all of their risk factors. This is in part because such risks extend to their trading partners, subcontractors, suppliers, and others,

Here complexity not only interferes with the ability of companies to manage risks; it also, as in finance, affects the capacity of regulators to monitor instability.

The effects of outsourcing and subcontracting in global supply chains are in many ways comparable to the effects of securitization and secondary market trading in the financial sector. All of these innovations can diversify risk and may be profitable for individual firms, yet they also fail to account for their negative externalities and the creation of systemic risk. The result in both cases is that profit-driven firms inject unsustainable fragility into the global economy. Supply networks and financial networks are not independent of each other. Whenever a commodity is sold from a supplier to a retailer, the supplier faces the risk that the retailer will file for insolvency after obtaining the good but before making the appropriate payment.

Supply chain risks include everything from natural hazards, terrorism, pandemics, and data security to demand variability and supply fluctuations. Fierce competition and tight margins can further magnify the impact of a supply chain failure on a business…. Economic pressures exacerbate supply chain–related risks particularly in relation to supplier viability given tightening credit markets, downward pressure on costs, and shrinking consumer markets.

Because infrastructure underlies all other sectors, shortcomings in infrastructure spread to other domains with particular virulence—an electrical glitch can lead to a financial collapse, an airport closure can disrupt a global supply chain, and an Internet crash can destroy communications arrays, with infrastructure collapses quickly cascading across sector boundaries. Second, the growing complexity of infrastructure systems and the significance of a small number of increasingly connected nodes mean that particular pinch points in the system are sources of instability.

A few oil refining and transshipment centers account for most U.S. fuel. Power, communication, financial, and other systems are increasingly geographically concentrated, with little real option to relocate. The pace of population and economic growth and the rapid rise in connectivity and technological change mean that in much of the world the supply of infrastructure has lagged further and further behind demand. Many of the networks on which existing transport, water, and sanitation systems rely in the advanced economies are more than 50 years old and in some cases more than a century old and are operating well beyond their design capacity. With the economic crisis reducing the capital allocated to investment in new building and maintenance, a growing number of societies are suffering from increased aging of infrastructure.

Complexity and efficiency.

Today transport networks are operating at close to capacity, and choke-points such as airports (for instance, Chicago’s O’Hare) or junctures (for example, the Suez Canal) process significant shares of regional and even global traffic with wafer-thin margins of flexibility. Through economies of scale, key ports can process far more traffic than smaller competitors and can claim ever-larger regional shares. Similarly, cargo lines using larger and larger ships and planes to transport goods efficiently in bulk have managed to push smaller players out of the market. An over-reliance on critical nodes and lines means that natural disasters and human error are more likely to be amplified and become systemic failures. The second dimension of systemic risk in infrastructure is that, as well as creating a risk of cascading failures, globalization has increased the vulnerability of these critical nodes. As many infrastructure systems become outdated and are under-monitored, they become more vulnerable. High-volume traffic means that there is little time for maintenance. Meanwhile, the international nature of these nodes makes national regulation incomplete and less effective. These two risks can be illustrated simply: complexity means that a failure at one node (for example, an airport) is likely to have systemic consequences that could easily affect multiple sectors of the economy, multiple countries, and millions of only indirectly connected global citizens. Vulnerability means that this one node is more likely to

Environmental disruptions lead to extreme weather conditions and diseases that originate from the ecosystem and put vital systems (such as those for food and energy supplies, telecommunications, and manufacturing production) at risk. The two aspects of environmental risk are linked; as globalization creates risks to the environment, the resulting ecological disruptions cause risks from the biosphere.

Rising water levels resulting from melting ice caps put large numbers of people at risk. More than half of the world’s population lives within 60 kilometers of shorelines, and the rising tides are likely to bring flooding, the contamination of groundwater and crops, and the destruction of homes and livelihoods.







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Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017 and 2018

[ Sand is essential to make concrete, glass, silicon for computer chips, and many other products (longer list in Peak Sand), so no wonder top journal “Science” has had two articles on this topic.

Sand mining also ruins ecosystems, lessens biodiversity, impairs water and food security, makes storm surges and tsunamis more destructive, ruins drinking water with salty water, and salinization of cultivated land reduces and even prevents land from being farmed.

In India, illegally mining sand has become very lucrative and the “Sand Mafia” in India has become one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups. They’ve killed hundreds of people so far in “sand wars”.  As a consequence of sand mining, death stalks people in other ways; standing-water pools created by extraction have increased the prevalence of malaria and other diseases.

These two articles have been shortened.

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 ]

Larson, C. 2018. Asia’s hunger for sand takes toll on ecology. Science 359: 964-965.

Across Asia, rampant extraction of sand for construction is eroding coastlines and scouring waterways.

Already, scientists have linked poorly regulated and often illegal sand removal to declines in seagrasses in Indonesia and in species such as the Ganges River dolphin and terrapins in India and Malaysia. In eastern China’s Poyang Lake, dredging boats are sucking up tens of millions of tons of sand a year, altering the hydrology of the country’s largest freshwater lake, a way station for migratory birds.

Used to make concrete and glass, sand is an essential ingredient of nearly every modern highway, airport, dam, windowpane, and solar panel. Although desert sand is plentiful, its wind-tumbled particles are too smooth—and therefore not cohesive enough—for construction material. Instead, builders prize sand from quarries, coastlines, and riverbeds.

Between 1994 and 2012, global cement production—a proxy for concrete use—tripled, from 1.37 billion to 3.7 billion tons, driven largely by Asian construction, according to a 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Land reclamation projects, too, have a rapacious hunger for sand. Singapore, for example, has expanded its land area by 22% using sand primarily from Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia as fill. All told, UNEP warned, sand mining—on an industrial scale and by individual operators—“greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and “is increasing exponentially.”

Scientists are now tracing the collateral damage. A paper under review at Science of the Total Environment  explains how sand mining has driven declines of seagrass meadows off of Indonesia. Sediment plumes stirred up by the dredging block sunlight, impeding photosynthesis, his team has found. The meadows nourish several species, including the dugong, which is in decline.

Another sand mining victim is the southern river terrapin, a critically endangered turtle in Southeast Asia.  “Terrapin habitat cannot be easily replaced,” Chen says, because female turtles return each year to lay eggs at the same beaches.

Also under siege, in Bangladesh and India, is the northern river terrapin. “Sand mining is one of the biggest problems and reasons why they are so endangered today,” says Peter Praschag, a biologist at the Conservation Breeding and Research Center for Turtles in Graz, Austria. “When the sand banks are gone, the [terrapin] is gone.” Other creatures directly affected by river sand mining, scientists say, are the gharial—a rare crocodile found in northern India—and the Ganges River dolphin.

Poyang Lake, a key wintering ground on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, hosts dozens of migratory species, including almost all of the 4000 or so surviving Siberian cranes. But sand dredging campaigns in the middle Yangtze Basin have expanded rapidly since the early 2000s, when such activities were banned on sections of the lower Yangtze. “Sand mining has significantly lowered the water level, especially in winter,” says Lai Xijun, an environmental hydrologist at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology in China. Falling lake levels can curtail the birds’ access to aquatic vegetation. And when lake bottom mud dries and hardens, the birds may not be able to pluck out nutritious tubers.

In grasslands near Poyang, the kind and amount of food the cranes consume “may no longer be enough to fuel egg laying” at the levels the birds managed in the past, says James Burnham, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His group has documented a worrisome decline in the ratio of juvenile cranes to adults at Poyang between 2010 and 2012.

Torres, A., et al. September 8, 2017. A looming tragedy of the sand commons. Science.

Increasing sand extraction, trade, and consumption pose global sustainability challenges.

As a morning mist rolls in from the Arabian Sea, young men lead a couple of dozen ox-drawn carts onto a beach south of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. Using shovels and buckets, they pile their rickety wooden transports high with sand, which they will sell to cement makers. Altering the shoreline is illegal in India, but enforcement of coastal protection zones is lax.

Between 1900 and 2010, the global volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand and gravel are the largest portion of these primary material inputs (79% or 28.6 gigatons per year in 2010) and are the most extracted group of materials worldwide, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass. In most regions, sand is a common-pool resource, i.e., a resource that is open to all because access can be limited only at high cost. Because of the difficulty in regulating their consumption, common-pool resources are prone to tragedies of the commons as people may selfishly extract them without considering long-term consequences, eventually leading to overexploitation or degradation. Even when sand mining is regulated, it is often subject to rampant illegal extraction and trade. As a result, sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic, and environmental implications.

Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of increasing sand appropriation, because sand is a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. Urban development is thus putting more and more strain on limited sand deposits, causing conflicts around the world. Further strains on sand deposits arise from escalating transformations in the land-sea interface as a result of burgeoning coastal populations, land scarcity, and rising threats from climate change and coastal erosion. Even hydraulic fracturing is among the plethora of activities that demand the use of increasing amounts of sand. In the following, we identify linkages between sand extraction and other global sustainability challenges.

Environmental Impacts

Sand extraction from rivers, beaches, and seafloors affects ecosystem integrity through erosion, physical disturbance of benthic habitats, and suspended sediments. Thus, extensive mining is likely to place enormous burdens on habitats, migratory pathways, ecological communities, and food webs.

For instance, sand mining degrades corals, seaweeds, and seagrass meadows through direct removal during dredging operations, sedimentation, and reduction in light availability that compromises photosynthesis. As a result, it is a driver of biodiversity loss that threatens species on the verge of extinction—such as the Ganges river dolphin—as well as newly discovered species, such as the São Paulo marsh antwren, found in isolated marshes of southeast Brazil that have been heavily degraded by sand mining. Furthermore, sand transport vessels may carry one of the most aggressive freshwater invaders, the Asian clam, although the role of sand transport in the spread of invasive species remains underexplored.

Cascading Effects

Such environmental impacts have cascading effects on the provisioning of ecosystem services and human well-being. For example, sand mining is a frequent cause of shoreline and river erosion and destabilization, which undermine human resilience to natural hazards such as storm surges and tsunami events, especially as sea level continues to rise. In Sri Lanka, extensive sand mining exacerbated the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; ironically, sand demand for coastal restoration increased in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Extensive sand extraction also impairs water and food security. Extraction-induced erosion and degradation of riverine and coastal systems may disrupt the productivity of both wild (e.g., fisheries) and cultivated (e.g., mariculture and croplands) food sources. In the Mekong Delta, sand mining is responsible for enhanced salt-wedge intrusion during the dry season, which damages domestic water supply and increases salinization of cultivated land in Southeast Asia’s most important food-producing region. In Sri Lanka, saltwater intrusion due to extensive illegal sand mining has affected drinking water supply and led to severe declines in productivity of crops (e.g., coconut, rubber, and tea).

Health impacts associated with sand mining remain poorly characterized, but there is evidence that the conditions created by extracting sand can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. New standing-water pools created by extraction activities in rivers and stream beds provide potential breeding sites for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Hence, sand mining has been associated with the spread of malaria. For example, Soleimani-Ahmadi et al. have shown that in Iran, the most common larval habitats for anopheline larvae of two malaria vectors (Anopheles dthali and Anopheles stephensi) are sandmining pools. Sand mining has also been associated with increased incidence of an emerging bacterial disease, the Buruli ulcer, in West Africa.

The high profits generated by sand trade often lead to social and political conflicts, including violence, rampant illegal extraction and trade, and political tensions between nations. For example, in India, the “Sand Mafia” is considered one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups, and hundreds of people have been killed in “sand wars”. To gain land through land-reclamation projects, Singapore relies on sand imports from neighboring countries; the latter lose sand and suffer the consequences of mining, frequently leading to political tensions, accusations of illegal sand extraction, and sand export bans.

All these challenges have important implications for environmental justice. The degradation brought about or reinforced through sand extraction places heavy burdens on local populations, especially on farmers, fishers, and those—typically women—fetching water for households. People from these populations may become environmental refugees, as has already happened in Sri Lanka and the Mekong Delta. Increased vulnerability of eroded areas to flooding and landslides may directly displace populations, as shown by the recent relocation of over 1200 households in Vietnam.

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Jorg Friedrichs: The future is not what it used to be. climate change and energy scarcity

Preface. This book ranges across many topics and I’ve only included a few bits and pieces.  Friedrichs discusses what to do, recovery, denial, migration, historically how Japan, North Korea, and Cuba reacted to sudden energy decline and based on their politics and economics, how other nations may react.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Jorg Friedrichs. 2013. The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. Climate Change and Energy Scarcity. The MIT Press.

Established energy experts have for a long time retained the veneer of disinterested technocratic competence, with the peak oil community constituting a vocal counterculture.

Mainstream climate scientists, by contrast, have openly embraced a transformational political role and sounded the alarm regarding global warming, with climate skeptics deploring the politicization of science as illegitimate. In energy science the alarmists remain the “cranks,” whereas in climate science they have occupied the mainstream position.

Today, our backbone energy resource is oil. A century ago, it was coal. Even further back, it used to be labor.


I hypothesize a decline of global oil production by 2–5% per year for a couple of decades, after a few years on a bumpy plateau. In line with most of the peak oil literature, I further hypothesize that no adequate alternate resource and technology will be available to replace oil as the energy backbone of industrial society.

An event comparable to peak oil has never happened at the global level.

The fundamental question is why is so little being done about climate change and energy scarcity?

Tackling such problems is hindered because people tend to greatly undervalue future events and distant strangers. The more remote somebody or something is from us, the less we care.  John Maynard Keynes famously cautioned that the long run is “a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead”. Long-term considerations are futile because our life happens now, not some distant future. Therefore we shouldn’t worry about the future and instead focus on the events of the day, which accurately describes the routine behavior of citizens, economic stakeholders, and even politicians who are notoriously concerned about (re)election.

Then there is the problem that the pursuit of particular interests often thwarts collectively desirable outcomes.  Even if we all agree that something needs to be done, most of us may not be ready to do it.

Finally there is denial: people frequently treat real problems as if they were non-issues. Denial has a rational core because it minimizes pain, but it often leads to tragic outcomes. Denial is not irrational. When in denial, people follow what they think to be in their best interest by minimizing real or perceived harm, thereby maximizing well-being. Acknowledging a problem may lead to considerable psychological and social cost: negative emotions such as fear, shame, and helplessness; cognitive dissonance; loss of identity, or loss of friends; embarrassment; and social conflict about the attribution of blame and responsibility. Many people are predisposed to minimize such psychosocial cost with denial rather than facing up to their problems. This may be short-sighted, but it isn’t irrational.  Denial is based on a self-interested rationale of pain avoidance and harm minimization.  Also, deep down, people know that climate change and energy scarcity are existential predicaments that can’t be solved, so denial is a good way to treat these problems as non-issues.

It is unrealistic to assume that human ingenuity is an unlimited resource. A more realistic view is that, at the end of the day, even ingenuity is subject to the law of diminishing returns, with the lowest hanging fruit picked first. If this is so, then technical innovation is bound to become more and more challenging because of diminishing returns to investment in research and development  (Strumsky, Lobo, and Tainter 2010; cf. Tainter 1988; Homer-Dixon 2006).  Today, technical ingenuity requires escalating amounts of money and time.

Climate Change

As with rising temperature, there is a hopeful but naive view holding that a global increase in precipitation should improve secure access to water. Unfortunately, once again this is not the case. While it is true that climate change will increase the total amount of fresh water available to human societies and natural ecosystems, on the local and regional level precipitation patterns will become significantly more unequal and erratic. Rainfall is expected to increase in areas that are already humid, such as moist tropics and high latitudes like Siberia and northern Canada. In relatively dry mid-latitudes such as the Mediterranean, as well as semi-arid low latitudes such as southern Africa, by contrast, precipitation levels are expected to decrease. In humid mid-latitudes, such as the northern part of Europe, the climate is expected to become drier in summer and wetter in winter, leading to a higher risk of undesirable summer droughts and winter floods. On balance, the number of people living in areas suffering from water stresses is likely to increase.

Few people on this planet will be exempt from more frequent and more intense droughts, floods, heat waves, and perhaps even cold spells.

There are considerable uncertainties related to the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. In principle it would take thousands of years for these to melt, but the pace of sea level rise will dramatically increase should they “slide” into the ocean.

Contrary to the rosy scenarios depicted by some, even the Far North will suffer from more weather extremes, rising sea levels, and the risk of radical discontinuities. Polar agriculture is extremely susceptible to soil erosion. Although the effects may be positive in some locations on some occasions—for example, in Siberia in a year without either flood or drought—they will be negative in most places most of the time.

Peak Oil

These people claim that, regardless of climate change, the world is about to face disruptive energy scarcities on the supply side, due to the imminent peak of virtually any non-renewable energy resource from oil to gas, and from coal to uranium.

They propound four reasons why crude oil production cannot stay for long on this plateau, and why the world supply of liquid fuels will soon enter a rapid decline. First, there is a runaway decline in output from existing oil fields. Second, unconventional oil and alternate liquid fuels are already struggling to compensate for the decline. Third, energy return on energy investment (EROI) is declining. Fourth, there is not enough oil “yet to be found” and “yet to be developed.

What to Do

Voluntary simplification is usually not an option, as the current level of complexity is needed to cope with existing problems. Therefore, involuntary collapse is often the only way for the fragments to enter a new equilibrium at a significantly lower level of social and political complexity.

Alas, community solutions cannot work without considerable solidarity and social cohesion. This is precisely what is lacking in rich industrial countries, where social capital has been undermined by the effects of economic affluence and mass consumerism (Putnam 2000). Under such circumstances, the deliberate investment in community solutions can only be a fringe phenomenon. A genuine communal revival is not likely to happen unless and until it is forced by systemic collapse (Greer 2008; Kuecker and Hall 2011). With due respect to environmentally conscious individuals, it may take a dreadful period of “dark ages” to force the fragments of industrial society to find a new sustainable equilibrium (Chew 2007, 2008). Moreover, with due respect to well-meaning communitarians and local activists, modern civic achievements such as multiculturalism and gender equality may be lost when industrial civilization is replaced by land-based neo-traditionalist lifestyles.


If we assume a large-scale collapse, then a recovery will certainly be difficult. For example, it would be hard to resume advanced mining operations after a serious deterioration of the industrial base. It would also be difficult to reactivate networked infrastructure, including advanced information technology, once their industrial underpinnings are gone.


In the long run, however, there is also significant good news for people living in poor countries: they should be able to preserve more of their way of life than people living in rich industrial societies. If we imagine a systemic demise of world industrial civilization, people in poor countries may often be in a better position to recover from mayhem than individuals living in rich countries. The reason is that the solidarity and social cohesion of many communities in poor countries is tighter, which makes them more resilient compared to individuals from wealthy consumer societies.

After the American Civil War, Dixieland was deprived of slaves as the backbone resource of the “Southern” way of life. Without prior knowledge, one would probably expect this to be a clear-cut case of a smooth transition. After all, Southerners only had to look to the northern part of the United States for investment and innovative technologies. Nevertheless, the modernization of Dixieland took a century if not more. Insofar as similar upgrades do not seem to be available in the event of peak oil, there is no reason to be particularly optimistic about a smooth transition to a post-oil (or even post-carbon) society.


When facing serious problems, ancient civilizations were sometimes able to become more sophisticated. Another strategy available to them was to increase their resource base by occupying and exploiting new land at their periphery. When everything else failed, one result was a great migration. People from marginal communities would exploit the relative weakness of the apex civilization, while people from the apex civilization would leave their areas of origin in search of better habitats. Similar kinds of migration are likely to remain a typical response to climatic stresses (Piguet, Pécoud, and De Guchteneire 2011). But whereas the survivors from the collapse of ancient civilizations, such as the Mayans in the ninth century, could effectively disperse into the wilderness, habitat tracking is not going to be an adaptive systemic response in a world crowded by seven to nine billion people (Weiss and Bradley 2001, 610).



Ever since the 1970s scholars have explored world models to understand the global dynamics of resource depletion and scarcity (Meadows 1972; Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Department of State 1980, Meadows 2004).

This is valid but for two reasons can’t work for our present purposes. One is that formal models tell us little about the social and political consequences of disruptive energy scarcity. Most focus on physical flows and/or economic processes, but the passage from there to the socio political sphere is difficult.

Another problem is that the assumptions underlying the models are starkly contested. Some models are based on general equilibrium theory (IMF 2011; Waisman 2012), while others rest on ecological economics (Ayres 2009). Some take a linear view of technological progress (IEA 2010b, 2012b), while critics emphasize the non-linearities and tipping points (Korowicz 2010). Some models concentrate on material flows (Meadows 2004), while others take the financial economy into account (Turner 2011). The relatively simple yet powerful model developed by Jaromir Benes and colleagues (2012) is probably as good as it gets, but still leaves many crucial questions open as the authors readily acknowledge. The result is that virtually any vision of the future is supported by some formal model. To avoid such indeterminacy, my analysis rests on a historically and empirically more grounded strategy by examining specific cases when socioeconomic and political systems have actually experienced disruptive energy scarcity.

Lessons from the past.  Predatory Militarism: Japan, 1918–1945


In September 1945, defeated Japan was so fuel-starved that it was difficult to find an ambulance with sufficient fuel to transport Premier Tojo to a hospital after his attempted suicide. Pine roots had been dug out from mountainsides all over the country in a desperate attempt to find a resinous substitute to fossil fuel. Much of the Japanese air force and navy had been sacrificed in kamikaze raids, at least in part because there was not sufficient petrol to refuel planes and ships to return from their sorties and keep fighting (Yergin 1991).

Ultimately, Japanese fuel starvation was the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Originally, it had been the fear of military and economic strangulation by an oil embargo that led Japan to radicalize its strategy of imperial expansion and to fatefully engage in full-blown predatory militarism. This in turn led precisely to the fuel starvation that Japanese planners were dreading so much.

Ever since the late 19th century, a modernizing Japan had been committed to military conquest in order to compete against overextended European empires. The strategy was to emulate countries like Britain and France in their effort to achieve prosperity, power, and glory by the acquisition of overseas territories. In the absence of adequate power projection capabilities, Japan’s strategy was concentrated on East Asia where it won a war against China, conquering Korea and Taiwan (1895), and another war against Russia consolidating its territorial claim on Korea and expanding its influence into Manchuria (1905). Japan’s participation in World War I further expanded its overseas territories to encompass former German possessions.

The main lesson the Japanese military took home from World War I was that a country cut off from access to raw materials was bound to lose in a military contest due to a trade embargo. In their view, Germany had lost the war because it did not muster the necessary industrial base or access to foreign markets to achieve wartime autarky. To be prepared for a similar war, resource-poor Japan would have to control access to strategic resources. Only a self-sufficient economic bloc in East Asia would sufficiently prop up Japanese industrial capacity to secure the desired status of a great power. From this perspective, the US-sponsored Open Door policy of free trade in the Pacific was not in Japan’s interest.

While Japan could stockpile considerable amounts of petroleum and other strategic resources, such stockpiles would not be sufficient in the event of a protracted war to be fought without foreign oil imports. Since the United States was the dominant producer of petroleum at the time, Japan was heavily dependent on American deliveries. Japan was importing 90% of its petroleum consumption, of which 75–80% was shipped in from California. For the critically important gasoline, the dependence was even higher.

With that in mind, it is easy to understand (certainly not to condone) what happened when Tokyo felt threatened by the specter of a US trade embargo: the limited Japanese onslaught in East Asia degenerated into what was to become the relentless Pacific War. The only alternative to importing oil from the United States was looting it from Borneo and Sumatra in the East Indies.

Totalitarian Retrenchment: North Korea, 1990s

During the 1990s the totalitarian regime of North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, retrenched in order to preserve elite privileges.

In 1990, estimated per capita energy use was twice as large in North Korea as in China and more than half that of Japan. Life expectancy was high, and over 60% of the population was urban. Their industry, which was based on coal and steel, was as wasteful as in any other Soviet country. In line with the national ideology of self-reliance (juche), up until the 1980s the regime had heavily invested in coal mines and hydropower to satisfy the country’s enormous energy needs. Furthermore, Pyongyang had developed a toxic “modern” industrial agriculture to feed the highly urbanized North Korean population. Farming was based on irrigation, mechanization, electrification, and the prodigal use of chemicals.

The North Korean economy was geared toward domestic consumption and did not produce any competitive export staple, except for some advanced weapon systems. The country was thus running a permanent trade deficit, and its economy was not in a position to generate the revenues necessary to substitute for the subsidized energy inputs that were being delivered by external protectors.

The situation came to a head in 1991 when post-soviet Russia stopped subsidized exports of oil and other vital goods to North Korea.  Two years later, Russian exports to North Korea were down by 90%. This had dramatic effects. While the North Korean regime reserved most remaining fuel for the military, the rest of the industry nearly collapsed and agricultural production languished around subsistence level.

The North Korean Great Famine is a paradigm example of how the shortage of a backbone energy resource such as oil can have momentous systemic ripple effects. To begin with, agricultural machinery depended on oil. Without fuel, tractors and other machines were not running. The next problem was transportation. Fuel was needed to transport fertilizer and other inputs to farms, and agricultural products to urban consumers. Fuel was also needed to ship coal from mines to fertilizer plants, where coal was converted into soil nutrients. Fuel was further needed to get coal to power stations for electricity generation. As a consequence, electricity was yet another problem.

Without sufficient electricity, irrigation pumping and electrical railways became intermittent. The intermittency of electrical railways further affected transportation. Without reliable trains, it became even more difficult to bring coal to fertilizer plants or power stations, to transport fertilizer to farms, and to get agricultural products to urban consumers. Thus, interlocking energy shortages, combined with shortages of industrial inputs and a general decline in infrastructure, produced a dramatic decline in production, and thus an almost hopeless situation.

While the entire economy was damaged, the consequences were most dramatic in agriculture and resulted in plummeting food production, considerable loss of arable land, and a rapid depletion of soil fertility. Restoring soil fertility would have required large amounts of lime, which could not be transported without fuel. The regime sent more urban workers and school children to the fields, but this did not compensate for the losses. In a desperate attempt to replace agricultural machinery, most animals for meat consumption were culled and draft oxen slowly became more numerous. But, unlike tractors, working animals compete with humans for food. The energy crisis also compelled many poor people to rely on biomass for cooking and heating. Unlike fossil fuel, however, the extraction of biomass reduces soil fertility, which in turn aggravated the agricultural crisis. As a result of these and other interlocking vicious circles, the production of rice and maize fell by almost 50% between 1991 and 1998. The public food distribution system crumbled. Since distributed food rations were the most important form of payment to workers, this led to a further decline of industrial activity.

Since North Korea’s industrial agriculture cannot be restored without a viable energy regime, even today there is still a protracted food crisis with an ever-present risk of further starvation. Because the problem is structural, international food deliveries cannot solve it.


When taking into account the fact that heavily subsidized oil deliveries from China to North Korea lasted until 1993, the Cuban supply shock was even more abrupt and dramatic. Subsidized energy supplies from the Soviet Bloc declined between 1989 and 1993 at a whopping 71%. The crisis entirely devastated the Cuban economy. Machines lay idle in the absence of fuel and spare parts. Public and private transportation were in shambles, with people walking and cycling long distances or riding on modified vans called “camel buses.” Workers had difficulty getting to their jobs. Factories and households all over the island were struck by rampant and unpredictable electrical power outages. As in North Korea, the most painful effects were felt in the food sector. From a daily chore under real communism, the procurement of food became a real source of anxiety to consumers. The nutritional intake of the average Cuban, especially protein and fat, fell considerably below the level of basic human needs. Consumers resorted to chopped-up grapefruit peel as a surrogate for beef, and some people started breeding chickens in their flats or raising livestock on their balconies.

The immediate reaction of the Cuban regime was predictable: mobilize the masses for food production, and revitalize the state sector. Townsfolk were sent to the countryside for farm labor, but after more than 40 years of real communism there was little revolutionary fervor left in the population. Also, the state sector was too sclerotic to be converted from sugar and coffee to potatoes and beans. Despite world market prices for sugar below production costs, state farms continued to produce sugarcane.

The next response of the Cuban regime was cautious liberalization and reform. To begin with, the regime moved from toleration to the controlled legalization of certain black-market and informal-sector activities. To attract hard currency, the country was cautiously opened to Western tourists. The US dollar was legalized as a parallel currency. Control over numerous state farms was partly devolved to the employees and management. All of this contributed to a burgeoning informal and semi-informal sector, which quickly took on its own dynamic and significantly contributed to the provisioning of the Cuban population.

This strategy was not only more flexible and pragmatic but also considerably more humane than the approach taken by Havana’s communist counterpart in Pyongyang. Overall, the regime in Havana enlisted the Cuban population in an aggressive import substitution program.

The policy was a tall order for a country that continued to suffer from the historical trade embargo imposed by its most obvious economic partner, the United States. As a consequence, tractors had to be substituted with oxen, and fertilizer with manure, in order to revitalize agricultural production and feed the population. At any rate, the real miracle was performed by the Cuban people. Against all odds, ordinary people managed to get by due to the remarkable cohesion of Cuban society at the level of local communities and neighborhoods.

Although Cuba is highly urbanized, the typical barrio is an urban village. Cuba’s multigenerational family households are tightly embedded in neighborhood life. The typical household is shared by an extended family including aunts, uncles, and cousins. One-person households are very rare. Most families have lived in the same home for generations. The occupational structure tends to be mixed, with some members of a household working in the official sector, others in the informal economy, and yet others dedicated to reproduction and care. People cultivate close relationships with friends and relatives inside and outside their barrio.

One should not idealize this. In the early 1990s, families were stuck in their homes because the regime had frozen the property structure after the revolution. Thus, people were cramped into narrow spaces because they had no other choice. The regime had invested in community cohesion not so much to create social glue, but rather to sustain political control. Moreover, communitarian neighborhood life is not just cozy. It is also rife with gossip and strife.

Be that as it may, what ultimately matters is that most Cubans could rely on their families, friends, and neighbors. In a survey, 86% of people from vulnerable neighborhoods in Havana declared that they could count on support from relatives, 97% from friends, and 89% from neighbors. This local solidarity, or social capital, helped ordinary Cubans to make ends meet during the Special Period. As one inhabitant of a vulnerable neighborhood put it, the crisis brought people closer together because it forced them to rely on one another.

In the countryside, there were deliberate efforts to link people with the land. Labor organization on state farms was shifted from collectivist “brigades” to the territorial organization of workforce by ranches (granjas) and farms (fincas), which were further subdivided into dairies (vaquerías) and plots (lotes). State farms and agricultural cooperatives were expected to provide their own food, both for canteens and for private consumption. Some factories had workers cultivate land to cater to their food needs. Elsewhere, workers were encouraged to have their own small plots where they could produce food for their families. Thus, localities in the Cuban countryside became increasingly self-sufficient. Traditional knowledge was another decisive factor in feeding the population. Although most land had been collectivized after the revolution of 1959, about 4% of Cuban farmers had kept their land. Another 11% was organized in private cooperatives.

The survival of traditional family farms and private cooperatives alongside industrial agriculture turned out to be an important asset. Independent farms were more resilient to the crisis than state farms because they operated with less fuel and agrochemical inputs. Cuba’s surviving family farmers kept alive important traditional knowledge that could now be recovered.

Other formerly independent farmers had moved to towns and cities, where they provided valuable know-how for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture was a local self-help movement, facilitated by the availability of traditional knowledge in combination with technologies of organic gardening and the Cuban-specific rustic ingenuity. Idle stretches of land between concrete blocks or in urban peripheries were turned into makeshift organic gardens. Vacant or abandoned plots in close vicinity to people’s homes were transformed into plantation sites. People used whatever urban wastelands they could occupy to grow vegetables and other foodstuffs.

The movement was purposefully augmented by the regime, but the real action was at the grassroots level. By the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of registered horticultural clubs in Havana alone. An urban cultivator from Havana explained: “When the Special Period started, horticultural clubs were organized by farmers themselves. . . . Special emphasis was made to involve the whole family in these activities. . . . We wanted also to develop more collaboration and mutual help among ourselves; we exchanged seeds, varieties, and experiences. We achieved a sense and spirit of mutual help, solidarity, and we learned about agricultural production”.

Again, one should not idealize this. Environmentalists have exalted urban farming during the Special Period as a social experiment, or even as an alternative model of organic agriculture In reality, Cuba’s detour into low-input agriculture was obviously driven not so much by ecological consciousness as by dire necessity. From the second half of the 1990s, when the economic situation improved and agrochemical inputs became more available again, many reforms were aborted, and Cuba started drifting back to industrial farming. This was helped by subsidized oil deliveries from Venezuela. At the same time, foreign investment enabled Cuba to cover about half of its oil and gas consumption from domestic sources. Nevertheless, it is highly encouraging to note that, during the early and mid-1990s, Cubans managed for a few years to mitigate an extremely disruptive energy scarcity by their remarkable community ethos. The comparison with North Korea shows that this was not a minor achievement.

Peak Oil Trajectories


This obviously does not imply that responses to a terminal decline of world oil production would follow exactly the same lines as the national reactions to oil supply disruptions described in my case studies. Japan in the 1930s, as well as North Korea and Cuba in the 1990s, were unique places. It clearly makes a difference that today all oil-importing countries are tightly integrated in global market structures. Another difference is that, while even a gradual decline of world oil supply would be extremely disruptive for oil importing countries, the onset of mounting energy scarcity after peak oil would be somewhat less abrupt than it was in the cases of North Korea and Cuba.

Countries prone to military solutions may follow a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism. Countries with a recent authoritarian tradition may follow a North Korean path of totalitarian retrenchment. Countries with a strong community ethos may be able to embark on Cuban-style socioeconomic adaptation.

It is of course possible to imagine additional reactive patterns, such as the mobilization of national sentiment by populist regimes. Even so, the trajectories identified can help us to derive plausible hypotheses on how different parts of the world would be likely to react to disruptive energy scarcity after peak oil.

Given its unrivaled military capabilities, the United States is the most obvious candidate for a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism. Simply put, the United States may be tempted to use its unique power-projection capacity to secure privileged access to oil. It has happened sometimes in the past, and may happen more often in the future, that US decision makers find military coercion more effective than trade. Increased domestic production of unconventional oil in the United States and Canada may obviate the drive for predatory militarism, but this is premised on the continuation of the current boom of shale oil and tar sands.


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) may be tempted to use its military muscle to secure access to oil and gas in Central Asia and, possibly, in the South China Sea. Elsewhere, the PRC would be unlikely to use a predatory strategy because, for the foreseeable future, its maritime forces and air power are no match for the United States.

Countries like India and Israel have even more limited military capabilities, but may nevertheless be tempted to engage in geopolitical operations in their regional neighborhood to secure access to vital energy resources.

A North Korean-style solution of totalitarian retrenchment that screws the population to preserve elite privileges is most likely to occur in countries with a strong authoritarian tradition. In consolidated democracies, totalitarian retrenchment is much harder to imagine. Nevertheless, the history of 20th-century Europe shows that even liberal democracies can and do sometimes degenerate into tyranny. It is difficult to predict to what point even in consolidated liberal democracies the political culture could deteriorate in a protracted and serious crisis. Political elites in less consolidated democracies might experience fewer constraints and scruples right from the start. For example, elites in the second-wave democracies of Latin America may have lesser qualms than their counterparts in Western Europe about screwing their own populace to preserve their privileges.

Compared to predatory militarism and totalitarian retrenchment, Cuban-style socioeconomic adaptation is normatively more desirable. At the local level, people in many developing countries may be able to mitigate the effects of disruptive energy scarcity by reverting to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle. Such a regression would be comparatively easy for people in societies where individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism have not yet struck deep roots.

By contrast, socioeconomic adaptation would be far more difficult for people in Western societies where individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism have held sway for such a long time that a smooth regression is hard to imagine.

And yet, survival in many presently industrial Western societies may ultimately depend on the mobilization of support from local communities and a subsistence-based lifestyle (Hopkins 2008; Murphy 2008; Orlov 2008; Holmgren 2009; Rubin 2009; De Young and Princen 2012).

In abstract terms, this leaves us with three causal propositions, or hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1 The greater a country’s military potential and the stronger the perception that force is more effective than the free market to protect access to vital resources, the more likely there will be a strategy of predatory militarism.

Hypothesis 2 The shorter the time and the less a country or society has practiced humanism, pluralism, and liberal democracy, the more likely its elites will be willing and able to impose a policy of totalitarian retrenchment.

Hypothesis 3 The shorter the time and the less a country or society has been exposed to individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism, the more likely a regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle.

In the transition, large private Western oil companies such as Exxon and Shell would lose further ground to the state-controlled companies of oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Aramco or Nigeria’s NNPC. As a consequence, oil-importing countries would increasingly rely on state-controlled companies such as China’s CNPC. Both in the realm of power politics and the “marketplace of ideas,” the ability of Western countries to impose liberal democracy through instruments such as development assistance and economic conditionality would further dwindle. This can be formulated as yet another causal proposition, or hypothesis.

Hypothesis 4 In the event of peak oil, there will be winners and losers. It seems reasonable to expect a redistribution of power and wealth from oil importers to oil exporters, and from private to state-controlled companies.

The Energy Transition?

The energy transition beyond oil or beyond carbon is likely to be even more challenging and protracted than past energy shifts. Rather than studying past energy upgrades, we must look at a situation where the challenge was to radically alter an entrenched socioeconomic way of life. This suggests another case study: the US South or Dixieland, after the American Civil War (1861–1865). What can be gleaned from this case is that the formation of the “new consciousness” necessary for radical social change is a slow and painful process. The socioeconomic backbone resource of the Old South was neither coal nor oil, but human slaves. Precisely because the slave economy worked, white Southerners were willing to defend it in a bloody civil war. After the end of the American Civil War, the forceful abolition of slavery plunged the Old South into a deep crisis.

Despite the introduction of representation and suffrage for former slaves, reconstruction was mostly thwarted by the recalcitrance of traditionalist Southern elites. Heavy subsidization of railroads by Republican state governments in the South did not lead to the hoped-for modernization, but rather to corruption, making a few investors rich and otherwise contributing to soaring public deficits. After the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, race inequality was reestablished under the banner of white supremacy.

Despite their conservative values, they were not entirely prevented by these from cautiously embracing industrial capitalism. Initially, this amounted to an uneasy compromise between cherished industrialization and dreaded modernization. On the one hand, Southern elites became obsessed with the idea that an industrializing “New South” would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the “Old South.” On the other hand, they remained loyal to time-honored values of agrarianism and patriarchal society.

While railroads were finally built on a massive scale, often with capital from the North, industrialization in the South was initially dominated by low-wage and labor-intensive manufacturing. Most industries were dedicated to the processing of agricultural goods (e.g., in cotton mills) or natural resources (e.g., in blast furnaces). The real industrial takeoff came much later, after several generations of socioeconomic backwardness, and was spurred by the New Deal of the 1930s (electrification) and the war economy of World War II. In the mid-twentieth century, Dixieland finally developed as a growth region and came to be seen as part of the American “Sunbelt”. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 famously put an end to official race segregation in the South, although some race issues remain until the present day.

While this amounts to a decently happy ending, it took a century for the South to recover and catch up. This is remarkable because to understand how a technological and socioeconomic upgrade might look, Southerners only had to look to the North of their own country. There, industrial capitalism with its superior technologies and know-how was unfolding before their very eyes. With the right incentives in place, attracting investment and technology transfers from the North would not have been too difficult.

Dixie is a cautionary tale for those who believe that, after peak oil, there will be a smooth technological upgrade. If—even in the US South despite uniquely favorable circumstances—adaptation took a full century, then a technological upgrade will be even harder under the more challenging circumstances of disruptive energy scarcity after peak oil. This time around, the world would be struggling with an industrial downgrade, rather than an upgrade, as in the case of the US South. Developing new energy technologies is never fast and easy, and even less so in times of crisis. After peak oil, we should therefore expect extremely slow and painful processes of social and technological adjustment that may easily last for a century or more (Haberl et al. 2011).

Hypothesis 5 In the event of peak oil, we should not expect either immediate collapse or a smooth transition. People do not give up their lifestyle easily. We should expect painful adaptation processes that may last for a century or more.

Social and political effects of climate-change-induced energy scarcity

Military campaigns are highly carbon intensive and require advanced industrial capabilities, which would be rapidly dwindling among the signatories to the compact. As a consequence, it would become increasingly difficult for the signatories to stop the predatory behavior of the outsiders.

Elites may secure privileged access to the remaining allocations at the expense of the rest of the population, to the point of establishing antidemocratic political regimes (totalitarian retrenchment).

Please note that a scenario is not a prediction. A scenario is based on assumptions. As mentioned above, I follow the peak oil literature in assuming a decline of world oil production by 2–5 percent per year, after a few years on a bumpy plateau. Moreover, I assume that no adequate alternate resource and technology will be available to replace oil as the energy backbone of industrial society.

In North America, the United States combines strong dependency on foreign oil deliveries with an unrivaled capacity to project power. The current surge of shale oil may postpone this for a decade or two, but ultimately a military strategy will be tempting. To be sure, America’s liberal democracy and free-trade ideology militates against the open recourse to military coercion. The United States is going to support liberal democracy and the free market for oil as long as it is convenient. Even when the oil market comes under pressure because of tightening international supply, the United States is likely to continue to defend it for a while.

But when soaring oil prices start crippling the American economy, US leaders may find that military coercion is more effective and can be justified in terms of protecting free trade. The United States is then likely to put the blame on foreigners and pursue a geopolitical strategy of energy security to protect the free market and/or the American way of life (Klare 2004, 2008). Why keep negotiating with recalcitrant leaders such as Hugo Chavez if there is a military option? This is not to say that the military option is easy, as the Iraq War has shown. Moreover, liberal democracy in the homeland can be corroded by illiberal practices abroad. Nevertheless, military coercion is likely to gain ascendancy relative to free-market rhetoric as oil supplies dwindle. The resource-rich neighbors of the United States, Canada and Mexico, are likely to be tied more closely to the US core. In Latin America, medium-sized oil-exporting countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador may try to profiteer from soaring oil prices. If they engage in a strategy of brinkmanship and deny the United States oil on favorable terms, then their political regimes may be toppled. While this would further increase anti-American resentment in the region, political elites are likely to acquiesce, ultimately, to US hardball tactics. In fact, historical evidence suggests that Latin American elites often opportunistically collude with the United States. Eventually, resource-rich Brazil may be able to escape intervention due to its larger size and geographical distance from the United States. If Brazil manages to offer sufficient benefits to neighboring countries, a regional state complex around Brazil may eventually be possible. Otherwise, energy-poor Latin American countries would enter a serious crisis.

Western Europe would enter a particularly difficult quandary. In theory, advanced industrial countries such as Germany and France could quickly rearm. In practice, however, predatory militarism is not a credible option for them. Since Europeans have good historical reasons to dread militarism, the social consensus necessary for this strategy would not be forthcoming at the decisive initial stages of geopolitical positioning. For the same historical reasons, in most of Western Europe the path of totalitarian retrenchment does not seem to be available either. Concomitantly, Western European countries would be forced to strike opportunistic bargains with Russia and oil-exporting countries across the Mediterranean. Due to their asymmetrical nature, such deals would be inherently fragile and subject to constant renegotiation. Investment in renewable energy and innovative technologies could somewhat smooth the transition, but ultimately Europeans would hardly be able to avoid a transition to a more community-based lifestyle. Despite the present affluence of Western European societies (and, in part, precisely because of it), this would be extremely painful and last for generations.

Ordinary Western Europeans would be forced to rely on local communities for their welfare, if not their survival. For most of the indigenous population, a regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle would be challenging because the habits of industrial society are deeply rooted. The problems would be compounded by the fact that immigrant groups might segregate from Europe’s multiethnic societies, potentially reinforcing religious fault lines. On the one hand, this might enhance the solidarity among members of specific social groups. On the other hand, it would almost certainly conjure up severe social conflict.

The situation in Japan would be largely comparable, although Japan is far less multiethnic and Japanese people may be more willing to accept disruptions to their taken-for-granted lifestyles. This was confirmed in 2011 when the Japanese responded in a calm and disciplined way to a tsunami followed by serious mayhem and a nuclear meltdown at the facilities in Fukushima. As in the Western European case, however, the unavoidable transition to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle would be painful and last for generations.


The situation would be somewhat different in countries and regions that have industrialized later and/or have a more recent authoritarian tradition that can be recovered. Therefore, totalitarian retrenchment and socioeconomic adaptation are more likely and easier to imagine in the new democracies and semi-authoritarian countries of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia than in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, or the United States.

In least developed countries (LDCs), common people with limited exposure to industrial lifestyles would be forced to rely on the cohesion of social groups for their survival. Given the high population pressure in most LDCs, however, large population segments would fall victim to famine, disease, and conflict. Particularly but not exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa, state failure and conflict over scarce resources would become endemic. Moreover, the inevitable end of the oil-based green revolution in agriculture and the demise of international aid would wreak environmental havoc and human insecurity.

The ecological situation would be aggravated by vital biomass being removed from the soil as a combustible. In most places, the unavoidable consequence would be famine, disease, and mass exodus.

The elites of oil-exporting African kleptocracies such as Nigeria, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea would certainly keep selling their oil to the highest bidder, especially when the bid is backed by sufficient military clout, and when there are no onerous obligations with regard to democratization and human rights. If the United States gives up its dysfunctional democratization agenda, it will have better access to African resources than Europe, China, or Japan. However, it is an open question how much ordinary people in African petro-states would benefit from the increased oil revenues (people in African countries that do not have rich fossil fuel reserves would almost certainly suffer more).

In Asia, Russia has enough resources to provide for its own energy needs. In geopolitical terms, it would become a more important regional player due to its abundant export capacities. China, by contrast, heavily relies on imported oil. To preserve its industrial capacity, the country might be tempted to secure access to vital resources from Central Asia by military means. Totalitarian retrenchment may also be lurking. India has more limited military clout and a less authoritarian state tradition, but may nevertheless be tempted to engage in limited geopolitical operations in its regional neighborhood. Small and resource-poor outposts of industrial civilization, such as Singapore, would struggle to survive. The oil-exporting countries of Central Asia and the Middle East would benefit more than in the past from their abundant resource endowment. Due to the effects of skyrocketing oil prices on the world market, their economies would continue to grow in relative and absolute terms. Their domestic oil consumption would be stable or even increase at a time when it would be declining in the rest of the world.  The Middle East would almost certainly replace Western Europe as the most attractive destination for Muslim migrants.

The Struggle over Knowledge

There is a puzzle. Climate change and energy scarcity are both fundamental challenges to the viability of industrial civilization. How is it possible that, in the case of climate change, the alarmists have come to represent mainstream science, whereas in the energy case they have never made much headway? To understand this puzzle, I start off by developing an analytical framework that enables us to explore the struggle over knowledge about energy scarcity and climate change. I outline three kinds of science: normal, abnormal, and post-normal. I further show that, depending on whether normal or post-normal science reigns supreme, there are different patterns of contestation.

Despite a convincing case that the risk of energy scarcity is a post-normal problem (Tainter, Allen, and Hoekstra 2006), normal science continues to reign supreme in the field of energy studies. Mainstream economics is the science of choice when it comes to making forecasts, despite the fact that more technical disciplines such as geology and engineering are more directly concerned with fuel extraction and, by implication, future energy supply. Official expertise is concentrated in a couple of authoritative national and international institutions: the International Energy Agency (IEA) and its US counterpart, the Energy Information Administration (US-EIA).

Though not very successfully, normal energy expertise is challenged by a critical counterculture of abnormal energy science that is mostly made up of concerned citizens and a small number of retired geologists sounding the alarm at runaway fuel depletion. This abnormal energy science has its own institutional infrastructure, albeit relatively dispersed. At its center, there are loose epistemic networks like the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and its various national offshoots, as well as a number of Internet platforms such as The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin (which moved to in January 2013). Normal Energy Expertise Energy expertise is concentrated in a small number of organizations gathering and processing data (IEA, US-EIA, BP, & Shell).  By far the most authoritative entity is the International Energy Agency (IEA), which publishes the annual World Energy Outlook, as well as a biennial report called Energy Technology Perspectives.

The United States Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (US-EIA) is somewhat less authoritative because it represents a particular government. In recent years, US-EIA has been more optimistic about future energy supply than the IEA. Despite this bias, or perhaps precisely because of it, some observers prefer to quote US-EIA rather than the IEA.

Business firms have limited epistemic authority due to their vested interests. Nevertheless, industry-oriented circles sometimes rely on their publications. Interestingly, a feature common to all energy supply reviews is that data are not directly gathered but collected from sources such as the United States Geological Survey, the OPEC Secretariat, the Oil and Gas Journal, or the World Oil magazine.


The original purpose of the IEA when it was created in 1974 was to manage a crisis response in the event of a major oil supply disruption, defined as a shortfall of oil supply of 7% or more.  But since then this hasn’t happened.  Precisely because the IEA has been inactive as a fire fighter, its staff have had to be employed in some other useful way. For that purpose, the statutes of the IEA mention a few other goals in addition to the emergency response mechanism. The most important are monitoring the oil market and reducing the dependency on imported oil. Thus, the IEA was originally mandated to evolve in two complementary ways: first, to keep track of international markets and thus provide an early warning mechanism; and second, to work on ways to reduce the unsustainable oil dependency of industrial countries. While the second task might have suggested a shift to post-normal science, things did not turn out that way. The agency has eagerly embraced the first task of monitoring international markets, which was entirely in line with normal science. However, it never really confronted the task of questioning the oil dependency of industrial society.

Since the IEA’s core mission was the strategic governance of energy scarcity as a long-term risk, the agency should have become an expert watchdog monitoring the availability of oil and facilitating a large-scale transformation away from oil. But this didn’t happen fir a number of reasons.

First, the IEA was never really meant to question the presumption that oil is abundant. By placing its faith in markets, the agency followed the policy preferences of its member states.

Second, the decline of oil prices from the mid-1980s made the task of preparing industrial society for the eventuality of disruptive energy scarcities appear less urgent and allowed the IEA to focus on standard operating procedures like gathering data, developing forecasting tools, and publishing at the end of every calendar year the iconic World Energy Outlook.


Third, the IEA is attached to the OECD, whose culture has always been a firm belief in the ability of markets to safeguard economic development.

Fourth (and closely related), for a long time the IEA has been dominated by mainstream economists. As in the OECD, most staff members are economists and/or public servants, usually with a background in economics. There have always been a few lawyers, but engineers, geologists, and other energy experts have been a small minority until recently. The longstanding ascendancy of mainstream economists has been consequential. For most economists it is simply axiomatic that, in an effectively functioning market, supply will always meet demand. Accordingly, until 2008 the standard practice of the IEA has been to extrapolate trends in energy demand, and simply to assume that future demand will be met via the market mechanism.

In the 1998 World Energy Outlook, and then again in the 2008 WEO, the IEA looked more carefully into the physical availability of energy resources. In both cases it appears that in subsequent years there was backlash from member state principals and particularly the United States. Presumably as a result of such backlash, the IEA has become more optimistic again. The latest edition of the WEO (2012a) is strikingly upbeat compared to previous iterations, despite the fact that only few fundamentals have changed.

Abnormal Energy Science

The study of energy scarcity in general and peak oil in particular is a paradigm case of the abnormal science of radical dissidents. It is civic and intellectual alarmism gone wild in the face of a serious post-normal problem, and in the absence of a willingness on the part of normal science to reconsider its tenets, extend the peer community, and thus become post-normal.


Abnormal energy science is conventionally traced back to the founding father of peak oil theory, Marion King Hubbert. Like many other oil men, this leading geoscientist was a self-made man and a maverick. Unlike most of his colleagues working for the oil industry, however, he worried about physical limits to growth.

Ever since then, the most prominent proponents of peak oil theory typically have a background in geology, engineering, or some other physical science. However, their dissident standpoint forces them to turn their back on normal science and seek an audience among outsiders, notably concerned citizens.

During the 1980s the debate was largely dormant due to low oil prices, but it was reignited in the early 1990s through a book written by geologist Colin Campbell as he neared his retirement (Campbell 1991). A few years later, Campbell (1997) published another book about oil depletion that greatly benefitted from data provided by the company Petroconsultants. The following year, he partnered with retired petroleum engineer Jean Laherrère to publish an article in Scientific American (Campbell and Laherrère 1998), which is often cited as the beginning of the contemporary peak oil debate.  The notion of peak oil was further popularized in a book by retired oil geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (2001).

Forty years after Hubbert’s original analysis (1956), and despite the fact that the oil shocks of the 1970s were rapidly fading from memory with prices heading toward record lows, authors such as Campbell and Laherrère were trying, from their retirement, to awaken the world to what they saw as the defining challenge of the twenty-first century. Needless to say they were mostly ignored and sometimes opposed by their mainstream colleagues, with particularly fierce criticism and even ridicule coming from economists and industry figures unwilling to accept the idea of oil depletion (Adelman 1995, 2004; Odell 2004; Maugeri 2006, 2012; Clarke 2007).


Although public interest in oil depletion was initially limited to the “lunatic fringe,” physics professor Kjell Aleklett at the University of Uppsala in Sweden organized a conference in 2002 and used it to shepherd Campbell and the other members of the fractious peak oil community into ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (Campbell 2011; Bentley 2011). Despite the lack of funding, this independent and loose collection of individuals, mostly retired geologists and academics from a broad range of fields, has since played an important role as an institutional platform, convening annual congresses on peak oil and coordinating various national chapters.

This became possible because, from about 2003, increasing oil prices and the surge of Web 2.0 brought an explosion of peak oil citizen science. The takeoff was further catalyzed by Richard Heinberg’s influential and popular book The Party’s Over (Heinberg 2003), as well as the peak of North Sea oil and gas and the outbreak of the Iraq War, which was often described as a war for oil.

The isolationist radicalism of the peak oil counterculture was particularly evident in the blogosphere, where sites such as Energy Bulletin (from 2003), (from 2004), and The Oil Drum (from 2005) took off rapidly and gained additional speed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina shocked the United States, taking offline a significant portion of oil production and refining capacity.

As the founder of Energy Bulletin recalls: The issue of energy depletion had very little representation on the web . . . in 2003 when I began work on Energy Bulletin. The most prominent site about peak oil was Jay Hanson’s with its animations of grotesquely obese Americans overlaid with dead bodies and famine. . . . It was collapse porn. . . . Engaging with the issue felt like stepping into an alternative reality, and quite a lonely one! . . . I chose the rather generic name Energy Bulletin, and neutral color scheme to suggest a certain amount of “neutrality,” and perhaps to obscure the fact that myself and my colleagues were working on it in our spare time from our bedrooms and secretly from our workplaces, and had no formal qualifications in the areas of either journalism or energy.


At the more scholarly blog The Oil Drum, the association of the peak oil community with abnormal science is equally apparent. The site was founded by Kyle Saunders, professor in political science at Colorado State University, and David Summers, professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Both initially wrote under pseudonyms. Stories of academics losing tenure-track positions because of a blog were legendary in the blogosphere, which is why “Prof. Goose,” aka Kyle Saunders, would not risk revealing his name until getting tenure (McKenna 2007, 224).

All peak oilers share at least three views in common: that oil is a finite resource, that it is essential to industrial civilization, and that its production peak is fairly imminent.

Another remarkable common feature is that most on- and offline forums discussing peak oil are strongly male dominated. A 2009 readership survey carried out at The Oil Drum found that more than 90% of respondents were male. At the 2011 ASPO conference in Brussels, 82% were male (of 217 people). It is worth noting that the community activists in the Transition town movement is more equally women and men.

There are three main peak oil camps:

The first emphasizes the limits to growth and sees oil depletion as just one limitation alongside environmental sinks reaching their capacities, ecosystems being exploited, and the depletion of other finite resources. Rather than a problem in and of itself, peak oil is a symptom of a wider malady facing growth-based complex societies.  In this view, culture is sleepwalking toward the end of growth and peak oilers are rooting for cultural change.

The second sees peak oil as a liquid fuels problem, especially in the U.S. where it was promoted by the Hirsch Report commissioned by the Department of Energy.  Hirsch describes peak oil as an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically and the economic social and political costs unprecedented. Mitigation must be attempted at least 10 to 20 years in advance of peaking. This viewpoint presents peak oil as a tremendous challenge, but if timely action is taken the problem need not be fundamental.


The third group is best described as “doomers” with many happily labeling themselves that way. In their view peak oil represents a desperate problem without any hope of significant mitigation, and it will inevitably lead to a partial of not total collapse of civilization as we know it.

Why bother to try to change the minds of those in denial?

Here is my personal response: the best thing a moral individual can do is to try to live “in the truth.” Life is tragic and often there are no solutions. Not every disease can be cured. Insofar as climate change and energy scarcity are part of the human predicament, even the most accurate diagnosis is unlikely to suggest a cure. Yet my mission as a scholar is to get to the bottom of things regardless of whether or not there is a solution. My task as a scholar is not to save the planet. It is plain old fashioned intellectual honesty.

My attitude will sound weary to those believing that problems like climate change and energy scarcity can and must be dealt with either through politics or local activism. It will sound outrageous to those setting their hope in a cornucopian can-do attitude and believing that aspirational statements and positive thinking can revolutionize what is politically feasible.


Posted in Collapse of Civilizations | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

60 minutes promotes biomass scam

Preface. Hey 60 minutes, do some fact checking first.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


On January 6, 2019, 60 Minutes had a segment on an amazing biofuels breakthrough invention by Marshall Medoff, an “81-year old eccentric with no science degree” (watch the video or read the transcript here).

His stunning innovation has won over many famous board members, such as Steven Chu, the former Secretary of Energy, as well as Shell Oil executive Sir John Jennings, George Shultz, former secretary of state and former defense secretary, William Perry.

Medoff’s company, Xyleco, has also garnered hundreds of millions of dollars from investors impressed with his inventive use of accelerators. Sixty minutes describes this as his “novel idea of using these large blue machines called electron accelerators to break apart nature’s chokehold on the valuable sugars inside plant life – or biomass”.

But wait!  There are thousands of research papers going back as far as Imamura (1972) about using electron accelerators to break down lignocellulosic biomass. This is done to create more surface area for the next step, in Xyleco’s case, enzymes to break down the cellulose further.  Other ways biomass can be shattered are milling, chipping, shredding, grinding, and pyrolysis.

But all of these are highly energy intensive methods.  In fact, one paper thought that electronic beams were probably economically infeasible (Saini 2015).

This plant is also likely to fail because all other commercial level cellulosic ethanol plants have gone out of business. Only one plant still exists, POET’s $275 million Emmetsburg, Iowa facility, with a capacity of 25 million gallons per year.  I can’t find out how much was actually produced there, but even if all 25 million gallons were made, that is a far cry from the 8.5 billion gallon cellulosic ethanol mandate of 2007, which will be reduced to 418 million gallons in 2019 because cellulosic ethanol is clearly not commercial yet (Rapier 2018).

Dr. Steven Chu told 60 minutes “that biofuels could make a 30% dent in the petroleum market, according to a report by the Department of Energy”.  Well, I’ve read that report and it is hogwash.  It treats crop residues and other biomass as “waste”, when in fact, if this so-called “waste” isn’t returned to the soil to prevent erosion, add nutrition, create ways for water and air to reach plant roots, and provide a natural immune system, then next year’s crop production will decline.

Another huge problem with “waste” biomass is that it needs to be within 40 miles of a biofuels plant, or the amount of diesel energy to harvest, compact into a bale, and transport the biomass to the refinery is more energy than you’ll ever get out of the ethanol after it’s created.

One reason cellulosic ethanol isn’t commercial is that to break the cellulose down further after physically blasting it apart, enzymes are needed to break it down even further. But enzymes take too much money and energy to make now. Yet that’s the next step at Xyleco where the electron accelerator it will be “combined with a proprietary enzyme mix”.  And another hurdle is that by blasting apart biomass, by products are created that enzymes can’t cope with very well.

Robert Rapier (2019) wrote that “they were pretty nonchalant about the kinds of fuels that were being produced, as if it’s equally easy to make ethanol, gasoline, or jet fuel. The former is pretty easy to make. The other two — no way can he do this cost effectively via this route. Finally, biodegradable plastics have been around for a long time. Again, Lesley is leaving the implication that he has invented something new.”

Xyleco also proposes to turn biomass into materials, chemicals, and the sugar “xylose which could reduce obesity and diabetes, since it is consumable, and low in calories, and doesn’t decay your teeth”.   Well, again, xylose has been around a long time, this is not a new discovery.

Xyleco isn’t yet in business, so it remains to be seen if the founder’s name ought to be Madoff rather than Medeff.


Imamura, R., et al. 1972. Depolymerization of cellulose by electron beam irradiation. Bulletin of the Institute for Chemical research, Kyoto university 50: 51-63.

Rapier, R. 2018. Cellulosic ethanol falling far short of the hype. Forbes.

Rapier, R. 2019. Private communication.

Saini, A., et al. 2015. Prospects for irradiation in cellulosic ethanol production. Biotechnology research international.


Posted in Biomass, Far Out | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Lakes run dry from too much water extraction and climate change

Source: Hannah Osborne. Feb 8, 2016. Bolivia’s vanishing Lake Poopó: ESA images show fully evaporated lake from space. International Business Times.

Preface.   I think that declining oil will be the main cause of civilization to collapse, since it is the energy that makes all other activities possible, but there are so many other contenders I wonder if scholars in the future will argue over what was the main coup de grace.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Kate Ravilious. 4 March 2016. Many of world’s lakes are vanishing and some may be gone forever. NewScientist.

Bolivia’s second largest lake has vanished into thin air. In December, Lake Poopó became a dry salt pan and its largest lake – Lake Titicaca – is heading towards trouble, too. The combination of silting up and irrigation withdrawal from the Desaguadero River, which feeds Poopó, together with climate change and the extra warmth from current El Niño, were enough to finish this lake off.

Recent research and new data suggest that lakes in other parts of the world may also be on their way out.

“Considering the size of the lake – 2700 square kilometers (1042 square miles) – this is quite an astounding event, with slim prospects of recovery,” says Dirk Hoffmann from the Bolivia Mountain Institute. “This event should serve as a real warning. Eventually, we can expect Lake Titicaca to go the same way.”

Air temperature has risen by around 0.7 °C in the Andes over the past 70 years and lakes are being evaporated faster than they are replenished. Lake Titicaca is close to a tipping point. Just 1 to 2 °C of atmospheric warming – which is expected by 2050 – could be enough to evaporate the top few meters, which would shut down the Desaguadero River and dry up all the water bodies that this river feeds. Such an outcome would be catastrophic for the 3 million inhabitants of Bolivia’s highlands, including the city of La Paz.

“If Titicaca stops supplying the Desaguadero River then the region will enter a new climate regime and the entire Andean Plateau will change from a benign agricultural area to an arid inhospitable area,” says Mark Bush, biologist at Florida Institute of Technology. “This happened during two prior interglacials and each time the dry event lasted for thousands of years.”

It’s not just Andean lakes that are in trouble. Evidence from around the world suggests that lakes are warming, shrinking or disappearing, with huge impacts on ecosystems.

Warming lakes

The surface waters of the world’s lakes have warmed on average by 0.34 °C per decade since 1985. Sweden’s Lake Fracksjön is the fastest warming lake in the world, increasing 1.35 °C per decade, outpacing the rise in air temperature around it. Close behind is Lake Superior, one of North America’s Great Lakes. “The combination of cleaner skies, increasing air temperature and a shorter period of winter ice cover is behind this rapid warming,” says Catherine O’Reilly from Illinois State University.

This rapid warming is disrupting lake ecosystems. In European lakes, cold-loving fish such as Arctic charr decline while populations of warm-water fish such as carp increase. The latter feed on zooplankton, leaving fewer zooplankton to control damaging algal blooms.

Rapid surface warming also separates the deep cold water from the warm surface water, reducing transfer of nutrients and oxygen, potentially stressing organisms that cannot travel across the two layers. Tropical lakes are vulnerable to strengthening stratification because they don’t have the cold winter season to help the lake layers equilibrate.

Lake Tanganyika in East Africa is one example of this happening. “We think this has contributed to declining fish yields,” says James Russell, from Brown University, Rhode Island – a worrying prospect given that fish are a major source of protein for people living in the four countries bordering the lake, and that the fisheries provide employment for around 1 million people.

The disappearance of lakes across southern Europe, the Middle East and central Asia has been blamed on a rise in water extraction to meet the needs of agriculture and a growing and increasingly water-thirsty population. Climate change has compounded the problem.

“This region is experiencing a drier climate now, which is also driving increased water extraction,” says Erik Jeppesen, a freshwater ecologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. The eastern Mediterranean has just gone through its worst drought in 900 years.

As a result, lakes on the Central Anatolian Plateau lost around half of their surface area between 2003 and 2010, says Meryem Beklioğlu, a freshwater ecologist at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Lake Akşehir has dried up completely, she says, resulting in the extinction of one species of fish, Alburnus nasreddini, and endangering two other endemic fish species, Gobio gobio intermedius and Leuciscus anatolicus.

Beklioğlu’s models predict that, at current rate of water extraction, one of the largest lakes in this region – Lake Beysehir – will be gone by 2040. “This water is critical for irrigation and for the local economy, but right now we are cutting off the branch we are sitting on,” she says.

Many of Turkey’s lakes are shallow and this makes them particularly vulnerable. As they shrink, salt levels skyrocket. “It happens really fast – just four or five years – and has caused water-rationing in the past,” Beklioğlu says. The smaller volume of water also concentrates nutrients and encourages algal blooms that can be toxic.

“Ultimately, the drying of the lakes along with the loss of groundwater and salinisation, will make the land less viable for agriculture in this region,” says Jeppesen. “This will put significant pressure on northern countries to produce more food, leading to deteriorating water quality in northern lakes due to increased fertiliser run-off entering lakes.”

Further east, changing rainfall patterns coupled with a mining boom and agricultural irrigation have caused more than a quarter of the lakes in Mongolia to dry up by since the 1980s.

Similarly, lakes in south-east Australia have shrunk during recent droughts, with one of the largest lakes – Lake Alexandrina – losing over two-thirds of its volume and experiencing a fivefold increase in salinity in 2009. Heavy water usage by farms coupled with climate change are thought to have been to blame. “This caused localised extinctions of native fish species,” says Kane Aldridge, a limnologist at The University of Adelaide. “Droughts are a natural part of the climate here, but they are expected to become more common under climate change.”

Arctic ponds

One place that is warming especially rapidly is the Arctic. Viewed from above, it is dotted with millions of ponds – but far fewer than a few decades ago. A 2015 study in northern Alaska shows that over the last 60 years the surface area of ponds has diminished by nearly a third, and nearly a fifth of the ponds have vanished.

This is largely due to the permafrost thawing. When frozen soil thaws, the water can drain, bursting out sideways or disappearing underground. “It is like pulling the plug from a bathtub,” says Guido Grosse from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, who has used satellite and aerial photos to document this loss. And once they start to drain they can disappear fast. In July 2014, an Arctic lake with the volume of around 350 Olympic swimming pools emptied in just 36 hours.

“These ponds are the baby lakes, and if they disappear then we will have no Arctic lakes in the long term,” says Christian Andresen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This will be bad news for fish like salmon, and migratory birds who depend on these lakes, says Grosse.

What to do?

Despite the trend, most of the world’s lakes are unlikely to disappear any time soon. And in some areas, such as the Tibetan plateau, the number of lakes is expanding. Rapid glacier melting is cooling existing lakes and creating new lakes there: 1099 in total between 1990 and 2010, representing a 23 per cent increase in surface area.

In the regions that are losing lakes, though, wiser water management could help slow down shrinking, says Beklioğlu.

And for warming lakes, says Jeppesen, reducing the input of nutrients could help to maintain the ecosystem balance. Hard engineering – dredging channels and building dams – can be a last resort.

But as the ill-fated Aral Sea in central Asia that went from being the world’s fourth largest lake to all but vanishing in less than a century shows, once a lake is lost it is very hard to recover. “Closed lake basins and shallow lakes are the most vulnerable to drying,” says Lisa Borre from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. “Climate change is a major issue and we will see more Aral Seas and Lake Poopós in the future.”

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Deep-sea trawling harms biodiversity and carbon storage

Source: October 2017. Bottom Trawling.

Preface. Overfishing has eliminated 90% of the world’s large predatory fishes and is devastating marine ecosystems.

Bottom trawling is one of the most devastating ways our oceans are being overfished, degraded and biodiversity destroyed .  This industry tossed 437 million tonnes of unwanted fish in just the past 65 years, a huge waste  (Cashion 2018). About 20 pounds of bykill are caught for every pound of desired species.

There are tens of thousands of trawlers dragging an area equivalent to twice the lower 48 states every year to catch shrimp and fin fishes.

Trawling is done by large industrial fishing vessels dragging large nets along the sea floor, often pulling up unwanted fish, and generating the most waste of any fishing method because the unwanted catch is dumped back into the ocean.  This has been going on since the Middle Ages, but the damage is orders of magnitude greater now with motorized fishing fleets, powered by government subsidies, using heavier nets to get at fish in much deeper water that are further offshore.

Satellite images show that spreading clouds of mud remain suspended in the sea long after the trawler has passed. But what satellites can see is only the “tip of the iceberg,” because most trawling happens in waters too deep to detect sediment plumes at the surface.

In addition to bottom trawling that’s every more widespread and goes deeper, oceans are also threatened by sea-mining and oil drilling.

Cashion, T., et al. 2018. Reconstructing global marine fishing gear use: Catches and landed values by gear type and sector. Fisheries Research 206: 57

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Pusceddu, A., et al. June 17, 2014. Chronic and intensive bottom trawling impairs deep-sea biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 24: 8861-8866

Abstract. Bottom trawling has many impacts on marine ecosystems, including seafood stock impoverishment, benthos mortality, and sediment resuspension. Historical records of this fishing practice date back to the mid-1300s. Trawling became a widespread practice in the late 19th century, and it is now progressively expanding to greater depths, with the concerns about its sustainability that emerged during the first half of the 20th century now increasing. We show here that compared with untrawled areas, chronically trawled sediments along the continental slope of the north-western Mediterranean Sea are characterized by significant decreases in organic matter content (up to 52%), slower organic carbon turnover (ca. 37%), and reduced meiofauna abundance (80%), biodiversity (50%), and nematode species richness (25%). We estimate that the organic carbon removed daily by trawling in the region under scrutiny represents as much as 60–100% of the input flux. We anticipate that such an impact is causing the degradation of deep-sea sedimentary habitats and an infaunal depauperation. With deep-sea trawling currently conducted along most continental margins, we conclude that trawling represents a major threat to the deep seafloor ecosystem at the global scale.

Trawling represents one of the most common fishing practices along the coastal oceans of the world. However, it can have a plethora of impacts on the sea bottom, including stock impoverishment, alterations to the sea-bottom morphology, sediment resuspension, and increased bottom-water turbidity, epibenthos mortality, altered nutrient cycles, and alteration of the benthic biodiversity (1).

Historical records of this fishing practice date back to the mid-1300s, and it became widely practiced with the industrialization of fisheries in the late 19th century (24). Because shallow coastal water resources have steeply declined in the last 50 years (5, 6), fisheries are expanding offshore and trawling is being carried out at progressively increasing depths (7, 8).

In contrast to what was believed up to a few decades ago, deep-sea habitats (>200 m in depth) are rich in biodiversity, and they host many endemic and commercially important species (9, 10). Compared with shallow-water areas, the impact of trawling on deep-sea benthic ecosystems is deemed more severe and long-lasting, because of their lower resilience and higher vulnerability (10). However, our knowledge of the impact of trawling on deep-sea ecosystems has remained limited and has mainly focused on hard-bottom systems, such as seamounts and cold-water coral reefs (11, 12).

Sedimentary environments (i.e., the soft sea bottom) represent the greatest area of the deep-sea floor and host a vast fauna biodiversity (10). In these environments, the metazoan fauna (i.e., multicellular organisms) include almost all of the 35 modern animal Phyla. The smaller components of this fauna, the meiofauna, are characterized by relatively short life cycles, high turnover rates, and a lack of larval dispersion. For all oceanic seafloors, nematodes account for >90% of meiofauna abundance in the deep sea (13) and are characterized by very high species richness and recognizable feeding types and life strategies (14, 15). In this sense, nematodes have been recently used as a model to demonstrate that any loss in deep-sea fauna biodiversity is associated with an exponential decrease in ecosystem functioning (16).

Recent investigations carried out in the north-western Mediterranean Sea have revealed that the continuous stirring, mixing, and resuspension of surface sediments by intensive and chronic trawling activities has caused changes to the present-day sediment dynamics and has permanently smoothed the seafloor morphology of the continental slope over large spatial scales (1719). In this region, deep-sea trawled grounds are subjected to levels of sediment disturbance whose effects are larger than the changes in sediment properties associated with seasonal variability (20). Smoothed trawling grounds are also exposed to a reduced habitat heterogeneity. Because high habitat heterogeneity is crucial to preserve high biodiversity levels (21, 22), trawling activities might represent a major threat to the integrity of deep-sea ecosystems (12, 18).


  1. Thrush SF, Dayton PK (2002) Disturbance to marine benthic habitats by trawling and dredging: Implications for marine biodiversity. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 33:449–473.
  2. Roberts C (2007) The Unnatural History of the Sea (Island Press, Chicago, IL).
  3. Graham M (1938) The trawl fisheries: A scientific and national problem. Nature 142(3609):1143–1146.
  4. Myers RA, Worm B (2003) Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423(6937):280–283.
  5. Thurstan RH, Brockington S, Roberts CM (2010) The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries. Nat Commun 1:15.
  6. Worm B, Tittensor DP (2011) Range contraction in large pelagic predators. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108(29):11942–11947.
  7. Roberts CM (2002) Deep impact: The rising toll of fishing in the deep sea. Trends Ecol Evol 17(5):242–245.
  8. Morato T, Watson R, Pitcher TJ, Pauly D (2006) Fishing down the deep. Fish Fish 7(1):24–34.
  9. Costello MJ, et al. (2010) A census of marine biodiversity knowledge, resources, and future challenges. PLoS ONE 5(8):e12110.
  10. Rex MA, Etter RJ (2010) Deep-Sea Biodiversity: Pattern and Scale (Harvard Univ Press, Cambridge, MA).
  11. Norse EA, et al. (2012) Sustainability of deep-sea fisheries. Mar Policy 36(2):307–320.
  12. Althaus F, et al. (2009) Impacts of bottom trawling on deep-coral ecosystems of seamounts are long-lasting. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 397:279–294.
  13. Giere O (2009) Meiobenthology. The Microscopic Motile Fauna of Aquatic Sediments (Springer, Berlin).
  14. Lambshead PJD (2004) Marine nematode biodiversity. Nematology: Advances and Perspectives: Nematode Morphology, Physiology and Ecology, Tsinghua University Press (TUP) Book Series, eds Chen ZX, Chen SY, Dickson DW (CABI Publishing, Wallingford, UK), Vol 1, pp. 436–467.
  15. Heip C, Vincx M, Vranken G (1985) The ecology of marine nematodes. Oceanogr Mar Biol 23:399–489.
  16. Danovaro R, et al. (2008) Exponential decline of deep-sea ecosystem functioning linked to benthic biodiversity loss. Curr Biol 18(1):1–8.
  17. Palanques A, et al. (2006) Evidence of sediment gravity flows induced by trawling in the Palamós (Fonera) submarine canyon (northwestern Mediterranean) Deep-Sea Res 5:201–214.
  18. Puig P, et al. (2012) Ploughing the deep sea floor. Nature 489(7415):286–289.
  19. Martín J, Puig P, Palanques A, Ribó M (2014) Trawling-induced daily sediment resuspension in the flank of a Mediterranean submarine canyon. Deep Sea Res Part 2 Top Stud Oceanogr doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2013.05.036.
  20. Sañé E, Martín J, Puig P, Palanques A (2013) Organic biomarkers in deep-sea regions affected by bottom trawling: Pigments, fatty acids, amino acids and carbohydrates in surface sediments from the La Fonera (Palamós) Canyon, NW Mediterranean Sea. Biogeosciences 10:8093–8108.
  21. Levin LA, Dayton PK (2009) Ecological theory and continental margins: Where shallow meets deep. Trends Ecol Evol 24(11):606–617.
  22. McClain CR, Barry JP (2010) Habitat heterogeneity, disturbance, and productivity work in concert to regulate biodiversity in deep submarine canyons. Ecology 91(4):964–976.


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Fusion is the only possible way to replace fossil fuels. So how is ITER doing?

Preface. This website, and my book, When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the future of transportation, and Martin Hoffert, et al in the 2002 Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, Science. Vol 298 argue that the only possible energy resource that could replace fossil fuels is Fusion.

But given how soon energy will decline, and how far away ITER is likely to be finished, it is unlikely we’ll ever come close to figuring out a way to make fusion work on earth.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Daniel Clery, et al. May 6, 2016. More delays for ITER, as partners balk at costs. Science 352: 636-637

It wasn’t the pat on the back that ITER officials were looking for. Last week, an independent review committee delivered a report that was supposed to confirm that ITER, the troubled international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, finally has come up with a reliable construction schedule and cost estimate. But the report says only that the new date for first operations—2025, 5 years later than the previous official target—is the earliest possible date and could slip.

And it underscores the challenge of ITER’s ballooning budget. To start running by 2025, ITER managers have asked for an extra €4.6 billion, which they are unlikely to receive. As a result, the report says, ITER’s ultimate goal—producing a “burning plasma” reaction of deuterium and tritium nuclei that sustains itself mostly with its own heat—will be delayed from 2032 until 2035 at the earliest.

ITER officials say the report confirms that the project is finally on the right track. “There is now a credible estimate of the schedule and cost envelope with respect to the financial capabilities of all the members,” says ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot. “All the pieces are in place to make a decision” on enacting the plan. But others say that the new schedule is implausibly optimistic. “It’s all fiction,” says one expert who requested anonymity to protect his connections to the project. “As the report very carefully lays out, there are umpteen assumptions that aren’t going to happen.

Dreamed up in the 1980s, ITER aims to show that deriving energy from nuclear fusion is feasible. Specifically, it aims to produce a burning plasma, trapped in an intense magnetic field, that will generate 10 times more energy than it consumes. In France, the project site is finally taking shape, as workers erect the massive facility’s buildings and install the first components shipped from member states. About 40% of the work needed for first operations is done.

But delays and cost overruns have plagued ITER from the beginning. When the project partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—signed the construction agreement in 2006, ITER was supposed to be finished om 2016 for about $11 billion. The actual cost, impossible to calculate exactly because members contribute mostly parts rather than cash and use different accounting systems, could be three times as high.

ITER’s woes stem from two sources, experts say. First, its design was far from complete when the agreement was signed. In fact, the report says, it’s still not complete.

Second, the ITER agreement established a weak central organization with little power to direct the project. Those management deficiencies were laid bare in a February 2014 review that called for 11 reforms, including the appointment of a new director-general and the completion of a realistic “baseline” construction schedule and cost estimate. Last November the ITER organization presented that new baseline—called the updated long-term schedule (ULTS)—to the ITER Council of representatives from the member states, and the council requested the independent review. The ULTS itself has never been made public, researchers say, but the panel report gives the bottom line.

The 14-member review panel, headed by Albrecht Wagner, former chief of the DESY particle physics lab in Hamburg, Germany, praised Bigot, a French nuclear physicist with extensive management experience in industry and government, for greatly improving ITER’s management. The changes have “led to a substantial improvement in project performance, a high degree of motivation, and considerable progress during the past 12 months,” the report says.

However, the report also suggests that the new schedule falls short of providing a true, reliable baseline. “[T]his is a success-oriented schedule with no contingency,” the report says. “If any of the major risks that the [ITER organization] has identified materializes, then the [first plasma] date will almost certainly slip by some degree.” The reviewers do not give a “probable” date for when ITER might actually start, notes the expert with connections to the project, who estimates it at 2028 or 2029. “The answer is so devastating that if they came out and said it in public, they might lose [the support of ] the European Union,” he says.

The biggest assumption behind the schedule is that members will provide an extra €4.6 billion ($5.2 billion) between now and 2025. That money would enable the ITER organization to hire many more engineers, technicians, and skilled workers to assemble the parts that the members provide. It would also enable the ITER organization to develop a reserve fund for contingencies. However, the ITER Council made it clear at its last meeting in November 2015 that the cash would not be forthcoming. In particular, representatives of the European Union—which, as host, bears 45% of the financial burden—noted that the European Parliament has fixed spending on ITER through 2020, and it cannot be increased.

Since then, the ITER organization has been trying to figure out how to keep to the schedule at a lower annual cost, adjusting it even as reviewers were analyzing it. One option would be to delay the construction of some components that won’t be needed in the experiment’s early years, when it will run on just hydrogen or deuterium. Neither substance can support a burning plasma, so the start of runs to achieve one would have to wait an extra 3.5 years, until 2035, the report estimates. That date “is so far off that it’s more like an idea,” says Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a nonprofit foundation in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that advocates for fusion development.

The review panel calls for the formulation of a real baseline by November. Reaching consensus on the schedule may be difficult, Dean warns, because ITER members have divergent priorities. Whereas the European Union frets over annual costs, Japan and South Korea worry about keeping the schedule for burning plasma, he says. That’s because they’re already planning ITER’s successors, “demo” power plants that would generate electricity. To build one by 2050, they need the ITER data as soon as possible. “From the beginning of the process the Asian countries wanted to get to [deuterium-tritium] burning as fast as possible,” Dean says. “They are not going to be happy to hear that the date for D-T burning is as far away as 2035.”

Clery, D. November 27, 2015. More delays for ITER fusion project…first plasma will take 6 years longer than planned. Science 350:1011.

Managers of the troubled ITER fusion project delivered a dose of reality last week: a new schedule that is likely to push the estimated date of completion back by 6 years, to 2025, and add roughly €2 billion to the project’s ballooning cost. Researchers have never managed to achieve a controlled fusion reaction on Earth that produces more energy than it consumes. ITER, with a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” reaction chamber able to contain 840 cubic meters of superheated hydrogen gas, or plasma, is the biggest attempt so far and should produce 500 megawatts of power from a 50 megawatt input. The project began in 2006 with an estimated cost of €5 billion and a start date—or first plasma—in 2016. The figures quickly changed to €15 billion and 2019, but confidence in those numbers has eroded over the years.

The cost of running the ITER organization and the seven “domestic agencies” that handle industrial contracts for each partner is very roughly €350 million per year, so the delay will add about €2 billion. Many factors have slowed progress, including the complexity of the project, delays in finalizing the design, and the demands of France’s nuclear regulator. ITER’s organizational structure is almost as complex as its technology. Each partner manufactures a share of the necessary components: 45% from the European Union (as host), and 9% from each of the others. How much each partner spends to fulfill its share is its own concern and is not revealed, making the true cost of the project difficult to assess.

April 10, 2014. Cost Skyrockets for United States’ Share of ITER Fusion Project. Science.


  • ITER won’t start running until 2024 or 2025
  • The project won’t be done until 2034
  • creating a “burning plasma” that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes is at least 20 years away

Also see:

Why fusion power is still 30 years away

Science : No single or combination of alternative energy resources can replace fossil fuels

ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, aims to prove that nuclear fusion is a viable power source by creating a “burning plasma” that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes. Although that goal is at least 20 years away, ITER is already burning through money at a prodigious pace.

ITER was supposed to start running by 2016. Since then, however, the project has been plagued by delays, cost increases, and management problem. ITER is now expected to cost at least $21 billion and won’t turn on until 2020 at the earliest. And a recent review slammed ITER’s management.

The United States and ITER share a complicated history. The project was first proposed in 1985 as a joint venture with the Soviet Union and Japan. The United States backed out of that effort in 1998, citing concerns over cost and feasibility—only to jump in again in 2003. At the time, ITER was envisioned to cost roughly $5 billion. That estimate had grown to $12 billion by 2006, when the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and United States signed a formal agreement to build the device. The United States agreed, essentially, to build 9% of the parts for the reactor, at whatever price was necessary.

Cost to the United States

The United States is only a minor partner in the project, which began construction in 2008. But the U.S. contribution to ITER will total $3.9 billion—roughly four times as much as originally estimated—according to a new cost estimate released yesterday. That is about $1.4 billion higher than a 2011 cost estimate, and the numbers are likely to intensify doubts among some members of Congress about continuing the U.S. involvement in the project.

The cost of the U.S. contribution has increased, too, although by how much has been unclear. Officials with U.S. ITER had not released an updated cost profile for several years, until Ned Sauthoff, project manager for U.S. ITER at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, did so yesterday. Speaking to a meeting of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in Rockville, Maryland, Sauthoff reported that the total cost of the U.S. contribution would be $3.9 billion by the time the project is done in 2034. The schedule assumes that ITER won’t start running until 2024 or 2025. In comparison, an April 2011 funding profile pegged the cost of U.S. ITER at $2.5 billion.

The reason for the difference lies mainly in the timing. The 2011 cost profile would have seen spending on U.S. ITER plateau at $350 million per year from 2014 through 2016. However, in 2013, DOE officials decided (as part of their budget request for the following year) to cap spending on ITER at $225 million per year to prevent the project from consuming the entire budget of DOE’s fusion energy sciences program. Stretching out the budget invariably increases costs, researchers say. This year, the fusion program has a total budget of $505 million, including the $200 million Congress ultimately decided to spend on ITER. Sauthoff stresses that ITER researchers are making concrete progress in construction. “There is very strong progress in the fabrication of components around the world,” he said in an e-mail after the meeting. “US components needed for the construction sequence are being completed for delivery in 2014 and 2015.”

The new numbers appear to be giving some members of Congress heartburn. In a separate hearing yesterday on the proposed 2015 budget for DOE, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said that a review by DOE officials suggested that the cost of U.S. ITER could rise as high as $6 billion—more, if the concerns over ITER management are not addressed. “I’m really beginning to believe that our involvement in ITER is not practical, that we will not gain what we hope to gain from it, and instead this money could be much better be spent elsewhere,” Feinstein said.

Could the United States really back out of ITER? The Obama administration conceives of the U.S. commitment to ITER as being on a par with a treaty agreement, one Washington insider says, so the administration simply cannot walk away from that commitment. But one Senate staffer who works for the Democratic majority says that’s only the administration’s position. In fact, the staffer says, the administration seems to be split, with officials at the State Department arguing that the U.S. commitment to ITER is inviolable and officials at DOE indicating that they’d be just as happy without the project on their hands. The staffer suggests that the conflict explains why the administration requested only $150 million for ITER next year instead of the supposed maximum of $225 million it had set earlier.

The Senate staffer suggests that if administration officials can’t make up their minds about ITER, Congress could do it for them in the next several months, as they write annual spending bills. “Our intention is make a decision for ourselves in our markup [of the 2015] budget,” the staffer says. “They won’t have a choice.”

Nuclear promises made in the past weren’t kept either

Many other nuclear wonders were to be in place by the year 2000: “Giant earth-stationary satellites bearing compact nuclear reactors will broadcast television programs”; nuclear-powered tankers and other merchant ships “will almost certainly ply the seas”; “peaceful nuclear explosives will be employed on a widespread scale” in underground mineral mining and used to modify the earth’s surface, alter river flows, and construct new canals and new harbors in Alaska and Siberia; and “nuclear propulsion” would carry men to Mars.  With physicist William Corliss, Seaborg advocated the creation of underground cities—a “nether frontier”—that would be carved out using nuclear explosives. The surface could then be returned to wilderness, and visiting it would be just a matter of getting into an elevator.

Source: 1971, Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, delivered an address at the fourth International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy

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What collapse is like: Guadalajara Mexico

Preface.  Collapse can be local rather than national. There are 5 states within Mexico the State Department warns not to travel to: Colima,Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas because violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, are widespread. There are 11 more states the state department says you should reconsider travel due to violent crime and gang activity being widespread: Chihuaua, Coahulla, Durango, Estado de Mexico, Jalisco, Morelos, Nayrit, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi, Sonora, Zacatecas.

There are patterns to what happens in a collapsing city or state or nation that are common to all places and all times. If you’re curious how things will go down in the U.S. at some point during the Great Simplification, this article will give you an idea of what to expect.  Though given the extremely high level of gun ownership in the U.S., it could be worse…

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


William Finnegan. July 2, 2012.  The Kingpins. The fight for Guadalajara. The New Yorker.

At the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Enrique Peña Nieto, who is forty-five, boyishly handsome, and generally expected to be the next President of Mexico, was asked to name three books that had influenced him. He mentioned the Bible, or, at least, “some parts” (unspecified), and “The Eagle’s Throne,” a Carlos Fuentes novel (though he named the historian Enrique Krauze as the author). And, for a few excruciating minutes, that was all he could come up with. The crowd laughed wickedly. Peña Nieto’s wife, a former soap-opera star, squirmed in the front row. His teen-age daughter didn’t help matters when, in a tweet, she scorned “all of the idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy.”

That debacle was in December. It did nothing to slow Peña Nieto’s well-financed march toward the election, which will take place on July 1st, but it did provide a welcome distraction for Guadalajarans, who are justly proud of their annual book fair. It is the second largest in Latin America, drawing more than half a million visitors, nearly two thousand publishers, and hundreds of authors, including, over the years, Nadine Gordimer, William Styron, and Toni Morrison. Guadalajarans sometimes offer it up as Exhibit A for the case that the city is a civilized place where life goes on unmarked by the violence that disfigures large parts of Mexico.

By late 2011, that argument was hard to make. Two days before the fair opened, twenty-six corpses were dumped under the Millennium Arches, a downtown landmark. Near the bodies, which bore signs of torture, was a message—what is known as a narcomanta—signed by the Zetas, the most feared organized-crime group in Mexico. The message taunted the Sinaloa cartel, the country’s biggest crime group, and its leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo (Shorty). Sinaloa has controlled Guadalajara, which is the capital of the western state of Jalisco, for decades. “We’re in Jalisco and we are not leaving,” the Zetas announced. “This is proof that we are deep inside the kitchen.” Most narcomantas(which appear virtually every day somewhere in Mexico) are disinformation, their assertions dubious, their true authorship unknowable. But the Zetas have been pushing westward from their strongholds on the Gulf Coast, and they had already taken the neighboring state of Zacatecas, so there was no reason to doubt that they coveted Jalisco, a rich prize, or that this was indeed their atrocity and their message to Guadalajara.

In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something—a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a “discovery” of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events. This may help to explain how a city widely understood to be under the control of a leading international crime group—the U.S. Treasury Department recently labelled Guzmán, who is fifty-five, “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker”—can regard itself as a jacaranda-shaded refuge of high culture and legitimate commercial vitality. Both descriptions are true, and both realities are under siege. When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantallas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts. Peña Nieto is depicted, in cartoons, as a carnival mask behind which laughs Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a former President, who is still regarded as enormously powerful. I can’t count the number of times I have asked someone about a news story and been told, “Pantalla.”

This is a problem for journalism. You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not so much what happened as what people think or imagine or say happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalists. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.

The six-year Presidency of Felipe Calderón is coming to an end, and this election can fairly be seen as a referendum on his military-led offensive against drug traffickers, which has cost some fifty thousand lives and left the country psychologically battered. Calderón’s National Action Party (pan) is far behind in the polls. Its Presidential candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, campaigns under the slogan “Josefina diferente,” hoping to distance herself from Calderón, but she served in his Cabinet, and her proposals for restoring security are not notably different from current policies. Peña Nieto’s security platform is nothing special, either. He might eventually return the Army to its barracks and, like virtually every recent President, revamp the federal police. His slogan is “Tú me conoces”—“You know me”—which many people find amusing, since they don’t know him at all. He was the governor of Mexico State, a populous but small horseshoe around Mexico City, and his time as a national politician has been short and heavily stage-managed, with limited press access (and no more literacy tests). Mexicans do know his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which ruled the country from 1929 until 2000. Throwing out the corrupt, authoritarian pri, in 2000, was a great moment for democracy in Latin America. Now it seems that Mexican voters are poised to bring the Party back.

The PAN is often described as center-right, the PRI as center-left, and the country’s third party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (P.R.D.), as left-wing. But these labels carry little weight in Mexico today. “The parties have no ideology,” a magazine editor in Mexico City told me. “That aspect is meaningless. Power here is about money.” The P.R.D. candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a popular former mayor of Mexico City, who nearly won the Presidency in 2006, has moved toward the center this year, dropping his confrontational rhetoric. Indeed, in 2010 the P.R.D. and the purportedly rightist pan combined forces successfully, backing the same candidates for governor in three state elections. The pan and the pri are both avidly pro-business. But it was the pri that presided over the privatization of more than a thousand state companies during the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Carlos Salinas, during his sexenio, privatized hundreds of companies, as well as Mexico’s banking system, turning a lucky circle of his friends into billionaires. This creation of a new economic élite, with effective monopolies in fields such as transportation, mining, and telecommunications, resembles the creation, around the same time, of the new crony-capitalist oligarchy in Russia. And in Mexico nearly all its beneficiaries owe their fortunes to the pri, not the pan.

Calderón began his military assault on the cartels immediately after he took office, in December, 2006. He had narrowly won that year’s election. López Obrador, in a rancorous aftermath, had refused to concede, and many people believed that Calderón started his “war” in order to change the subject—to try to consolidate his legitimacy in office. A career pan functionary (his father co-founded the Party), Calderón is not a particularly colorful or forceful character, and his sudden assumption of the role of wartime leader was also seen by critics as overcompensation. Once engaged, he found himself regularly accused of going easy on the Sinaloa cartel. A zero-sum analysis of an anti-crime strategy is, understandably, the default view in Mexico: any government assault on one cartel must be at the behest of its rivals. And Sinaloa did seem underrepresented among the casualties and captured narcos as those numbers spiralled up. Reasons advanced for this alleged softness included Chapo Guzmán’s web of informers inside the government and a secret Calderón strategy to weaken Sinaloa’s rivals in order to produce a single, credible interlocutor for organized crime with whom the government could strike deals.

In yet more overcompensation, Calderón has seemed to be pounding extra hard on Sinaloa in recent times. His Hail Mary pass to keep his party in power has been a highly publicized effort to capture or kill Guzmán. In February, federal police missed getting him, they claimed, by a matter of minutes at a rented beachfront mansion in Cabo San Lucas. Afterward, in Mexico City, Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, predicted that Guzmán would be caught, citing the successful manhunt for Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden didn’t have the Pentagon on his payroll; Guzmán’s bribe network inside Mexico’s security forces is formidable.

Calderón has pursued a “kingpin strategy,” like the “deck of cards” that the United States used in post-Saddam Iraq. In 2009, Mexican authorities listed the thirty-seven drug capos they most wanted. They have so far caught or killed twenty-two, and some cartels seem to have withered after losing their leaders. But organized crime controls more resources today, and sows more terror, than ever. The most common fallout from the kingpin strategy has been the fragmentation of narco-trafficking into smaller, warring, ultraviolent factions. This cops-and-robbers version of the drug war cannot, in any case, be taken at face value. The idea of a unified state that is furiously pursuing bad guys is pure pantalla. The low-grade civil war in Mexico takes place on the ground, among factions with shifting loyalties, in cities and villages with tangled histories. The “government” has innumerable faces—it has more than two thousand police agencies, for a start—and its corruption controls are too weak to counter the power of narco billions. Every local commander, every official, and every community must work out an accommodation with organized crime.

Metropolitan Guadalajara, population four and a half million, sprawls across a sunny, mile-high plateau. It’s been the administrative center of western Mexico since the sixteenth century—the older parts of town are filled with imposing churches, plazas, and public buildings—and it’s still a financial, industrial, and educational hub. Electronics and software are booming fields—people call it the Silicon Valley of Mexico. The University of Guadalajara has more than two hundred thousand students. The city has good restaurants and music, great old neighborhoods, shiny new malls, and a flourishing methamphetamine trade.

The Mexican meth trade got a big boost in the nineteen-nineties, when American law enforcement started to crack down on U.S. meth labs and production moved south. For the Mexican cartels, meth has many advantages. With cocaine, they are middlemen, dependent on producers in South America and obliged to move the product, first, across Central America. Marijuana and heroin require cropland, rainfall, harvesting, and, in the case of heroin, processing. Meth, like other synthetic drugs, is produced indoors. It has, by some estimates, the highest profit margin of all the major illegal drugs. Whether smoked, snorted, injected, or swallowed as a pill, it is extremely addictive. Worldwide consumption has been rising for decades. According to a recent United Nations report, amphetamines have passed cocaine and opiates to become the second most used illegal type of drug, after marijuana. In 2010, a hundred and sixty-six meth labs were busted in Iran; the Czech Republic shuts down some four hundred labs a year. Mexico, with the U.S. market next door, is believed to have become the world’s largest meth producer. The cartels, particularly Sinaloa, cook meth on an industrial scale that would not be possible in the U.S.

In a 2008 report (later WikiLeaked), titled “Chemical City,” the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara listed the factors that made Jalisco a major center of crystal-meth production: “geography, availability of materials, adequate infrastructure, and brain power.” The Sinaloa cartel, which got its start growing and smuggling marijuana and heroin, and then became extremely rich transshipping cocaine from Colombia to the United States, branched into the meth business sometime in the nineteen-nineties.

Its Guadalajara chieftain, Ignacio (Nacho) Coronel Villarreal, became known as the King of Crystal. He lived in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood but ran his operations without flamboyance. The profits were apparently fabulous. Then, in July, 2010, Coronel was killed in an Army raid on his home. Speculation was rife. Armchair warriors wondered if El Chapo had set up his old friend Nacho, out of concern that his Jalisco kingdom was becoming too independently powerful. In any event, everyone said that taking Coronel alive was out of the question. The “gentleman narco,” as I heard him called in Guadalajara, knew who in the Army was on whose payroll. That was why the Army sent a hundred soldiers to attack the house where he had lived, more or less openly, for many years.

“That was when things changed in Jalisco,” a bookstore clerk on Avenida Chapultepec told me. “That was the end of the peace.” The Zetas, who reportedly know nothing about cooking meth but are old hands at the hostile takeover of going concerns, started making more aggressive alliances with disaffected local gangsters.

“Heating up the plaza” is the term of art for what’s happening in Guadalajara, mainly in the poor barrios and in the badlands on the outskirts, the places absorbing the city’s wild recent growth. Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, a big, shapeless municipio (the rough equivalent of a county) on the city’s southern edge, has seen its population quadruple in a decade, to almost half a million. The pri’s candidate for governor recently described the area as “a dumping ground for corpses.” Bad guys dropped their victims in local ditches. The Army conducted raids on local meth labs. In February, the Army announced that it had seized, in a “historic” bust, in Tlajomulco, fifteen tons of methamphetamine. The street value of that much meth was, by the Army’s figuring, some four billion dollars. If true, that would indeed make it the largest meth bust in history. But was it true?

Víctor Hugo Ornelas is never without his camera. It’s a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, which he carries on a shoulder strap and swings silently into focus on garbage piles, flooded roads, bad potholes. He’s a tireless blogger (he is also a stringer for Milenio, a national daily), and these shots go up with notas (short articles) about derelictions, hazards, and other small outrages around Tlajomulco. Most will make it into La Verdad (The Truth), a weekly paper for which he covers politics, writes a column, and does investigations. He photographs corpses, too, and writes those notas. Unlike many papers, La Verdad doesn’t publish blood and gore, but Hugo’s laptop contains a stomach-turning archive of headless torsos, hacked-off limbs, heads on poles with narcomantas attached.

“The bodies are messages,” he told me. “If it’s missing a finger, it means you pointed to somebody. Missing legs means you changed groups. Missing the tongue means you said something you shouldn’t have. A hand cut off means it was a thief.”

We were driving around western Tlajomulco, a sunbaked miscellany of ranches, factories, subdivisions, and rough hills. I parked in a patch of shade. Hugo wanted to check out a scruffy warehouse that had caught his eye. This was on the main highway running south from Guadalajara. An old couple appeared. They lived next to the warehouse, and told us that stinking water ran out of the building. They didn’t know the name of the company that used it, but they thought it produced condiments. “They burn their trash, and we breathe the nasty smoke,” the woman said. It was hard to hear her over the roar of trucks. Hugo leaned in, took notes. He wore a dress shirt, jeans, and boots. He had beaded leather bracelets on both wrists. He is slender, thirty, with a severe face—high cheekbones, wide-set eyes. We watched him hobble off to snap pictures of the warehouse. He has used a cane since February, when he suffered a severe fracture of his left leg playing league soccer. “They pasted me,” he said.

Many people would like to paste Hugo. He was once studying a strange-looking house, figuring that it was a meth lab, when a pickup truck suddenly wheeled out of the driveway and blocked his path. Four armed men jumped out. They threw him and a female companion on the ground. With a boot on his neck and a gun at his head, Hugo played the fool. He babbled about how he admired the federal agents known as afis (the Federal Investigation Agency was a squad created to fight corruption and organized crime), pretending that he thought the narcos were afis. The ruse seemed to confuse the gunmen. Hugo allowed himself a faint smile when he told me this story. The narcos did not spot his camera, which he had quickly hidden in the car. That, he thought, probably saved their lives.

“But I fear the government more,” he said. He meant officials, police, and soldiers—those he usually offended with his investigations. Yet, he said, “You have to confront them, or they will just come more and more. I wrote a nota about corruption in the municipal police. They were taking wrecked cars and selling off the good parts. I named names, gave a lot of details. One of the cops came to my office, armed, in uniform. I told him that City Hall was down the street, if he wanted to make a complaint. I told him he shouldn’t come threatening me, and I picked up my camera. He turned and ran. I got a good picture of him running.”

Most confrontations don’t end so merrily. Anyway, if someone wants to do you real harm, he can just hire a sicario—an assassin. “It’s only a thousand pesos,” Hugo told me—less than eighty dollars. “And that’s not just in Tlajomulco. It’s everywhere.” The day before his leg was broken in the soccer game, two men accosted him. They were waiting outside his house, in the rain. “They were very aggressive. One guy asked me, ‘How low do your balls hang?’ That’s a rude question. I was sarcastic. I asked them if that was supposed to scare me. I still don’t know who sent them.”

Was there a connection to his soccer injury?

Hugo looked at his cane. “They weren’t going for the ball,” he said. He was blindsided, and never knew who hit him. The game was stopped. Nobody from the other team spoke to him. His teammates, perhaps doing him a favor, said they did not see who had pasted him. He kept writing notas from his hospital bed. I had noticed, on his Twitter page, a photograph of him out cold, awaiting surgery. It was probably best to stay in the public eye—to try to seem cheerful, unintimidated. Hugo heard that a young man who worked at City Hall said that they should have broken both his legs.

Hugo likes to go undercover. He recently posed as a building inspector, to get a look at the paperwork for a new banquet hall. The permits were bogus, as he suspected. Developers normally get their way in Tlajomulco. They have thrown up a large number of spectacularly shabby subdivisions, not bothering with even basic services. Some of these places have now been without water for years. Five thousand houses in the new subdivisions are already abandoned. The owner of the illegal banquet hall went ballistic over Hugo’s article. He cornered him in a parking lot, letting him know that he had crossed the wrong guy. Unfortunately, that could be true.

Could the police be of any help?

“The corruption is so deep,” Hugo said. “No.”

The Army?

“The soldiers here don’t speak. They don’t investigate. They don’t know who anyone is. They wear masks. They just follow orders and attack. Then they go back to their bases.

“Some cops I trust,” Hugo went on. “I even help them with things. They call me to help them find a certain place. They don’t know all the fraccionamientos”—the dirt-poor new tracts. We were passing through one, called Santa Fe. The tiny row houses, the gray cinder-block walls, seemed to stretch for miles. Gang graffiti and newly painted pri propaganda competed for wall space. We crossed a culvert. “They have dumped bodies there,” Hugo said. He directed me to a modest police substation, where there was an officer who might speak to me.

“Call me José,” the officer said. It was clearly not his name.

José said that there were two hundred and forty thousand residents in his sector, and a total of ninety cops. The worst problems were gang violence and robbery. The Army blew through occasionally but did not communicate with police. There was little point in arresting people, because there were so few prosecutions. A local capo, known as El Puerco (the Hog), who worked for a cartel called La Resistencia, which had thrown in its lot with the Zetas, had been arrested, José said, for drug dealing, robbery, and multiple homicides. Three days later, José said, he was released. The Sinaloa cartel kept a lower profile. Its local affiliate was called the Jalisco Cartel New Generation. Meth addiction was one of the ways the cartels recruited. Kids got into drugs and gangs and, if they survived, were allowed to join the cartel.

José’s men kept strolling into the room where we talked, checking me out. They wore bulletproof vests and carried assault rifles. I knew that José would not have agreed to talk to me if I had not arrived with Hugo. “This is not the U.S.,” he said. “But things have to change, or we’ll go the way of Afghanistan. The next President has an obligation to change things.”

Local security had deteriorated since the arrival of the Zetas: “Now you don’t know who is connected with whom, or where the threats are coming from.”

Two years before, José had been ambushed. “I was on patrol,” he said. He pulled his shirt up to reveal huge, frightening scars. “They never caught the shooter.”

Hugo later said, “He’s a good guy. I trust him. But he’s been scared since he got shot.”

There are reportedly three capture/kill squads working full time for Felipe Calderón’s government on Chapo Guzmán. The Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. security agencies are said to feed the Mexican military intelligence information on Guzmán’s movements, and are frustrated by the Mexicans’ failure to kill or capture him. After the near-miss in February, an American official told ABC News, “Every time he gets away, they tell us, ‘He got out the back door.’ ” The Americans had started joking that “there is no word for ‘surround’ in Spanish.” Press reports put Guzmán in Argentina, Guatemala, England, Honduras, or, most often, simply back home in the state of Sinaloa, in the rugged Sierra Madre range where he grew up.

Last October, President Calderón suggested, bizarrely, that Guzmán was living in the United States. He seemed to be referring to the news that Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel, had recently travelled to California, where, in August, she gave birth to twins in a hospital in Los Angeles County. But Coronel had returned to Mexico. U.S. law enforcement had tracked her back as far as the border.

The fact that Guzmán’s freedom has been embarrassing the Mexican President for years reflects a fundamental power shift between the Mexican state under the pan and Mexican organized crime. Before 2000, under the pri, crime groups prospered, but the national government ultimately called the shots. There were well-understood lines that the cartels could not cross. One of those was crossed in 1993, when the Archbishop of Guadalajara was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport. This was unacceptable. The circumstances of the murder were murky, but someone had to pay, and Chapo Guzmán was arrested sixteen days later—in Guatemala, despite, according to Malcolm Beith’s book “The Last Narco,” having paid a local military commander more than a million dollars for protection. Guzmán did not deny having been at the airport when the archbishop was killed, but he claimed that he was the intended victim: the assassins, rival narcos, had fired into the wrong car. This became the government’s theory of the case—there are many others—and the homicide charge was eventually dropped. He was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to twenty years.

In 2001, just after Vicente Fox became the pan’s first President, and just before Guzmán was expected to be extradited to the United States, he escaped from a maximum-security prison. He is said to have rolled out in the bottom of a laundry cart, his exit smoothed by bribes. Other versions have him coming and going freely for years, and finally leaving for good dressed as a guard. Under the pan, Guzmán has reportedly become a billionaire, making the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people in each of the past two years.


o one believes that the government is calling the shots today in Mexico. It isn’t even clear that capturing or killing Guzmán would bring the Calderón administration a popularity windfall, let alone help the pan make up the ground it needs in order to win the now imminent Presidential election. In Guadalajara, there was a large-scale Army raid, with helicopters, near the city center in March. The military tried to seal off the target neighborhood. The narcos responded by hijacking twenty-five trucks and municipal buses, setting them on fire, and blocking the city’s main roads. The Army, ever-secretive and rightly mistrustful of other government agencies, had not informed the governor, the mayor, the state police, the municipal police, or the federal police of its plans, so Guadalajarans huddled in their homes and workplaces, phoning and e-mailing one another, waiting in vain for advisories or information from the government as the sky filled with black smoke and the city rang with sirens. A young man I met spent the afternoon of the narcobloqueowatching TV news with a local family. One of their great fears that day, he said, was that the Army might be killing or capturing Chapo Guzmán. These were middle-class Guadalajarans, painfully aware of what organized crime is doing to Mexico—not fans of El Chapo by any stretch—but they feared that, if Guzmán were no longer running the Sinaloa cartel, all hell would break loose in Guadalajara. This is a widespread view, based on hard national experience of the fallout from Calderón’s kingpin strategy.

The Army captured a lesser capo that day, one Erick Valencia Salazar, a.k.a. El 85, whom authorities described as the leader of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (C.J.N.G.). A more important leader, according to security experts, and the real target of the raid—a gangster known as El Mencho—had eluded troops. The C.J.N.G. plastered the city with narcomantas apologizing to the public for the narcobloqueo. It had been an emotional outburst, the mantas said, in reaction to the loss of El 85. The narcos were sorry about the day’s events (which included the death of a bus driver who was inadvertently burned alive), and would now return to their main mission, which was keeping Guadalajara safe from the Zetas. Some amateur scholars of the drug trade speculated that Chapo Guzmán might have tried to set up El Mencho, whose ambitions were said to be trumping his loyalty to Sinaloa. The experts I interviewed all said that the narcobloqueo had actually been a tactical maneuver, meant to distract the Army and law enforcement, so that narcos more important than Valencia could leave the city undetected. Inevitably, Chapo Guzmán was rumored to have been among them.

How can Guadalajarans continue to see their town as a haven? The most tenacious local myth is that powerful narcos want it peaceful because their families live there. This idea may once have had validity. A crackdown in the late seventies on traffickers in Sinaloa, fuelled largely by U.S. demands, drove many narcos from that state, and some of the top dogs did settle in Guadalajara. The money laundering was excellent, and they bought hotels, restaurants, night clubs. They married into some of the best old families, sent their children to good schools. Their wealth drove a local mini-boom.

Chapo Guzmán, too, lived in Guadalajara, rising within an organization disrupted by U.S.-driven arrests to form the Sinaloa cartel. Although he had only a third-grade education, his aptitude for international smuggling was high. He cultivated cocaine sources in South America, secured routes through Central America and western Mexico, and built elaborate tunnels under the U.S. border. He could be ruthless. The story was that he built his tunnels with slave labor and, in the interests of secrecy, killed the workers when they were finished. He gave no quarter in battles over plazas that he considered valuable. At the same time, he gained a reputation as a reasonable business partner, and built alliances across the globe. This was particularly important in the meth trade, where production relies on chemicals manufactured primarily in Asia. In Mexico, it is estimated that Guzmán employs, directly or indirectly, a hundred and fifty thousand people. His influence, even his popularity, runs especially deep in Sinaloa. Local joke: How can you tell when times are tough in Sinaloa? El Chapo had to lay off ten judges.

The prison that he escaped from, known as Puente Grande, is on the outskirts of Guadalajara. His elusiveness, at least some of which must be put down to luck, only burnishes his legend. He is the subject of many narcocorridos, the popular ballads that celebrate outlaw exploits. Emma Coronel is his fourth wife. She caught his eye while Guzmán was hiding out in her village, in Durango. He helped see that she won a local beauty contest, where she was named Miss Coffee and Guava. Their wedding, on her eighteenth birthday, in 2007, was, from all reports, a great blowout. The Army showed up a day late. Emma Coronel is the niece of Nacho Coronel. Frequent reports that Guzmán travels with a uniformed, heavily armed security detail of up to three hundred men were belied by the government’s version of the bungled raid in Cabo San Lucas in February. Guzmán appeared to be staying in the rented mansion with a retinue of four, one of them a local prostitute, whom the police interrogated extensively.

Few seem to believe that Guzmán’s capture or demise would put a noticeable dent in the Mexican drug trade. A succession plan is undoubtedly in place. Some analysts think that Guzmán is not even the chief executive in the Sinaloa cartel. “Chapo is a brand,” a Guadalajara academic told me. “He does not make major decisions. His fate will be decided for him, just as his ‘escape’ from Puente Grande was the result of a deal.” Intellectuals who discount Guzmán’s agency in the multi-decade telenovela of his life see him as a mere manager of narco-trafficking, a distraction from Mexico’s problems of corruption, poverty, impunity, and bad government. For both Calderón and the country, chasing him is avoiding the hard work of building a more transparent, modern democracy.

But the power of organized crime in Mexico now holds hostage large areas of the country, including major cities, such as Monterrey, and terrorizes the rest with performances of stupefying violence. Calderón’s deployment of the Army, first justified by the military’s relatively clean reputation, has only besmirched that reputation, as soldiers commit a rising number of crimes against civilians, and fail to resist financial temptation. Four senior commanders, including three generals, one of them Calderón’s former No. 2 at the defense ministry, were arrested in May on suspicion of working for organized crime. (No formal charges have been filed.) More than fifty-six thousand troops have deserted under Calderón.

Some Guadalajarans find cold comfort by looking north, to Monterrey, where security has been in free fall for the past two years. It is Mexico’s third-largest city, and its wealthiest. But the police have lost control of the streets. Kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and murder are commonplace. The number of killings there tripled between 2009 and 2010, then nearly doubled again in 2011. Army checkpoints now lace the city. Guadalajara has experienced nothing close to Monterrey’s nightmare. What happened there? The Zetas and the Gulf cartel started a war. The local police reportedly went to work en masse for the cartels. Now the Zetas are pillaging the city.

The Zetas are unlike other Mexican crime groups. Their founders were deserters from the Mexican military’s élite special forces, recruited in the late nineteen-nineties as bodyguards and enforcers for the leader of the then formidable Gulf cartel. The cartel paid many times what the military did. The Zetas’ numbers grew. Trained as paratroopers and intelligence operatives, they introduced a paramilitary element to narco-trafficking, outgunning police units. They ambushed the Army. They seized plazas and drug routes from other cartels, with an efficiency and a brutality not seen before. Beheadings became their signature, along with castrations with genitals stuffed in mouths and corpses with a “Z” carved into the flesh. Their ranks swelled with infusions from a notorious Guatemalan counter-insurgency unit, the Kaibiles.

Traditional crime groups like Sinaloa were family-based, often deeply tied to a region. The Zetas were military. Their mission was to kill and destroy. When they outgrew their role as enforcers, they turned on their employers. They beat the Gulf cartel down to insignificance. Their only real rival now is Sinaloa. The Zetas, who are estimated to have more than ten thousand fighters, control virtually the entire east coast of Mexico, and have laid claim to several of the busiest cargo crossing points on the U.S. border, including Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo. It is believed that they are pushing west because they want to open a corridor to a major Pacific port, such as Manzanillo, just south of Guadalajara.

The Zetas approach a town, a city, or a state as a shakedown opportunity. They fight for the right to terrorize a community, and bleed it dry. They also threaten the central government. One of their mantas, hung from a bridge in Monterrey in February, said, “The government must make a pact with us because if not we will have to overthrow it and take power by force.” A recent government study found that the Zetas are now active in seventeen of Mexico’s thirty-two states. (The same study found that Sinaloa is active in sixteen.) They have even moved into the state of Sinaloa, where they are reportedly fighting ferociously, village by village, for control of Chapo Guzmán’s home turf.

The Zetas traffic drugs, but their specialties are kidnapping, extortion, murder, robbery, human smuggling, and product piracy. Their punishments for failure to pay protection money are extravagant and meant to be cautionary. Last August, they firebombed a casino in Monterrey whose owner had not paid, killing at least fifty-two customers. They kidnap migrant workers, mainly from Central America, and demand ransom from their impoverished families. Some of their massacres make no obvious sense. In 2010, seventy-two migrants were found dead at a ranch near the U.S. border. In 2011, a mass grave with the remains of a hundred and ninety-three people, presumably migrants, was discovered in the desert in Tamaulipas. Migrants are now crossing further west, in Sonora, hoping to avoid the Zetas. Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, says that the Zetas have begun tapping its pipelines, stealing millions of barrels of crude oil a year.

The Zetas’ esprit is remarkable. When Zetas are captured, other Zetas break them out of prison. There have been dozens of attacks, riots, escapes. In December, 2010, a hundred and fifty-one Zetas broke out of jail in Nuevo Laredo. This February, twenty-nine escaped from a prison in Monterrey, but not before stabbing and bludgeoning to death forty-four incarcerated members of the Gulf cartel. Given the group’s reputation for steely invincibility, it is not surprising that gangbangers across Mexico want to be Zetas. Simply dropping the name does wonders, reportedly, for the success rate of extortion schemes. But fake Zetas risk retribution from real Zetas. And the Zetas’ torture methods, including decapitation, are always available for review on the Internet.

Rival cartels have often been just as bad. La Familia Michoacana nearly matched the Zetas beheading for beheading during a struggle for supremacy in the west-coast state of Michoacán, a struggle that La Familia won. (Afterward, La Familia splintered.) And, when the Zetas began to threaten Jalisco, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation formed a squad called the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers)—said to be led by El 85, and subsidized by Chapo Guzmán—which carried the fight into the Zetas’ heartland. The Mata Zetas released a strikingly composed, politically tinged video announcing their plans to annihilate their degenerate foes, and in September, 2011, the Jalisco group dumped thirty-five bodies on a busy avenue in Veracruz at rush hour. Two weeks later, thirty-two more bodies were found in three safe houses around the city. Veracruz is Zetas territory. It is also the main seaport on the east coast of Mexico, and therefore interesting to Chapo Guzmán—useful, clearly, for cocaine moving northward, and for meth chemicals arriving from overseas. More immediately, though, the Mata Zetas’ plan was simply to open a rearguard path to try to slow the Zetas’ advance on Jalisco. The corpses thrown under the Millennium Arches in November were a retaliation.

Mexican election campaigns are short—ninety days for the Presidential contest, and usually less for state and local contests. Enrique Peña Nieto bravely launched his campaign in Guadalajara, historically a pan stronghold. By mid-April, the city was saturated with political advertising. Every taxi was festooned, every wall and billboard. Television and radio often seemed like a solid wave of slogans, jingles, appeals, attacks. By far the most numerous “spots” were the pri’s. The pri candidate for the governorship of Jalisco, Aristóteles Sandoval Díaz, is the current mayor of Guadalajara. He looks like a provincial version of Peña Nieto—young, guapo, prone to platitudes. Sandoval began the year by declaring that he would “armor” his campaign against infiltration by organized crime. In his previous campaigns, he reportedly received financial backing from several Sinaloa cartel mobsters, among them Ignacio Loya Alatorre, identified by federal prosecutors as Nacho Coronel’s money manager, who was assassinated in 2005, and Tony Duarte, who was a car thief before he became a prominent Guadalajara businessman and alleged Sinaloa bagman (he was assassinated, in Puerto Vallarta, in 2011). Sandoval’s declaration may have been reassuring to voters: he is far ahead in the polls.

Does organized crime favor one party? Or do particular cartels back particular parties? Not notably. Each of the major parties has had corruption scandals. The pri’s pre-2000 dominance meant that most, if not all, of the agreements, known as acuerdos, between organized crime and officialdom during that period involved the pri. But that was when the pri was the only game in town. Even López Obrador, the P.R.D. candidate, originally made his name as a prileader. With the rise of other parties, new acuerdoswere made. The narcos are most concerned with local politicians and police and military units. They want to be able to land this load at this airfield. Their acuerdos tend to be with individuals. If they prefer to work with one candidate for mayor, or governor, they may intimidate or, in the case of the Zetas, even kill his opponent. But the party affiliation of politicians, let alone Army or police commanders, is irrelevant.

Joanna Jablonska Bayro is a sociology student. For her doctoral dissertation, she has been interviewing twenty Guadalajarans about how they perceive their city and their security—where and why they feel unsafe, how they protect themselves from risks.

“People fight hard to maintain the fantasy that Guadalajara is an oasis of tranquillity,” she told me. “With the corpse dumping at the Millennium Arches, there was a lot of effort by the authorities to show that the dead were all narcos. Then the news came out that the victims were ordinary people. That’s when people here panicked. Then, about a month later, the authorities announced that they had caught the killers, and that, no, the victims were all narcos. They were trying to reëstablish some equilibrium, some sense of safety in the city. But who knows what’s true?”

Nobody, rich or poor, in Jablonska’s study feels completely confident that the government will tell them the truth. And everyone is mortally afraid of the Zetas. “After this recent narcobloqueo, all the mantas that went up were about protecting the people from the Zetas. The Zetas are the incarnation of the threat.”

Attitudes toward the security forces break down along class lines. The upper and middle classes are still enthusiastic about the Army, the poor far less so. As for the local police, people with more resources regard their corruption as only a nuisance, while the poor find them dangerous: “They’ll put drugs on me, and cause me a lot of problems.” Everyone in Jablonska’s study feels that Mexican social and political institutions, including the state itself, are weakening. “Some of this institutional weakness comes from the post-pri fragmentation of power,” Jablonska said. Everyone has lost confidence in the rule of law. Nearly anyone who can afford it, including the lower middle class, now lives in a gated community, with private security. “People in more precarious neighborhoods must build their own networks of protection. They rely on pit bulls, family networks, and, of course, organized crime. They never call the police.”

Ninety-eight per cent of serious crimes in Mexico go unpunished, according to a recent report by the Monterrey Institute of Technology. For kidnapping, which is rarely reported, the figure might be even higher. Kidnapping is the horror lapping at the edge of nearly everyone’s mind, and it’s known that kidnapping is one of the Zetas’ favorite crimes. Corrupt police are often involved—one of the reasons it’s rarely reported. Private security companies seek to capitalize on the public’s panic. When you read a crime story online, the advertisement blinking alongside the text is often an offer of private protection for you and your family against secuestro—kidnapping. If someone disappears and no ransom call comes, should it even be called kidnapping? Human-rights groups estimate that more than five thousand people have disappeared in Mexico in the past five years.

Mexican TV provides a P.R. forum for the police and the military. “People love these big drug busts, these acts of bravery,” Jablonska said. “They have real value.” The police and the Army play to that taste, with a constant stream of handcuffed ruffians presented to TV cameras. Behind the captured narcos stand black military helicopters. Drugs and cash and weapons, some gold-plated, are laid out on banquet tables. The government even produces YouTube-ready videos with dramatic musical intros, graphics, and sleek institutional logos. (And now: the Confession of La Barbie!)

Weary of pantallas, I tried to get to the bottom of a single bust—the “historic” meth-lab raid in Tlajomulco that confiscated some four billion dollars’ worth of drugs. Were the drugs seized really worth that much? Well, no. The more experts I consulted, the lower the number sank. Maybe it was a billion, if the meth was pure. Then was it really fifteen tons of “pure meth,” as widely reported? Well, no. There had been some confusion. There were precursor chemicals. A lot of equipment—gas tanks, reactors. Maybe it was eleven pounds of pure meth. Eleven pounds? Nobody wanted to speak on the record, but the spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office in Guadalajara, a young man named Ulises Enríquez Camacho, finally said, “Yes, five kilos.” Eleven pounds. The fifteen tons had been methamphetamine ready for packing, according to the Army. But it was not “a finished product,” and there had been only five kilos of crystal. In the U.S., where meth is often sold by the gram, that amount might be worth five hundred thousand dollars. So the reported value had been inflated by a factor of eight thousand?

I wanted to get the Army’s side of the story, so I went to the headquarters of the Fifteenth Military Zone, whose troops had carried out the raid. The base is in Zapopan, northwest of Guadalajara. The chief of staff, General Gerardo Wolburg Redondo, said he would need permission to speak to me. He later phoned. Permission denied, he said, by Mexico City, because of Article 41, a provision of the Mexican constitution that forbids the diffusion of government propaganda during an election-campaign period.

Article 41 had suddenly become a popular law in government offices, I found. Sorry, love to chat, but—Article 41. People were happy to talk off the record, however, about the Army’s operations in Jalisco. It had been raiding meth labs at a torrid rate—sixty-three in the past year, by the Army’s count, with many of those in Tlajomulco. Arrests almost never happened, though. Why not? Ulises Enríquez explained that it was difficult for troops to arrive at a meth-lab site without neighbors seeing them approach and warning the narcos to flee. Why, I asked, would the neighbors do that? They were paid lookouts, he said. How did the Army know where the labs were? Different neighbors, made suspicious by high traffic or strong chemical odors, called—or, more often, e-mailed—the police or the Army. Anonymous denunciations.

This scenario was derided by most of the people I consulted, in law enforcement and elsewhere. Narcos ratted out rival narcos—that was normally how the authorities learned things. Or the narcos and certain authorities came to an agreement. What civilian would drop a dime on a cartel? That could be suicidal. There was no way to know who would be on the other end of that call or e-mail. Anyway, labs that were up to date on their protection payments usually had nothing to fear. Meth labs operated in networks, moving materials and personnel between facilities to maximize production and minimize risk. Losses from seizures were a cost of doing business, and rarely catastrophic. The networks in Jalisco were very big now. Sinaloa had recently ramped up production. The remnants of La Familia Michoacana had moved labs here, getting them out of strife-torn southern Michoacán. But the commander of the Fifth Military Region, General Fausto Lozano Espinosa, was on a rampage. He wanted meth labs. The Army had almost no field intelligence, but the government needed dramatic busts, headlines, and so an acuerdo had seemingly been reached. The locations of some labs would be disclosed, and they would be busted, but there would be no one there—no guards, and certainly no chemists or cooks, who were highly valued employees.

The Army’s version of the great February bust was doubted by U.S. officials, too. One told me that it had actually happened two weeks before the announcement claimed. The press release went out to the wider world before the drugs were properly tested, along with photographs of masked soldiers standing among blue barrels filled with yellow powder. According to this official, the Army often told no one, certainly not the police, and sometimes not even the federal prosecutor’s office, about its raids—not even afterward—until it had a reason, usually political, to do so. It was all about the credit. Evidence collection and preservation were not part of the Army’s mission—that was the federal prosecutor’s job. No one seemed to be in a position to question the wisdom of smashing up places, learning nothing, carrying off drugs, and calling it a blow against organized crime.

The great bust took place near a village called Buena Vista, at a “ranch” called Rancho Villarreal. Although the Army had closed its investigation almost immediately, Ulises Enríquez said that the federal prosecutor still had an investigation open. So I asked him who owned Rancho Villarreal. He said that it was difficult to determine. It was a party venue, really, with a swimming pool, a bar, cabanas. It was for weddings, quinceañeras, company picnics. But the owner of a property couldn’t be held responsible for everything that tenants did there. When I asked around about the disposition of the drugs seized at Rancho Villarreal, someone close to the case told me that he believed the product had been quietly returned to its owners, for an unknown price.

Víctor Hugo Ornelas and I went to Buena Vista. I had been there a couple of times before, checking out Rancho Villarreal, but the villagers had been reluctant to talk. They claimed not to remember the Army raid, let alone the narcolaboratorio. I believed I was endangering them just by lingering. Hugo, however, knew people there. A young guy I’ll call Ramón took us out on the back roads of Buena Vista in his 4 x 4. “Some of the kids around here really look up to the narcos,” Ramón said. “The girls, especially. It’s too bad. They go to their parties, enjoy the narcocorridos, get pregnant. One pregnant girl’s boyfriend disappeared. We assume he’s dead. But the other pregnant girls are still happy. They want the babies. The guys are from Sinaloa and Michoacán. Some from Jalisco. They all have money, nice trucks, nice ranchos.

“The priest likes having the narcos here,” Ramón went on. “Some are quite religious. They fixed up his church. They get their kids baptized there.”

We were bumping down a deeply rutted road. It was rough, open country—plenty of room for clandestinity. “Those ranchos with the big walls, the heavy gates?” Ramón said, pointing out homesteads visible here and there. “Those are all narquitos. They have watchdogs, fighting cocks. You can tell. Palm trees.”

“Yeah, palm trees,” Hugo said. “What is it with narcos and palm trees?”

“I don’t know. They just have to have them.” They laughed.

We stopped and gazed down a very long driveway at a huge new house. The driveway looked practically impassable, even for a 4 x 4. “They can afford to improve the roads,” Ramón said. “But sometimes they prefer an ugly road. It lets them see their enemies coming.”

Were the cartels fighting?

“No. Not right now. It seems like La Familia Michoacana is dominant around here at the moment. But most of the labs belong to the Jalisco cartel. They employ a lot of lookouts.”

We passed a small airstrip. “That’s for model planes,” Ramón said. “Hobbyists. Soldiers.”

He and Hugo exchanged a look. “Incredible,” Hugo said.

We regained the paved road where we had left my car. Two sedans with big, brightly painted, carefully hand-built model airplanes lashed to their roofs were turning off the road onto the dirt track.

Hugo and I went to Rancho Villarreal. It was at the end of a long, twisting, unpaved road. The brick outer walls were ten feet high. The gate was padlocked, with a warning posted that the property had been sealed by the federal prosecutor. “Who would want to have a wedding out here?” Hugo said. “These places are for money laundering.” He poked in the grass with his cane, spearing a cardboard box, which he lifted for inspection. The box had contained a “Respirator—Full Facepiece,” made by 3M. Respirators were essential meth-lab gear. Hugo stabbed in the grass again. “Military,” he said, lifting a pair of wool khaki gloves with no fingertips. He turned and walked into a log-walled guard hut that I had not noticed before. “Family,” he said, from inside. “Woman”—he lifted, from the trash-strewn floor, a sanitary napkin on the tip of his cane. “Child”—he lifted a tiny pink child’s backpack. “Man”—he lifted a work boot. He bent and picked up a golf ball, and pointed to a set of numbers stamped on it. “We could find out who bought this, possibly, and where,” he said, dropping the ball in his bag.

Back outside, Hugo stared at the high walls of Rancho Villarreal. Palm trees rose against the sky from inside the compound. At the far end of the front wall, also inside the compound, was a narrow, two-story outbuilding. “That’s a watchtower,” Hugo said. He pointed to a pile of bricks and tile in a corner where two high walls met. “That pile was for jumping over,” he said. “For getting away fast.”

While driving back toward the village, Hugo asked me to stop the car. We parked next to a white-walled farm of some kind, surrounded by fields. Hugo hiked down to look at a pair of hoses. They came out of the farm, passed under the road, and emptied into a field. He smelled the hoses. He shook his head. He pointed to a set of pipes and wires running through the bottom of the white walls. “Those, yes,” he said quietly. He looked down at the hoses. “These, no.” That was when I noticed that this place, too, had a tall, narrow outbuilding in the corner of the compound, affording a view over the high walls. “Watchtower,” Hugo said. “Palm trees. Not a farm.” He got back in the car. But he did not touch his camera.

On May 9th, Guadalajarans woke up to a new Zetas atrocity—eighteen headless, dismembered bodies left in two vehicles parked near a popular restaurant out past the airport. Then the police found some more body parts in a safe house in Chapala, a lakeside community that is popular with retired Americans and Canadians, about an hour south of the city. Half of the dead were soon identified. They were local people who had recently gone missing. Ordinary citizens, not narcos, kidnapped and murdered. Four were said to have been students at the University of Guadalajara.

That turned out to be only part of the story. It seemed that the Zetas had planned to kidnap and kill fifty people, and to distribute the dismembered corpses around Guadalajara on Mother’s Day. The details of this plan emerged after a kidnapper on guard duty, Laura Rosales Sánchez, fell asleep and a dozen victims, seizing their chance, escaped. It was too late to save the eighteen—and two boys under Laura Rosales’s guard who failed to flee were also killed—but the police managed to arrest four of the kidnappers, who, under interrogation, revealed the grand plan to kill fifty. The kidnappings, their leader confirmed, had been done at random. They just grabbed whomever they could—waiters, a construction worker, a dance teacher in a primary school.

The purpose behind all this carnage? To “cause terror,” the arrested leader, who is twenty-seven, said. He seemed vaguely bored at his perp-show press event, where he nonetheless tried to answer every reporter’s question. He was just following orders, he said, from a Zeta named Fernando, who remained at large. Laura Rosales, who is twenty-five, said that she had been mainly helping her brother, Angel, who also remained at large, and that the Zetas were responding, with this massacre, to the killing, up north, of twenty-three Zetas by Chapo Guzmán’s forces.

After the Mother’s Day massacre, thirty thousand people, led by University of Guadalajara students and dressed in white, marched silently through the city, protesting the ever-rising tide of violence and the government’s apparent helplessness before it.

Around the same time, tens of thousands of students marched in Mexico City in a sudden revolt, launched just weeks before the election, against the constantly reported inevitability of a Peña Nieto victory. Acuerdos between the pri and the country’s biggest broadcasters, including alleged payoffs exposed by the Guardian, were making this a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the protesters. There were more marches in June, but the student movement seemed unlikely to stop the return of the pri.

The federal prosecutor’s office announced that it had incinerated the entire haul of drugs from the super-lab in Buena Vista within ten days of the seizure. I asked Ulises Enríquez where this massive chemical fire had taken place. At the Club Canada shooting range in Tonalá, he said, out toward Puente Grande. They burned narcotics there each month. In the open air? Of course. His office oversaw the destruction.

I went to the shooting range for the next bonfire. There was a compact-car-size mound of drugs already piled beyond the first target berm. It contained, I was told, just under a ton of marijuana, six hundred grams of cocaine, forty grams of ephedrine, just over a thousand tabs of synthetic drugs (Ecstasy, meth), and slightly more than thirty pounds of crystal. Six men from the Tonalá fire department torched the hillock of dope, and the heat got worse. A federal narcotics agent I’ll call Rodríguez was in charge.

Rodríguez was dressed in baggy shorts, boots, a gray T-shirt, and a little blue cowboy hat. He had a Beretta 9-mm. pistol in his waistband, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He accused the firefighters of deliberately staying downwind of the fire, from which pungent black smoke billowed. “Look at those crazy firemen,” he called. “Watch, they’ll start dancing.” In fact, the firefighters were staggering around in heavy protective gear, including masks and helmets. There were a dozen workers from the federal prosecutor’s office in attendance, but they stayed back in the shooter’s pavilion, far from the fire, drinking Coke. The handful of us out in the field retreated to a patch of shade, where Rodríguez regaled us with tales of street drug seizures.

“I like to come up to the pinche dealers like I’m dying for a fix,” he said. He was startlingly good in the role of a desperate addict. Then he was just as good playing a gruff, paranoid dealer—funny, convincing. Then he whirled from a dope-snorting crouch, whipping out his pistol, knocking the dealer to the ground, cackling triumphantly as himself, the undercover cop. “And now, pendejo?” He had his boot on the dealer’s neck. The dealer was crying for his wife. Rodríguez, grinning wildly, was, for a moment, God. Should he arrest the guy? Rip him off? Beat him up? All of the above?

I asked Rodríguez whom he worked for. “afis,” he said, straightening up, sticking his gun back in his shorts. (The afis had actually been disbanded, but everybody still calls their replacement, the Federal Ministerial Police, by that name.) “They commissioned me from the municipal police.”

Rodríguez struck me as a man living at the coal face of Mexican life, right where legality and illegality clash and overlap. As other people drifted away, he told me that he had made twelve hundred arrests, maybe more. He had been a cop for twenty-two years. He was forty-four. Before that, he worked in Alabama, planting trees. That was great money—three hundred dollars a week. He demonstrated his tree-planting technique, making it look quick, precise, gruelling, and comical.

How did he get to Alabama?

“I was wet,” he said—illegal.

Rodríguez turned and shouted at the firefighters. They weren’t stoking the blaze correctly. He ran out, grabbed a pitchfork, and started throwing flaming bales of pot in the air, until the fire was roaring again. His energy was maniacal. He was also weirdly loose-limbed. When my cell phone rang, he started dancing to the ringtone.

How was his pay as a cop?

Bad, he said. The afis picked up some of his expenses, but he had to work a second full-time job, as a stonemason.

He changed the subject, to politics. “If the pri wins, everything’s going to change,” he said. “Everybody will start getting paid again. They know how to do it.” He pantomimed a paymaster, counting out cash to a circle of people. “The media, too,” he said, mock paying me.

It was true: the pri, when in power, paid some journalists extravagantly, and supported many newspapers and other media in return for coverage that suited its purposes.

“There will be just one big group,” Rodríguez said. “Maybe it will be El Chapo. But there will be peace.”

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Jacob Tanenbaum: Creation, Evolution and Indisputable facts

Preface. And you wonder why Trump got elected?  Evangelists are 25% of voters, and 80% of them voted for Trump. Clearly they can’t think clearly.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Jacob Tanenbaum. January 1, 2013. Creation, Evolution and Indisputable facts. A science teacher asks if scientists and biblical literalists can get along. Scientific American.

As a science teacher, I am always curious about people’s attitudes toward what I teach. Since more than 40 percent of U.S. adults believe literally what is written in the Book of Genesis—that Earth and the universe were created in six days about 6,000 years ago—and since I was in the neighborhood recently, I decided to visit the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., run by the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Ministry.

The museum has a brand-new planetarium and 70,000 square feet of exhibits claiming that the story of Genesis happened exactly as written. In the main lobby, a large display depicts life just after creation. Richly detailed with plants and rocks, it features a small boy playing, while two dinosaurs graze nearby. According to the exhibits, the stars are younger than Earth (they were created on Day 4), and Noah saved all animal species that we see today from the Flood. Earth had its one and only ice age, lasting a few hundred years.

What disturbed me most about my time spent at the museum was the theme, repeated from one exhibit to the next, that the differences between biblical literalists and mainstream scientists are minor. They are not minor; they are poles apart. This is not to say that science and religion are incompatible; many scientists believe in some kind of higher power, and many religious people accept the idea of evolution. Still, a literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be reconciled with modern science. Advertisement

Scientists tell us we live in a remote corner of a vast universe that existed billions of years before humans arrived. The universe and Earth could continue just fine without us. We are one species of many on a little planet with an ancient fossil record that shows that more than 99% of the species that once lived are now extinct. This speaks to a tenuousness of our existence as a species—an existence we need to protect vigorously.

AiG’s biblical literalists, on the other hand, hold that we are God’s favorites. We live at the universe’s center on a planet God made and maintains for us to use. Earth’s resources are here for us to exploit. God protects us and promised he would not destroy Earth again until the end of days. In that scenario, we have little reason to safeguard our existence.

Creationists begin with answers and work to prove that those answers are right. This is antithetical to the scientific process. Scientists who formed the idea of human evolution did not invent the idea and go looking for fossils. Well before Charles Darwin published his treatise in 1859 and well before workers in a limestone quarry in 1856 found strange bones that would later be called Neanderthal, scientists struggled to explain what they saw in the natural world and in the fossil record. The theory of evolution was the product of that analysis. That is how science works.

The danger is that 40% of the American electorate seems to have forgotten what science is. Considering that our nation put a man on the moon and invented the airplane and the Internet, this development is extraordinary. Yet when much of the electorate faces the complex scientific questions of our day, they do not reject science wholesale, they cherry-pick it. Few if any of them live without the benefits of fossil fuels and electricity. Most are happy to fly in airplanes, take hot showers, heat their homes, drive their cars, watch their televisions and text their friends. They reject science only if it conflicts with their beliefs or asks them to change their way of life.

When Americans selectively reject science, it handicaps us, as a nation, in a knowledge-based global economy. We need to be open when scientific discoveries tell us our actions have consequences, raise doubts about our future and ask us to change. So I’ll keep teaching science, not belief. Because if students do not understand how science works, we can destroy our country’s future or even threaten our existence on this old Earth. Advertisement

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New Yorker review of Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control”

Preface.  This book has been on my reading list for several years now, but I have to admit I am lazy, lazy – the 656 pages is twice the length of most books.  And it would be hard to write a better review than this…

It is sheer luck that WWIII or nuclear explosins haven’t happened yet by accident, by miscalculation of the other side’s intentions,  bombs dripped by mistake, bombers crashing, or computers miscalculating.  There were 1200 nuclear weapons alone between 1950 and 1968 involved in significant accidents.

I heard McNamara speak at U.C. Berkeley after the movie “Fog of War” by Errol Morris was shown.  He said it’s up to us to do what we can to stop nuclear proliferation, and indeed it seems as important as any other cause you might choose to get involved in, and especially since it has more potential than climate change to drive humans and other life extinct.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Louis Menand. September 30, 2013. Nukes of Hazard. Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control. the New Yorker.

On January 25, 1995, at 9:28 a.m.Moscow time, an aide handed a briefcase to Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. A small light near the handle was on, and inside was a screen displaying information indicating that a missile had been launched four minutes earlier from somewhere in the vicinity of the Norwegian Sea, and that it appeared to be headed toward Moscow. Below the screen was a row of buttons. This was the Russian “nuclear football.” By pressing the buttons, Yeltsin could launch an immediate nuclear strike against targets around the world. Russian nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers were on full alert. Yeltsin had forty-seven hundred nuclear warheads ready to go.

The Chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, had a football, too, and he was monitoring the flight of the missile. Radar showed that stages of the rocket were falling away as it ascended, which suggested that it was an intermediate-range missile similar to the Pershing II, the missile deployed by NATO across Western Europe. The launch site was also in the most likely corridor for an attack on Moscow by American submarines. Kolesnikov was put on a hot line with Yeltsin, whose prerogative it was to launch a nuclear response. Yeltsin had less than six minutes to make a decision.

The Cold War had been over for four years. Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned on December 25, 1991, and had handed over the football and the launch codes to Yeltsin. The next day, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence. By 1995, though, Yeltsin’s popularity in the West was in decline; there was tension over plans to expand NATO; and Russia was bogged down in a war in Chechnya. In the context of nuclear war, these were minor troubles, but there was also the fact, very much alive in Russian memory, that seven and a half years earlier, in May, 1987, a slightly kooky eighteen-year-old German named Mathias Rust had flown a rented Cessna, an airplane about the size of a Piper Cub, from Helsinki to Moscow and landed it a hundred yards from Red Square. The humiliation had led to a mini-purge of the air-defense leadership. Those people did not want to get burned twice.

After tracking the flight for several minutes, the Russians concluded that its trajectory would not take the missile into Russian territory. The briefcases were closed. It turned out that Yeltsin and his generals had been watching a weather rocket launched from Norway to study the aurora borealis. Peter Pry, who reported the story in his book “War Scare” (1999), called it “the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age.” Whether it was the most dangerous moment or not, the weather-rocket scare was one of hundreds of incidents after 1945 when accident, miscommunication, human error, mechanical malfunction, or some combination of glitches nearly resulted in the detonation of nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, there were a few occasions, such as the Cuban missile crisis, in 1962, when one side or the other was close to a decision that was likely to start a nuclear war. There were also some threats to go nuclear, though they were rarely taken completely seriously. In 1948, during a dispute with the Soviets over control of Berlin, Harry Truman sent B-29s to England, where they would be in range of Moscow. They were not armed with atomic bombs, but they were intended as a signal that the United States would use atomic weapons to defend Western Europe.

In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Nikita Khrushchev threatened to attack London and Paris with missiles if Britain and France did not withdraw their forces from Egypt. And, in 1969, Richard Nixon ordered B-52s armed with hydrogen bombs to fly routes up and down the coast of the Soviet Union—part of his “madman theory,” a strategy intended to get the North Vietnamese to believe that he was capable of anything, and to negotiate for peace. (The madman strategy was no more effective than anything else the United States tried, short of withdrawal, in the hope of bringing an end to the Vietnam War.)

But most of the danger that human beings faced from nuclear weapons after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to do with inadvertence—with bombs dropped by mistake, bombers catching on fire or crashing, missiles exploding, and computers miscalculating and people jumping to the wrong conclusion. On most days, the probability of a nuclear explosion happening by accident was far greater than the probability that someone would deliberately start a war.

In the early years of the Cold War, many of these accidents involved airplanes. In 1958, for example, a B-47 bomber carrying a Mark 36 hydrogen bomb, one of the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal, caught fire while taxiing on a runway at an airbase in Morocco. The plane split in two, the base was evacuated, and the fire burned for two and a half hours. But the explosives in the warhead didn’t detonate; that would have set off a chain reaction. Although the King of Morocco was informed, the accident was otherwise kept a secret.

Six weeks later, a Mark 6 landed in the back yard of a house in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. It had fallen when a crewman mistakenly grabbed the manual bomb-release lever. The nuclear core had not been inserted, but the explosives detonated, killing a lot of chickens, sending members of the family to the hospital, and leaving a thirty-five-foot crater. Although it was impossible to keep that event a secret, the Strategic Air Command (sac), which controlled the airborne nuclear arsenal, informed the public that the incident was the first of its kind. In fact, the previous year, a hydrogen bomb, also without a core, had been accidentally released near Albuquerque and exploded on impact.

Soon after the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik, in 1957, missiles became the preferred delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads, but scary things kept happening. In 1960, the computer at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs warned, with 99.9-per-cent certainty, that the Soviets had just launched a full-scale missile attack against North America. The warheads would land within minutes. When it was learned that Khrushchev was in New York City, at the United Nations, and when no missiles landed, officials concluded that the warning was a false alarm. They later discovered that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Thule Airbase, in Greenland, had interpreted the moon rising over Norway as a missile attack from Siberia.

In 1979, NORAD’s computer again warned of an all-out Soviet attack. Bombers were manned, missiles were placed on alert, and air-traffic controllers notified commercial aircraft that they might soon be ordered to land. An investigation revealed that a technician had mistakenly put a war-games tape, intended as part of a training exercise, into the computer. A year later, it happened a third time: Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national-security adviser, was called at home at two-thirty in the morning and informed that two hundred and twenty missiles were on their way toward the United States. That false alarm was the fault of a defective computer chip that cost forty-six cents.

A study run by Sandia National Laboratories, which oversees the production and security of American nuclear-weapons systems, discovered that between 1950 and 1968 at least twelve hundred nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” accidents. Even bombs that worked didn’t work quite as planned. In Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, only 1.38 per cent of the nuclear core, less than a kilogram* of uranium, fissioned (although the bomb killed eighty thousand people). The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, three days later, was a mile off target (and killed forty thousand people). A test of the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini atoll, in 1954, produced a yield of fifteen megatons, three times as great as scientists had predicted, and spread lethal radioactive fallout over hundreds of square miles in the Pacific, some of it affecting American observers miles away from the blast site.

These stories, and many more, can be found in Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control” (Penguin), an excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller:

Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose.

“Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.”

“Command and Control” is how nonfiction should be written.

Schlosser is known for two popular books, “Fast Food Nation,” published in 2001, and “Reefer Madness,” an investigative report on black markets in marijuana, pornography, and illegal immigrants that came out in 2003. Readers of those books, and of Schlosser’s occasional writings in The Nation, are likely to associate him with progressive politics. They may be surprised to learn that, insofar as “Command and Control” has any heroes, those heroes are Curtis LeMay, Robert McNamara, and Ronald Reagan (plus an Air Force sergeant named Jeff Kennedy, who was involved in responding to the wounded missile in the Arkansas silo). Those men understood the risks of just having these things on the planet, and they tried to keep them from blowing up in our faces.

Until the late nineteen-sixties, nuclear rhetoric was far ahead of nuclear reality. In 1947, two years after the war in Europe ended, the United States had a hundred thousand troops stationed in Germany, and the Soviet Union had 1.2 million. Truman saw the atomic bomb as a great equalizer (the Soviets had not yet developed one), and he allowed Stalin to understand that the United States would use it to stop Soviet aggression in Western Europe. Truman was subsequently startled to find out from the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilienthal, that the United States had exactly one atomic bomb in its stockpile. The bomb was unassembled, but Lilienthal thought that it could probably be made operative.

It was during the Eisenhower Administration that nuclear weapons became the centerpiece of American military planning. Eisenhower thought that the defense budget was out of control, and building nuclear bombs is cheaper than maintaining a large conventional armed force. His Administration also believed that the doctrine of “massive retaliation”—the promise to meet Soviet aggression with an overwhelming nuclear response—was a deterrent that would keep the peace.

When John F. Kennedy ran for President, in 1960, he charged the Eisenhower Administration with having permitted a “missile gap” to develop between the United States and the Soviet Union—an issue that may have helped Kennedy win a very close election. But, as Eisenhower knew from spy-plane reconnaissance, there was no missile gap in the Soviets’ favor. In 1960, the Soviet Union had just four confirmed intercontinental ballistic missiles. And although Air Force intelligence informed Kennedy, after he took office, that the Soviets might have a thousand ICBMs by the middle of 1961, by the end of that year they had sixteen. In 1962, the Soviet Union had about thirty-three hundred nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and the United States had more than twenty-seven thousand. The Soviets had 36 ICBMs; the Americans had 203.

Soviet nuclear capability was regularly exaggerated by American intelligence in the 1950s, and it was in the interest of the armed services, and particularly the Air Force (not a hero in Schlosser’s story), not to correct the record. For more than ten years, the American government poured money into the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the American public was regularly frightened by warnings about the dangers of a nuclear attack that was always made to appear imminent, and defense intellectuals produced papers and books in which they thought about the unthinkable—how to prepare for, how to avoid, and how to survive a nuclear war.

The threat was largely, although not completely, imaginary. The Soviets didn’t have the capability that nuclear-war scenarios assumed, and there was no good reason to believe that anyone’s nuclear weapons would work the way they were designed to. The Kennedy Administration estimated that seventy-five per cent of the warheads on Polaris missiles (the missiles carried in submarines) would not detonate.

Even the war plans were flawed. An atomic explosion kills by shock waves, by radioactive fallout, and by fire. But, as Lynn Eden explained in “Whole World on Fire” (2004), American military planners never took fire into account when they made estimates of bomb damage. They therefore systematically underestimated the projected effects of nuclear bombing, and that led to the production of far more warheads than anyone needed.

But the threat, even though partly imagined, permitted the military to compile an arsenal that forced the Soviets to compile an arsenal to match it—and thereby to make the threat real. By the early 1970s, the Soviet Union had more long-range missiles than the United States did. By then, the public was no longer transfixed by the spectacle of imminent nuclear war, but the world was a far more dangerous place than it had been in the years of civil-defense exercises and back-yard fallout shelters.

Schlosser’s story brings out the pas-de-deux character of Cold War relations, the habit each side had of copying whatever move the other side had just made. Every strategic advantage was answered with its double. The reason the United States wanted nuclear superiority was not to knock out the Soviet Union but to keep the peace: it wanted the Soviet Union to know that if it ever started a nuclear war it would lose. The Soviets, unsurprisingly, saw the matter differently, so, every time the United States did something that gave it an edge, the Soviets responded, and the edge vanished. The search for stability was inherently destabilizing.

When the United States, in the 1950s, cut back on conventional forces in order to rely on nukes, for example, the Soviets did the same. The Warsaw Pact was the Soviet version of NATO. After the United States created the Strategic Air Command and made it the spearhead of the country’s military power, the Soviets created the Strategic Rocket Forces. When the United States developed the capacity to survive a first strike, the Soviets did the same. The monkeys chased each other up the tree.

The pattern was true even of Cold War domestic policy. In 1947, Truman created, by executive order, a loyalty program for federal employees. A week later, the Central Committee of the Communist Party established the Soviet honor courts, charged with investigating Western influences on Soviet life. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating Communists in Hollywood at the same time that Stalin and his cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, started cracking down on artists and writers.

Every move intended to prevent a deliberate nuclear war therefore ended up increasing the risk of an accidental one. Schlosser’s point is not that there was some better way to run a Cold War. It is that the more extensive, elaborate, and fine-tuned the nuclear-weapons system became, the greater its exposure to the effects of an accident. For the system to work—for the warnings to be timely, communications to be transparent, missiles to launch, explosives inside the warheads to detonate, and nuclear cores to fission—everything has to be virtually perfect. The margin for error is tiny. And nothing is perfect.

Schlosser cites Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accidents” (1984) as an inspiration for his book. Perrow argued that in systems characterized by complex interactions and by what he called “tight coupling”—that is, processes that cannot readily be modified or turned off—accidents are normal. They can be expected. And they don’t lend themselves to very satisfying postmortems, since it is often difficult to explain just what stage it was in the cascade of bad events that made them irreversible.

Who was at fault in the Norwegian weather-rocket scare? The Norwegians had, in fact, notified the Russians several weeks in advance of the launch. They hadn’t specified a day, because the launch would depend on weather conditions. Either that notice was sent to the wrong parties in Russia or (which seems more likely) whoever received the notice didn’t grasp the implications or simply forgot to forward it to military authorities.

A mis-sent message is one of the most common errors in the world. Schlosser reminds us that during the Cuban missile crisis messages to Moscow from the Soviet Ambassador in Washington were written by hand and given to a Western Union messenger on a bicycle. “We at the Embassy could only pray,” the Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, later said, “that he would take it to the Western Union office without delay and not stop to chat on the way with some girl.” (It was because of this that, after the crisis was over, the hot line linking the White House and the Kremlin was installed.)

And so, for six minutes in 1995, the future of the species hung in the balance because a mid-level Russian official left work early, or neglected to find a proper procedure for dealing with a message that someone was sending up a rocket, at an unspecified time, to look at the northern lights. It’s like the 46-cent computer chip. There was no redundancy built into the system. If one piece failed, the whole system was imperiled.

The Arkansas incident, in 1980, is well chosen as an illustration of Schlosser’s point. Objects fall inside silos all the time, he says. The chance that a falling socket would puncture the skin of a Titan II missile was extremely remote—but not impossible. When it happened, it triggered a set of mechanical and human responses that quickly led to a nightmare of confusion and misdirection. Once enough oxidizer leaked out and the air pressure inside the tank dropped, the missile would collapse, the remaining oxidizer would come into contact with the rocket fuel, and the missile would explode. Because a nineteen-year-old airman performing regular maintenance accidentally let a socket slip out of his wrench, a Titan II missile became a time bomb, and there was no way to turn off the timer.

And the missile was armed. Schlosser says that the explosive force of the warhead on a Titan II is nine megatons, which is three times the force of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

Few systems are more tightly coupled than the arsenal controlled by the nuclear football. Once the launch codes are entered, a chain of events is set in motion that is almost impossible to interrupt. The “Dr. Strangelove” scenario is quite realistic. The American nuclear-war plan, known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), provided for only one kind of response to an attack: full-scale nuclear war. It was assumed that tens of millions of people would die. There were no post-attack plans. For forty years, this was the American nuclear option. No doubt, the Soviets’ was identical.

Henry Kissinger called the SIOP a “horror strategy.” Even Nixon was appalled by it. Schlosser says that when General George Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command, in 1991, and read the SIOP he was stunned. “This was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” he told Schlosser. “I came to fully appreciate the truth. . . . We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

The dangerous people in Schlosser’s story are the people who try to enhance the readiness of nuclear weaponry by reducing the controls on its use. The good people are not the anti-nuke activists. Schlosser is quite dismissive of them, especially the Western Europeans who protested against the Pershing IIs intended to protect them but not against the Soviet missiles right across the border that were aimed at them night and day.

Schlosser’s good people bring order to the system of nuclear armaments or try to find means of limiting its potential effects. When Curtis LeMay became the head of sac, in 1948, the United States was already committed to an announced policy of resisting Communist aggression anywhere in the world—the Truman Doctrine—and to using the threat of atomic weapons as a deterrent. But LeMay found sac to be a lax, undisciplined, and underequipped organization. Training was poor and security measures were almost nonexistent.

LeMay had commanded a bomber group in the Second World War, flying in the lead plane, and his toughness was legendary. He thought the term “limited war” was an oxymoron. His theory of war was that if you kill enough people on the other side they will stop fighting. He fired the top officers at sac and instituted a rigid system of rules and procedures, checklists and practice runs, and turned sac into a model of efficiency. Schlosser suggests that these reforms saved many lives.

Schlosser notes with some regret that LeMay became a symbol of military buffoonery after George C. Scott portrayed him as General Buck Turgidson, in “Dr. Strangelove,” and that he then made a mistake by running for Vice-President, in 1968, on a ticket with the segregationist George Wallace. At a press conference, LeMay declined to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. This position was consistent with his view that war must always be all-out, and, a year later, Nixon sent a signal that he was willing to use hydrogen bombs against the North Vietnamese. But Americans had lost their tolerance for nuclear brinkmanship. This was Strangelove talk.

Schlosser thinks that although Robert McNamara, too, had become one of the most despised figures in American politics by the time he resigned as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, in 1968, he had worked hard to limit the use of nuclear weapons. He had improved American early-warning systems; he had tried, with minimal success, to revise the siop; and he worked to have the Soviets understand that the United States would attack only military targets, encouraging them to do the same. But Vietnam brought him down.

Schlosser is careful not to give Ronald Reagan too much credit for defusing the arms race. He thinks that Reagan’s offer to eliminate all nuclear weapons during his famous summit meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, in 1986, was partly a response to changes in American public opinion regarding nukes. But he also thinks that, although Reagan’s offer went nowhere (because he refused to cancel the Strategic Defense Initiative, the anti-missile system known as Star Wars), Reykjavik was “a turning point in the Cold War.” It convinced Gorbachev that the United States would not attack the Soviet Union, which enabled him to pursue his reform agenda, and eventually led to the removal of all intermediate-range missiles from Western Europe.

David Holloway, a historian of the period, once raised the question whether the nuclear arms race was a product of the Cold War or a cause. The bomb is inextricable from Cold War history because it was present at the very start. Truman’s principal reason for deciding to drop the bomb on Japan was to bring the war in the Pacific to a quick end, but his secondary one was to erect a psychological obstacle to any Soviet plans for postwar expansion. He wanted the Soviets to understand that the United States had no qualms about answering aggression with atomic weapons. (Ending the war quickly was itself a way to prevent the Soviets from acquiring territory in the Pacific while fighting was under way there, and then colonizing it, as they did in Eastern Europe.)

Cold wars are historically common events. They are just ways of gaining geopolitical advantage without military battles. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV fought cold wars with his European neighbors and with the papacy. What made the American Cold War different was not the bomb itself but the idea of the bomb, the bomb as the symbol of ultimate commitment. That idea is what locked the East-West antagonism into place, and raised the stakes in every disagreement. The bomb may have prevented military conflict between the superpowers; it did not prevent the many superpower proxy wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan—in which millions of people died. In the end, the Soviet Union gave up, something that no one had predicted. But today many smaller powers have nuclear weapons, and even in the unlikely event that no leader of one of those nations ever decides to use them, out of fear or anger, there is always the possibility—in the long run, there is the inevitability—of an accident.

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