Getting Arctic oil and natural gas will take decades or more

Preface. Only one exploratory well can be drilled in the short arctic summers, and many more need to be drilled to even find and then explore the size of a potential oil field to see if it is worth extracting.  Drilling in the ocean can’t be done because icebergs will mow offshore rigs down (it wouldn’t surprise me if oil companies weren’t working on a dunk and dive oil rig). On land, permafrost tosses pipelines, roads, rail lines and homes areound as it expands and contracts seasonally, costing billions of dollars to fix. In fact, it costs so much to build roads and other oil infrastructure on permafrost that this is one reason not much drilling has taken place in interior Alaska, and as oil declines, becomes even less likely.  The EROI of arctic oil and gas is likely to be so very low that the likely ecological damage not worth the risk. 

Below are several articles about the difficulty of arctic drilling.

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


October 2019 (Bloomberg):  Rising temperatures are a particular worry for mining, oil and gas companies. The permafrost area accounts for 15% of Russia’s oil and 80% of its gas operations. It is also home to miners including MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, the biggest refined nickel and palladium producer.

Russia has long built structures on piles to improve stability in the permafrost. But as the ground warms it becomes softer, and there are signs problems are increasing.  Multiple new craters have also been found in the gas-rich Yamal region, which is a risk to pipelines, and some houses have had to be pulled down in Norilsk, the industrial town where Nornickel operates.

The issue may get much worse. By 2050, warming may affect about a fifth of structures and infrastructure across the permafrost area, costing some $84 billion, according to research published in February by scientists including Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University. That would be equal to about 7.5% of Russia’s gross domestic product. More than half of residential real estate, worth about $53 billion, might be also damaged.

May 2016: After plunking down more than $2.5 billion for drilling rights in U.S. Arctic waters, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and other companies have quietly relinquished claims they once hoped would net the next big oil discovery. The U.S. Arctic is estimated to hold 27 billion barrels of oil [ less than 1 year of global oil consumption] and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but energy companies have struggled to tap resources buried below icy waters at the top of the globe (Bloomberg).

November 2015: Statoil has abandoned plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean off the northwest coast of Alaska, and is giving up 16 of its leases in the Chukchi Sea as well as abandoning its stake in 50 Chukchi leases operated by ConocoPhillips.

September 2015: After spending $7 billion, Shell announced that after spending $7 billion, it was ending its Arctic effort without ever producing a single drop of oil. Shell cited disappointing results from an exploratory well drilled during the 2015 open water season 80 miles off the Alaska coast.

Offshore Arctic drilling is strongly supported by Alaska elected officials who hope to find an alternative source of oil for the trans-Alaska pipeline. The pipeline provides about 15% of U.S. oil but is operating at only 25% capacity because of declining oil production.  The pipeline could turn into a giant Popsicle when the oil flowing through it drops below about 350 thousand barrels a day (it is around 500,000 now, at it’s peak around 2 million barrels a day).

NPC. MARCH 27, 2015. Draft Report Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources. National Petroleum Council. 

The arctic has about 25% of all the remaining undiscovered resources globally. About 71% of it is expected to be natural gas and 29% liquids.

The majority of the U.S. Arctic potential is undiscovered and offshore.

Resource potential (not RESERVES)

  • Offshore: 74%, 389 Billion Barrels of Oil Equivalent( BBOE)
  • Onshore: 26%, 135 BBOE.

Reserve estimate: 191 BBOE of reserves (about 6 years of global oil production).

Nation Oil Gas
United States 34 60
Canada 15 19
Russia 36 251
Greenland 16 23
Norway 5 20

Figure ES-4. Global Arctic Conventional Oil and Gas RESOURCE in BBOE Potential by Country.

The United States is currently benefiting from resurgence in oil production fueled largely by the development of tight oil opportunities in the U.S. Lower 48. Production profiles for these oil opportunities will eventually decline by one million barrels per day by 2040 compared to 2014. If development starts now, the long lead times necessary to bring on new crude oil production from Alaska would coincide with a long-term expected decline of U.S. Lower 48 production. Alaskan opportunities can play an important role in extending U.S. energy security in the decades of the 2030s and 2040s.

The longer time frame required for U.S. Arctic projects is the result of remoteness, long supply chains, short exploration seasons due to ice, regulatory complexity, and potential for litigation.

The time frame for developing any significant offshore opportunity would likely be between 10 to 30+ years.


Myers, S.L., et al. September 8, 2015. Frozen dreams of energy in a warming arctic. New York Times.  

“From an economic point of view, I’m not sure going offshore Arctic is very rational,” said Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive and president of Total, the French oil company, which once also planned to drill off Alaska’s northern coast.

“The entire cost structure up there is three to five times more expensive than onshore lower 48,” said Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a Texas-based oil company. Two years ago, his company gave up on a field projected to contain 100 million barrels of oil in the Beaufort Sea — drilled from a man-made island and connected by an eight-mile pipeline to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska — in order to invest more in Texas shale fields.  “One-hundred-million-barrel-type discoveries will not be economical in a $100-a-barrel oil environment, and they certainly won’t be economical today,” Mr. Sheffield said.

Even optimistic projections suggest the Arctic might not prove to be as transformative as once imagined. According to Rystad Energy, a global consultancy based in Norway, production from offshore fields in or near the Arctic could double between 2015 and 2025 to 1.4 million barrels a day, which would still be less than 2 percent of current global production. “When people say the Arctic is the next frontier and there is great resource potential, of course there is the risk that it is hype,” said Jon Marsh Duesund, a Rystad senior project manager.



also see “Professor Tad Patzek on Oil in the Arctic

The extent of exploration in the Arctic will be greater and the total time required will be longer than in other areas such as the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. This is because Arctic resources are expected to be larger, but less dense and spread over broader areas than in the Gulf of Mexico, and hence require more exploratory wells to gain sufficient definition of the resource to proceed to development. Also, the resource uncertainty in frontier areas such as the Alaska OCS means that subsurface knowledge gained from each well has a great impact on future drilling decisions, compelling serial rather than concurrent exploration drilling, as the results from each well affect decisions on where and how the next should be drilled. Given the severe limitations on the length of the useful annual exploration season, the greater time required for Arctic exploration programs, and the extremely high costs of drilling in remote, icy Arctic conditions, the current 10-year lease term is inadequate to support developing Alaska’s OCS potential.

The key characteristic that distinguishes the Arctic from other oil and gas production areas is the presence of ice. The ice environment varies substantially throughout the Arctic depending on the season and the location.

There are three key physical characteristics of offshore Arctic environments that play a large role in determining the technologies that are required and the degree of complexity of operations. The dominant physical characteristic is ice type and abundance, but water depth and length of open water season also play key roles in differentiating one Arctic location from another in terms of the technology needed and the economic prospects for development.

Although summer ice coverage has decreased, winter ice coverage remains robust. Hence, ice interactions will continue to be the dominant consideration for design of offshore Arctic oil and gas facilities. Challenges include:

  • Landfast ice, which can extend from the shoreline out to a depth of about 15 to 20 meters. Landfast ice freezes fast to the shoreline and is relatively stable throughout the winter until the summer break-up occurs. With thicknesses approaching 2 meters, it can provide a stable platform for drilling exploration wells, transporting materials and equipment, or supporting equipment to lay pipelines to shore for shallow water developments.
  • Beyond the edge of the landfast ice zone is floating pack ice of varying concentrations, which, depending on the season, might range from sparse coverage near the edge to complete coverage further into the pack.
  • Mobile pack ice mass consists of sea ice of varying age and thickness. Depending on location, there may also be inclusions of icebergs or drifting fragments of thick, multi-year shelf ice known as ice islands. The new ice that forms over the open water each winter is called first-year ice. It typically reaches a thickness of 1.5 to 2 meters over the winter season. Wind forces compress and break the ice sheet, forming thickened ridges and rubble fields. When these thickened areas refreeze, they can become the dominant features that impede icebreaker transit and exert large forces on stationary platforms. Second-year ice is thickened ice that results from refreezing of surviving first-year ice from the previous season. Similarly, multi-year ice is built up from multiple freeze cycles of previous years of second-, third-, etc.-year ice. Multi-year ice can range in thickness from approximately 3 meters to more than 6 meters.
  • Icebergs are large pieces of freshwater ice that break off from glaciers and drift with sea currents. Icebergs are nearly nonexistent in the U.S. Arctic due to the lack of large glaciers terminating in the nearby ocean. While relatively rare, the U.S. Arctic does contain ice island features, which are thick tabular masses of ice that break off from Canadian ice shelves and drift with the pack.

Open Water Season

In addition to ice conditions and water depth, the length of the open water season—the time without ice coverage—has a significant impact on the types of technologies that can be used for exploration and development. The length of the open water season can vary considerably from year to year. Over most of the U.S. Chukchi Sea lease area, the average open water season is about 3 to 4 months long, but has been as short as 1 to 2 months. Mid-season incursions of pack ice from the north can occur, potentially interrupting operations. In the correspondingly shallow shelf areas of the U.S. Beaufort Sea, the open water season is typically 1 to 1.5 months shorter than in the Chukchi, and can also be interrupted by pack ice intrusions. Access into the Beaufort Sea at the start of the open water season may be impeded by high ice concentrations at Point Barrow, restricting the usable operating window in some years.

If the open water season is 3 months or more, it may be possible to complete the drilling of an exploration well in a single season using conventional technology that would be used in any open water setting. Shorter open-water seasons or deeper reservoirs may require multiple seasons to complete a single well, resulting in much higher costs for exploratory drilling. Likewise, development technology requirements become more challenging and costs increase with decreasing open water season. For example, 3 months may provide sufficient time for installation of platforms and pipelines, while shorter open water periods may necessitate special measures for platform installation and pipeline construction.

On either side of the open water season, there are periods of summer breakup/melting and fall-early winter freeze-up where some ice may be present at a drilling location. These periods are often referred to as the “shoulder” seasons, because ice coverage is reduced and the ice is either receding or newly forming. Past Arctic exploration drilling programs have successfully extended operations into the shoulder seasons by using ice management to break or guide away approaching ice that might otherwise interfere with the rig’s ability to stay in place over the well (“station-keeping”).

Operating in the shoulder season depends on the capability of the drilling rig and ice management vessels to safely contend with ice. In previous Canadian Beaufort Sea drilling programs using the Kulluk, the summer shoulder season could begin as early as late June or early July, and the winter shoulder season could extend into November or even early December. Beyond about mid-December, the ice cover becomes essentially continuous and thickness exceeds 0.7 meter. Extending the drilling season beyond mid-December would require robust station-keeping and ice management capability.

The Arctic is home to distinct indigenous peoples and provides habitat for large numbers of birds, mammals, and fishes. While some areas of the Arctic, such as the central North Slope of Alaska around Prudhoe Bay, have seen decades of economic activity, much of the region remains largely unaffected by human presence. Today, there is increasing interest in the Arctic for tourist potential, and reductions in summer ice provide an increasing opportunity for marine traffic. At the same time, there is concern about the future of the culture of the Arctic peoples and the environment in the face of changing climate and increased human activity.

The Arctic can be defined as areas north of the Arctic Circle. The United States, Canada, Russia, Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), and Norway all have coastlines within this region, and these countries possess the majority of the resource potential.

Russia is moving forward with increased Arctic economic development during this time of change. Russia is drilling new exploration wells in the Kara and Pechora Seas and is expanding its naval and transportation fleet.

China does not have Arctic territory, but is investing millions of dollars in Arctic research, infrastructure, and natural resource development.

The United States has large offshore oil potential, similar to Russia and larger than Canada and Norway. Facilitating exploration in the U.S. Arctic would enhance national, economic, and energy security.

The cycle of leasing, exploration, appraisal, development, and production takes longer in the Arctic than in other offshore regions. For instance, Northstar, the only U.S. offshore OCS Arctic project, took 22 years from lease sale to start of production, while recent Gulf of Mexico deepwater projects such as Mars and Atlantis took 11 and 12 years respectively.

With a sustained level of leasing and exploration drilling activity over the next 15 years, offshore Alaska could yield material new production by the mid-2030s and sustain this level of production through mid-century and beyond.

Driven by onshore tight oil production, total U.S. crude oil production increased from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 8.5 million barrels per day in 2014, and is projected to increase to a maximum of 9.6 million barrels per day in 2019.8 Crude oil imports are expected to decline from 9.8 million barrels per day in 2008 to a minimum of 5.8 million barrels per day in 2019.

But after 2019, U.S. crude oil production is expected to decline to about 7.5 million barrels per day and imports rise to 7.7 million barrels per day by 2040. U.S. domestic crude oil production is 57% of domestic demand in 2014, but declines to 49% in 2040, reversing the improvements in the economy and energy security from the recent production increase.

The EIA includes only minimal future Alaska OCS activity and assumes decline of Alaskan fields from about 0.5 million barrels per day in 2014 to under 0.3 million barrels per day in 2040. Such a decline would mean that the operational viability of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) could be challenged, potentially resulting in the loss of an additional 0.3 million barrels per day of oil production.

Water depth within the world’s prospective Arctic oil and gas basins varies from zero to more than a thousand meters. As mentioned previously, most of the U.S. Arctic offshore oil and gas potential lies in water depths of less than 100 meters. The Russian Arctic shelf is broad and shallow, with a large fraction of the area lying in water depths less than 100 meters. Water depths offshore Arctic Canada and Greenland, on the other hand, fall off to more than 100 meters closer to shore. Water depth predominantly impacts the type of drilling and production platforms that can be used and whether offshore wellheads and pipelines require burial to protect them from being damaged by moving ice keels that extend to the seafloor. Developments in ice-prone water depths less than about 100 meters are amenable to well-established technology of structures resting on the seafloor (“bottom-founded”). Beyond about 100 meters, a technology transition from bottom-founded to floating platforms may be required because the overturning forces of the floating ice become too large for practically sized bottom-founded structures. Unlike for temperate waters, where floating drilling facilities are routinely used in thousands of meters of water, suitable technology to allow year-round floating drilling in Arctic pack ice will require additional research and development before commercial use.

Although south of the Arctic Circle, Russia’s Sakhalin Island located north of Japan has been home to several developments in Arctic-like ice conditions over the past 20 years. The Sakhalin developments use a combination of offshore drilling platforms and extended-reach wells from onshore drill pads to reach the offshore reserves. The offshore platforms are among the largest ice-resistant concrete platforms ever constructed. Extended-reach wells drilled from shore out to a distance of 13 kilometers have set multiple world records for horizontal reach. The Sakhalin offshore platforms operate continuously through the winter ice conditions where they must resist forces from ice ridge features more than 30 meters in thickness. The produced oil flows back to onshore processing facilities before being carried via pipeline to export terminals. In the case of Sakhalin 1, tankers are loaded year-round at the Dekastri Terminal and are escorted by icebreakers when ice is present.

Exploration can be carried out in waters with a short ice-free season using floating drilling rigs in waters deeper than about 20 meters, but development and production generally requires year-round operation to be economic, which means using facilities that rest on the seafloor and are resistant to ice forces in ice-prone areas.

Technical feasibility is not the only consideration for successful development of oil and gas resources. Ultimately, an opportunity must be both technically and economically feasible to warrant pursuit. For development to progress, a resource opportunity of sufficient size and quality of producible oil and gas must be found. Thus, the ability to explore is the first critical step in a successful development process. Arctic exploration and development is more costly than in other areas due to remoteness, lack of infrastructure, challenging climate, and short operating seasons. Finding large, high-quality resources will be key to economically viable Arctic development.

Enabling Infrastructure

Availability of existing infrastructure to enable development and production increases the attractiveness of an opportunity. Lack of existing infrastructure increases cost and thus the economic burden on a potential development

The Arctic is characterized by its climate, remoteness, sparse population, and long distance between population centers. This has resulted in limited infrastructure development including ports, airfields, roads, rail, communication networks, and fuel and electricity delivery systems compared with other regions. To promote prudent development, additional capacity is needed. There are many synergies between the types of infrastructure that would facilitate Arctic oil and gas exploration and development and the infrastructure needs of local communities, the state of Alaska, and elements of the U.S. Armed Forces such as the Coast Guard and Navy. Investments by any party in new or upgraded airfields, ports, roads, navigational aids, satellites, radars, and communication facilities could confer wider benefits. The Coast Guard and Navy, which play key roles in the areas of safety, search and rescue, and national defense, are subject to many of the same resupply and support requirements in the Arctic as the oil and gas industry.

Local, state, and federal government agencies should coordinate infrastructure planning by carrying out, where possible, joint scenario planning to identify the intersection of mutual needs such as airfields, ports, roads, and communications to identify opportunities for investment synergies. Planning needs and considerations should include those from the oil and gas industry, Navy, Coast Guard, and local stakeholders, and include options to extend the life of the TAPS pipeline.

Undiscovered potential volumes are based on USGS 2008, Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal. Discovered potential, reserves, and production values are provided by IHS and are approximate as of the end of 2013. 2 “Liquids” refers to crude oil and natural gas liquids. 3 IHS, International E&P Database, September 3, 2014, 4 Ibid.

Billion barrels of oil, or oil equivalent for gas; 6,000 cubic feet of gas is equivalent to 1 barrel of oil. 6 “Conventional oil” refers to oil found in liquid form flowing naturally or capable of being pumped without further processing or dilution.

[Another note: But once oil shortages strike the gloves will come off, and arctic exploitation will be the least of things to worry about as America is likely to go to war with any nation that refuses to sell us oil, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, the Middle East, and so on (Friedrichs).

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MIT: Why the electric-car revolution may take a lot longer than expected

Preface. This study from MIT explains why price parity of electric and gasoline vehicles is likely to take a lot longer than 5 years, and perhaps never if cars continue to depend on lithium-ion batteries. Deeper cost declines beyond 2030 are likely to require shifts from the dominant lithium-ion chemistry today to entirely different technologies, like lithium-metal, solid-state and lithium-sulfur batteries. Each of these are still in much earlier development stages, so it’s questionable whether any will be able to displace lithium-ion by 2030.

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


Temple, J. 2010. Why the electric-car revolution may take a lot longer than expected. An MIT analysis finds that steady declines in battery costs will stall in the next few years. MIT Technology Review.

Don’t expect electric cars and trucks to get as cheap as their gas-powered rivals anytime soon. A new report from the MIT Energy Initiative warns that EVs may never reach the same sticker price so long as they rely on lithium-ion batteries, the energy storage technology that powers most of today’s consumer electronics. In fact, it’s likely to take another decade just to eliminate the difference in the lifetime costs between the vehicle categories, which factors in the higher fuel and maintenance expenses of standard cars and trucks.

The findings sharply contradict those of other research groups, which have concluded that electric vehicles could achieve price parity with gas-powered ones in the next five years. The lingering price difference predicted by the MIT report could stunt the transition to lower-emission vehicles, requiring governments to extend subsides or enact stricter mandates to achieve the same adoption of EVs and cuts in climate pollution.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US and fourth largest globally, so there’s no way to achieve the reductions necessary to avoid dangerous levels of global warming without major shifts to cleaner vehicles and mass transit systems.

The problem is that the steady decline in the cost of lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and account for about a third of their total cost, is likely to slow in the next few years as they approach limits set by the cost of raw materials.

“If you follow some of these other projections, you basically end up with the cost of batteries being less than the ingredients required to make it,” says Randall Field, executive director of the Mobility of the Future group at MIT. “We see that as a flaw.”

The numbers

Current lithium-ion battery packs are estimated to cost from around $175 to $300 per kilowatt-hour. (A typical midrange EV has a 60/kWh battery pack.)

A number of commercial and academic researchers have projected that the costs of such batteries will reach $100/kWh by 2025 or before, which many proclaim is the “magic number” where EVs and gas-fueled vehicles reach retail price parity without subsidies. And they would continue to fall from there.

But reaching the $100 threshold by 2030 would require material costs to remain flat for the next decade, during a period when global demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to rise sharply, MIT’s “Insights into Future Mobility” study notes. It projects that costs will likely fall only to $124 per kilowatt-hour by then. At that point, the “total cost of ownership” between the categories would be about the same, given the additional fuel and maintenance costs of gas-fueled vehicles. (Where these lines cross precisely depends heavily on local fuel costs and vehicle type, among other factors.)

But the sticker price of an EV with 200 miles of range would still run thousands of dollars more than a comparable gas-fueled vehicle in many areas. While closing the gap on total cost of ownership would be a solid step for electric vehicles, the average consumer is very sensitive to the upfront price tag—and what it equates to in monthly payments.

Costs are likely to continue to improve as, among other things, companies reduce the level of pricey cobalt in battery components and achieve manufacturing improvements as production volumes rise. But metals mining is already a mature process, so further declines there are likely to slow rapidly after 2025 as the cost of materials makes up a larger and larger portion of the total cost, the report finds.

Deeper cost declines beyond 2030 are likely to require shifts from the dominant lithium-ion chemistry today to entirely different technologies, like lithium-metal, solid-state and lithium-sulfur batteries. Each of these are still in much earlier development stages, so it’s questionable whether any will be able to displace lithium-ion by 2030, Field says.

Gene Berdichevsky, chief executive of anode materials maker Sila Nanotechnologies, agrees it will be hard for the industry to consistently break through the $100/kWh floor with current technology.

But he also thinks the paper discounts some of the nearer-term improvements we’ll see in lithium-ion batteries without full-fledged shifts to different chemistries. By 2030, Berdichevsky expects, battery packs will be able to store significantly more energy and last many more miles on the road, which can cut costs, improve performance, and otherwise boost the relative appeal of EVs.

Driving forward

The good news is a growing number of manufacturers around the world are moving into EVs, rolling out different models at different price points.

On Sunday, Ford unveiled an electric SUV set to hit showrooms next year, dubbed the Mustang Mach E. Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have all introduced battery-powered SUVs as well, catering to consumers’ tastes for larger vehicles.

But the MIT study notes that achieving deep reductions in transportation emissions will require a parallel overhaul of the electricity systems used to charge EVs. Currently, US carbon emissions per mile for a battery electric vehicle are on average only about 45% less than those from a gas-fueled vehicle of comparable size. That’s because fossil fuels still generate the dominant share of electricity in most markets, and the manufacturing process for EVs generates considerably higher emissions, mainly related to the battery production.

EVs in some US regions, notably including coal states like West Virginia, could generate nearly the same level of emissions as standard vehicles over their lives. In parts of India and China with particularly dirty electricity systems, EVs may even generate more emissions than gas-fueled vehicles, says Emre Gencer, a research scientist who worked on the study.

If EVs can’t compete directly on price in the marketplace, public policy will need to play a larger role in driving EV adoption and cutting transportation emissions.

The MIT study projects that the share of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids will rise in any scenario, reaching 33% of the global vehicle fleet by 2050 as prices slowly decline, even with no additional climate polices. But a strong set of additional regulations, including a global carbon tax set high enough to prevent 2 ˚C of warming, would push that figure to 50% by mid-century.

That would add up to hundreds of millions of additional low-emission vehicles on the roads, and prevent 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere.

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Charles Hall: politicians and economy do best when oil is cheap

Preface. Politicians claim credit for a good economy, but what makes an economy prosperous? Cheap oil. During Trump’s reign “relatively cheap oil and gas are keeping the U.S. economy strong. But this cheap oil and gas is being partially subsidized by investors who are either losing money or receiving a poor return on investment. In this respect, President Trump has these financial “losers” to thank for a large part of the current health of the U.S. economy.

Hall illustrates the relation of oil prices to the popularity of a president:

“Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were in office during the economically disastrous increase in the price of oil from less than $4 a barrel in 1972 to more than $35 in 1979. Both lost in their reelection bids.

In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of “Let’s make America Great again” and “It’s morning again in America,” which coincided with the decline in oil prices during the 1980s. In the U.K., Margaret Thatcher was floundering in popularity in 1980, but then received most of the credit for the remarkable recovery of the U.K. economy. Was it her conservative management style, or the development of the North Sea oil, which occurred on her watch? Now that the North Sea oil boom is over, the U.K. economy is struggling again.” 

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


Charles Hall. 2019. Does Trump have a bunch of ‘losers’ to thank for a growing economy? The Hill.

The media and the general public tend to give political leaders the credit, or blame, for the state of the economy. This is clearly the case with President Trump, much of whose popularity, such as it is, is based on the good health of the U.S. economy. But is the economy doing well because of Trump’s economic policies, such as the reduction of tax rates, or something else entirely that economists have missed?  

There are many complex factors that determine the state of the economy, but only one absolute prerequisite — available and affordable energy to manufacture and move things to market, and to transport, feed, comfort and amuse people. 

In the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world this means principally liquid and gaseous petroleum. For many natural scientists, this is clearly extremely important, perhaps even dominant, in the success or failure of economies.

Today in the U.S. oil is less than $55 a barrel, and gas is about as cheap as it has ever been. We have decreased our oil imports to about 15 percent of use and become a minor net exporter of gas.  

Despite improvements in wind and photovoltaic devices, and a decline in their manufacturing costs, our use of oil and gas continues to increase, although at a slower rate. Oil and natural gas in the U.S. are roughly half as expensive today as in Europe or Asia, or in the U.S. during the Obama years. Today, as in 1972, it is often as cheap to make things in America as elsewhere, even though our labor is more expensive. Trump’s timing from this perspective was excellent.  

U.S. oil production originally peaked in 1970, and gas in 1973, but declined through 2007, when production was revitalized by the process of lateral drilling and “fracking.” This technological miracle allowed us to exploit deposits formerly considered low-grade.

Now the United States produces more oil than it ever has, and is, with Saudi Arabia and Russia, one of the top three oil producers in the world. Fracking has also reversed the long decline of U.S. natural gas production, allowing the substitution of gas for coal and a proliferation of cheap plastics. 

But, curiously, this renaissance of petroleum in the United States has not led to a resurgence of profits in the oil and gas industry. Quite the opposite, because almost none of the companies that have invested in fracking are turning a profit. Investors in this industry are losing a lot of money, some $83 billion since 2008, according to oil analyst Arthur Berman.

This situation means that relatively cheap oil and gas are keeping the U.S. economy strong. But this cheap oil and gas is being partially subsidized by investors who are either losing money or receiving a poor return on investment. In this respect, President Trump has these financial “losers” to thank for a large part of the current health of the U.S. economy. 

This relation among oil supplies, prices and the political winds is not new and works both ways. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were in office during the economically disastrous increase in the price of oil from less than $4 a barrel in 1972 to more than $35 in 1979. Both lost in their reelection bids.

In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of “Let’s make America Great again” and “It’s morning again in America,” which coincided with the decline in oil prices during the 1980s. In the U.K., Margaret Thatcher was floundering in popularity in 1980, but then received most of the credit for the remarkable recovery of the U.K. economy. Was it her conservative management style, or the development of the North Sea oil, which occurred on her watch? Now that the North Sea oil boom is over, the U.K. economy is struggling again.    

So again the U.S. economy is booming, continuing to grow since the large economic contraction of 2008, which in turn followed the brief but dramatic oil price spike to $140 a barrel that had occurred earlier in that year. There is a significant correlation between energy prices and presidential popularity. While oil price is not the only predictor, it is too often ignored in our personality- and social media-driven world (which, of course, is underwritten by fossil fuels).   

Ironically, President Trump’s prospects there are tied in part to American investors being willing to continue to lose money seeking shale oil.

Charles Hall is professor emeritus at SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., and author of 14 books and 300 scientific articles related to energy, environment and economics.

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Many signs of peak oil and decline

Preface.  Recently the IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook predicted an oil crunch could happen as soon as 2023.  Oil supermajors are expected to have 10 years of reserve life or more, Shell is down to just 8 years.

Political shortages are as big a problem as geological depletion. At least 90% of remaining global oil is in government hands, especially Saudi Arabia and other countries in the middle east that vulnerable to war, drought, and political instability.

And in 2018, the U.S. accounted for 98% of global oil production growth and since 2008, the U.S. accounted for 73.2% of the global increase in production (see Rapier below).   What really matters is peak diesel, which I explained in “When trucks stop running”, and fracked oil has very little diesel, much of it is only good for plastics, and yet America may well be the last gasp of the oil age if production isn’t going up elsewhere.


2019. When will ‘peak oil’ hit global energy markets?  Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil predicts a 25% rise in global energy demand for the next two decades, due to “global demographic and macroeconomic growth trends. When you factor in depletion rates, the need for new oil grows at 8% a year,” he told analysts in March.

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


Clearly the depth of wells we need to drill show we are reaching peak oil production:  2019-11-19 The Truth About The World’s Deepest Oil Well

How deep into the ground do we have to go to tap the resources we need to keep the lights on? How deep into the ground are we able to go? 

The first oil well drilled in Texas in 1866 was a little over 100 feet deep: the No 1 Isaac C. Skillern struck oil at a depth that, from today’s perspective, is ridiculously shallow.

Ten years ago, data from the Energy Information Administration shows the average depth of U.S. exploration oil wells was almost 7,800 feet. It’s safe to assume that over these past 10 years, the average well depth has only increased.

The Bertha Rogers No 1 natural gas well in the Anadarko Basin used to be the deepest in the world, at over 31,400 feet. Unfortunately, at this depth the drillers struck liquid sulfur, which put an end to plans to continue drilling.

BP’s Tiber field in the Gulf of Mexico, drilled by the infamous Deepwater Horizon, became the location for the deepest oil well. The Tiber well’s depth was more than 35,000 feet.

There is also a record-breaker in terms of water depth: Maersk Drilling’s Raya-1 well offshore Uruguay was drilled in water depths of 3,400 meters or 11,156 feet.

2019-10-27 The Biggest Oil & Gas Discoveries Of 2019

Conventional oil and gas discoveries have fallen to their lowest in 70 years.  All in all, this year has seen new discoveries of nearly 8 billion barrels of oil equivalent, compared to 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent discovered last year, so only one barrel out of every six consumed is being replaced with new resources. 

Not only has the pace of discovery declined, but discoveries are also in much more challenging geological venues and typically offshore, which means it could take many years just to bring new resources online. 

The age of discoveries onshore is over. The future game of discovery is decidedly in deep waters.

2019-6-10 World crude production outside US and Iraq is flat since 2005

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 ]


Rapier, R. 2019. The U.S. accounted for 98% of global oil production growth in 2018. Forbes.

Earlier this month BP released its Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.   The U.S. extended its lead as the world’s top oil producer to a record 15.3 million BPD (my comment: minus 4.3 million BPD natural gas liquids, which really shouldn’t be included since they aren’t transportation fuels).  In addition, the U.S. led all countries in increasing production over the previous year, with a gain of 2.18 million BPD (equal to 98% of the total of global additions),… which helped offset declines from Venezuela (-582,000 BPD), Iran (-308,000 BPD), Mexico (-156,000 BPD), Angola (-143,000 BPD), and Norway (-119,000 BPD).

Peak demand?  Hardly: “the world set a new oil production record of 94.7 million BPD, which is the ninth straight year global oil demand has increased.

Matt Mushalik. 2019. World crude production outside US and Iraq is flat since 2005.

After 20 charts showing global oil production Matt concludes “When US shale oil peaks and Iraq can no longer increase production there will be some surprises for a complacent world which should have used the 2008 oil price shock as a warning to get away from oil – voluntarily.”

Fickling, D. 2019. Sunset for Oil Is No Longer Just Talk. Bloomberg.

An oil company that doesn’t increase its reserves eventually runs out of product to sell, so having 10 years of reserve life is traditionally considered a bare minimum for oil supermajors (for our purposes, take these to be Shell plus Exxon Mobil Corp., BP Plc, Total SA, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, and Eni SpA).  Shell crossed below the 10-year level all the way back in 2016, and the figure at the end of 2018 stood at just 8.5 years.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is supermajor-reserve-years-2019.jpg


Williams, A. March 31, 2017. Down 10%, Mexico Oil Reserves Gone in 9 Years Without New Finds. Bloomberg.

Mexico’s existing oil reserves are dwindling so fast the country could go dry within nine years without new discoveries according to the National Hydrocarbons Commission, which said reserves fell 10.6% to 9.16 billion barrels in 2016, from 10.24 billion barrels a year earlier. Once the world’s third largest crude producer, Mexico’s proven reserves have declined 34% since 2013.

The decline in proven reserves is driven by record-low drilling activity the last three years. State-owned producer Petroleos Mexicanos drilled 21 wells last year, a record low, after averaging 31 per year since 2010.

Kaufman, A. C. 2016-10-26. Exxon Mobil could be on the brink of irreversible decline. Huffington Post.

Exxon Mobil Corp. may be facing “irreversible decline” as the oil giant fails to cope with low oil prices and mounting debt, a report released Wednesday found.The Texas-based company has suffered a 45% drop in revenue over the past 5 years as it bet big on drilling in oil sands, the Arctic and deep-sea sites ― decisions that proved expensive, environmentally risky and politically controversial.

Combined with a two-year plunge in oil prices, ballooning long-term debt to cover dividend payments to shareholders and an evaporating pool of cash, Exxon Mobil’s finances show “signs of significant deterioration,” according to new research from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit based in Cleveland.

“Investors right now are getting less cash from Exxon than they have historically, and are likely to get less cash in the future,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the IEEFA, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “This is going to be a much smaller company in the future, and the oil industry is going to be much smaller in the future.”

In April, Exxon Mobil was stripped of Standard & Poor’s top credit rating for the first time since the 1930s. The rating agency said it worried Exxon took on billions in debt to fund new drilling projects at a time when oil prices were high. Now, with the price of crudebelow $50 per barrel, that debt looks risky. Despite S&P specifically citing such payments in its downgrade, Exxon Mobil actually increased its dividend by 2 cents the next day.

Usually, dividends go up as a company’s stock price thrives. But shares of Exxon have trailed the S&P 500 for 10 quarters in a row, the report noted, and that’s before factoring in the risks of climate change.

Exxon Mobil is embroiled in a bevy of legal fights, notably with a handful of state attorneys general who are investigating the company for spending decades covering up the role of burning fossil fuels in global warming. The firm has repeatedly insisted such probes are politically motivated, and claimed that subpoenas seeking internal documents on climate change violate its constitutional rights.

Posted in Debt, How Much Left, Peak Oil | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Russia has been bombarding Ukraine with fake news since 2014. Sound familiar?

Preface.  Long before Russia bombarded the U.S. with fake news in the 2016 election campaign, Ukraine was the target, where Russia honed its propaganda skills.  The parallels with their fake news assault on the U.S. are striking, perhaps if more people were aware of how Russia attacked Ukraine with propaganda (and their own citizens) they might be better able to spot lies in Facebook and other social media here.  The tactics are similar.

Ukrainians now have a news show “StopFake” that’s as popular as 60 minutes is in the U.S., exposing Russian fake news and conspiracy theories using evidence.  This helps to build the critical thinking skills of its citizens and protect them from fake news by recognizing it when they see it.  

Check out StopFake here, this is a really good show. We have nothing like it, our TV news is too entertainment oriented and full of short pieces to cope with our short attention span.

If only the U.S. had a show dedicated to fake news that explains why it’s false.

Below are excerpts from two articles about Russian propaganda in the Ukraine.

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

* * *

Lynch, J. 2019. StopFake braces for ‘bombardment’ of Russian propaganda in Ukraine election.  Columbia Journalism Review.

In 2013 at least 100,000 protestors demonstrated agains Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych distancing the nation from the EU.  A three month struggle to pull Ukraine from Russia’s grip began.  Kremlin-backed bloggers and trolls launched a torrent of fake news to discredit the protests. “I would go online and I would see tons of stories that never happened circulating,” Kruk told me. Social media accounts called her stupid, advocated for her arrest, and said she should be raped.

Eventually, Yanukovych was overthrown. But soon after, Russian troops swarmed eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The faculty at the Mohyla School of Journalism believed that Russia was using TV stations and news outlets like weapons. “When we started to work we noticed that it was very systematic. It’s not just misinformation,” Fedchenko said. “It’s disinformation.”

Ukraine is often a laboratory for the Kremlin to experiment with propaganda and cyber-attacks that they later aim at the west. Before Russian intelligence agents hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential elections, the Kremlin perfected the tactics in Ukraine, targeting government websites and individuals. Before the web of Russian-backed social media bots and trolls targeted American politics, they infested Ukrainian politics.

“Russia wants to portray Ukraine’s elections as illegitimate and portray it as a failed state,” Kateryna Kruk, the host of StopFake’s TV show (started in 2014), in which she airs and dissects the last week’s propaganda, told me in early March. “Instead of promoting pro-Russian candidates they are promoting mistrust of the entire system.

StopFake has expanded to publish articles in 11 languages and monitors Russian propaganda in France, Spain, and Germany.

During the 2019 election there were too many manipulations for the staff to keep track of.

About 74 percent of Ukrainians say that TV is their primary source of news. (By comparison, a recent Pew poll said that 44 percent of Americans prefer TV, which is still the most popular medium.) Most of the largest TV stations are owned by oligarchs. Their airwaves are filled with opinion-laden punditry that serves two purposes—propelling the owners’ political interests and keeping costs down.

At the center of the Russian web are Kremlin-owned and -allied TV stations like NTV, Russia 1, and RT. These channels feature Putin-aligned guests and are followed by the country’s media elite. For instance, Russian political scientist Dmitry Kulikov spoke on a state-owned TV channel about the ongoing Ukrainian elections. “It does not matter who will win, because this victory will have nothing to do with the will of the people,” Kulikov said.

The TV stations and websites in both Russia and Ukraine then parrot those messages, he said. For example, the Russian-based website cited a poll it said showed the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians didn’t believe in the integrity of the elections. Dmytro Dmitruk, who was part of the team that conducted the poll, said that it had, in fact, said the opposite—that many Ukrainians were so concerned to eliminate fraud that protests were possible.

Social media makes Russia’s task easier. On Facebook, Russian influence was ubiquitous in the run-up to the first round of elections. Facebook and Instagram pages that were set up by Russian individuals portrayed Ukrainian schools as unhealthy, spread false news about protests and disinformation about NATO. Many targeted Poroshenko, the president.

Some of the pages were uncovered and eventually shut down by Facebook after it received a tip from American law enforcement officials. Facebook, which pledged in January 2019 to get tough on foreign political advertising and introduce other transparency measures, implemented them just 13 days before the first round of voting. And just days before the final vote, nearly 2,000 additional Russian-pages were found, many of which targeted Ukrainian politics.  

Commentators and networks backed by Russia receive financial contributions or special access to public projects, Fedchenko says. In the effort to combat Russian-propaganda, Ukraine has banned at least 77 out of 82 Russian TV stations from the country. In 2017, Ukraine banned the Kremlin-connected social networking site VKontakte—similar to Facebook. Fedchenko believes that other governments should do the same. “Russian disinformation is basically masquerading as the real media which invokes the freedom of speech clause,” Fedchenko says. “Definitely the First Amendment should not be used for them.”

Yuhas, A. 2019. Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work?  The Guardian.

By shutting down independent press, Russia controls more of the story; by spreading half-truths and rumors, the Kremlin not only confuses opponents but also sows unwitting support for its cause; finally, by pushing the boundaries with its version of events, Moscow’s leadership can force other countries to play by its own very pliable rules.

Win the “information war”, as one Russian MP calls it, and you can gain the upper hand without ever firing a shot.

ladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been silencing independent voices one at a time for months, effectively dismantling the press. In December, Putin ordered the “restructure” of the state-owned but historically independent RIA Novosti – liquidating most of the outlet, merging its remains with Russia Today and installing as editor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV presenter notorious for saying gay people’s hearts should be incinerated and playing up how Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash”.

RIA was just the first. Dozhd, the country’s last independent TV channel, was “pushed off a cliff” right before the Winter Olympics. Then the radio station Ekho Moskvy had its director replaced by its owner, the state-controlled energy company Gazprom. Most recently, the editor-in-chief of, a highly respected, independent news site, was suddenly replaced with a pro-Kremlin editor, a move apparently made through back channels with the site’s conglomerate owner.

The Kremlin’s tighter grip on the media has coincided with the rise of Russia Today, which unapologetically skews news in Putin’s favor.

Putin, for whom recent events in Kiev have been not only unfavorable but a threat, wants to rebrand history in such a way that it protects him. To that end, a constant theme spouting from Russian sources has been the Ukrainian revolution’s alliance with “fascists” – a vague word that’s become a catchall for anti-Semites, terrorists, insurgents, anarchists and thugs.

Though there were nationalists and far-right nationalists among Kiev’s protesters, and there are some in the new interim government, there decidedly weren’t and aren’t many – if any – bona fide fascists. This line has been both taken up and debunked (thoroughly), but any discussion of fascists at all is a Kremlin win. If you’re busy trying to decide how anti-Semitic Ukraine’s right wing is, then you’re not busy watching Russian soldiers slip across the border. (Ukraine’s chief rabbi is stalwartly pro-Kiev, by the by, and has taken up propaganda-busting, pointing out that the diverse anti-Yanukovych coalition is now anti-Putin.)

Fear of fascists goes a long way in Ukraine, which suffered in the second world war. By definition, fear (“Fascists are coming for your family!”) and confusion (“Fascists? Are there fascists? What’s a fascist?”) matters much more in propaganda than truth (not so many fascists). It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. Incoherent theories of a gay, Jewish, Muslim fascist conspiracy in Kiev don’t matter so long as they’re riling someone up.

Skewed facts, half-truths, misinformation and rumors all work in the propagandist’s favor. By reminding everyone of a real military agreement, you can profess innocence while having military “exercises” overstepping their bounds. By removing insignias from Russian uniforms, you can pretend as long as you like that soldiers with Russian guns and vehicles, speaking Russian and occasionally admitting they’re Russian, are merely local “self-defense” bands.

By spreading talk of fascists, of gangs of unknown armed men, of coups and self-determination and persecution – while sending armed men into Ukraine, egging on real and staged protests, bribing politicians and blocking the media – the Kremlin is enacting and realizing its propaganda on the ground. The Ukrainian government and military has shown remarkable restraint in not falling for the ploy, but Putin appears prepared to increase the pressure,

Posted in Critical Thinking, Politics, Russia | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Fox news estranges millions of families and instills hate and fear in its cult members

Preface.  This is a book review that has key excerpts of “Foxocracy”, by Tobin Smith, who worked at Fox for 14 years and was friends with Roger Ailes as well as the staff that decided what the propaganda of the day would be. He learned all about the psychology behind the show, including using techniques of Nazi propaganda.

What’s most alarming to me is that millions of families have been torn apart when members have gone down the foxhole, and that the show is addictive because like a sports and World Wrestling Entertainment, the right-wing newscasters win every time against liberal punching-bags.  It’s a good feeling for the majority of fox viewers, many of them among the 54% of America’s working poor who are barely getting by. 

The Trump WWE fans don’t care if the game is rigged, they know WWE is rigged, but are addicted to the fuzzy warm feelings they get when the good guy wins.  So they also don’t mind being fooled by Fox, it makes them feel good. Top that off with a large percentage of Fox viewers being evangelists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Who could possibly be easier to fool?  They don’t want facts, they don’t care about facts, they are cult members who will likely never snap out of it.

Short of getting Fox off the air because it’s harmful to viewers health (which Smith makes the case for below), you can take action now by boycotting FOX advertisers listed here: These are Fox News’ leading advertisers


Fourteen Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans

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


Smith, T. 2020. Foxocracy: Inside the Network’s Playbook of Tribal Warfare. Diversion books.

Foxholes result in many cases the estrangement from family and longtime friends for tens of millions of Americans who are not similarly possessed with such zealous feelings of rage and revenge.

Under the pretense of being a news channel, Roger Ailes, his producers, and I created a new form of televised psychological warfare. Fox dupes the viewer into thinking they are watching “the news.” Fox made Republican Party propaganda infomercials disguised as talk show segments.  The older, 94% white audience thought they were watching “the news” (and still do). The reason was the decades of conditioning they had from watching the previous form of televised news programming from the three political news networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Alyson Camerota was a colleague of mine at Fox News for many years and co-host on Fox & Friends. She notes that for years the show’s producers would “cull far-right, crackpot websites” for content, and adds, “Never did I hear anyone worry about getting a second source. The single phrase I heard over and over was ‘This is going to outrage the audience!’ You inflame the viewers so that no one will turn away. Those were the Fox News standards.

The American Foxocracy is a $10 billion a year business model based solely on the fact that evolution failed to prepare our reptilian caveman brain to binge watch white tribal identity porn that activates and monetizes white tribal fear and hatred—and the $140 billion emotion surveillance and hyper-targeting social media industry then retargets and remonetizes that fear and hate to an audience thirty times bigger than Fox’s cable audience.

Roger Ailes never forgot the lesson: TV viewers love the feeling of watching their hero win. It’s well known in the TV industry that Ailes admitted he fixed the “debates” he produced for Richard Nixon in 1972—Roger was indeed the originator and master of the fixed outcome TV debate program.

The motive behind fixing a Fox News opinion program is no different than the motive behind fixing game shows in the 1950s (busted in 1959) or WWE wrestling matches after that (busted in 1994): to keep the audience emotionally engaged. The most popular game shows in the ’50s were the ones with winners who won multiple games. Game shows of the late 1950s were always produced with live audiences, and when a champion became a multi-show winner, the audience would not leave! Winners of The $64,000 Question became cult heroes.

The five key emotional pillars of the Fox News tribal warfare playbook are: 1) Existential white tribal fear 2) Bitter hatred and feelings of disrespect 3) Blasphemous outrage 4) Visceral bitter resentment 5) Victimhood and blame of “elites” and “others

From facebook likes, twitter, and other feedback, Fox News knows exactly what will enrage their most emotionally vulnerable users and will lead with these stories.


You may think you already understand Fox News’s opinion programming; that it is nothing more than highly choreographed and rigged WWE-like performance art carefully designed to deliver a confirmation bias rich 24/7 tribal-validation feedback loop to its core tribal partisan base/addicts.

And just like a WWE wrestling match, FNC producers create and fix the outcome of their white tribal identity segments from back to front. They start by defining the viewers’ accepted tribal partisan ideology. Then they script and choreograph the order of the talking head opinion sequence to reach the ultimate conclusion. And just like a WWE or reality show producer, Fox News producers and hosts are trained to script and choreograph a carefully orchestrated set of what TV producers and executives like to call “moments”.

Make sure you hit the audience’s most powerful emotional triggers in a very precise sequence—and then squeeze out every possible ounce of drama or outrage possible before the conservative hit man drops the liberal opponent like an anvil to end the segment in a righteous victory for the Foxocracy.

You will understand and recognize this scripted eight-point emotional moment journey from fear to victory in a different light.

The viewer sees and/or hears the “Fox News Alert” or cold-open tribal heresy or threat (even though the opinion show is not a news program at all). The amygdala (your brain’s danger and risk assessment system) subconsciously decides that this is a fight-or-flight event and provides the viewer an adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine boost. The Fox host then purposely scares the crap out of or pisses off the viewer with sound-on-tape B-roll (known as a “SOT” in TV lingo) of a liberal politician/celebrity/talking head impugning, insulting, or mocking the viewer’s right-wing tribal belief system/orthodoxy. The viewer naturally enters active tribal mode, with the tribal brain kicking in. The viewer’s risk-assessing amygdala silently shouts, “Say it again, and I’ll punch you out!” The tribal enemy (aka libtard) stands his/her ground, repeating the pronouncement and tribal heresy with more authority. The right-wing host and paid contributor heroes step in, coming to the defense of the right-wing tribe, rhetorically punching the tribal enemy in the nose for the viewer. Boom! The fight-or-flight adrenaline rush the viewer got from the opening tribal threat is replaced with a nice big dose of the brain chemical dopamine. The dopamine sets the viewer into anticipation of another tribal victory. With the thrill of victory triggered by the validation of tribal orthodoxy and feelings of continued safety, the viewer’s brain now releases the good stuff—serotonin, the opiate-like chemical.

Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Imagine what happens to a 68-year-old viewer going through this highly choreographed fear-to-victory roller coaster thousands and thousands of times.  Every seven or eight minutes you are made fearful and then made surer of the righteousness of your white conservative team, and it feels great to see and hear evidence that makes your team the winner and superior to your tribal enemy.

This why they don’t mind being grifted: For the average Fox News viewer, who feels they are in a constant mental state of siege, traumatic victimhood, and cultural persecution, their visit to Fox News’s tribalized right-wing righteousness confirmation bias mental health spa is the best part of their day.

The liberal crash dummy

The “left-winger” guest was a no-name non-threatening “DemoPublican” already way out of his/her league on the issue in the first place; in 14 years I never participated in an “opinion debate” segment that in any way was produced to be fair or in any way balanced.

The liberal crash dummy prop the segment producer booked to be sacrificed on the right-wing economic altar would open the segment with something like, “No one sophisticated in economics measures US inflation rates including the monthly price swings in gasoline/oil or commodities. What matters to the stock market is the inflation trend, and that trend is blah blah.” Then I would hit the liberal with my carefully constructed, scripted, and rehearsed rhetorical kill shot. The performance was to mix sarcasm and snark for the enemy liberal with a smile to support the mindset of the viewer at home. By this time, I had mastered the machine gun + machete liberal disembowelment strike and could do it in my sleep.

At home, the right-wing tribal partisan viewer cheered, “Yeah, baby! Way to go, Toby; screw that know-it-all liberal socialist!  That segment happened a thousand times in my experience at Fox News. It was like the movie Groundhog Day—always the same.

When that hero on your screen is not just someone off the street but a man or woman the viewer knows and has trusted for years as a tribal blood brother, the viewer-pundit connection is visceral and ten times stronger. The Fox News analyst or contributor who delivers tribal victory for years becomes a hero to the FNC addict. That’s why Fox News has so many hosts and talking heads that have been in their positions for years and years: The more the viewer trusts them and the better their Q (likeability) scores, the more valuable they are to the rigged-outcome opinion segments.

If you are the host’s go-to hit man, it’s much more dramatic and visually compelling to rhetorically kill the libtard enemy face-to-face in-studio than from a satellite location. Most of our liberal guests were in New York City for the taping for that reason,

I once asked Ailes who the target audience was and he replied “White, fat, balding, age 55-to-dead. A red state Midwest conservative guy sitting at home in his favorite chair with a remote control surgically attached to his hand.  After the producers and host scares the shit out of him, he wants to see you tear those smug condescending know-it-all East Coast liberals to pieces . . . limb by limb.  These guys hate liberals because liberals hate America—they all hate capitalism—and they think anyone waving an American flag on the Fourth of July is a gap-toothed, slack-jawed hillbilly. They also think they are all better than you and guys like me. To them I’m a small towner hick from the sticks. Of course, they all went to a better college than me too. They are so smug and so much smarter and richer. “

Their hatred of liberalism and liberals and cultural PC-ism is bitter and visceral, too. They too have metastasized and bone-marrow-level hurt feelings from the disrespect and condescension they feel they get from every corner of liberal America. To them Fox News is like a campfire where they can safely huddle around and feel pride about themselves and their close pals. 

Today the Fox News talk show segments really just work one overall macro narrative grift: “Retro American culture and religion (and guns—always guns) are under a massive existential siege by hordes of Metro American liberals and immigrants. If we don’t go to tribal war against those viperous left-wing socialists and immigrants of color who constantly disrespect you/your culture/our God, you are going to lose what is left of your crumbling grip on economic and white cultural power.

Fox News started the $10 billion a year tribal identity porn industry in America and others followed. Today’s America features a huge commercial digital media industry that monetizes cultural and political fear and hatred by staging gladiatorial cage matches featuring well-dressed proxies of Metro vs. Retro America as cathartic and ego-gratifying entertainment products.

The Human Toll

The damage of culturally and/or politically tribalized and desocialized Foxhole dads, moms, sisters, and brothers is atomized—it happens one family at a time. It’s like that Nigerian Prince email scam where a person gets an email from a “Nigerian Prince” who desperately needs to get money out of Nigeria, and if you will just send him your bank account number, he will send you $2.5 million.

When someone falls for that grift and becomes a walking, talking Foxhole—no one talks about it! That is the beauty of that grift—it was kept quiet for decades by the people that were grifted because they were embarrassed to admit they got taken!

pollster Frank Luntz measured how deep the disease of tribalized partisan identity had become in America: over 80 million people.  

This has resulted in an uncountable number of divorces. Tens of millions of important and emotionally nurturing friendships and family relationships have been poisoned.  A growing number of senior-aged Americans suffering from chronic and deadly isolation following the loss of nurturing family relationships and friendships poisoned by their constant hyper-partisan zealotry.

Public health data states that the top reason for elder estrangement is “pushing away family and friends.” For many, isolation leads to a chronic loneliness that (according to the latest research) brings them up to a 60 percent higher risk of premature death.

Resentment is “the feeling of indignation in reaction to a real or perceived slight, a sense of insult or inadequacy caused by the actions, comments, or simple existence of someone or something else. You experience resentment when you feel that you’re not getting your fair share while someone else is getting more than their fair share. And boy oh boy, does cultural and political tribal resentment trigger feelings of hate, anger, and outrage—the addictive trifecta of tribal partisan pornography.   Short-term resentment actually helps to boost self-esteem by allowing Fox viewers to blame others for their problems.

Resentment is highly toxic. A 2011 clinical review of the emotional and physiological effects of anger and resentment on the body showed that chronic bitterness can slow metabolism, immune-system function, and organ function.


In the old pre-internet days, it used to take decades to create a wild-eyed foam-at-the-mouth hyperpartisan—you know—that crazy uncle who sees a conspiracy behind everything and won’t shut up about it. Today that radicalization process takes only a few years—or even months.

Fox News tribal identity addiction falls into the category that addiction professionals call a “process addiction.” Neuroscience has proven that when anyone with a process addiction partakes in his/her binge behavior of choice—whether that behavior is eating, using the internet, gambling, consuming sexual pornography, or watching Fox News’s partisan opinion programming—the reaction in the brain is the same.

It’s the swing and range of emotions from impending threat of doom and then a real glimmer of hope that is the Foxhole spiral which hooks the viewers’ attention, gains their interest, creates desire for a tribal victory, and activates the involuntary reflex of self-esteem-building chemicals with a righteous tribal victory.

Social media makes matters even worse

In Facebook and Google/YouTube’s case, they know exactly which segment of Fox News white tribal identity porn is engaging best in real time across two hundred forty million Americans. This hyper-targeting is one of the intended consequences of this so-called surveillance capitalism industry. But this emotional predation on social media platforms produced consequences that their twenty-something-aged founders never thought about while they were coding their algorithms (can you say “Russian trolls” or “social media addiction?”). And they perform this emotional predation with zero cost for the content and zero liability for any of the unintended consequences—even when a white supremacist radicalized by online hate groups commits mass murder livestreamed on his Facebook page for the entire world to see– zero liability!  Every click and like and share is just another data point hoovered up into their engagement assessment and targeting machine.

A book publisher and author can be sued for libel if they knowingly make a false claim about someone or some company—they can be sued for “irreparable harm and emotional damages.” But if that irreparable harm and very real emotional damage came from social media distribution, no dice—Facebook is allowed to monetize as much fear and hate porn as they possibly can—so they do.

That it literally has changed the outcome of American presidential elections and destroyed millions of family and friend relationships should no longer be surprising—because the whole activating and amplifying white tribal identity grift was the big idea of Fox News from the beginning.

Making more tribally activated and angry Americans is the explicit business model of Planet Fox. After twenty-five years of practice, Fox News’s radioactive right-wing partisan brain dust is now being absorbed into the emotional brains of one hundred million people per month for the sole purpose of monetizing the attention of their angry, lonely, and disaffected victims with ads and content licensing fees.

As social scientist Crispin Sartwell shares in his recent Wall Street Journal article, detesting your political enemies is an immensely satisfying feeling. Why? Sartwell writes, “Because the compensatory pleasures of hatred—in particular its enhancement of self-esteem—are underrated. Hatred is self-congratulatory. It involves expressing superiority to its objects, and patting yourself on the back for not being them. When you declare your opponents to be obviously evil and stupid, you are congratulating not only yourself but the people who agree with you for being intelligent and good.


Cognitive psychologists tell us motivated cognition is the act of innately deciding what you want to believe and then using your cognitive reasoning power to build a case in your mind that proves your belief.

Humans primarily use our unique ability to reason in order to figure out how best to ingratiate and integrate ourselves into our chosen tribe. Turns out our ability to band together and work together for shared goals (like kill those pesky Vikings who kept invading my native Scottish home in the old days) was a primary weapon of survival.

But we might as well call this cognitive phenomenon “motivated ignorance.” In 2019 not much has changed in our brains from our caveman ancestors. We still primarily use our brain to keep in good standing with our selected tribe—not so much for protection now but to feel the warm emotions of belonging to a like-minded tribe. We also want to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance (the extreme discomfort felt when those who hold core beliefs are presented with evidence that disproves those beliefs). For the tribalized Fox News viewer or proud Deplorable, new contrary evidence simply cannot be processed or accepted—it does not pass through your cognitive dissonance force field.

Many of these Foxhole addicts feel they are actively and not just vicariously participating in a culture war by watching their partisan blood brothers and sisters on Fox News and fighting the righteous and heroic fight on their TV screen or digital device against the hated liberals/ libtards/ socialists who they viscerally feel attack and threaten their virtue. Disrespect their culture. Are trying to take away their way of making a living. Disparage their inerrant Evangelical Bible. Insult their immortal savior Jesus Christ. And, of course, are manically driven to confiscate the guns that they own, in part, as an insurance policy against the coming civil war they are told a hundred times each week by conservative media is coming to America “soon.”  

No one seems to understand how and why they need to slow down and detoxify these Foxhole fever victims to a healthy level where they can reengage with their estranged family and friends.

 The effect on right-wing Republican Brains, health, and lifespan

Fox News’s experiment in clandestine emotional predation and manipulation “jumped the rails” and morphed into an emotional plague.  Two things happened to this powerful white tribal identity content that they never thought would happen or ever dreamed would happen: One is emotionally vulnerable senior aged cable viewers (the current median age of Fox News viewers is 68) who already on average watched 7.2 hours of television per day started binge-watching Fox News seven to eight minute white tribal attack ads disguised as a “political or cultural debate” for 3-5 hours every day. Neither the producers nor I ever considered what would happen to a person’s state-of-mind and general behavior if an older person marinated their brain in thousands of hours per year of the most emotionally powerful televised attack ads and GOP propaganda instead of just a few random minutes of attack ads during election seasons. And then the biggest unexpected and emotionally powerful event of all: What would happen if a new technology called “social media” took their already emotionally powerful hyperpartisan attack ads and diced the most emotionally engaging ones (which they knew to target from their emotional surveillance data) into three-minute digital grenades that would saturate bomb one hundred million people every month via social media streaming?

Their life expectancy (depending on age and where they live) is about 15 years less than a person the same age living behind my gated neighborhood in Metro America.

The tribal identity porn spiral is similar to the softcore-to-hardcore sexual porn spiral. They both deliver the same powerful and pleasurable neurochemicals we humans have in our massive brains.  if you are a committed conservative, how do you feel the nanosecond you see a picture of Hillary or Obama? If you are a committed liberal or NeverTrump conservative, how do you feel the nanosecond you see Mr. Trump speaking?

Our human psychology has a backdoor, and it is very hackable—by fear. Fear suggests loss. Fear involuntarily causes stress. Fear paints a picture of necessary response; thus, stress also involuntarily induces a strong desire to do something. But much of Fox News induced stress is nonactionable—you can’t throw a brick through the TV,

You can’t drive down to the Mexican border with a shotgun and protect America from invasion. You can’t even stop those “wetbacks” from hanging around the back of Home Depot and stealing good American jobs or fly to China and get your steel foundry job or auto assembly job back

Psychologists I consulted with on this book say this amount of constant and unresolved fear and stress can create a condition that’s a cousin to a PTSD.  For tens of millions of self-identified “proud conservatives/ Deplorables/Republicans”—especially ones over age fifty-five living in the 2,626 counties in Retro America that voted Trump—the unintended consequence of them living constantly inside the digital Foxocracy are almost all mentally and physically negative. So yes—for Fox News and its incarnate offspring Donald Trump and Trumpism, “fear is a business strategy—it does keep people watching.

The latest data from ten separate neurological research projects on fear-induced trauma since 2005 has proven that fear works especially well with self-identified conservatives because they are neurologically hardwired with up to 25 percent more intense reaction to fearful images.

Let’s all admit that when nearly a third of American adults have stopped speaking to hopelessly estranged parents, brothers, sisters, and longtime friends, we have a large and genuine cultural crisis (and a public health crisis too) in America of our own making.

When it comes to emotional intensity, TV is ten times more emotionally impactful than radio because humans communicate emotions through facial expressions and gestures, not voice (conservative radio jocks aren’t singing!). Fox News addicts suffering from desocialized Foxhole syndrome truly are not consciously aware that their desocialized behavior is the primary cause for their estrangement from family and friends. In fact, my research shows quite the opposite: These poor folks can’t for the life of them understand how they gave birth to or became friends with “such idiot libtards.  Pollster Frank Luntz’s reports that nearly 33% of American adults report they are estranged from at least one close family member or friend over “irreconcilable political differences.” 

How to enrage a Fox viewer

The 2007–2009 Great Recession, which brutally destroyed the finances and primary wealth repository for many of FNC’s 95% white Retro American viewers (their home equity). Viewers accurately perceived Metro Americans and elites and Wall Street got bailed out by the federal government while they were left to the wolves to fend for themselves. Embers of socioeconomic and class resentment were, by Fox News, fanned into raging fires (remember the Tea Party? Who put dozens of angry white Tea Party leaders on the air for thousands of hours? Fox News).

Many fox viewers are in the working poor: 115 million Americans, two-thirds of American households

The economic torpedoing of both Retro and parts of Metro America created a new, vast, and uniquely American socioeconomic class—America’s working poverty class.  Forty-two percent of Americans don’t make $15 an hour. Forty-five percent of America’s 155 million households can’t scrape up more than $400 in cash liquidity in a pinch. Seventy-two percent of all American households live paycheck to paycheck. About 90% of Americans have experienced stagnant or declining wages since 1980.

Working poverty households—ALICE Households (Asset Light, Income Constrained, and Working.)—are defined as having a household income above the poverty line but below the median household income of $62,000. They are juggling (and sometimes missing) one or two payments a month of basic minimum middle-class life. This means they are one lost job, one injury, or one auto accident away from moving in with a relative or going on State/Federal assistance. This means about 115 million Americans now experience chronic economic trauma. If you add the additional 14 million households in actual poverty, twenty-first-century capitalism is not working for nearly two-thirds of American households.

The descending income and wealth of the American working poverty class fueled the ascension of Fox News’s powerful tribal blame, resentment, and victimization narratives—which in turn fueled the ascension of the Donald Trump’s Presidential Apprentice TV reality show.

Nazi and past propaganda consequences

There have always been serious unintended consequences from media-based tribal identity activation and amplification spirals.

The sinking of the USS Maine on the night of February 15, 1898, supposedly from hitting a Spanish mine hidden in Havana, Cuba’s harbor, created the opportunity to unleash a huge moral panic storyline that lasted months. “Remember the Maine!” was headline news in newspaper articles that urged the United States to “do the only moral thing we can do” and go to war against Spain. Because of that newspaper-driven moral panic, we did go to war with Spain. We also destroyed seven-eighths of Spain’s navy (of which one unintended consequence was the Spanish Civil War in the early 1930s).

Radio preacher Coughlin became disenchanted with Roosevelt’s leadership and began to espouse extreme right-wing views. By the late 1930s, he’d become an outright Fascist sympathizer with an audience of more than thirty million every week. He was eventually forced off the air in 1939 because of his pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

TV was once regulated, it should be again

Electronic tribal identity capitalism started with the dawn of radio and was first mastered (not surprisingly) by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.  After seeing the immense political power and cultural impact of radio the Nazis used, Congress did not wait to regulate TV

Congress passed strict laws that highly regulated television content via local spectrum licenses that had strong “follow our public affairs debate rules to the letter or you lose your valuable TV license” teeth. The three national TV networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were even prevented from owning more than a few local “affiliates” to ensure that no political partisanship bled onto the American airwaves. But Congress did more than just regulate. They also established a public interest standard that mandated companies using the public’s airwaves produce a significant amount of noncommercial “public affairs” content for the good of the citizens. They also mandated a Fairness Doctrine “label” that required news media journalists to seek out credible representatives of different viewpoints and political power for this clearly labeled editorial content.  Both political sides had to be represented by spokespeople of reasonably equal political gravitas.  All the political or cultural back and forth—ironically labeled the “fair and balanced” rule—had to be included in one or more continuing segments and not one-minute sound bites. These public affairs editorial interviews had no commercial advertising and up until the late 1970s were performed live.

TV regulation worked. The rates and size of political polarization and tribalized partisanship (according to social and political scientists) stayed within normal healthy ranges (that is, a normal percentage range of political hyperpartisans on both sides).

But regulation began to change in the 1980s when national cable TV, the personal computer (which brought in the real information distribution and communication disruptor the World Wide Web in 1994), and the introduction of wireless digital voice and text communication devices were invented.

The FCC finally figured out the WWE fixed outcome wrestling “match” scam in 1994 and made them change their name to “entertainment” and disclose their “wrestling match” charade. The FCC figured out the fixed game shows in the late 1950s and shut them down. The FCC even kicked most televangelists off network TV stations and UHF channels (who then just regrouped to form Christian cable TV channels). Why has the FCC not called out and fixed the Fox News “fair and balanced” rigged opinion debate scam?

the Fairness Doctrine was created by the Congress in 1949 because they were so afraid that if one of the three major national networks were to be owned or controlled by a “political partisan,” that network could imbue its left or right political and cultural view on a third of America and have undue influence on our democratic election process.

The removal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was like the FDA removal of the two-day dosage of OxyContin. That regulatory shift set the table for the Fox News scam

FOX, Evangelism, and right-wing radio: a country within a country

Fox News has to compete with conservative radio’s forty million daily listeners and the Evangelical megachurch evangelists and televangelist culture warriors who reach the one-in-four Americans who self-identify as “Evangelical Christians.

We now have for all intents and purposes a completely separate country-within-a-country that is digitally interconnected with God, guns, megachurches, and political, cultural, and religious evangelists and Fox News televangelists spreading the good word of white nationalism.  That self-reinforcing Foxhole spiral feedback loop now includes Bible study, Sunday services, and the White House briefing room too.

In the past it could take much of a lifetime or more for a real and not imagined existential tribal enemy narrative to take hold. The tribal enemy narrative had to be passed down from clergy to grandparent to parents to children and then a cultural spark was required to ignite ethnic or cultural or political tribalism before it became activated, and this digital tribal identity activation spiral is not only happening in America. From the “Spring Awakening” in the Middle East, the UK’s Brexit, the rise of white tribal supremacy groups in Europe, and even to the digital recruitment of tens of thousands of ISIS jihadists, evidence of the tribal identity activation power of digital fear and hate tribalism propaganda is in nearly every country in the world.

The Fox Audience: white men, retirees, the working poor – prone to believing conspiracy theories

It’s mainly white men because they are generally more culturally resentful and more prideful than older women, plus they have fewer close friend relationships. The evening audience is the core Fox News base—they are the (for the most part) more white working and lower middle class or retirees that are addicted to Fox News. Their main TV is on Fox News all day—we know this from the Nielsen reports.

The actual act of believing in conspiracy theories is a psychological construct for these folks to seize back some semblance of control of their lives. It inflates their sense of importance—ring a bell? The self-worth building attraction is the key: By believing the conspiracy, it makes those people feel they are privy to “special knowledge” that the rest of the world is “too blind,” “too dumb,” or “too corrupt” to understand.

Many Fox viewers are vulnerable to believing conspiracy theories. What drives conspiracy theory behavior and makes conspiracy cult leaders so powerful is the psychological profile of conspiracy theory fans—that they are among the most low self-esteem people on earth.  The conspiracies they hold onto are a tribal belief system or psychological construct created to mentally survive in a world they perceive to be haphazard, scary, and unfair.

Key Word: “unfair.” Ever hear or read that term “unfair” in a speech or tweet from Donald J. Trump? Since his POTUS announcement in July 2015, he has spoken or tweeted the word “unfair” over one 1500 times. So yes, dear friends—the behavior of the president of the United States and most powerful person in the world is the epitome of the classic conspiracy theory nut profile.

How to be a successful Fox host

You gotta talk, act, and think like you are a religious cult leader. The most successful Fox News hosts have literally become leaders of their own Evangelical denomination that meets every weeknight at the same time. Their audience worships at the altar of the host’s version of conservatism because conservatism in America is just a nice way of hiding the fact that tribal right-wing political fundamentalism is more like a religious cult than anything else.

 My executive producer once told me “to act like a cult leader/televangelist and write your scripts like you are a cult leader and only you have the answers to your audience’s questions and fears. To kill it here at Fox News prime time, you have to understand the subconscious ID of the audience and get into their unconscious need for feeling pleasure and feeling better about themselves.”

Partisan tribal social identification is more important to everyday people than political ideology. When you understand the incredible power and potency of partisan identity politics, I could get anyone to believe just about anything I said as long as they identified me as a fellow conservative partisan.

Most people don’t watch tribal TV (or vote for that matter) for what they ideologically want. They watch tribal TV to validate and revalidate who they are, and for the binary that proves once again their chosen tribe is the light and the other tribe is darkness. That moral righteousness and superiority is self-esteem gold.

A high percentage of Fox viewers are Evangelical or Pentecostal

Richard Hofstadter recognized that evangelical leaders were playing a significant role in right-wing movements of his time, but he noticed that a ‘fundamentalist’ style of mind was not confined to matters of religious doctrine. It affected opinions about secular affairs, especially political battles. Hofstadter associated that mentality with a ‘Manichean [the ancient religion based on its belief in a binary world only comprised of darkness and light] and apocalyptic’ mode of thought. He noticed that right-wing spokesmen applied the methods and messages of evangelical revivalists to U.S. politics. Agitated partisans on the right talked about epic clashes between good and evil, and they recommended extraordinary measures to resist liberalism. The American way of life was at stake, they argued. Compromise was unsatisfactory; the situation required militancy. Nothing but complete victory would do.

Modern conservatism is political fundamentalism + tribalism + cult.

The American Foxocracy tribal right-wing media ecosystems conspiracy fantasies work because (a) an ignorant info-siloed audience is easily duped—as recent research shows Fox News viewers know less about the news than people who don’t watch news at all.

Fox viewers will believe whatever the fox tribe is selling because of their tribal identity

In a political race, what you are selling is free membership into your candidate’s tribe and the pitch is ‘In my tribe, you and your family will be safer than the other tribe economically, physically, spiritually, culturally, and racially. In the other tribe, you will be less safe. In the other tribe, you will be dangerously exposed to unnecessary risk.

Dear voter, you and I have to keep that other tribe from power—by any means. This election is existential; your safety and your families’ safety are at risk if we don’t.’

The idea that people vote for or don’t vote for what they ‘want’ is wrong. What they vote for is who they feel they are—who they consider their home team to be. White conservatives are proud tribe members, so they believe in all the same orthodoxy and liturgy they hear over and over and over again. If you know a person is a self-identified ‘conservative’—you also know where they stand on guns, on abortion, on the military, on taxes, on immigration, yadda yadda.

The geriatric Fox News audience is unified under one global emotional umbrella: They viscerally feel the country they morally, culturally, politically, and economically understand isn’t here anymore. They are both pissed off about it and, at the same time, scared existentially shitless about this sorry state of affairs they viscerally feel and perceive.

Fox News viewers constantly rate as knowing less about American news than Americans who watch zero televised news.

What happened when the author told Fox watchers they were being conned, suckered

After I told thousands of these true believers in the lecture halls and Q&A sessions time and time again that they (like the proverbial poker game) were being played as suckers in Fox News’s fake fair-and-balanced opinion panel grift and all we were doing was a seven-minute pro wrestling match in $2,000 Brioni suits, they: Didn’t care. Or didn’t believe me. Or didn’t understand the concept of grifting.

Why didn’t they care? Why were they not outraged in the slightest about being lied to and manipulated by me and Fox News and monetized to the tune of billions of dollars every year in profits? Why do these same mostly Evangelical people not care a lick about the integrity or mendacity or immoral behavior of the person they undoubtedly voted for POTUS in 2016?

Almost 80 percent of Fox News viewers think Sean Hannity is a “journalist. That’s how a great grift works—the person being grifted doesn’t know it, doesn’t want to believe it.

Fox viewers most likely to share fake news on social media

Recent social media sharing data shows that the worst forwarders of truly fake news (from Russian trolls, etc.) are—wait for it—people over 55!

Donald Trump

July 2015. On my office TV I watched in astonishment as a real life WWE Hall of Fame grifter and longtime, hard core binge-watching Foxhole (the same certifiable crazy blowhard ignoramus I, as a guest anchor, had interviewed multiple times for Fox Business) glided down a gold-tinged escalator in Trump Tower NYC just like the old Gorgeous George pro wrestling character I had watched as a kid. I watched, mortified, as this real estate mogul who had inherited every advantage and now had become a low-rent reality TV grifter—the one and thankfully only Donald J. Trump—morphed into a professional Foxhole. Trump performed a flawless twenty-minute Fox News opinion host impersonation to the entire world—and without a Fox News opinion segment producer!

Trump’s only deviation from our emotional grift was to dispense with the coded racial language and metaphors used at Fox News and actually call Mexicans “rapists and murderers!

He morphed into a Fox News opinion televangelist clone and was channeling the highly trained conservative populist performance artist Pat Buchanan too. As a candidate, he said things and used words that if I used them on the air, I would have been fired. He used every Roger Ailes/Fox News production trick you’ll find in this book. And since this book that you are reading did not exist, he had amazingly absorbed the entire Fox News tribal warfare playbook via osmosis—and I am sure ten thousand hours of “executive time” watching Fox News.

He spoke simply, at the fifth-grade level I was taught to use by Fox producers

Trump gave his mostly Fox News audience what they had only dreamed of: permission to break free. “Thank you, Jesus!” they exclaimed—and strangest of all, the most religious part of the Foxocracy really did say “Thank you, Jesus and God, for giving us this thrice married, porn star banging, pathological liar and all-around sociopath Donald Trump!

I also could not help but notice that the #MAGA/“Lock Her Up” T-shirt wearing folks spoke exactly like Trump.

They had binge-watched thousands of hours of fake Fox News “debates.” Those stadiums were packed with a lot of Foxholes. They also had been preconditioned for Trumpism from forty years of listening to right-wing talk radio in their cars and trucks. They loved all the “trumped up” accusations and half-baked truths he was slinging because he validated and normalized what they already had come to subjectively believe as objective “facts” for decades.

More important, they wanted to believe his delusions and illusions as objective fact, like WWE wrestling fans do. Trump’s Deplorables were on the same page because they spoke the same language, and he was selling a more intense version of the shows they’d been binge-watching on FNC for twenty years.

What I never expected was that the audience would soon number some 65 million, or 35% of all American voters in 2016.

One consequence was that the “failing” New York Times reached $1 billion in digital-only subscriptions in 2019. When Trump first went down the escalator in Trump Tower, they were losing money.

He said everything I could not say on TV—overtly racist things on live TV and on Twitter. If I had said these things, it would have gotten me fired or kicked off Twitter.

People over 55 became the fastest-growing audience for Facebook and Twitter. Unfriending Deplorable “Trumpers” in a blaze of sanctimonious glory became its own glorious sporting event.

They did not care about his profound mental, professional, and moral deficiencies. They called the Washington Post and CNN and the New York Times and NBC and other media outlets “fake news” and “enemies of the people” as if they were all of a sudden living in some neofascist banana republic.

And then—just like Jesus of Nazareth—the Donald of Queens disciples did come and join him—although he taught them quite a different set of the Beatitudes except the 11th one—“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

They had finally found their profane anti-PC and anti-Obama messiah, and to mix metaphors, they flocked to see his unscripted shit show just to hear him say something that they knew their hated PC crowd would find outrageous

I hoped I could help prove to anyone that would listen that Trump’s shtick was just a nuclear-powered version of a Fox News host but with the added risk of an actual nuclear disaster.


2017-1-18  Forty percent of Americans who said they voted for Donald Trump said they relied on Fox News as their main source of election news before Nov. 8, a stark contrast with Americans who said they voted for Hillary Clinton, only 3 percent of whom relied on the cable news channel as their main source of election-related news.  The findings, from a study released by the Pew Research Center.

Although 37 percent of Republicans overall said that almost nothing could dissuade them from approving of Trump, more than half of Republicans whose primary news source is Fox News held that view. By contrast, only about 3 in 10 Republicans whose primary news source is something other than Fox were as solid in their support of Trump. Even Republicans without a college degree, a bastion of Trump’s support in 2016, and white evangelical Protestants were less likely to say that they expected to stick with Trump no matter what.

Matthews, D. 2017. A stunning new study shows that Fox News is more powerful than we ever imagined. Vox.

Across a variety of political and cultural attitudes, Republicans who report getting their news from Fox are significantly to the right of Republicans who don’t.  Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimate that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. For context, that would’ve made John Kerry the 2004 popular vote winner, and turned Barack Obama’s 2008 victory into a landslide where he got 60 percent of the two-party vote.

In 2000, they estimate that 58 percent of Fox viewers who were initially Democrats changed to supporting the Republican candidate by the end of the election cycle; in 2004, the persuasion rate was 27%, and 28% in 2008. MSNBC, by contrast, only persuaded 8 percent of initial Republicans to vote Democratic in the 2008 cycle.

You might also want to see the documentary film by Jen Senko, which is free on Amazon prime whose description reads: “The Brainwashing of My Dad” explores the radical change of her once Democratic father to an angry right-wing fanatic after his immersion in talk radio and Fox News. She discovers this to be a powerful phenomenon that has divided families across the nation.”  My own father was a Rush Limbo ditto-head and it tore our family apart for a while, but fortunately he snapped out of it because he went to both the democratic and republican clubs at a local senior center. But very few people who get sucked into the right-wing extremism cult ever emerge.

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Nothing is true & everything Is possible: the surreal heart of the new Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

Preface. In light of how greatly Russia influenced the election of Trump, it’s worth reading this book to see how Russia has used propaganda to control their own people, keep Putin in office, and in general how the rule of law has vanished and corruption increased.  Since the state controls the media, Russians hear nothing but “FOX news”.

This is an amazing look at what it is like in Russia these days. There are schools that teach golddiggers how to win the hearts of the new billionaires, Scientology-like religious scams, how any wealthy business owner can be sent to jail until huge bribes are paid, and much more. The most important point is about how the media is controlled by Putin for propaganda purposes in a very clever, sophisticated and surreal way. I have been amused over the years by Putin’s endless photo ops as a strong, macho, James Bond figure, but I’m less amused after reading this book.

I thought the U.S. was just as corrupt as Russia’s when you consider all the fraud in America and no executives in jail (mortgage bubble, credit card scams, etc.). But we have much further to fall and just because we haven’t reached the depths of Russia’s corruption yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. In fact, this book makes a good case that this is where we are headed.

In fact this book and my review were written long before Trump was elected. It seems prophetic now in 2020.

Related books:

  • Gessen, M. 2017. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Riverhead Books.
  • Malcolm, N. 2018. The Plot to Destroy Democracy. How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West. Hachette Books.
  • Isikoff, M. 2018. Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Hachette Book Group.
  • Galeotti, M. 2018. Vory. Russias Super Mafia. Yale University Press.
  • Harding, L. 2017. Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.
  • Simpson, G. 2019. Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump. Random House.
  • Maddow, R. 2019. Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. Crown.
  • Pomerantsev, P. 2015. Nothing is true and everything is possible: the surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs.

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

* * *

Peter Pomerantsev. 2014. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Public Affairs.

[Vitaly was a big time gangster, here is Pomerantsev’s account of his switch to making movies about gangsters]:

The day of his big shoot Vitaly took over a whole market. The scene had the young Vitaly and his gang being busted as they extorted money from the market traders. The traders played themselves, and cops had been hired to play cops. “Isn’t there a problem that you’re working for a gangster today?” we asked the cops. They laughed. “Who do you think we work for anyway?” (The new mayor of Vladivostok was a man nicknamed Winnie-the-Pooh, a mob boss who had previously served time for threatening to kill a businessman.) Vitaly’s set had a cast of hundreds, and it should have been chaos, but I’d never seen a film set so slickly run. His gangster crew was the production team. Who would dare to be late on set when professional killers are running the show? Vitaly was a natural. Cap pulled low, long finger tapping against his mouth, he set up every camera position unerringly. Though there was no script on paper, he never got lost, giving terse, tight instructions to all the players. “It’s just like setting up a heist,” he told me. “Everything’s got to be exact. Not like one of your little documentaries.” Every detail of the clothes, the guns, and the items the market traders were selling had been reproduced just as they were in the late 1980s.

The way Vitaly shot his films was more like a cheesy B-movie than documentary-style realism. Every shot of Vitaly was a glamorous close-up. He wiped his sweaty brow, sighed like a pantomime hero, looked intently into the distance, and escaped death to the sound of the Star Wars sound track. This was how he saw himself, his life, his crimes. All the pain and death he had caused and suffered were viewed by him through the corny music and cloud-machine smoke of a bad action movie.

There’s a little scene that gets played out on the TV channels every week. The President sits at the head of a long table. Along each side sit the governors of every region: the western, central, northeastern, and so on. The president points to each one, who tells him what’s going on in his patch. “Rogue terrorists, pensions unpaid, fuel shortages. . . . ” The governors looked petrified. The president toys with them, pure gangster like Vitaly. “Well, if you can’t sort out the mess in your backyard, we can always find a different governor. . . . ” For a long time I couldn’t remember what the scene reminded me of. Then I realized: it’s straight out of The Godfather, when Marlon Brando gathers the mafia bosses from the five boroughs. Quentin Tarantino used a similar scene when Lucy Liu meets with the heads of the Tokyo Yakuza clans in Kill Bill—it’s a mafia movie trope. And it fits the image the Kremlin has for the President: he is dressed like a mob boss (the black polo top underneath the black suit), and his sound bites come straight out of gangster flicks (“we’ll shoot the enemy while he’s on the shitter . . . ”). I can see the spin doctors’ logic: Whom do the people respect the most? Gangsters. So let’s make our leader look like a gangster; let’s make him act like Vitaly.

One of the areas TNT specializes in is satire. If the USSR drove humor underground and thus made it an enemy of the state, the new Kremlin actively encourages people to have a laugh at its expense: one TNT sketch show is about corrupt Duma deputies who are always whoring and partying while praising each other’s patriotism; another is about the only traffic cop in Russia who doesn’t take bribes—his family is starving and his wife is always nagging him to become “normal” and more corrupt. As long as no real government officials are named, then why not let the audience blow off some steam?

Russia does have elections, but the “opposition,” with its almost comical leaders, is designed and funded in such a way as to actually strengthen the Kremlin: when the beetroot-faced communists and the spitting nationalists row on TV political debating shows, the viewer is left with the feeling that, compared to this lot, the President is the only sane candidate.

Russia does have nongovernmental organizations, representing everyone from bikers to beekeepers, but they are often created by the Kremlin, which uses them to create a “civil society” that is ever loyal to it.

Although Russia does officially have a free market, with mega-corporations floating their record-breaking IPOs on the global stock exchanges, most of the owners are friends of the President. Or else they are oligarchs who officially pledge that everything that belongs to them is also the President’s when he needs it. This isn’t a country in transition but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.

How Russian TV channels are structured

On the surface most Russian TV channels are organized like any Western TV station. Independent production companies pitch program ideas at the network in what looks like open competition. But there is a twist. Most of the production companies were either owned or part-owned by the heads of the network and senior execs. They were commissioning for themselves. But as they had a genuine interest in making good shows and gaining ratings, they would create a plethora of companies, each competing against the other and thus improving the quality of ideas. And while the channels themselves pay their taxes and are housed in new office buildings, the production companies, where the real money is made, operate in a quite different world.

Recently I had been cutting a show at one such production company, Potemkin. It was based far away from Moscow’s blue-glass-and-steel center, in a quiet road on an industrial estate. The gray warehouse building where Potemkin was based had no sign, no number on the black metal door. Behind the door was a dirty, draughty, prison-like room where I was met by a bored guard who would look at me each day as if I were a stranger encroaching on his living space. To get to the office I walked down an unlit concrete corridor and turned sharp right, up two flights of narrow stairs, at the top of which was another black, unmarked metal door.

Suddenly I was back in a Western office, with Ikea furniture and lots of twentysomethings in jeans and bright T-shirts running around with coffees, cameras, and props. It could be any television production office anywhere in the world. But going past the reception desk, the conference room, coffee bar, and casting department, you reach a closed white door. Many turn back at this point, thinking they have seen the whole office. But tap in a code and you enter a much larger set of rooms: here the producers and their assistants sit and argue; here the accountants glide around with spreadsheets and solemnity; and here are the loggers, rows of young girls staring at screens as their hyperactive fingers type out interviews and dialogue from rushes. At the end of this office is another door. Tap in another code and you enter the editing suites, little cells where directors and video editors sweat and swear at one another. And beyond that is the final, most important, and least conspicuous of all the inconspicuous doors, with a code that few people know. It leads to the office of the head of the company, Ivan, and the room where the real accounts are kept.

This whole elaborate setup is intended to foil the tax police. That’s who the guards are there to keep out, or keep out long enough for the back office to be cleared and the hidden back entrance put to good use. Whatever measures were taken, the tax police would occasionally turn up anyway, tipped off by someone. When they did we knew the drill: pick up your things and leave quietly. If anyone asks, say you’ve just come in for a meeting or casting.

The first time it happened I was convinced we were about to be handcuffed and sent down for fraud. But for my Russian colleagues the raids were a reason to celebrate: the rest of the day was invariably a holiday as Ivan haggled with the tax police to keep down the size of the payoff. “Only a dozen people work here,” he would say with a wink as they looked around at the many dozens of desks, chairs, and computers still warm from use. Then, I imagine, Ivan would bring out the fake accounts from the front office to support his case, and they would sit down to negotiate.

The officials would look at the fake books, which they knew perfectly well to be fake, and extract fines in line with legislation they knew Ivan did not need to comply with. So everything would be settled, and every role, pose, and line of dialogue would reproduce the ritual of legality. It was a ritual played out every day in every medium-sized businesses, every restaurant, modeling agency, and PR firm across the country.

I once asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneurs paid their taxes in full; it wouldn’t occur to them. It wasn’t about morality; Ivan was a religious man and paid a tithe in voluntary charity. But no one thought taxes would ever be spent on schools or roads. And the tax police were much happier taking bribes. In any case, Ivan’s profits were already squeezed by the broadcasters. Around 15 percent of any budget went to the guy at the channel who commissioned the programs and part-owned the company.

Since the war in Iraq many were skeptical about the virtue of the West. And then the financial crash undermined any superiority they felt the West might have. All the words that had been used to win the Cold War—“freedom,” “democracy”—seemed to have swelled and mutated and changed their meaning, to become redundant. If during the Cold War Russia gave the West the opposition it needed to unify its various freedoms (cultural and economic and political) into one narrative, now that the opposition has disappeared, the unity of the Western story seems unwound. And in such a new world, what could be wrong with a “Russian point of view?

It took a while for those working [in Russian TV] to sense something was not quite right, that the “Russian point of view” could easily mean “the Kremlin point of view,” and that “there is no such thing as objective reporting” meant the Kremlin had complete control over the truth. Once things had settled down it turned out that only about 200 of the 2,000 or so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. In between the bland sports reports came the soft interviews with the President. (“Why is the opposition to you so small, Mr. President?” was one legendary question.)

During the Russian war with Georgia, Russia Today ran a banner across its screen nonstop, screaming: “Georgians commit genocide in Ossetia.” Nothing of the kind had been, or would ever be, proven. And when the President will go on to annex Crimea and launch his new war with the West, Russian TV (RT) will be in the vanguard, fabricating startling fictions about fascists taking over Ukraine. But the first-time viewer would not necessarily register these stories, for such obvious pro-Kremlin messaging is only one part of Russian Television’s output. Its popularity stems from coverage of what it calls “other,” or “unreported,” news. Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, had a talk show on RT. American academics who fight the American World Order, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, anti-globalists, and the European Far Right are given generous space.


The theater that evening was showing a performance of Nord Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was Russia’s first musical. The terrorists came onto the stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought the terrorists were part of the play. When they realized they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the doors. The doors were blocked off already by Black Widows with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on the stage ordered the audience back into their seats; anyone who moved would be executed. The Moscow theater siege had begun; it would last four nights.

The hostages were losing hope. The terrorists demanded the President pull all federal forces out of the North Caucasus. The Kremlin had said there was no way it would negotiate: the President’s credibility was based on quelling the rebellion in Chechnya. In the late 1990s, when he was still prime minister, he had been transformed from gray nobody to warrior by the Second Chechen War, suddenly appearing in camouflage sharing toasts with soldiers on the front. The war had been launched after a series of apartment buildings had been bombed in mainland Russia, killing 293 people in their homes. Nowhere, nowhere at all, had seemed safe.

At 5:00 a.m. on the fourth night of the siege, special forces slipped a fizzing, mystery anesthetic blended with an aerosol spray gas into the ventilation system of the theater. A gray mist rose through the auditorium. The Black Widows were knocked out instantly, slouching over and sliding onto the floor. The hostages and hostage-takers all snored. Barely a shot was fired as special forces, safe from the fumes in gas masks, entered. All the Chechens were quickly killed. The soldiers celebrated the perfect operation. The darkness around me was lit up with the spotlights of news crews reporting a miracle of military brilliance. The medics moved in to resuscitate the audience. They hadn’t been warned about the gas. There weren’t enough stretchers or medics. No one knew what the gas was, so they couldn’t give the right antidotes.

The sleeping hostages, fighting for breath, were carried out, placed face up on the steps of the theater, choking on their tongues, on their own vomit. I, and a thousand TV cameras, saw the still-sleeping hostages dragged through cold puddles to city buses standing nearby, thrown inside any which way and on top of each other. The buses pulled past me, the hostages slumped and sagging across the seats and on the wooden floor, like wasted bums on the last night bus. Some 129 hostages died: in the seats of the auditorium, on the steps of the theater, in buses. The news crews reported a self-inflicted catastrophe. The Nord Ost theater siege, this terror-reality show—in which the whole country saw its own sicknesses in close-up, broadcast on live TV; saw its smirking cops, its lost politicians desperate for guidance not knowing how to behave; saw Black Widows, somehow pitiable despite their actions, elevated to prime-time TV stars; saw victories turn to disasters within one news flash—was when television in Russia changed. No longer would there be anything uncontrolled, unvetted, un-thought-through. The conflict in the Caucasus disappeared from TV, only to be mentioned when the President announced the war there was over, that billions were being invested, that everything was just fine, that Chechnya had been rebuilt, that tourism was booming, that 98% of Chechens voted for the President in elections, and that the terrorists had been forced out to refuges in the hills and forests. When someone from the Caucasus appears on television now, it’s usually as entertainment, the butt of jokes like the Irish are for the English. But despite all the good news from the Caucasus, Black Widows still make it up to Moscow with rhythmic regularity. Over time their profile has changed: they are less likely to be the wives or daughters of those killed in the war in Chechnya.


Often you find all the styles compiled into one building. A new office center on the other side of the river from the Kremlin starts with a Roman portico, then morphs into medieval ramparts with spikes and gold-glass reflective windows, all topped with turrets and Stalin spires. The effect is at first amusing, then disturbing. It’s like talking to the victim of a multiple personality disorder: Who are you? What are you trying to say? Increasingly new skyscrapers recall the Gotham-gothic turrets of Stalin architecture. Triumph-Palace, briefly Europe’s tallest apartment building, is a copy of the Stalinist “seven sisters.” Long before the city’s political scientists started shouting that the Kremlin was building a new dictatorship, the architects were already whispering: “Look at this new architecture, it dreams of Stalin. Be warned, the evil Empire is back.” But the original Stalin skyscrapers were made of granite, with grand mosaics and Valhalla halls leading to small, ascetic apartments. The new ones try to be domineering but come across as camp; developers steal so much money during construction that even the most VIP, luxury, elite of the skyscrapers crack and sink ever so quickly. That unique Moscow mix of tackiness and menace.

It should be untouchable. But the tremors of drill and demolition ball only become more frenzied with every meter closer you get to the Kremlin. Property prices are measured by distance from Red Square: the aim is to build your office or apartment as close to the center of power as possible, the market organized by a still feudal social structure defined by needing to be within touching distance of the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party, the President of the Russian Federation. The country’s institutions—oil companies, banks, ministries, and courts—all want to crowd around the Kremlin like courtiers. This means the city is almost destined to destroy itself; it can’t grow outward, so every generation stomps on the heads of previous ones. Over a thousand buildings have been knocked down in the center so far this century, with hundreds of officially “protected” historic monuments lost. But the new buildings meant to replace them often stand dark and empty; property is the most effective money laundering scheme, making money for members of the Moscow government who give contracts to their own development companies, for the agents who sell the buildings to the nameless and faceless Forbeses, who need some way to stabilize their assets. A small crowd has gathered near the building site on Gnezdnikovsky. They put candles and flowers on the pavement in a little gesture of lament. These flash mobs mourning the death of old Moscow have become more frequent.

On the corner of Pakrovka three plump women who look like schoolteachers or doctors patrol an art nouveau apartment block, surrounded by their Labradors. They squint aggressively as we approach, then relax and greet Mozhayev when they see him. These little vigilante gangs have become common in Moscow, protecting not from burglars but from developers, who send arsonists to set buildings ablaze, then use the fire as an excuse to evict homeowners by claiming the houses are now fire hazards. The motivation is great: property prices rose by over 400 percent in the first decade after 2000. So these fires have become habitual in Moscow. Muscovites have taken to patrolling their own buildings at night: gangs of doctors, teachers, grannies, and housewives eyeing every passerby as if he were an arsonist. It’s pointless for them to call the police; the largest groups of developers are friends and relatives of the mayor and the government. The mayor’s wife is the biggest of the lot. The near mythical Russian middle class, suddenly finding they have no real rights at all over their property, can be thrown out and relocated like serfs under a feudal whim.

There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders. The most gentle courtyards reveal the most awful secrets. Around the corner from Potapoffsky is an apartment block where every one of the families had someone arrested during Stalin’s terror. In the basement of what is now a brand new shopping mall was the courtroom where innocent after innocent was sentenced to labor camps, the courts working so fast they would get through two cases inside a minute. And those are just the Stalin years, not even encroaching on the dismal betrayals of later decades, listening at the door of your neighbors’ rooms to report them tuning into the BBC or Radio Free Europe. “Every new regime rebuilds the past so radically,” Mozhayev says as we move back toward Barrikadnaya. “Lenin and Trotsky ripping up the memory of the tsars, Stalin ripping up the memory of Trotsky, Khrushchev of Stalin, Brezhnev of Khrushchev; perestroika gutting the whole Communist century . . . and every time the heroes turn to villains, saviors are rewritten as devils, the names of streets are changed, faces [are] scrubbed out from photographs, encyclopedias [are] re-edited. And so every regime destroys and rebuilds the previous city.” On the corner of Barrikadnaya a little baroque house is pushed out of the way by a constructivist apartment block of the 1920s, in turn dominated by a sneering, Stalin skyscraper, itself now outflanked by the dark glinting tiles of a huge, domed new mall, resembling the tents and spears of Mongol battle camps. And all these buildings seem to push and shove each other out of the way. If areas of London or Paris are built in a similar style—searching for some sort of harmony, memory, identity—here each building looks to stamp and disdain the last, just as every regime discredited the previous.


Whenever twenty-first-century Russian culture looks for a foundation it can build itself from, healthy and happy, it finds the floor gives way and buries it in soil and blood. When the Ostankino channels launch the Russian version of the British TV show Greatest Britons, renamed Name of Russia, it’s meant to be a straightforward PR project to boost the country’s patriotism. The audiences across the nation are to vote for Russia’s greatest heroes. But as the country starts to look for its role models, its fathers, it turns out that every candidate is a tyrant: Ivan the Terrible, founder of Russia proper in the sixteenth century and the first tsar; Peter the Great; Lenin; Stalin. The country seems transfixed in adoration of abusive leaders. When the popular vote starts to come in for Name of Russia, the producers are embarrassed to find Stalin winning. They have to rig the vote so that Alexander Nevsky, a near-mythical medieval warrior knight, born, we think, in 1220, can win. He lived so long ago, when Russia was still a colony of the Mongol Empire between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, that he seems a neutral choice. Russia has to reach outside the history of its own state to find a father figure. But though this was never mentioned in the program, what little evidence there is of his career shows that Nevsky made his name by collecting taxes, quelling and killing other rebellious Russian princelings for his Mongol suzerain. How do you build a history based on ceaseless self-slaughter and betrayal? Do you deny it? Forget it? But then you are left orphaned. So history is rewritten to suit the present. As the President looks for a way to validate his own authoritarianism, Stalin is praised as a great leader who won the Soviet Union the war. On TV the first attempts to explore the past, the well-made dramas about Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, are taken off screen and replaced with celebrations of World War II. (But while Stalin’s victory is celebrated publicly and loudly, invoking him also silently resurrects old fears: Stalin is back! Be very afraid!) The architecture reflects these agonies. The city writhes as twentyfirst-century Russia searches, runs away, returns, denies, and reinvents itself.

I advise him to take care on the corner where the traffic police like to change the signs from “single lane” to “no way” overnight to catch out drivers and extract their rent—the city is an obstacle course of corruption, and your options are to get angry or play up and play the game and just enjoy it.

A Muscovite measures out his life in jams, the day’s success or failure judged by how many hours you spend in traffic. They have become the city’s symbol. The only way to relieve the city would be to move financial and government centers out of the inner rings of town. But that would be out of keeping with the feudal instincts of the system. So the traffic becomes the expression of the stalemate at the center of everything: on the one hand the free market means everyone can own a car, but on the other all the cars are in jams because of the underlying social structure. The siren-wielding, black (always black), bullet-proof Mercedeses of the big, rich, and powerful are free to drive against the flow of traffic, speed through the acid sludge, driven by modern-day barons who live by different rules. The sirens are the city’s status symbol, awarded like knighthoods to the most loyal bureaucrats, businessmen, and film directors (or for a certain price).

“Don’t worry, my brother,” he tells me, “we’ll clean the streets of all the filth, all the darkies, the Muslims and their dirty money. Holy Russia will rise again.” One bumps into these types occasionally, Eurasianists, Great Russians, holy neo-imperialists, and the like, few but quietly supported by the Kremlin to have a mouthpiece through which to keep the conversation away from corruption and focused on fury at foreigners (the Kremlin isn’t keen to say these words itself).

Military Service

I pass through the station and head for the St. Petersburg train and my latest story—about mandatory military service, the great initiation into Russian manhood. Every April and October the color khaki seems to suddenly sprout on the streets as bands of young soldiers appear in the cities; skinny, in uniforms either too large or small, with pinched red noses and red ears, scowling at the gold-leaf restaurants. They hang around at the entrances of metro stations where the warm air gusts up from the underground, shiver while sucking on tepid beer on street corners of major thoroughfares. They come shuffling upstairs and knocking on apartment doors and stalk through parks. It’s the time of year of Russia’s great annual hide and seek; the soldiers have been given orders to catch young men dodging the draft and force them to join the army.

Military service might be mandatory for healthy males between 18 and 27, but anyone who can avoids it. The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some play mad, spending a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers will bring them in: “My son is psychologically disturbed,” they will say. “He has been threatening me with violence, he wakes up crying.” The doctors of course know they are pretending, and the bribe to stay a month in a loony bin will set you back thousands of dollars. You will never be forced to join up again—the mad are not trusted with guns—but you will also have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career.

Other medical solutions are more short term: a week in the hospital with a supposedly injured hand or back. This will have to be repeated every year, and annually the hospitals fill up with pimply youths simulating illness. But the medical route takes months of preparation: finding the right doctor, the right ailment—because the ailments that can get you off change all the time. You turn up at the military center with the little stamped registration card that your mother has spent months organizing and saving for, then find that this year flat feet or shortsightedness are no longer a legal excuse.

If you’re at a university you avoid military service (or rather you fulfill it with tame drills at the faculty) until you graduate. There is no greater stimulus for seeking a higher education, and Russian males take on endless master’s degree programs until their late twenties. And if you’re not good enough to make it into college? Then you must bribe your way into an institution; there are dozens of new universities that have opened in part to service the need to avoid the draft. And the possibility of the draft makes dropping out of college much more dangerous—the army will snap you up straightaway. When the bad marks come in, mothers start to fret and scream at their sons to work harder. And when they can see the boys might fail, it’s time to pay another bribe, to make sure they pass the year. But there are a certain number of pupils the teacher has to fail to keep up appearances, and the fretting mothers start to put out feelers for the most desperate and most expensive remedy: the bribe to the military command. The mothers come to the generals, beat and weep on the doors of the commanders, cry about their sons’ freedoms (money by itself is not always enough; you have to earn the emotional right to pay the bribe).

But all these options are only available for those with money and connections. For the others, for the poorer ones, it’s hide and seek time. The soldiers will grab anyone who looks the right age and demand his documents and letters of exemption, and if he doesn’t have them march him off to the local recruitment center. So the young spend their time avoiding underground stops or hiding behind columns and darting past when they see the soldiers are flirting with girls or scrounging cigarettes off passersby. You see teens sprinting through the long, dark marble corridors of the subway as cops give chase.

When soldiers come by apartments, potential conscripts pretend they are not there, barricading themselves in, holding their breath until the soldiers go away. The soldiers eventually get tired and leave, but from now on every time you have your documents checked by police you will be trembling that they might ring through and see whether you dodged the draft. And every time you go into the subway, every time you cross a main road, every time you meet friends near a cinema, any time you leave your little yard, life becomes full of trepidation. And you will live semi-illegally until you are 27, unable to register for an official passport and thus unable to travel outside of the country. This is the genius of the system: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother, and your family become part of the network of bribes and fears and simulations; you learn to become an actor playing out his different roles in his relationship with the state, knowing already that the state is the great colonizer you fear and want to avoid or cheat or buy off.

Those too poor, too lazy, or too unlucky to avoid the draft—or those for whom the army seems a better option than anything they have—are rounded up, stripped, shaved, and packed off to bases all across the country.

Where he will be sent depends on the bribe a soldier pays. Some will go to Chechnya, to Ossetia, to the death zones everyone dreads. But if you pay in time, you’ll avoid those. What no one will be safe from is hazing, known in Russia as the “law of the grandfather”: dozens of conscripts are killed every year, hundreds commit suicide, and thousands are abused. Those are just the official statistics.

This is why every mother wants to keep her son away from the army. New conscripts are known as “spirits.” And as the tarpaulin-covered trucks pass through the gates of the army bases, the conscripts will hear the shouts of the older officers waiting for them: “Hang yourselves, spirits, hang yourselves!” they call. And the great breaking-in begins. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, an NGO run by the mothers of conscripts past and present, is the refuge “spirits” flee to when they run away from camp.

In the office of the Soldiers’ Mothers the walls are lined with photographs of dead soldiers. I’ve come to interview four 18-year-olds who have recently fled from a nearby base called Kamenka. They are desperate to prove they didn’t just run away because of common hazing, that they’re loyal, tough. They seem embarrassed by having to take shelter with fifty-year-old women.

“You get beaten up, that’s fine. I pissed blood but that didn’t scare me,” says one, the skinniest. “Stools broken over your head. It’s good for you,” echoes another. “They put a gas mask over your face, then force you to smoke cigarettes while you do push-ups. If you get through that you’re a real man.” “I’m not red, . . . ” they all repeat.

“You need discipline. But what happens at Kamenka has nothing to do with discipline.” “The ‘grandfathers’ beat you to extort money, not because they want to make a soldier out of you.” The conscripts spend most of their time repairing and repainting military vehicles, which are then sold on the sly by Kamenka’s command. The “spirits” are essentially used as free labor.

The boys had run away after a night of nonstop beatings. The “grandfathers” had been drinking all day, and then at night they began to whack the boys with truncheons. The commanding officer came by but did nothing; commanding officers need the help of the “grandfathers” in their larger corruption schemes and let them have their fun. They go to great lengths to cover up for the “grandfathers.

“In one week, the Soldiers’ Mothers told me, five “spirits” at Kamenka had their spleens beaten to a pulp. The commanders couldn’t take the “spirits” to a normal hospital; too many questions would be asked. So they had to take them privately, paying 40,000 rubles (over $1,000) for each operation. At 6:00 a.m. the “grandfathers” told the “spirits” they needed to each bring 2,000 rubles ($50) by lunchtime or they would kill them. One of the conscripts, Volodya, had decided to make a run for it. He slipped through the fence and made it to the road. His father had picked him up and brought him here.


Another director is shooting a film about a man in Ekaterinburg who was beaten nearly to death by traffic cops when he refused to pay a bribe; now he exacts his vengeance by catching traffic cops giving bribes on video and posting them online.

The victims I meet never talk of human rights or democracy; the Kremlin has long learned to use this language and has eaten up all the space within which any opposition could articulate itself. The rage is more inchoate: hatred of cops, the army. Or blame it all on foreigners.

Some teens, the anarchists and artists, have started to gather and protest, rushing out of the metro and cutting off the roads and the main squares. They call their gatherings “Monstrations” and carry absurdist banners: “The sun is your enemy.” “We will make English Japanese.” “Eifiyatoloknu for president.” The only response to the absurdity of the Kremlin is to be absurd back. An art group called Vojna (“War”) are the great tricksters of the Monstration movement: running through the streets and kissing policewomen; setting cockroaches loose in a courtroom; projecting a skull and crossbones onto the parliament building.


Just as I feel I’m on a roll, my little corridor is cut off. “We’re sorry, Peter,” my producers tell me at TNT, “we’ve been told to stop making . . . ‘social’ films. You understand. . . . ” They look a little uncomfortable when they say this. I’m uncomfortable for their discomfort, and I find myself nodding. Of course I understand. I have learned to pick things up on the edge of a hint. I don’t ask “why.” I don’t argue that ratings should be our priority. There are unspoken walls. The Kremlin wave of cleaning things up has finished. The 2008 financial crisis in the West has lowered the oil price, and there’s less money for the Kremlin to indulge in toying with reforms. We need calm now. The economy is curdling.

As I am coming out of TNT toward evening, the neon lamps on the sushi bars are already lighting up dark mountains of dirty acid sludge: the chemicals the city puts in grit burn the paws of stray dogs. You can hear them whimper as they huddle by the warm pipes along the buildings. Two pork-faced cops, whom Muscovites have taken to calling “werewolves in uniform,” patrol the corner. I try not to gawk and walk past in the Moscow style, face down and furious. The main thing is not to catch their eye—one of my many registrations has expired. But they can still smell the fear on me—belching out the phrase that is their mark of power: “Documents: Now!” I know the script. They shepherd me toward the darkness of a courtyard. Then comes the ultimate Moscow transaction, the slipping of the bribe, a 500-ruble note already placed that morning among the pages of my passport (the rate has been going up as the economy worsens). But never offer money directly. Paying bribes requires a degree of delicacy. Russians have more words for “bribe” than Eskimos do for “snow.


Grigory began by making his own computers. They sold well. Soon he had a team of other students working with him. Got involved with banking. Then came the new world of threats, bodyguards. At the parties, people would whisper he was lucky to have made it through alive. “The worst is when people owe you money,” Grigory told me once as we drove through the woods outside of Moscow in a new, silver, sports car. “As long as you owe them, they’ll never kill you. But if they owe you they’d rather kill than pay. I dream of being able to go outside without bodyguards. A normal life.


The Rose of the World wasn’t the first sect I had encountered in Russia. As the Soviet Union had sunk, so sects had bubbled to the surface. Indeed, it was the Kremlin that had given them an impetus, via the power of Ostankino. In 1989 a new show appeared on Soviet TV. Instead of the usual ballet and costume dramas, the audience suddenly saw a close-up of a man with 1970s porn star looks, black hair, and even blacker eyes. He had a very deep voice. Slowly and steadily and repeatedly he instructed the viewer to breathe deeply, relax, breathe deeply. “Close your eyes. You can cure cancer or alcoholism or any ailment with the power of thought,” he said. This was Anatoly Kashpirovsky. He was a professional hypnotherapist who had prepared Soviet weight-lifting teams for the Olympics. He had been brought to late Soviet TV to help keep the country calm and pacified. To keep people watching TV while everything went to shit.

His most famous lecture involved asking the audience at home to put a glass of water in front of their TV sets. Millions did. At the end of the program Kashpirovsky told the audience the water was “charged with healing energy” from his through-the-screen influence. Millions fell for this. But Kashpirovsky was only the beginning.

There was Grabovoy, who had a show on television and claimed he could raise the victims of Chechen terror attacks from the dead; there was Bronnikov, who claimed he had found a way of making the blind see with an inner vision. The sect the TNT personnel were referring to when they mentioned “communes in Siberia” was that of Vissarion, a former postal worker from Krasnodar who became convinced he was the returned Christ. In the 1990s he had founded a colony in the mountains near the border with Mongolia: “The Abode of Dawn City.” It’s still there.

Posted in Corruption, Financial, Russia | 7 Comments

The shocking truth about life in Saudi Arabia, oppression, conformity, & poverty

Preface. Saudi Arabia produces 1 in 4 barrels of oil. Their fate will affect all of us.

Yet most Saudis are poor despite the $400 billion in income from oil. They lack decent homes, health care, sanitation, and education. Fear, passivity, isolation, and suspicion of others pervades society as everyone focuses on survival, which requires suffocating conformity.

When you walk down the streets, all you see are walls. Men all look alike in their white robes.

Laughter is discouraged. Religion dominates every aspect of life. Women are virtually slaves, controlled by men their whole life.

But this may change. Saudis are young — 70% are under 30, 60% are under 20, and on the internet they can see women have rights elsewhere, and that there are other interpretations of the Koran.

There is a great deal of resentment brewing, the Saudi royalty constantly fears an uprising, but has so far been able to quell one by redistributing a small part of their oil revenues, about $40 to $60 billion a year.  But with lower oil prices for several years now, their sovereign wealth fund is dwindling.  That’s why they’re offering an IPO (Ellyatt 2019).

What follows are excerpts from the first few chapters.

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

* * *

Karen House. 2013. On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future. Vintage.

Over time I grew less interested in Saudi Arabia as an oil-rich and influential country, and more and more determined to understand the Saudi people and the lives they led—and what that portends for the future stability of a country feared by many for the terrorists it has spawned but so essential to the West for the oil it provides.

As a Western woman I had access to men, even some of the most religiously conservative ones, who met with me so long as I was appropriately shrouded in my floor-length abaya and head scarf. As a woman I also had a degree of access to traditional Saudi women that would have been impossible for any man.

This book focuses on the lives of individual Saudis and how they are shaped and suppressed by traditions and authorities, whether religious figures, tribal elders, or princely rulers. This web of traditions and rules means that women are not free but neither are men. Both sexes are trapped by societal expectations. As a result, individual initiative and enterprise are virtually nonexistent. Society is a maze in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions, and cultural traditions. Men must obey Allah and women must obey men. As a result, all too few Saudis have the energy, enterprise, curiosity, or confidence even to try to leave this labyrinth. However, in recent years, information via the Internet and youthful demands are penetrating the labyrinth and threatening the very foundations of these walls.

When I first began traveling in the kingdom in the late 1970s, the West could view Saudi Arabia with a mix of curiosity and mild concern, but today its future is critical to the West. The industrial world’s insatiable appetite for energy has made us ever more dependent on the kingdom, which provides 1 of every 4 barrels of oil exported around the globe.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia no longer is the tame American ally of a generation ago. The once monogamous Saudi-U.S. marriage has become a polygamous Muslim one as the Saudis build bonds with multiple powers. The royal family may still depend upon the United States for its ultimate survival, but widespread anti-Americanism among conservative Saudis means even princes cannot appear to be in America’s pocket.

For nearly 80 years, a succession of Al Saud princes have traversed the balance beam, skillfully maintaining control of a deeply divided, distrustful, and increasingly dispirited populace, by cunningly exploiting those divisions, dispensing dollops of oil money, and above all, bending religion to serve Al Saud political needs. This ruling family never promised democracy—and still doesn’t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes. The Al Saud believe they have an asset more powerful than the ballot box: they have Allah.

Nearly 300 years ago, when Arabia was nothing but harsh desert inhabited by wild and warring tribes, Muhammad al Saud, leader of one such tribe, discovered a magic lamp in the person of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a fundamentalist Islamic scholar bent on imposing on Arabia his version of the pure Islam of the Prophet Muhammad a millennium earlier. So fanatical was this preacher that by the time the two men met, Abd al Wahhab was fleeing for his life, having destroyed the tomb of one of the Prophet’s companions and stoned to death a woman accused of adultery in a public display of his Islamic fervor. None of this bothered Muhammad al Saud. He saw in the preacher’s call for Islamic jihad the opportunity to use religion to trump his tribal enemies and conquer Arabia. Sure enough, the Al Saud sword, wielded in the name of religion rather than mere tribal conquest, proved triumphant. The first Saudi state was declared in 1745. Arabia has been under the sway of the Al Saud—and their religious partners—off and on ever since, with the most recent Saudi state established in 1932 by the current king’s father, Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud. Over all those years, religion has been a pillar of strength, steadying the Al Saud atop the kingdom that bears their name. To this day, the monarchy justifies its rule by claiming to personify, protect, and propagate the one true religion. The Saudi monarch styles himself as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” a unique title intended to convey his spiritual leadership of all Islam. King, after all, is a temporal and rather common title. These days, however, the old magic of divide and conquer, the majesty of appropriated religion, and even the soothing balm of money, lots of money, are not enough to blind a new generation of Saudis to the decay rotting the very foundations of their society and threatening their future and that of their children. Islam as preached is not practiced. Jobs are promised but not delivered. Corruption is rampant, entrapping almost every Saudi in a web of favors and bribes large and small, leaving even the recipients feeling soiled and resentful. Powerful and powerless alike are seeking to grab whatever they can get, turning a society governed by supposedly strict Sharia law into an increasingly lawless one, where law is whatever the king or one of his judges says it is—or people feel they can get away with.

All of this is widely known to Saudis. For the first time, the Internet allows the young generation—70% of Saudis are under 30 years of age, with more than 60% age 20 or younger—to know what is taking place at home and abroad. These young people are aware of government inefficiency and princely corruption, and of the fact that 40 percent of Saudis live in poverty and at least 60 percent cannot afford a home. They know that nearly 40 percent of Saudi youth between twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, at the very age when most men would like to marry if only they could afford the bride price. They know that 90 percent of all employees in the private sector of their economy are imported foreign workers, whom business owners, often including Al Saud princes, exploit for low wages. Saudis, undereducated and often indolent, sit idly by rather than work for what they regard as slave wages doing menial jobs. If all too many Saudi men who could work do not, even educated Saudi women who want to work often cannot. The female half of the Saudi population remains sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated.

In each of the past five years, the government has created only about 50,000 new jobs, and the 2.5 million jobs created by private industry over that period have gone overwhelmingly to foreigners.

All this they know, and now share with each other through social media. These young Internet-savvy Saudis are breaching the walls that have been so carefully constructed and maintained over decades by the regime to keep Saudis separated and distrustful of those outside their family or tribe, to ensure their near total dependence on Al Saud protection and largesse. Stability (more recently coupled with the promise of prosperity) in exchange for loyalty was for most of the last three hundred years the social contract binding the people to their Al Saud rulers. But no longer. These days young Saudis compare their lives with those of contemporaries in neighboring Gulf states and elsewhere, and that comparison leaves many of them humiliated and embittered. All too many of these young Saudis know they are living third-world lives in a country that has more than $400 billion in foreign reserves and, in recent years, annual oil revenue in excess of $200 billion. Yet the government fails to provide basic services like quality education, health care, or even proper sewage and drainage to protect from floods. And things just keep happening to stoke anger and forge bonds among the young. In January 2011, as Cairo was erupting in revolution, the kingdom’s second largest city, Jeddah, flooded for the second time in little more than a year in a deluge of rainwater and sewage. For decades corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats had stolen billions of dollars allocated for construction of a proper sewage and drainage system, leaving the city vulnerable to floods of sewage-polluted rainwater. The first flood, in 2009, killed more than 120 people, displaced another 22,000, and destroyed 8,000 homes. King Abdullah promised “never again,” yet in less than 14 months, once again Jeddah was drowning. Young Saudis using Facebook and Twitter helped stranded citizens find safety and shelter when authorities were scarcely seen.

Even the generally respected monarch, King Abdullah, was the target of unprecedented criticism for such a visible failure to deliver on his previous promise. His photo was posted on the Internet with a giant red X and the words, “Why do you give them all this power when they all are thieves?

If Saudi citizens increasingly are in touch, their rulers are increasingly out of touch. King Abdullah, 89, generally popular for his effort to make at least modest reforms, is seen as isolated by his retainers and, at any rate, was slowed by age and serious back surgery in 2010 and again in 2011. Despite his age and infirmities, the king has largely governed without a crown prince since taking the monarchy’s mantle in 2005 because Sultan, 84, was suffering from cancer and Alzheimer’s and finally died in October 2011. The new crown prince, Nayef, 77 and ailing from diabetes and poor circulation, died after less than eight months, to be followed by yet another brother. After them? No one knows. What scares many royals and most ordinary Saudis is that the succession, which historically has passed from brother to brother, soon will have to jump to a new generation of princes. That could mean that only one branch of this family of some seven thousand princes will have power, a prescription for potential conflict as 34 or 35 surviving lines of the founder’s family could find themselves disenfranchised. Saudis know from history that the second Saudi state was destroyed by fighting among princes. Older Saudis vividly recall how this third and latest Saudi state was shaken by a prolonged power struggle between the founder’s two eldest sons after his death in 1953.

Beyond all this, religion, once a pillar of stability, has become a source of division among Saudis. Many Saudis, both modernists and religious conservatives, are offended by the Al Saud’s exploitation of religion to support purely political prerogatives. The accommodating flexibility of religious scholars is eroding the legitimacy of both the Al Saud and their religious partners in power. Saudis hear religious scholars condemning infidels in the sacred land of the Prophet, yet they recall that the religious hierarchy obediently approved the presence of U.S. troops when the king needed them to confront Saddam Hussein in 1990. The scholars similarly condemn any mixing of men and women and deploy their religious police to enforce this ban on ordinary Saudis, but they acquiesced in 2009, when the king opened a richly endowed university where Saudi men and women mix with each other and with foreign infidels.

For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy. To conservative Saudis, especially the many devoutly religious, the idea of men making laws rather than following those laid down by Allah in the Koran is antithetical and unthinkable. More modern and moderate Saudis, aware the Al Saud have banned any political and most all social organizations even down to something as apolitical as photography clubs, fear that without Al Saud rule, the country would face tribal, regional, and class conflict—or rule by religious zealots. With seventy thousand mosques spread across the kingdom, only the religious are an organized force; moderates fear that power inevitably would be seized by the most radical. Whatever lies in Saudi Arabia’s future, it is not democracy. What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim. They want a government that is transparent and accountable, one that provides standard services such as are available in far less wealthy societies: good education, jobs, affordable housing, and decent health care. Saudis of all sorts resent having to beg princes for favors to secure services that should be a public right. They also want to be allowed to speak honestly about the political and economic issues that affect their lives.

The country fundamentally is a family corporation. Call it Islam Inc. The board of directors, some twenty senior religious scholars who theoretically set rules for corporate behavior, are handpicked by the Al Saud owners, can be fired at royal whim, and have nothing to say about who runs the company. Al Saud family members hold all the key jobs, not just at the top but right down through middle management, even to regional managers. (The governors of all thirteen Saudi provinces are princes.) At the bottom of the company, ordinary employees are poorly paid and even more poorly trained because management doesn’t want initiative that might threaten its control. Imagine working for a company where you can’t aspire even to a regional management position, let alone influence those who control the company that determines your livelihood and your children’s future.

Sullen, resentful, and unmotivated. Most feel no pride in their country but focus on getting even with their overlords by chiseling on their expense accounts and showing up late for work—in effect, by grabbing what they can get from their corporate masters.

Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself?

In the 80 years since Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud used a combination of religion and ruthlessness to reunite Arabia under the Al Saud, his extended family has evolved as perhaps the most successful family enterprise in modern history—and certainly the wealthiest. Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy, the last significant one on earth. Its power centers all are controlled by princes. The king appoints the country’s senior religious leaders, all judges, and all 150 members of its toothless parliament. His relatives own the news media. No social or civic organizations that might be a breeding ground for citizen organization are allowed. Slavery was abolished only in 1962! Royals also control the kingdom’s oil wealth, which has subsidized—and subdued—Saudi citizens while enriching and entrenching the royal rulers. The wealth of the family, like its internal politics, is veiled from public view, a growing source of public anger.

How has an absolute monarchy and a royal family by now consisting of some 7,000 princes—sons, grandsons, even great-great-grandsons of the founder—continued to maintain near-absolute power amid the winds of change sweeping in from the outside world and the pressures boiling up from a young population? One answer is the skill of the family at adapting the founding father’s strategy of divide and conquer from an age of manipulating desert tribes to a modern era of manipulating social groupings and foreign allies. Second, there is the family’s clever use of money—whether the limited gold coins in the founder’s portable money chest or today’s billions from oil revenue—to buy loyalty, or at least submission. Third, there is the pervasive and so often oppressive role of religion that preaches obedience to Allah, and inextricably to the Al Saud, who, unlike ruling dynasties in Western societies, are not simply a temporal power but also Allah’s instruments on earth. Finally, there is the somnolence of Saudi society itself. Notwithstanding the occasional terrorist who blasts onto the world stage, the society has been overwhelmingly passive, imbued from birth with a sense of obedience to God and ruler and with customs of conformity such that only the rarest of Saudis steps outside the strict social norms to leave his place in the labyrinth that divides Saudis one from another. Saudis vividly demonstrate Karl Marx’s axiom that religion is the “opium” of the people.

Like Washington, Abdul Aziz was a giant of a man, towering above most of his fellow countrymen. Like Washington, he exuded a courage and dignity that set him apart from and above his people. But unlike Washington, who refused to be king and retired to his private estate after two terms as president, leaving no sons, Abdul Aziz ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1953 and fathered 44 sons by 22 wives, 36 of whom lived to adulthood. (He limited himself to no more than the four wives at a time allowed by Islam. But he is estimated to have had brief marriages for political purposes to nearly three hundred women over his lifetime.) His elderly sons continue to rule the kingdom to the present. To this day, the Al Saud princes insist they are the glue that holds Saudi Arabia together. As Cairo was engulfed in one of its many “days of rage,” one middle-aged prince assured me: “Without our family, this country would dissolve into chaos. Our people revere the family as you revere George Washington.

If George Washington is famous for never telling a lie, Abdul Aziz is equally famous for cunning and duplicity, traits still much admired in Saudi Arabia.

Knowing when to yield and when to fight is a survival instinct the founding ruler perfected—and passed to his sons. When his Ikhwan urged him to declare a holy war on the British infidels, who after World War I had replaced the Ottoman Turks as the dominant foreign power in the Middle East, Abdul Aziz demurred because he needed British money and cooperation to drive his rival, Sharif Hussein, the great-great-grandfather of Jordan’s King Abdullah, from Mecca and complete his conquest of Arabia. Once the Ikhwan helped conquer Mecca and the surrounding Hejaz region, Abdul Aziz fought a brutal war with these same religious extremists because they wanted to continue to wage jihad beyond Arabia into Iraq, a British protectorate. He was not about to risk his precariously constructed kingdom to expand into Iraq and turn the powerful British against him. Instead, he turned on the Ikhwan, precisely the people whom he had used to help him secure power, and destroyed them. Abdul Aziz’s devotion to religion took a backseat to his determination to retain his rule of Arabia. (And the same is true today of his sons who, when it suits them, confront religious leaders and even fire some of them, while professing total devotion and obedience to Allah.)

“Draw the sword in their face and they will obey; sheathe the sword and they will ask for more pay,” Abdul Aziz once told a British official, to explain his modus operandi.

To demonstrate his willingness to use power where persuasion failed, Abdul Aziz razed the villages of some of his own cousins who had massed an army to threaten his hold on Riyadh.

Like his father, the current king, Abdullah, has practiced the art of balance. Much as his father subdued the Ikhwan, Abdullah has faced the challenge of subduing its modern variant, the Islamic jihadists. In a striking parallel to the Ikhwan, whom Abdul Aziz used and then destroyed, the modern-day Islamic extremists were indulged in the 1980s by a royal family eager to burnish its religious credentials, as Islamic fundamentalism swept the region in the wake of the religious revolution in Iran. The regime supported the jihadists as they fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and imposed rigid religiosity in the kingdom. The Saudi regime then ruthlessly suppressed religious extremists some thirty years later when they began terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2003 and thus were seen to pose a threat to Al Saud rule.

This embrace of extreme religiosity began in 1979 after a Bedouin preacher and several hundred followers did the unthinkable: they used firearms, forbidden in any mosque, to seize control of Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Juhayman and his cohorts were determined to end what they saw as the Al Saud’s excessive tolerance of infidel innovations—women newscasters on television, cinemas, and even tolerance of Shias, who in their fanatical minds, are members of a heretical sect of Islam not worthy to be called Muslim.

The siege claimed at least one thousand lives. Juhayman and his compatriots were quickly executed. The traumatized royal family soon curbed the societal liberties Juhayman had condemned. Women announcers were ordered off television, women were forced to wear the veil, and cinemas were closed (except at Saudi ARAMCO). In short, the Al Saud killed Juhayman and his cohorts but adopted their agenda of intolerance, spawning yet more radical Islamists and eventually their deadly attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and on Saudis in 2003. This incident marked the beginning of a now widespread sense among Saudis that their government was incompetent. That sense only grew in 1990, when the kingdom’s rulers, despite hundreds of billions of dollars in defense purchases over the decades, nonetheless concluded they needed U.S. troops to protect the country from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait and had his eye on Saudi oil fields as well.

In the wake of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers by Saudi nationals, both political reformers and religious fundamentalists began to call for reforms inside the kingdom. Fundamentalists sought reforms that essentially would make religious leaders full partners of the Al Saud. Seeing the regime on the defensive, Saudi intellectuals and other moderates too began to press for political pluralism, including a constitution limiting the government’s powers and even direct elections to the country’s Potemkin parliament, the Majlis Ash Shura, or Consultative Council. Faced with these mounting and seemingly irreconcilable demands, Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler (as King Fahd lay dying), deftly sought to defuse both threats. The regime imprisoned some of its critics and co-opted others. In 2003 Abdullah launched what he called “National Dialogues” that moved the debate from substantive political reform of the monarchy to superficial reform of the society. The articulate activists from the religious and the reformer ranks soon were subsumed and diluted by a broader and far less threatening group of public representatives selected by the government to participate in the nationally televised “dialogue.” In short, the government picked the topics for discussion, such as the role of women, youth, tolerance, and unemployment, and selected those who would discuss them. These National Dialogues soon sucked the energy out of the incipient reform movement and within a year had become just another somnolent event under royal sponsorship, ignored by most of society and viewed with cynicism by more politically aware Saudis.

For two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, as the United States pressured Riyadh to cut Saudi citizens’ financing of terrorists, the Saudi government largely denied that extremism was a problem. But when frustrated extremists turned to violent attacks on Saudi civilians in 2003, the government met the challenge with massive force, killing hundreds and arresting thousands, many of whom remain incarcerated without trials nearly a decade later. Like Abdul Aziz, his sons strongly prefer to co-opt rather than to confront, to buy rather than to bully, to deflect rather than to directly deny. But in extremis, they are willing to employ pretty much the same harsh practices as neighboring Arab rulers or Abdul Aziz himself. Saudi Arabia is replete with secret police, surreptitious surveillance, grim prisons, and torture chambers, even if this is an aspect of the regime that most Saudis manage to avoid.

Since becoming king in 2005, Abdullah, more than any modern Saudi king, has sought to introduce modest reforms to please modernizers and to blunt the kingdom’s image at home and abroad as a breeding ground for fanaticism.

King Abdullah also began sending a flood of Saudi youth abroad for education—more than 100,000 attend foreign universities now, roughly half in the United States. He established King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the new gender-mixed research university, a first in Saudi Arabia, with an endowment reported to be second only to Harvard’s. When one of the senior religious ulama had the temerity to criticize this unprecedented mixing as an infidel innovation forbidden by Islam, the mild-mannered king promptly fired him, a modern form of his father’s beheadings.

The sacking of this sheikh had the desired effect of prompting supportive statements on KAUST from other tame religious leaders, but it angered religious conservatives who see the approval of gender mixing as yet further prostitution by a religious establishment that puts pleasing the king and retaining its privileges ahead of pleasing Allah. Always careful to balance, the king, who had secured ulama approval for gender mixing at his elite university, did nothing to curb the country’s religious police from roaming the kingdom’s streets and harassing ordinary Saudis mixing with anyone of the opposite gender. As is clear by now, the regime perpetually performs a delicate minuet, dancing closer at times to the religious establishment and at other times to modernizers, but always focused on retaining Al Saud control.

The second source of Al Saud survival is money.

The succeeding Al Saud monarchs have lived more or less luxurious lifestyles, but the family as a whole has become infamous around the world for the profligacy of its numerous playboy princes. While Abdul Aziz would have disapproved of such profligacy, his strategy of using at least some of the kingdom’s wealth to buy the loyalty of its subjects continues to this day. Buying loyalty in Saudi Arabia is not, as in so many countries, a matter of greasing the palms of purchased politicians, since there are no independent Saudi politicians to purchase. Purchasing loyalty is far more pervasive than that. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is a wealthy welfare state, in which the public pays no taxes yet receives widespread, if often poor-quality, services, from free education and health care to water and electricity and, of course, cheap energy. At least 80 percent of the revenues in the Saudi treasury accrue from petroleum. All revenue, whether from oil, earnings on the country’s $400 billion in foreign reserves, or even traffic fines, flows into the central government in Riyadh—that is, to the royal family. No accounting is given to the public of either total revenues to the Al Saud coffers or total spending by the Al Saud—on behalf of the people and on behalf of the ever-expanding royal family. The public has no say in the formation of the annual government budget, which represents that portion of government spending that is disclosed publicly.

Royal benevolence pervades the society in myriad minor ones. A seriously sick Saudi waits outside a princely office for a letter that will admit him to one of the premier military hospitals. A reformed terrorist is the beneficiary of a new Toyota,

The list of petitions and royal favors is as long as the line of supplicants who once gathered outside the desert tent of King Abdul Aziz seeking free meals and clothes.

A third source of Al Saud survival is the pervasive and often oppressive role of religion. Indeed, if finely honed political skills and oil riches are essential components of the Al Saud survival kit, Islam is the monarchy’s survival manual.

The puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam that he represents instructs Muslims to be obedient and submissive to their rulers, however imperfect, in pursuit of a perfect life in paradise.

Mu’awiyah’s Umayyad dynasty lasted nearly 100 years before being conquered by the Abbasids, who accused his heirs of abandoning the true Islam. The conquerors invited the surviving Umayyad rulers to dinner, and after pleasantries, by prearrangement, the waiters locked the doors and clubbed to death their ruler’s guests. The debauchery and cruelty of these early caliphs is reminiscent of some of Roman Catholicism’s medieval popes. Not surprisingly, this depressing history has bred a political fatalism down through the centuries among many Muslims who believe that if just rule couldn’t be established even when the Prophet’s example was so fresh, there’s no possibility that it could happen now. This resignation to living under corrupt temporal leaders and focusing not on improving life on earth but rather on securing a better life in the hereafter helps explain why oppressive and greedy rulers reign for so long in so many Arab countries.

Like an earthquake-proof building, the Al Saud have long had the wisdom to bend ever so slightly at the moment of greatest pressure and then later reclaim, over time, most of what they yielded.

Saudis’ overwhelming desire to conform, to pass unnoticed among the rest of society, is surely a boon to Al Saud control. If Westerners love individualism, most Saudis are literally frightened at the mere thought of being different. To be different is to attract attention. To attract attention is to invite envy from peers and anger from family.

Imagine a life spent anticipating the unspoken desires of an extended family and acquiescing to the unwritten rules of society. This need for conformity forces Saudis to wear multiple faces and change them multiple times each day. The need to adapt and fit in is stressful, so most Saudis tend to reduce the stress by keeping primarily to those they know, thereby reinforcing their isolation from others who aren’t members of their extended family or tribe. “Americans have one face,” says the Saudi who studied in the United States. “We have multiple faces—two, three, four, five, six faces. Our views depend on which face we are wearing, and which face we are wearing depends on who we are with. Saudis don’t have the same views here that we have in Paris.” Young Saudis, however, are increasingly frustrated with this consuming focus on appearance and pervasive social conformity, and they are much more willing than their parents to try to discover who they are rather than just follow the dictates of parents, teachers, imams, and royal rulers. “Our minds are in a box,” says a middle-aged Saudi businessman. “But the young are being set free by the Internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have. No one knows how the spark will come, but things will change because they have to.”

Paradoxically, it is the Al Saud’s deft duplicity, their paternal dispersal of favors, their arrogant exploitation of religion for their own purposes, and their rendering of Saudis to powerless passivity that now threaten the family’s survival, because more and more Saudis—especially women and youth—now share a growing awareness of the rather non-Islamic tactics so artfully employed to cage them and they are determined to press for change that allows more freedom and more dignity for individual Saudis.

By choice, Lulu rarely leaves home. She has no interest in the world outside her home, where her focus is on serving her husband and ensuring that her children follow a strictly religious path. As the days go by, it becomes clear Lulu not only accepts but welcomes the confines of her life. She has no aspiration beyond living life in a way that pleases Allah and ensures her entry to paradise. An essential element of achieving this goal is serving every need of her husband, a professor of hadith, the thousands of stories about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, collected and passed down by his contemporaries as a guide for devout Muslims’ daily lives. If her husband should be dissatisfied with her or, even worse, be somehow led astray, the fault would be hers. “Men are in charge of women,” says the Koran. “So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.” Serving Allah means serving her husband. Lulu’s children, including teenage girls, admire and obey her. I ask Lulu if she wants her daughters to have opportunities she did not have. “No, I pray they have a life like mine,” she says instantly. Her eldest daughter, a student at King Saud University, says, “She is dedicating herself to helping us have a life just like hers.” The daughter, dressed in a modest floor-length skirt and long-sleeved sweater even at home, speaks with deep reverence, not the sarcasm that a Western teenager might use.

Most Westerners, who live in an aggressively secular environment, would find it impossible to imagine the pervasive presence of religion, which hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog and has been a source of stability, along with the Al Saud, for nearly three centuries. But the growing gap between Islam as revealed in the Koran and Islam as practiced in the kingdom is undermining the credibility of the religious establishment and creating divisions among religious conservatives and between them and modernizers. As a result, the religious pillar is cracking, with serious implications for the kingdom’s future stability. But for devout Muslims like Lulu, these troubling divisions simply mean redoubling their effort to follow the true Islam by adhering strictly to the example set by the Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago.

Every airport, shopping mall, and government or private office building includes a large area spread with prayer rugs indicating the direction of Mecca, so worshipers know where to kneel and pray. Every hotel room has a sticker on the wall or bed or desk with an arrow pointing toward Mecca.

When her husband is home, I am banished to my room, where I read the Koran to pass the time. A religious man like her bearded husband would never mix unnecessarily with a woman who is not a relative, even if she covers her body and face. Indeed, during the week I spend with Lulu, I see her husband only once—when he picks us up from a rare outing to her sister’s home. Fully veiled, I silently slip into the seat behind him, but we are not introduced and the conversation continues as if I were as invisible as Casper the friendly ghost.

At age 19, when her husband offered himself to her family, Lulu willingly chose to be a second wife. “Some men need another wife for many reasons, perhaps to keep from doing something bad,” she explains, clearly meaning adultery, though she doesn’t speak the word. “I prayed to Allah, ‘Let me do this if it is good.’ ” She is separated from the first wife only by a set of stairs, yet they rarely visit. She is far more concerned about whether God had a son than about which elderly son of Abdul Aziz will next rule Saudi Arabia.

A greater openness in recent years has allowed some Saudis to choose a more liberal lifestyle—where men and women sometimes mix, where women can check into a hotel without a male relative, where there is even talk of women being allowed to drive; but if it were to become the new norm, Lulu would undoubtedly resist adapting with all her might. This is the challenge for the kingdom: how to accommodate those citizens who want more freedom to change and those, like Lulu and her family, who truly see change as a road to hell.

As old divisions among tribes, regions, genders, and classes grow ever more visible, religion’s ability to serve as a unifying force is becoming weaker.

Islam is now becoming another source of division.

First, the Al Saud have politicized Saudi Islam. For two decades they used their religious establishment to support jihadists in Afghanistan and religious extremists at home. Then they abruptly switched course in 2003 to insist that the same religious leaders promote the regime’s campaign for a kinder, gentler interpretation of Islam, to undermine Islamic extremists, whom the Al Saud belatedly recognized as threatening their rule. This shift, which followed the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists inside the kingdom in 2003, has led many Saudis, moderates as well as conservatives, to view the religious establishment, or Council of Senior Ulama, as apologists for the Al Saud and, worse, as indirect puppets of America.

In recent years the religious partner has come to be seen as so openly compliant with Al Saud political needs rather than Allah’s commands that it has lost much of its credibility—and as a consequence, the Al Saud also are losing theirs.

Secondly, while Islam often is seen as a very literal faith, whose adherents follow the injunctions of the Koran to the letter, in fact, in the Muslim world, many interpretations of Islam exist. For most of Saudi history, religious scholars of the Wahhabi sect provided the only valid interpretations. But that is changing dramatically with the advent of the Internet and education. More Saudis are reading and interpreting the Koran for themselves. Thus, for example, women seeking more social equality are plucking verses from the Koran to justify an expanded role for women, even as fundamentalists cite other verses to justify keeping them sequestered and subordinated. In sum, the Al Saud and their Wahhabi ulama no longer have a lock on interpreting Islam.

Third, while the many muezzins call to the faithful in scripted words in perfect harmony, the religious voices reaching Saudi citizens these days through the Internet and satellite television are anything but harmonious. Saudi Islam has become discordant. On any given day, at any hour, Saudis are logging on to the Internet or tuning in to a satellite television channel, where they hear a wide range of Islamic voices preaching everything from modern and moderate Islam to extreme fundamentalist and even violent Islam.

Fourth, modern society presents a whole range of challenges that the Prophet Muhammad did not have to deal with and could not foresee. A youthful population with Internet access to the rest of the world has raised a profusion of issues that are taxing the theology and ingenuity of Islamic scholars.

Sheikh Mutlag, a member of the senior ulama and an adviser to King Abdullah, surely didn’t expect, when he was pursuing his religious studies, that he would be called upon to issue a fatwa on the appropriateness of carrying into a toilet a cell phone that included downloaded selections from the Koran. He settled the issue by permitting cell phones in a toilet on the clever justification that the Koran is (or should be) completely “downloaded” into every Muslim’s mind at all times.

Muslims believe that each human is flanked by two angels who record good and bad deeds. If a believer even thinks of doing something good, the angel records the thought as a single good deed. If the believer actually does what he or she says, God gives credit for ten good deeds. So perhaps this is why Saudis so often make promises even if they have no intention of keeping them. Partial credit is better than none at all.

The obligatory Muslim prayers, or salat, are not requests for intercession or offers of thanks, as common Christian prayers are. While Muslims also offer this sort of prayer, or du’a, the salat is something very different. It is a precisely regulated, formal ritual that features bodily bending while repeating specific verses from the Koran and that climaxes in prostration to God in the direction of Mecca to demonstrate submission to God’s will. The entire procedure requires nearly ten minutes and can be performed only after the worshiper has properly purified himself—and his heart—for the act of worship. This washing, or ablution, is a critical part of preparing for prayer; it requires the worshiper to wash his hands up to the wrist, rinse the mouth, clean the nose, and scrub the face, forearms up to the elbows, head (by rubbing a wet finger from the forehead to the nape of the neck and back), ears, and finally feet. The Prophet is quoted as saying, “The key to paradise is prayer [salat] and the key to prayer is purification.

It is routine for a Saudi—male or female—to interrupt a conversation to pray. Men go to a nearby mosque, while women cover themselves and pray wherever they are indoors.

Other times, in public places, a man will simply roll out a prayer rug in the lobby of a hotel and fall to his knees as others continue to traipse past, scarcely taking notice of the prostrate worshiper. Occasionally, a host will simply prostrate himself across the room, leaving his guest to watch as he subjugates himself to Allah.

Religion cannot serve to direct society down a common path when the religious guides themselves are divided. So beyond the cacophony of Islamic voices now bombarding Saudis from television and the Internet is the even more serious spectacle of a religious establishment at war within itself. In recent years, the senior religious scholars have publicly criticized first the king and then each other over the issue of the religious rectitude of men and women mixing.

So minute and myriad are the issues where religion impacts daily life that the government has established an official Web site for approved fatwas to guide the faithful. The site ( ) is intended to discourage young Saudis from following fatwas they find posted on the Internet from some unapproved sheikh at home or abroad who doesn’t represent Islam as propounded by Saudi Arabia’s religious scholars. For instance, one Saudi sheikh issued a fatwa condemning soccer because the Koran, he insisted, forbids Muslims to imitate Christians or Jews. Therefore, using words like foul or penalty kick is forbidden. The country’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Ashaikh, rejected that fatwa and called on the religious police to track down and prosecute its author. Using a few non-Arabic words, said the grand mufti, is not forbidden, as even Allah used some non-Arabic words in the Koran. (Not incidentally perhaps, the grand mufti understood that soccer is a national passion.)

Many Saudis can’t afford, or won’t risk, indulgences like alcohol or prostitution while inside the kingdom but are eager to partake of them during travels abroad. Millions of Saudis cross the King Fahd Causeway that connects the kingdom to Bahrain, a sheikdom where they can enjoy cinema, alcohol, and prostitutes or just the pleasure of dinner in a relaxed environment with friends both male and female.

Saudi Arabia, assaulted by technology and globalization, tipsy from a population explosion that has left more than 60% of its citizens age twenty or younger, and clinging to religion as an anchor in this sea of change, is trying to preserve a way of life exhibited by the Prophet fourteen hundred years ago.

For millennia, Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.

Even today Saudis are a people locked in their own cocoons, focused on their own survival—and that of family—and largely uncaring of others. While survival in the desert also imposed a code of hospitality even toward strangers, life in Saudi cities shuts out strangers and thus eliminates any opportunity and thus obligation for hospitality toward them.

Walk down the dusty and often garbage-strewn streets of any Saudi residential neighborhood, and all you will see are walls. To your right and to your left are walls of steel and walls of concrete. Walls ten or twelve feet high.

The people present a picture of uniformity. From the king to the lowest pauper, men wear identical flowing white robes. Their heads most often are draped in red-and-white cotton scarves, usually held in place by a double black circle of woven woolen cord. Similarly, women—when in public—are invisible beneath flowing black abayas, head scarves, and generally full-face veils, or niqab. The society presents a somber cast as men move about their daily business, because laughter and visible emotion are discouraged by Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia.

After the shocking terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, carried out mostly by Saudi-bred terrorists, the royal family began belatedly to discern that it had made a pact with the devil. So once again the regime swung into action to combat extremism. With one hand, it got tough on homegrown terrorists, arresting jihadists and trying to root radical imams from the kingdom’s seventy thousand mosques. With the other hand, the regime relaxed some of the oppressive social restrictions it had imposed two decades earlier. Press controls were partially eased so that newspapers could criticize extremists, suddenly a popular whipping boy of the regime, and even once again publish photos of women. The regime convened national dialogues and, more important, curbed some of the worst excesses of the religious police—at least temporarily. Previously, any fanatic could proclaim himself a mutawa, or religious policeman, and bully his fellow citizens in the name of religious purity. Now the would-be bullies had to be appointed and trained by higher authorities.

But as soon as uprisings began sweeping the Middle East, the nervous Al Saud once again began to cement the small nicks in the walls of Saudi society that the king had created less than a decade earlier. The religious establishment was given new money and new authority to expand its reach deeper into the kingdom by establishing fatwa offices in every province. More ominously, King Abdullah issued a royal decree making it a crime for print or online media to publish any material that harms “the good reputation and honor” of the kingdom’s grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Ulama, or government officials. So much for reform.

Most remain deeply averse to conduct that might be seen to violate social norms and invite shame upon themselves and their families. So myriad unspoken rules bind most Saudis in place as tightly as Lilliputians tied down Gulliver. The tight-knit tribal unit tracing its lineage to a single ancestor is the key social grouping in Saudi Arabia and remains a powerful force for conformity. Over millennia, to survive the challenges of the desert and of competing tribes, these groups developed a set of core values such as generosity, hospitality, courage, and honor that bound the entire group and preserved its unity. These values, writes David Pryce-Jones in The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, can be summed up as self-respect, but not in the Western sense of conscience or relationship with God. For Arabs, a man’s self-respect is determined by how others see him. So appearance is everything.

A man who kills his wife or daughter for unfaithfulness simply is preserving the honor of his family and his tribe.

The determination of all Saudis to retain honor and avoid shame cannot be overstated. Understanding this begins to help Westerners like me, accustomed to spontaneity, grasp why Saudis are so passive and conformist.

Something as simple as a wife accompanying her husband on a brief trip abroad is laden with rules and norms that trap her into largely self-induced inaction. If a Saudi woman is traveling, Rana explains, she is expected to visit senior relatives and even close neighbors to bid them good-bye. Upon her return, she is obliged to make another round of visits to the same individuals to pay her respects and dispense small gifts. To simply pack her bag and fly off for a few days with her husband would break society’s conventions and thus disrupt social harmony, exposing her to negative gossip and bringing shame upon her family. So confronted with that heavy load of tradition, the wife simply stayed home. This little convention, multiplied and magnified throughout the Saudi maze, is what consumes so much of the time and saps so much of the initiative of Saudi citizens, confines them to their walled compounds, and restricts them largely to contact among family members.

With urbanization, Saudis know little about the true piety of those they encounter in daily life, so appearances have become even more important. To be accepted as pious, a man simply has to sport a beard and short thobe. Covering herself completely in public similarly conveys a woman’s devotion to Allah. This is precisely why many educated Saudi women say they veil: not to do so risks conveying antisocial behavior and being ostracized as liberal.

Both tradition and religion have made most Saudis accustomed to dependence, to being reactive, not proactive; to accepting, not questioning; to being obedient, not challenging; to being provided for rather than being responsible for their own futures. During the centuries when Arabia was dominated by warring tribes, the tribal head was responsible for the needs of his tribe and expected to receive loyalty and obedience from others if he met those needs.

Saudis, from poor supplicants at royal offices to impressive servants of the regime like Abdul Rahman, are accustomed to receiving their livelihood from the ruler. The unspoken but implicit social contract still is that rulers provide stability and prosperity, and the ruled obey. So far prosperity has been sufficient to secure most people’s acquiescence, even as many grumble these days about too much religion, too much dependence on the United States, too much corruption among the princes, too great a gap between rich and poor, too much unemployment among the young. Perceptive Saudis also mutter about the reemergence of tribal loyalties because the regime, rather than create a spirit of nationalism, has sought to ensure control by keeping citizens divided and distrustful of one another, and by encouraging tribal leaders who still meet weekly with senior princes to compete for Al Saud loyalty and largesse.

Today’s Saudi Arabia thus is less a unified nation-state than a collection of tribes, regions, and Islamic factions that coexist in mutual suspicion and fear. A resident of the Hejaz, the relatively cosmopolitan region encompassing the port of Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca, the kingdom’s two international melting pots, resents the fact that men from the Nejd in central Arabia, and the original home of the Al Saud, occupy all key judicial and financial jobs in the kingdom and are allowed to force their conservative customs and religious views on all Saudis. Shia Muslims from the oil-rich Eastern Province, even more than the Sufi Muslims from Jeddah or the Ismaili Muslims from the impoverished south of Saudi Arabia, resent the total domination of the Wahhabi philosophy over every aspect of life and the pervasive discrimination against them. Tribal loyalties also divide the population, as few individuals ever marry outside their tribe. The preferred marriage partner is one’s first cousin. A Saudi instantly can tell, from an individual’s accent and name, the tribal origins of another Saudi. Social life consists almost entirely of family, and family connections are almost always within one tribe. Thus even the most modern and relatively liberal of Saudis who may mix at work with coworkers of various tribal backgrounds most likely is married to a cousin and socializes almost exclusively with other relatives.

Saudi society has undergone a pell-mell urbanization over the past forty years with the result that fully 80 percent of Saudis now live in one of the country’s three major urban centers—Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

Some royal palaces stretch literally for blocks behind their high walls that block out the less fortunate parts of Saudi society. In poorer neighborhoods, some Saudis live in tents beside barren patches of dirt, where filthy, barefoot boys play soccer on fields demarcated only by piles of garbage or live in ramshackle tenements often with little furniture and limited electricity.

Trapped between the wealthy and the poor is an increasingly fearful and resentful Saudi middle class, whose standard of living has slipped dramatically over the past half-dozen years. A 2006 Saudi stock market crash, coupled with rising inflation, has left them treading water and slowly sinking as they borrow money to try to maintain a lifestyle they cannot afford.

The intensifying clash over the role of women in Saudi society is about far more than whether women should be allowed to drive or, however well shrouded, mix with men in public places. It is not a war between the sexes, but rather a proxy war between modernizers and conservatives over what sort of Saudi Arabia both sexes will inhabit and over the role and relevance of the omnipresent religious establishment in Saudi society.

As Arab youths challenged authoritarian regimes across the Middle East in the Arab Spring of 2011, in Saudi Arabia, ironically, it was the women, not youth, who had the temerity to confront authority. This challenge amounted to some dozens of women repeatedly gathering outside the Interior Ministry demanding the release of their husbands, brothers, and sons imprisoned for political reasons. Some dozens of other women staged a succession of “drive-ins” to protest the continued ban on women driving. Some were arrested; others were ignored. Still, courageous individual women across the kingdom have continued unannounced to test authority by getting behind the wheel of a car and posting videos of their defiance on YouTube.

It is easy to exaggerate the significance of these small public protests. That said, however, even small acts of public defiance are a remarkable sign of change in a society where all public demonstrations are banned and in which the overwhelming majority of women are totally subjugated by religion, tradition, and family.

If a woman could exercise the freedom to drive, a tether of male control would be severed. Indeed, the whole core premise of Wahhabi Islam—that men obey Allah and women obey men—would be challenged.

Not only are women divided against each other, they also are divided from the rest of society by the religious establishment that enforces separation of the sexes. To be born a woman in Saudi Arabia is at best to endure a lifelong sentence of surveillance by a male relative and to take no action outside the household without male approval and, most often, male accompaniment. A father controls every aspect of a Saudi girl’s life until she is passed to a new dominant male—her husband. At worst, a woman’s life is one of not just subjugation but virtual slavery, in which wives and daughters can be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused at the whim of male family members, who are protected by an all-male criminal system and judiciary in those rare cases when a woman dares go to authorities. So it’s not surprising to learn that the supplication to Allah that a groom offers on his wedding night is the same he is instructed to offer when buying a maidservant—or a camel: “Oh Allah, I ask you for the goodness that you have made her inclined toward and I take refuge with You from the evil within her and the evil that you have made her inclined toward.” Imagine on your wedding day in any other society being equated by your husband to a servant or a beast of burden.

The religious ideal in the kingdom is that the two sexes never meet outside the home after kindergarten.

A woman is not allowed to drive a car, not because Islam forbids something that didn’t exist in the Prophet’s day, but ironically because authorities say she might be prey to misbehavior by Saudi men. Nor can she be alone with a man who isn’t a close relative, even in a public place—indeed, especially in a public place, as this flouts religious tradition against gender mixing. When she shops, she cannot try on clothes in the store, because sales attendants are men. She must first buy the garment and then take it home or to a female-supervised restroom for a fitting. In some conservative homes, she doesn’t even eat with her husband but dines only after his meal is finished. Because most ministries and places of business are staffed only by men, if she wants to apply for a job, pay a telephone bill, or secure a visa to import a maid for her home, she needs a male relative to accompany her.

If the men in her life are not enforcing these strictures, self-appointed members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the mutawa’a, or so-called religious police, will always do so.

The imam’s mother, like many traditional Saudi women, is one of several wives of her husband. His two other wives, she explains, live nearby so he can easily move from home to home. The wives do not mix, but their children do. One of the other guests acknowledges that she too is the second wife of her husband of two decades.I ask if any of the younger females shares her husband with another wife, and each emphatically shakes her head no. “But it is not my choice,” adds one. “If Allah wills, I accept.

Before the migration of nearly 80% of all Saudis from rural villages into one of three urban centers—Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam—people were much freer, they say. A woman’s abaya was simply a short shawl around the shoulders. Couples mixed over dinners in their homes. Children played all across their neighborhoods and spent the night in each other’s homes, something most children aren’t allowed to do these days. “In the eighties the country became very conservative,” says one woman. “We no longer know what is required by religion.

Essentially a Saudi woman is seen as some kind of sexually depraved creature who, if alone in a car, would be rapidly lured into adultery. On the other hand, that same woman being chauffeured around Riyadh by a foreign male driver is considered secure, as she is under the control of a man—the driver. Moreover, that man by virtue of being foreign is seen by Saudi men as merely a sexless extension of the car with no possible appeal to the female passenger.

The independence and forthrightness of Arab women like Kadijah and Aisha were curtailed over the next centuries, as the new Islamic religion conquered most of the area from Arabia to Spain and its triumphant foot soldiers procured captured women as multiple wives and concubines. During the eighth and ninth centuries, women, now plentiful in the harems of elite men, became debased and dependent. Unfortunately for women, codification of Muslim legal thought and practice occurred during this period and achieved final formulation in the 10th century in four major schools of thought that still dominate today. These schools of thought were—and still are—deemed infallible. Thus, legal scholars to this day are obliged to follow precedent, not originate legal doctrine. As a result, women continue to be seen as sex objects whose intrigues can destroy men and disrupt society unless tightly controlled. “Establishment Islam’s version of the Islamic message survived as the sole legitimate interpretation … because it was the interpretation of the politically dominant—those who had the power to outlaw and eradicate other readings as ‘heretical.’ ” The same is true in Saudi today, where the Al Saud and their senior ulama enforce their interpretation of Islam.

Ironically, it was oil wealth that made possible the sidelining of half the country’s productive population. These days, as government allocation of oil wealth fails to keep up with a growing population and increased public expectations, more and more women hope to get off the sidelines and into the game.

Women’s sports are the latest arena for female activists. Officially, sports for girls are banned. This helps account for why some 66% of Saudi women (as opposed to 52% of Saudi men) are reported by health officials to be overweight. Despite this strong religious opposition, women in recent years have been forming soccer, basketball, volleyball, and cricket teams. Some are in schools. More are under the auspices of charities.

“If you want to change society, you have to change the women,” she says. The kingdom’s wealth is dwindling, she argues, and the new generation must be taught to create wealth, not simply consume it, as earlier Saudi generations have done.

The young, overwhelmingly Internet savvy, are well aware of the lifestyles of Western youth, but have almost no leisure options available in the kingdom to absorb their youthful energies. Cinemas are banned. Dating is forbidden. Shopping malls are off limits to young men unless accompanied by a female relative. (This is intended to ensure they do not prey on young women in the malls.) Public fields for soccer are few. Concerts are outlawed. Even listening to music is forbidden by conservative religious sheikhs, though this admonition is widely ignored, as the ubiquitous rap music along Tahlia Street underscores.

An annual book fair sponsored by the Ministry of Information and Culture is about as close to public entertainment as the kingdom gets. Yet religious fundamentalists in 2011 crashed even that staid event, seized a microphone, and berated the presence and dress of women in attendance. “Youth want freedom,” says Saker al Mokayyad, head of the international section at Prince Nayef Arab University, which trains the oppressive internal security forces, here and throughout the Arab world, that keep citizens under constant surveillance. “A young man has a car and money in his pocket, but what can he do? Nothing. He looks at TV and sees others doing things he can’t do and wonders why.

The youth rebellion takes many forms. Some young people simply show their independence by wearing baseball caps and sneakers or by adopting other Western fashions and habits, though this does not necessarily mean they want a Western way of life.

Bugnah concludes the film by interviewing the neighborhood imam, who acknowledges that young boys are selling drugs and young girls are sold by their fathers into prostitution to earn money. He asks each family what they want to say to King Abdullah, and each asks only for a home, something out of reach for about 70% of Saudis, given the high price of land because previous kings have given most of the state’s land to princes or a handful of powerful businessmen who do the regime’s bidding.

A second youth video, Monopoly, highlighted the near impossibility of owning a home in Saudi Arabia because a monopoly on landownership by royals and other wealthy Saudis has put the price of land out of reach of a majority of Saudis.

The Saudi government in 2010 installed in major cities a sophisticated camera system that tickets speeders by automatically sending a ticket to their cell phones. Traffic accidents are the number-one killer in Saudi Arabia. Every ninety minutes someone dies in a traffic accident, and every fifteen minutes another Saudi is left handicapped for life. Traffic fatalities in 2010 totaled more than six thousand, double the number who died in Britain, even though Saudi Arabia’s population is less than half that of Britain. The new saher system has been repeatedly vandalized by young Saudis, who destroy the cameras or steal license plates from police cars and then repeatedly speed through lights, generating scores of bogus tickets for police officers. Youth claim that the money from fines goes to enrich Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, crown prince and minister of interior, who is responsible for the nation’s invasive intelligence agencies. In choosing this target, young Saudis are protesting what they see as both royal corruption and state intrusion into their lives.

Saudis, even Internet-savvy ones, are not at all like Western youth. It isn’t just that many young people in the West use drugs, have sex before marriage, and rarely even think about religion, let alone practice any faith. The biggest difference is that Western youth aren’t reared in societies that venerate religion or value tradition, so they are free to seek their own paths uninhibited by strong societal or family pressures. Young Saudis, even those resisting authority and seeking some independence, are struggling against the thick walls of religion and tradition constructed brick by brick from birth by family, school, mosque, and government. Even if these values and traditions are rejected, the act of breaking free defines the individual.

Saudi youth, whether liberal, traditional, or fundamentalist, share at least three characteristics: most are alienated, undereducated, and underemployed. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who generally express gratitude to the Al Saud for improving their standard of living during the oil boom of the 1970s, young Saudis born in the 1980s and 1990s have no memory of the impoverished Arabia prior to the oil boom and thus express almost no sense of appreciation. Instead, they have experienced a kingdom of poor schools, overcrowded universities, and declining job opportunities. Moreover, their royal rulers’ profligate and often non-Islamic lifestyles are increasingly transparent to Saudis and stand in sharp contrast both to Al Saud religious pretensions and to their own declining living standards.

Young people in any Saudi city drive past princely palaces that often stretch for blocks and ask how such opulence squares with the Prophet’s example of humility and equality among believers. They also hear their religious imams condemn any human likeness as sinful, yet they see life-size pictures of Al Saud rulers in the foyers of every public building in the kingdom.

“Facebook opens the doors of our cages,” says a young single Saudi man in his midtwenties, noting that the social network is the primary way men and women meet in the kingdom.

Saudi society, as we have seen, is deeply divided along multiple fault lines—tribal, regional, religious, gender, and more. All these divisions are visibly accentuated among Saudi youth. The gap between the easy riders on Riyadh’s Tahlia Street and the devout but questioning Imam University students, between the educated young women at Saudi ARAMCO and the isolated girls on the mountaintop in Faifa, between Lulu’s cloistered daughters and Manal’s liberated ones, is all the sharper and thus all the more threatening to the future stability of the Al Saud regime. If overall Saudi society was once homogeneous, the current generation of Saudi youth is openly and proudly heterogeneous. The most significant thing they have in common is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Whether, and if so how, to accommodate this pressure from the young is among the most daunting challenges for the Al Saud regime. CHAPTER

Saudi soccer games are about the only time reserved Saudis are allowed to shout and show joy.

The fact that most Saudi princes are as powerless as ordinary Saudis to address these problems may seem surprising, but perhaps it should not in a society where seniority trumps enterprise, especially among princes. Being born a prince still has advantages, but these days the benefits are more akin to those enjoyed by the offspring of elite businessmen or politicians in the West. These younger princes can gain access to an influential minister or businessman more easily than the average Saudi, but they have little access to or influence on the handful of senior Al Saud princes who rule the kingdom through division, diversion, and dollars.

Saudi Arabia’s founder fathered 44 sons and innumerable daughters. Many of his sons were almost as prolific as their father, so the kingdom now boasts thousands of princes—sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and by now great-great-grandsons of the founder. These princes may be born to rule, but the truth is only a handful ever will.

In no other country on earth is there a royal family on anything like this scale. Collectively, they increasingly are viewed by the rest of Saudi society as a burdensome privileged caste.

The monarch sees their diversity, divisions, and demands as just one more problem requiring skillful management, all the more so as the issue of generational succession looms large, now that Abdul Aziz’s surviving sons all are in their late sixties or older. Even in a government that prefers princes for most key jobs in Riyadh ministries and provincial leadership roles around the country, the majority of Abdul Aziz’s heirs have no government position. Hundreds of them, to be sure, have quasi-official roles running programs to help the poor or foundations of one sort or another, and many hundreds more use their royal lineage to build businesses through which they obtain land and government contracts worth hundreds of millions and sometimes billions.

But the family is so large some princes still can’t find a sinecure. Third-generation princes are said to receive only $19,000 a month, hardly enough to lead a princely life, and King Abdullah, since assuming the throne in 2005, has stopped passing out envelopes of money to vacationing family members, has curbed the use of the Saudi national airline as an Al Saud private jet service, and has privatized the telephone company so the government no longer covers free cell phone usage for royals. The extended royal family, including progeny of Abdul Aziz’s siblings, is said to include roughly 30,000 members.

The prince typifies the generation that came of age in the 1980s on the heels of the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious extremists. The country ceased sending students abroad for education and exposure to Western ways and sharply tilted toward pacifying the fundamentalists, allowing the religious establishment to dominate every aspect of Saudi life, especially education. So for most of the two decades between the attack on the Grand Mosque in 1979 and the attack by extremist Saudis on the World Trade Center in 2001, Saudi education was dominated by fundamentalist, xenophobic religious indoctrination that encouraged young Saudis to see the West as decadent and Christians and Jews as infidel enemies of Islam. That is pretty much Abdul Aziz’s view.

Major Saudi cities now offer all manner of modern consumer products not available a couple of decades ago. Indeed, about all that isn’t available in Saudi Arabia these days is entertainment, alcohol, and books that the government considers subversive—meaning most political and religious titles, including the Bible, and almost all books on Saudi Arabia.

Illiteracy has never shamed Saudis. No less an exemplar than the Prophet Muhammad could not read or write. For nearly two decades, the Angel Gabriel spoke Allah’s revelations to Muhammad, who repeated them to his followers. As with Muhammad, hear and repeat is the foundation of all Saudi education. To this day, the concept of educational inquiry is barely nascent in Saudi Arabia. Students from kindergarten through university for the most part sit in front of teachers


Ellyatt, H. 2019. Saudi Arabia is ‘gradually running out of money’ and needs IPO to fund reforms, ex-CIA chief says.

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William Rees: Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us

Preface. I’m going to put Rees’ conclusion of 11 things to do first (rather than the Green New Deal, which can’t possibly work), followed by his arguments for why this needs to be done (if you haven’t read part 1 I recommend reading it first here).

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


William E. Reese. 2019 Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us. If we don’t take these 11 key steps, we’re kidding ourselves.

Eleven steps

So, where might we go from here? A rational world with a good grasp of reality would have begun articulating a long-term wind-down strategy 20 or 30 years ago. The needed global emergency plan would certainly have included most of the 11 realistic responses to the climate crisis listed below — which, even if implemented today would at least slow the coming unravelling. And no, the currently proposed Green New Deal won’t do it.

Here, then, is what an effective “Green New Deal” might look like:

  1. Formal recognition of the end of material growth and the need to reduce the human ecological footprint;
  2. Acknowledgement that, as long as we remain in overshoot — exploiting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate — sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption;
  3. Recognition of the theoretical and practical difficulties/impossibility of an all-green quantitatively equivalent energy transition;
  4. Assistance to communities, families and individuals to facilitate the adoption of sustainable lifestyles (even North Americans lived happily on half the energy per capita in the 1960s that we use today);
  5. Identification and implementation of strategies (e.g., taxes, fines) to encourage/force individuals and corporations to eliminate unnecessary fossil fuel use and reduce energy waste (half or more of energy “consumed” is wasted through inefficiencies and carelessness);
  6. Programs to retrain the workforce for constructive employment in the new survival economy;
  7. Policies to restructure the global and national economies to remain within the remaining “allowable” carbon budget while developing/improving sustainable energy alternatives;
  8. Processes to allocate the remaining carbon budget (through rationing, quotas, etc.) fairly to essential uses only, such as food production, space/water heating, inter-urban transportation;
  9. Plans to reduce the need for interregional transportation and increase regional resilience by re-localizing essential economic activity (de-globalization); image atom Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist read more
  10. Recognition that equitable sustainability requires fiscal mechanisms for income/wealth redistribution;
  11. A global population strategy to enable a smooth descent to the two to three billion that could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.

“What? A deliberate contraction? That’s not going to happen!” I hear you say. And you are probably correct. It should by now be clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species.

But in being correct you only prove me correct. Disastrous climate change and energy shortages are near certainties in this century and global societal collapse a growing possibility that puts billions at risk.


Now I may be wrong but, if so, please tell me why… Please.

Yesterday I presented the first of two “Am I wrong?” queries regarding the climate crisis. If you accept my facts, I said, you will see the massive challenge we face in transforming human assumptions and ways of living on Earth. Announcements, Events & more from Tyee and select partners

That first query was this: The modern world is deeply addicted to fossil fuels and green energy is no substitute. Am I wrong? Read my fact-based argument here in Part 1.

Today I ask:

Question 2: Human nature and our methods of governance are proving incapable of saving the world. We need to ‘get real’ about climate science. Am I wrong?

Remember the self-congratulatory hubbub following “successful” negotiation of the Paris climate accord in 2015? Was all that ebullient optimism justified?

Consider that in the past 50 years, there have been 33 climate conferences and a half dozen such major international agreements — Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris the most recent — but none has produced even a dimple in the curve of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

And things are not about to change dramatically. The 2019 Energy Information Administration International Energy Outlook reference case projects global energy consumption to increase 45% by 2050. On the plus side, renewables are projected to grow by more than 150%, but, consistent with the trend I rudely pointed out yesterday, the overall increase in demand for energy is expected to be greater than the total contribution from all renewable sources combined.

Fact: Without a massive rapid course correction, CO2 emissions will continue to climb. This threatens humanity with ecological and social catastrophe as much of Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas increases have already boosted global temperature by approximately 1 Celsius degree, mostly since 1980. Climate scientists tell us that the world is currently on track to experience 3 to 5 Celsius degrees warming. Five-degree warming would be catastrophic, likely fatal to civilized existence. Even a “modest” 3 degrees implies disaster — enough to inundate coastlines, empty megacities, destroy economies and destabilize geopolitics.

Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change therefore committed in 2015 to hold the rise in global average temperatures to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

But don’t relax just yet. Those commitments made in Paris — the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs — comprise only a third of the reductions needed to limit warming to 2 degrees. Even if fully met, they put us on track for a potentially catastrophic 3+ Celsius degrees mean global warming.

Systems dynamics confounds the issue. There is a decades-long lag between GHG cause and warming effect because of ocean thermal inertia — the seas absorb 90 per cent of accumulating heat but warm slowly, keeping atmospheric temperatures down. Even if held constant, present GHG concentrations commit the world to an additional 0.3 to 0.8 degrees Celsius warming this century, enough to overshoot the 1.5 degree limit.

582px version of AtmosphericCO2Graph.png
The rise of C02 in the atmosphere has continued unabated for 60 years, regardless of policies by countries and the UN said to address climate change.

There are more reasons to be concerned. Recent analyses suggest that “biogeophysical feedback processes” tied to such processes as permafrost melting, methane hydrate releases and the destruction of tropical and boreal forests may accelerate a cascade of feedbacks pushing the planet irreversibly onto a “Hothouse Earth” pathway.

To meet the Paris challenge of keeping the mean global temperature increase to less than 2 Celsius degrees means cutting CO2 emissions to almost half of 2010 levels and doing so by 2030. It also means completely decarbonizing the economy by 2050.

This, in turn, implies whole-sale transformations of social and physical communities and dramatic changes in material life-styles.

However, as laid out in part one, the current pace of shift away from fossil fuels and lower energy consumption is not remotely adequate. In fact, global energy use and carbon emissions are rising exponentially at the same rate they were four decades ago.

Which presents a conundrum: Reducing fossil fuel use on a vastly sped-up schedule, in the absence of adequate substitutes and a comprehensive wind-down plan, would soon produce some combination of inadequate energy supplies, broken supply lines, reduced production, declining incomes, rising inequality, widespread unemployment, food and other resource shortages, at least local famines, civil unrest, abandoned cities, mass migrations, collapsed economies and geopolitical chaos.

What politician is likely to let this scenario unfold? Would the public tolerate it?

As economists have long recognized, humans are spatial, temporal and social discounters — we naturally favour the here and now, and close relatives and friends, over distant places, merely possible futures and total strangers. Under what circumstances would hundreds of millions of people in scores of countries with disparate political philosophies and political ideologies — people who currently enjoy the “good life” — be induced simultaneously to risk wrecking their comfortable lives to stave off a climate or eco-crisis that many are not convinced is happening and, even if it is, it is perceived likely mainly to affect other people somewhere else?

And keep in mind, the world is committed to accommodating several additional billions who have yet to join the energy-addicted consumer party but are pounding on the door to be let in.

It gets worse. Neoliberal economics is ecologically blind. Even Nobel laureate economists argue that we must maintain allegiance to growth and the illusion of “rescue-by-technology” so the next generation has the wealth and techno-mechanics to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Consistent with this illusory reasoning, many national and corporate leaders interpret the threat of climate chaos as an investment opportunity.

Politically acceptable approaches to reducing carbon emissions discussed at climate talks include technical and organizational capacity-building, wind turbines, various solar technologies, “smart city” infrastructure, electric vehicles, urban rapid transit, yet-to-be-developed carbon capture and storage and other “climate-safe technologies” — i.e., anything that would require major investment and create so-called green jobs (read “further economic growth and profit-making potential”).

Not on the table are ecological tax reform (beyond investment incentives and carbon taxes), structural changes to the economy that would lower consumer demand and reduce energy and material throughput, policies for income/wealth redistribution, major lifestyle changes or strategies to reduce human populations.

Perversely then, policy for climate disaster-avoidance seems designed to serve the capitalist growth economy and make the latter appear as the solution rather than cause of the problem. “Unfortunately,” as University of Vienna public policy professor Clive Spash points out, “many environmental non-governmental organisations have bought into this illogical reasoning.” (Note that many NGOs are dependent on the corporate sector for financial support.)

And this is why the international community — despite the Paris accord, Greta Thunberg, climate strikes and mass public protests — seems determined to stay its growth-driven fossil-fuelled course.

In these circumstances, the world can anticipate more and longer heat waves/droughts, desertification, tropical deforestation, melting permafrost, methane releases, regional water shortages, failing agriculture, regional famines, rising sea levels, the flooding (and eventual loss) of many coastal communities, abandonment of over-heated cities, civil unrest, mass migrations, collapsed economies and possible geopolitical chaos.

Where does Canada fit into all this?

Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy explores six model approaches supposedly being explored by the federal government to meet Canada’s Paris agreement emissions reductions commitments (net emissions falling 80 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050).

Energy analyst Dave Hughes estimates that, on average, these schemes would require construction of 37,000 two-megawatt wind turbines, 100 Site-C-sized hydroelectric dams and 59 one-gigawatt nuclear reactors. Average cost all in? More than $1.5 trillion.

No such plan is likely ever to be implemented. Instead, Ottawa has bought a pipeline. In fact, both the federal and B.C. governments are firmly on the go-with-carbon team.

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William E. Rees: Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist

Preface. William E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia. He’s one of my favorite ecological writers and has written about energy, limits to growth, sustainability and other ecological topics for many years.

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


William E. Rees. 2019. Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist To see our fate clearly, we must face these hard facts about energy, growth and governance. Part one of two.

No one wants to be the downer at the party, and some would say that I am an unreformed pessimist. But consider this — pessimism and optimism are mere states of mind that may or may not be anchored in reality. I would prefer to be labeled a realist, someone who sees things as they are, who has a healthy respect for good data and solid analysis (or at least credible theory).

Why is this important? Well, if Greta Thunberg and followers are to inspire more than emotional release about climate change, the world needs to face some hard facts that suggest we are headed toward catastrophe. At the same time, skepticism is the hallmark of good science; realists too must be open to the challenge posed by new facts.

So, today, and in a piece to follow, I present an unpopular but fact-based argument in the form of two “Am I wrong?” queries. If you accept my facts, you will see the massive challenge we face in transforming human assumptions and ways of living on Earth.

I welcome being told what crucial facts I might be missing. Even a realist — perhaps especially a realist in present circumstances — occasionally wants to be proved incorrect.

Question 1: The modern world is deeply addicted to fossil fuels and green energy is no substitute. Am I wrong? The Tyee is supported by readers like you Join us and grow independent media in Canada

We can probably agree that techno-industrial societies are utterly dependent on abundant cheap energy just to maintain themselves — and even more energy to grow. The simple fact is that 84 per cent of the world’s primary energy today is derived from fossil fuels.

It should be no surprise, then, that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the greatest metabolic waste by weight produced by industrial economies. Climate change is a waste management problem!

Cheap fossil energy enabled the world to urbanize, and this process is continuing. The UN expects the urban population to rise to 6.7 billion — 68 per cent of humanity — by 2050. There will be 43 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants each as early as 2030, mostly in China and other Asian countries.

Building out these and hundreds more large cities will require much of the remaining allowable carbon budget. Moreover, the current and future inhabitants of every modern city depend absolutely on the fossil-fuelled productivity of distant hinterlands and on fossil-fuelled transportation for their daily supplies of all essential resources, including water and food.

Fact: Urban civilization cannot exist without prodigious quantities of dependable energy.

All of which generates a genuine emergency. By 2018, the combustion of fossil fuel alone was pumping 37.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Add to this the net carbon emissions from land clearing (soil oxidation) and more vigorous forest fires, and we can see why atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations reached an all-time high of 415 parts per Million in early 2019. This is 48% above pre-industrial levels and concentrations are rising exponentially.

And, of course, everyone with an active brain cell is aware that CO2 is the main human-related driver of global warming and associated climate change.

Cue the techno-optimists’ chorus: “Not to worry, all we have to do is transition to green renewable energy!”

In fact, there is plenty of superficial support for the notion that green tech is our saviour. We are told repeatedly that the costs of providing renewable energy have fallen so low that it will soon be practically free. Australian professors Andrew Blakers and Matthew Stocks say “Solar photovoltaic and wind power are rapidly getting cheaper and more abundant — so much so that they are on track to entirely supplant fossil fuels worldwide within two decades.” Luckily, the transition won’t even take up much space: UC Berkeley professor Mehran Moalem argues that “an area of the Earth 335 kilometres by 335 kilometres with solar panels… will provide more than 17.4 TW power…. That means 1.2 per cent of the Sahara desert is sufficient to cover all of the energy needs of the world in solar energy.” (Someone should remind Prof. Moalem that, even if such an engineering feat were possible, a single sandstorm would bury the world’s entire energy supply.)

The first problem with such claims is that despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition is not really happening. The chart below shows that in most recent years (except 2009, following the 2008 global financial crisis), the uptick in global demand for electrical energy exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations. Between 2017 and 2018, the demand increase outpaced total solar supply by 60 per cent; two years’ demand increase absorbs the entire output of solar and wind power combined.

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The annual increase in demand for electricity exceeds the entire output of photovoltaic electricity installations. Graph courtesy of Pedro Prieto, with permission.

As long as the growth in demand exceeds additions to supply from renewables, the latter cannot displace fossil fuels even in electricity generation — and remember, electricity is still less than 20 per cent of total energy consumption, with the rest being supplied mostly by fossil fuels.

Nor is any green transition likely to be cheap. The cost of land is substantial and, while the price of solar panels and wind turbines have declined dramatically, this is independent of the high costs associated with transmission, grid stabilization and systems maintenance. Consistently reliable wind and solar electricity requires integrating these sources into the grid using battery or pumped hydro storage, back-up generation sources (e.g., gas turbines, cruise-ship scale internal combustion engines, etc.) and meeting other challenges that make it more expensive.

Also problematic is the fact that wind/solar energy is not really renewable. In practice, the life expectancy of a wind turbine may be less than 15 years. Solar panels may last a few years longer but with declining efficiency, so both turbines and panels have to be replaced regularly at great financial, energy and environmental cost. Consider that building a typical wind turbine requires 817 energy-intensive tonnes of steel, 2,270 tonnes of concrete and 41 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic. Solar power also requires large quantities of cement, steel and glass as well as various rare earth metals.

World demand for rare-earth elements — and Earth-destroying mining and refining — would rise 300 per cent to 1,000 per cent by 2050 just to meet the Paris goals. Ironically, the mining, transportation, refining and manufacturing of material inputs to the green energy solution would be powered mainly by fossil fuels (and we’d still have to replace all the machinery and equipment currently running on oil and gas with their electricity-powered equivalents, also using fossil fuel). In short, even if the energy transition were occurring as advertised, it would not necessarily be reflected in declining CO2 emissions.

If we divide 2018 into energy segments, oil, coal and natural gas powered the globe for 309 out of 365 days, hydro and nuclear energy gave us 41 days, and non-hydro renewables (solar panels, wind turbines, biomass) a mere 15 days. If the race is towards a decarbonized finish line by 2050, we’re still pretty much stalled at the gate.

Fact: Despite the hype about the green energy revolution and enhanced efficiency, the global community in 2019 remains addicted to fossil energy and no real cure is on the horizon.

As I say, please do tell me I’m wrong.

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