Friday, July 25, 2008

The Replacement of Petroleum Slaves

The advent of Peak Oil means that the amount of energy available to our modern society will soon begin to diminish. This diminishment will cause a diminishing of economic activity. Oil and the energy derived from oil have allowed each of us to do so much more than humans in earlier, exclusively human- and animal-powered times, and the things we do can be done much more quickly. Today after work I had to stop at a store several miles out of my way home. Because I am a bicycle commuter, a journey of 20 miles took nearly two hours. It might have taken nearly as long in a car because of traffic and signals, but had I been racing against a car whose driver was free of such restrictions, I would have lost badly. The expedition of Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century was a transcontinental voyage across North America that took over two years to complete. By contrast, I can book a flight on US Airways that will take me from Los Angeles to New York City in 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Some have tried to quantify the energy density of crude oil in terms of the amount of human labor required to replace the energy found in a barrel of oil. Nate Hagens, one of the editors at the Oil Drum website, has calculated that one barrel of oil generates the energy of up to 12.5 years of human-powered work. Since the average American uses over 25 barrels of oil per year, he or she annually uses the energy that would be generated by over 300 slaves. If natural gas and coal use are also included in the picture, the total annual energy used by each American rises to the equivalent of over 700 slaves. (Source: “A Closer Look At Oil Futures,” http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/9/2/171333/1102; also check out “What Is A Human Being Worth (in terms of Energy) by Luis DeSousa, http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/4315)

This energy is what is available for personal use. But the incredible energy of petroleum has also been harnessed by businesses to provide goods and services at costs that are low both for the producers and consumers of these goods and services. This is what enabled the replacement of thousands of union workers in early 20th century factories with automated, computerized assembly lines controlled by programmable logic controllers, guided by a small handful of human operators monitoring man-machine interfaces. It is what also enabled the outsourcing of skilled labor from the United States to countries where wages have been historically low and benefits have been nonexistent. Were you a head of a business in a country whose workers are organizing to demand higher wages and benefits? Until recently, you could respond to such a situation by building factories in Third World countries with oppressed populations, thus lowering your business costs and maximizing your profits. Cheap petroleum-based transport was an inexpensive bridge directly connecting you to your Third World factories, the cost of shipping goods being such a small portion of the total cost of manufacture.

But now this globalist model of big business is beginning to break down, as has been described here on this blog and in many other places. Yet big businesses are still committed to maximizing their profits while minimizing their costs. Where will they turn for pools of cheap labor to replace Third World workers now rendered out of touch by high transportation costs?

I believe I saw some of the answer two weeks ago, when I bought the August 2008 issue of Mother Jones magazine (www.motherjones.com). That issue has a series of articles about our present American prison system, under the general title Slammed. The articles describe how the present justice and prison system disproportionately targets poor people and minorities; how private corporations have taken over the prison system in many states and are turning prisons into for-profit operations; how private prisons are being used to detain illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, pending deportation or asylum hearings; and how states such as Georgia are outsourcing their probation programs to private companies who charge a monthly fee to people who are placed on probation.

The Slammed article which is most relevant to this post is titled, “Lingerie and Bullwhips: A Peek At the Fruits of American Prison Labor,” and it describes how many large American corporations are lining up to use prison labor in the manufacture or packaging of their products – products such as beef, milk, eggs, chicken products, Starbucks coffee, Nintendo games, brooms, brushes, bullwhips, Microsoft mice and software, school juice boxes, airplane parts and other material for the US military, Victoria's Secret and JCPenny lingerie, dental instruments, entire Wal-Mart stores (!), and telemarketing services, to name just a few things. Inmates are paid anywhere from pennies a day to minimum wage (if they're lucky) for jobs which would command many times the minimum wage on the outside.

These prisoners have no rights, even after their release from prison. 48 states prohibit prisoners from voting, 30 states prohibit felons on probation from voting, and 8 states prohibit certain felons from voting for life. Thirteen percent of black men currently are denied the right to vote. Therefore, these people have little say anymore in altering the prison system through political action, no matter what inequities they witnessed while in prison, no matter how they were exploited by corporate interests while in prison.

And the rich and powerful in this country are doing their best to expand the ranks of people whose rights have been permanently stripped from them. Consider the growth of private prison corporations over the years; Corrections Corporation of America saw its stock price climb from $8 a share in 1992 to over $30 in 2000. In 2005, CCA paid over $3 million to five different firms to lobby the Federal government. Dick Cheney's son-in-law was a lobbyist for CCA, and also had oversight of government discretionary payments to CCA while serving in the Federal government. CCA is typical of the large and growing number of private prison corporations who seek to grow their businesses via the Federal “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs.” Children are now being sent to private prisons and private detention camps run under inhumane and dangerous conditions, without adequate oversight or redress for any wrongs suffered while they are locked up. (Sources: “Corrections Corporation of America,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corrections_Corporation_of_America; “The Truth About Private Prisons,” Jenni Gainsborough, Alternet, 15 December 2003, http://www.alternet.org/story/17392/)

All of these things may be leading to a situation best described by “The Jigsaw Man,” a 1967 science fiction story by Larry Niven. In that story, medical science had perfected ways to greatly extend human life through organ transplants. This led the rulers of society to decree that people convicted of capital crimes should be required to donate all their organs to medicine after their execution, in order to repay their debt to society. But the demand for organs grew so much that lawmakers were forced to continually re-define “capital crime” to insure a steady supply of recycled body parts. The protagonist of the story thus finds himself sentenced to death for breaking traffic laws.

Such a story may have seemed far-fetched in 1967, but it is all too real now – not only in such instances as stem-cell research, but in the depriving of rights for ever-larger segments of the American population while reducing these people to a state of de-facto slavery, as petroleum slaves are replaced with slaves of another kind in order to help Western businesses maximize profits while reducing costs. As some might say, if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.


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I harvested all the fava beans in my garden two weeks ago, and have been drying them using my truck dashboard as a makeshift solar dryer. This is possible because I don't drive to work anymore. My hope is to use the beans as part of planting my fall garden. I'll let you all know how it works.

Tomorrow, I will be participating in a bike tour of various backyard chicken-raising operations in this city. I'll try to take pictures; hopefully you'll all be able to see them next week. Next week I will also begin to talk more about personal preparations for a post-Peak world. See you then!

Monday, July 21, 2008

"...Most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically"

Those of you who read my profile know that I have another blog, TH in SoC, where I discuss the unhealthy dynamics of churches classified as abusive, as well as how I believe those unhealthy dynamics have infected modern American evangelicalism. Having gone through an abusive church experience and having had my eyes opened to the true nature of that experience, I believe that I have become better equipped to recognize the dynamics of power abuse in secular settings as well, including the present American political scene. This has contributed to my understanding of the true nature of our present crisis and enslavement to a political/economic system that is breaking, as I have come to recognize the games played by those who seek power in order to make their fellow humans a prey. (One example: I have now come to the conclusion that President Bush is a clinical narcissist, as are some of those who ran in the Presidential primaries this year.)

As I was doing research for my last post on TH in SoC, I was thus intrigued by a blog I discovered, Gale Warnings (http://galewarnings.blogspot.com). The author of this blog discusses issues of abuse of power from the perspective of the interplay between victim and narcissistic abuser - often a one-on-one interplay, which is how abuse is often perpetrated and experienced between those who misuse their authority and their victims. But her focus also extends to the general societal problem of how to live well without becoming a victim, as stated in her "About Me" statement:

"I'm a former idealist turned 'defensive pessimist' who has concluded, after living on two coasts, two continents, and an island, that most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator."

This is a bold and noble goal - to choose not to become the prey of others ("You were bought with a price. Don’t become bondservants of men." - 1 Corinthians 7:23); and to choose not to become a predator, wherein lies damnation. How to live as neither predator nor prey is a puzzle to which the righteous will have to give increasing attention in the coming days, as Peak Oil and other resource constraints become more severe, as our present system begins to break down more rapidly, and as the rich masters of the present system resort to more desperate measures to keep their system running and to force the rest of us into continued reliance on that system.

I'd like to recommend Gale Warnings for those looking for another perspective on the times we are now facing, and I hope the author will be able to provide needed insights regarding some of the issues of life on the downside of Hubbert's Peak.

I'd like to say just a word about the focus of my blog, The Well Run Dry. While I sometimes venture into technical discsussions about the geological or production aspects of peak oil, I am not an expert. I won't pretend to dispense gems of wisdom along that line, although if something occurs to me, I will write about it. Nor will I delve deeply into grand analyses of our society's unpreparedness for the coming times or steps that could be taken to prepare. I believe that the time for grand societal initiatives is past, and that we have wasted an opportunity. The focus of my writing will be on individual preparation.

And regarding individual preparation, I won't be writing about farming a few acres of land miles away from other people, since I live in a city. Rather, I will be talking about the small steps I am taking to build a resilient community consisting of a few blocks - or one street - of well-connected neighbors. Much of what I talk about won't be glamorous, but very mundane. Yet I will try to show its relevance to preparing for a post-peak world. I'll tell you what works - and I'll tell you what flops grandly.

I'll also tell you about the attempts by the rich to turn us "little people" into prey as I find relevant news items. This is important, because preparing for a post-peak world consists of building a safety net of alternative systems to replace the system that is breaking. This must be done at an individual level. But there are powerful individuals teaming up with governments to hinder the building of alternative systems. It is necessary therefore to be ever vigilant.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Bumpier Plateau

Over the last two weeks the price of WTI crude oil has dropped from around $146 per barrel to just over $129 per barrel. This is partly due to the most recent EIA Weekly Report published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which showed that U.S. commercial crude oil inventories (excluding those in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) increased by 3 million barrels during the week ending 11 July 2008. Also, total motor gasoline inventories increased by 2.4 million barrels during the same period, on top of a 900,000 barrel increase during the previous week. These numbers seemed to confirm the pronouncements of many market “analysts” stating that a slowing U.S. economy would reduce overall petroleum demand, driving prices lower. Lower oil and gasoline prices also led to a Wall Street stock rally late this week. The financial news media headlines covering these developments sounded a celebratory note, as if to say, “See! Things aren't that bad after all. We're returning to normal. Happy times are not far away!”

I have a different interpretation of these events; namely, that we are experiencing one of the aspects of life on the “bumpy plateau.” For those who study peak oil and theorize about how it will play out, the bumpy plateau has two meanings. The first meaning has to do with absolute quantities of petroleum liquids produced worldwide on a daily basis. Many peak oil watchers have theorized that as the world reached a peak of oil production, the peak would not be sharply defined, but would consist of several months of production fluctuating in small “bumpy” increments around a maximum average “plateau” number, before beginning to irreversibly decline. That is what we have been seeing since May 2005, as we have bumped a few percent or so above and below an average figure of 85 million barrels of petroleum liquids per day. The major oil companies and many national governments are struggling desperately to increase this number significantly, yet are failing, because the new oil projects they bring on stream can't offset production declines from old fields that are now at a point of exhaustion.

But the second bumpy aspect of the bumpy plateau has to do with price. When worldwide daily petroleum production cannot grow, the price of oil rises, because the worldwide “official” economy is based on the expectation of continuous growth at a certain percentage per year. Oil is the foundation of the majority of that economy, and no business or government wants to shrink, so corporations and institutions who want the oil begin to offer ever-larger sums of money for that oil. But as the things made with that oil become too expensive for the end users – little people like you and me – to afford, the demand for products made with oil drops, because people are forced to do without. Thus the price of oil begins to drop – even though the underlying fact of limited oil supply hasn't changed.

Human nature being what it is, most people don't grasp the significance of the original rise in the oil price. That price rise should serve as a signal and a wake-up call telling us that it is time to make a permanent shift to a lifestyle and a society that doesn't rely on oil, a society that is learning to live well on less. Most people, including the masters of the present global economy, are not receptive to this message because they only think in the short term. They will doubtless think that the recent drop in petroleum prices means that our present oil “crisis” is purely temporary. The drop in price will therefore spur more consumption, driving demand back up and causing another rise in prices to a level which again reduces demand, driving the price down again, and kicking off another price rise cycle. Each price spike in the cycle is higher than the last, and each price drop is shallower than the last as time passes.

I believe I saw a personal example of short-term thinking this week. For the last few months I have seen fewer and fewer large SUV's and monster trucks on the road. But two days ago as I was waiting for the bus, I saw someone driving what looked like a new Chrysler SUV; I think it's called an “Aspen.” If you look it up on line, you'll find that it comes with either a 4.7 liter, 303 horsepower engine, or a 5.7 liter, 335 horsepower HEMI engine. The thing's as big as a Chevy Suburban! You can have one new for around $32,000 if you want one. But why would anyone want such a thing at a time like this?

This particular SUV went by me so fast that I couldn't see the face of the person driving it, but I have to wonder what was going through the person's head when they bought it. Had the mainstream media in this country done such a good job of turning this supposedly adult American into an unreflecting, impulsive child? And what does this say about the Chrysler Corporation, that at a time of constrained oil supply and spiraling gasoline prices, when people are resorting to desperate measures to unload their Suburbans and Excursions and Yukons and Expeditions and Tahoes, Chrysler comes out with a brand new SUV? They deserve to go bankrupt.

What's needed during this journey along the bumpy plateau is a long view, an ability to grasp the big picture of what's going on. This is an important part of the process of preparing for a more difficult future. The fact that the crisis may ease somewhat at times does not mean that the crisis is temporary. Those who are wise will remember this, and undertake the necessary steps to learn to live more simply, to harden their bodies to do difficult things and to endure adversity, and to explore all their options for preparing for the coming times. As time passes, those who refuse to prepare will be left with fewer and fewer options, until at last their options are bitter.

Speaking of hardening oneself, my commute to work used to consist of riding the light rail to a bus stop, then switching to bus over a hilly two-lane road route, and riding my bike the last mile and a half to work. The evening commute consisted of riding the bus over the same hilly two-lane road from my office to the morning bus stop, then riding my bike home. Total miles per day on the bike were around ten. But when gas prices went over $3.75 or so per gallon, I found that the bus bike racks were often full, and I began to have to ride a lot farther. It seems that many people are discovering alternative transportation, as many buses now have full bike racks in the morning, no matter which route one wants to take.

But riding more has been good for me. When I first started riding the hilly roads between the light rail stop and my office, I hated it. On particularly steep portions of the road, I would get off and push the bike uphill – while young men on racers and pretty, athletic women passed me or went screaming down the opposite side of the road. I remember one afternoon when a smart-aleck guy rode past me shouting “My gears are lower than yours!” as I was walking my bike uphill.

I suppose I could blame my softness on age; after all, to quote a poet I read a while ago, “Time grates my life and yours to sand.” But I'm not that old, and I refuse to act even as old as I am. So for the last two months, I've been forcing myself to ride over that blasted road both ways, and for the last two weeks I have been able to pedal the whole way in the morning without getting off the bike. And on the return trip, I twice pedaled all the way from my office to the light rail station without getting off. My body, which used to protest, “Help! I'm dying!” now takes hills with the attitude that it ain't nothin' but a thing... I've even left a few riders behind. Now I'm racking up at least 100 miles a week on my bike, and my truck is used mainly as a place to dry vegetables (I got the idea from Sharon Astyk's blog).

I'll leave you with a picture of some alternative transportation, for those who are interested and who might be short on cash. It's a bargain, but I don't know how well it handles hills.



Friday, July 11, 2008

Radical Appetite Surgery

I actually want to start talking about the sort of personal adjustments that will be necessary for many Americans to adjust to the realities of Peak Oil. But I keep getting distracted by weekly news from the oil patch. So this week I will start by indulging my distraction.

In my post titled, “The Myth of Inadequate Investment,” I wrote of my perception that American and European international oil companies (IOC's), along with American and European media outlets, were blaming the present oil crisis on “inadequate investment” and lack of expertise on the part of many state-owned oil companies based in non-European nations. I believe this to be a public relations campaign that is part of a larger push by the IOC's to force these nations to open their fields to Western oil companies, on Western terms (as in obtaining ownership rights over the oil reserves of a country, extracting all the oil from that country, and pocketing most of the profits in Western banks while paying a small pittance of a bribe to the governments of the country in which the oil resides). Since I wrote that post, I have been searching for evidence to disprove the IOC propaganda.

I found some interesting bits of news during the last two weeks – news items which directly address this issue. I want to thank Leanan at the Oil Drum site (www.theoildrum.com) for posting these items on the Drumbeat. First there was an article carried by Reuters on 2 July whose title reads, “Oil Reform Won't Reverse Pemex Woes – Mexico Finmin.” The article deals with the continued steep decline in Mexican oil production due to the decline of the Mexican-owned Cantarell oil field. Mexican president Felipe Calderon has been proclaiming for several months that the only way to reverse the decline in his country's oil production is to revise Mexican law to allow foreign investment (as in obtaining ownership) in the state-owned Mexican oil company PEMEX, as well as allowing foreign development of Mexican oil resources. Calderon's statements have provoked a strong backlash among the left-leaning portion of the Mexican electorate, who quite naturally see Calderon's proposal as a ploy to give Mexico's wealth and natural resource away to foreign control.

Now it seems that Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens is also against the proposal, stating that it “...would not solve PEMEX's problems over the next 20 to 30 years.” He has a point. The American and European oil majors would like the world to believe that if only they owned Mexican oil assets, they could boost oil production from Mexican fields. But the fact is that Mexican oil production has peaked due to geology, and is now in irreversible decline. Transferring ownership of Mexican fields to Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell or BP won't reverse this. After all, when US production peaked in 1970, the private oil companies who owned American oilfields were not able to reverse the subsequent decline, even though they had the best equipment and no restrictions on drilling.

Another article was posted on the Rigzone site on 1 July, and is titled, “National Oil Firms Well Placed to Take on Majors,” from AFX News Limited. This story contains statements from Algeria's energy minister, a Mr. Khelil, about how the national, state-owned energy firms are now just as competent as the IOC's. He cited Algeria's own state-run company, Sonatrach as an example, as well as Malaysia's Petronas and China's CNPC and Sinoc. Khelil stated that the state-run companies are well-equipped to compete against the IOC's in developing the world's remaining resources, including resources located in other countries.

The last major article I saw is titled, “Of Nations' Pride and Access to Resources,” by Syed Rashid Husain, and was posted in the Arab News today. Mr. Husain accurately dissects the source of the West's interest in the Mideast, describing how in 1953, when Iranian president Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian energy assets, he was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by American interests. He also states the now-obvious conclusion that the American invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein was solely about oil.

Mr. Husain cites the current propaganda campaign being waged by the IOC's and Western governments such as the current U.S. presidency to force increased access to Mideast oil for the IOC's by portraying the state-owned oil companies as inefficient and lacking in expertise. Unfortunately for the IOC's, however, one of their own let the truth slip out recently. Mark Finley, general manager of Global Energy Markets for BP, was forced during the recent International Energy Forum Secretariat to grudgingly admit that the state-run Saudi Aramco has the technical expertise to manage Saudi fields, and that the IOC's cannot do very much more than what Aramco can do by itself.

These are fascinating articles, but you won't find them in most American newspapers or on CNN or Fox News. No talk-show radio hosts are discussing these things. Of course that is because the media outlets in the US and other wealthy English-speaking countries is owned by corporate interests who have an agenda. I found other news this week concerning the rape of Iraqi oil by American IOC's, and the renewal of plans to build an oil and gas pipeline from Central Asia to India through Afghanistan, bypassing Russia and Iran. These plans had been stalled by the Afghan government since August 2001, and may have led to the US-orchestrated “regime change” which took place in Afghanistan in 2002. But I will leave it to you to peruse those stories. I want to switch to the main topic of this post.

The main point of this blog is that the world is now facing functional, structural limits to economic growth and energy use, due to the exhaustion of our natural resources, especially petroleum. The decline in availability of energy and other resources is a particular threat to the Western way of life. In fact, many very wise people are predicting that the present Western way of life – in particular, the American way of life – is about to end.

When confronted with this threat, many Americans and other First-World citizens start babbling about how technology can rescue our way of life, and that the answer to our energy/climate/resource crunch is to aggressively invest in new technology. Or when they see the threat to our financial system, they look for the perfect presidential candidate who will guarantee that good times will continue. These people view our lifestyle as sacred and inviolable, and are willing to spare no expense in their fight to maintain it. Technology is seen as some magic remedy which will allow people to continue a life of ever expanding consumption motivated by appetites swollen to monstrous size by steroidal advertising. And people who are bothered by the environmental and social cost of their hyperconsumption look to the technologists for some fix which will allow them to live large and go green at the same time.

This is as unrealistic as an obese man looking for a technological solution to his obesity while he insists on slamming down ten pounds of french fries every day. And such an attitude overlooks the fact that we already possess a powerful solution to the problems of energy and resource depletion, and the financial problems which are now arising from declining resources. That solution consists of learning to live on less. But too many of us don't have a very good idea of what it means to consciously choose to live on less. So I have provided a simple illustration.

Consider three houses. House A is part of a nine-house development finished in November 2007. Each house in the development is selling for $1,690,000. The development is located next to a shady two-lane road in a hilly, beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest, and is in a very affluent school district. Lot sizes for the homes range from 9,000 to almost 11,000 square feet, and I estimate that the floor plan for the pictured house is at least 3,000 square feet.

House B is a 1945-vintage three-bedroom, one bath bungalow with a basement. It is located in a working-class neighborhood with a growing minority population, near a couple of Winco supermarkets and a Fred Meyer store (for those in Southern California, think Target or Wal-Mart). The school system is decent. Even with three bedrooms, the floor area probably does not exceed 900 square feet. But the insulation has recently been upgraded. It is selling for $199,800.

House C is another three-bedroom, one bath home built in 1953. It has a new roof and its garage has been converted into a family room. It is located in the same school district as House B. It is selling for $159,000.

Which house has the most value? Pause and think about this for a moment.


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Now, here are some additional questions:

  • The price of natural gas worldwide is rapidly escalating, and on a per-BTU basis it may equal the price of oil before very long. What percentage of a typical family budget would be spent on heating and cooling House A? House B? House C?

  • Houses B and C are conveniently located within a mile of grocery stores and a light rail line that goes directly through the center of the city in which they are located. Also, houses B and C are near frequently-visited bus stops. House A is adjacent to a road along which is a bus line, but the bus runs infrequently and is unavailable for large portions of the day. House A is also located several miles from grocery stores, schools and places of employment. What percentage of a typical family budget would be spent on commuting from each of these houses?

  • How many people do you know who have 20 percent of $1,690,000 in savings? How about 20 percent of $199,800? 20 percent of $159,000? How long would it take for most people you know to pay off a loan for any of these amounts?

  • House A has a large yard in which one could grow vegetables to promote self-sufficiency, but House B also has a large yard. Houses B and C are also located within two miles of a local farmers' market which sells produce at a junior high school every Saturday. How much benefit would people provide to local economies and their own health by supporting the farmers' market near Houses B and C?

  • How many hours per week would an average husband and wife duo have to work in order to make the monthly payments on House A? House B? House C?

  • Do indebtedness and money worries cause you to lose sleep? Have they ever caused stress in your marriage? Would you be more likely to get a good night's rest in House A? House B? House C?

  • Does anyone still want House A? Then let me suggest that such a person may need radical appetite surgery.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Pavlov's Politics

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist, psychologist and physician who lived from 1849 to 1936. He is famous for his investigations of conditioned reflexes in animals, which arose from his observation that dogs who were habitually given food coated with chili powder tended to salivate when they saw the food coming, before it actually entered their mouths. Through a series of experiments he learned to induce salivation in dogs by presenting various signals that accompanied the feeding of the dogs. Thus he was able to “train” dogs to salivate by doing such things as ringing a bell or blowing a whistle. Other scientists applied his research to human psychology, deducing that humans could be trained to produce conditional reflexes or responses to events or triggers that often had nothing to do with the response produced. One such scientist, William Sargant, was part of a CIA research program in brainwashing and mind control that was carried out in the 1950's and 1960's. And the dogs originally used by Pavlov in his experiments became famous in a wry sort of way. To call someone a “Pavlov's dog” is to accuse that person of merely reacting to a situation rather than using critical thinking.

The American political process has largely become Pavlovian. Average Americans are being treated like Pavlov's dogs by the powers that be, from the corporate interests who really run things to the leaders of both major parties and the media outlets who provide us with “news.” There was a time, not very long ago, when the two parties actually stood on two sides of many important issues, and the media sympathetic to one side presented a message that was clearly different from the media voice of the other side. On the Right were Nixon, Jesse Helms, big business, defenders of the status quo, and those who were intolerant of people of other cultures and races. On the other hand were the Kennedy and post-Kennedy Democrats, the environmentalists, the radicals, the challengers of big business injustice and those rock musicians who were politically outspoken.

But the dangerous voices of the 1960's that threatened the status quo of corporate America were gradually co-opted and corporatized. And the very definitions of “Left” and “Right” were subtly changed to remove any threat to the major corporate interests. This re-definition was carried out in earnest during the 1980's and 1990's, and it involved two things: first, changing the meaning of “Left” and “Right” to meanings that posed no threat to the entrenched corporate interests controlling the largest sectors of the global economy; and secondly, the use of the media to heavily and constantly push this new “Left” and new “Right” on the American public until they accepted these as the actual and legitimate “Left” and “Right.”

This is clearly seen in the case of the Right. Those who preach Biblical morality, otherworldliness, simple living and the Sermon on the Mount have always posed a threat to established interests, from the days of the Civil War to the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960's. Therefore spokesmen such as James Dobson, the Moral Majority and the Family Research Council have worked to define Christianity and the Religious Right solely in terms of opposing sexual immorality, voting Republican and being patriotic – a much safer definition which does not threaten big business. Dobson and his associates have also attacked any Christians who suggest that perhaps we should widen our focus beyond sexual morality to include opposition to big business practices which harm the environment or poor people. This has led many on the Left to say, rather accurately, that the only issue about which the Right cares is sex.

But this accusation can also be leveled at the Left. Leftism used to mean advocacy of equal rights for all peoples of all ethnic groups; protection of the environment even if the price of such protection is that we must live more simply; restricting the power of corporations to prevent them from turning into monopolies or oligarchies; restricting the power and reach of the government; guaranteeing every citizen access to a free, participatory democracy, including the right to have one's voice heard by a free and independent press; and protecting the poor of the world from becoming victims of the rich.

But the corporate masters of American society noticed that many on the Left had become turned off to the religion and mores of the Right. So they began pushing a definition of Leftism solely as opposition to the religion and sexual morality preached by the Right. Thus, while actual progress in civil rights for minorities has stalled from the time of Reagan onward, the Left still insists that great progress in civil rights is being made, because of the fact that movies like Brokeback Mountain are now being made. Unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain isn't doing a lot of good for a number of black men now on death row or serving harsh sentences in various American prisons for crimes they didn't commit. Brokeback Mountain won't bring back any of the unarmed young black men gunned down by the NYPD over the last several years. Leftism has been redefined as the rejection of all sexual mores, the granting of permission to indulge in any sort of sexual desire, the bad-mouthing of biblical Christianity, and the abandonment of all standards of public decency, especially in the media. As with the re-definition of the Right, this re-definition of the Left does not threaten big business.

The final strategy used by these corporate masters has been to turn both the Democrats and the Republicans into mere empty symbols. The symbols may look different, but that means almost nothing, since both parties promote mostly the same policies. The Republican symbol is constructed on a foundation of memories of the Cold War and the struggle against “godless communism,” and it consists of a decorated war hero wrapped in an American flag, chewing tobacco and spitting while flexing a bicep tattooed with a cross or fish sign and declaring that he will “keep America strong!” This symbol is designed to produce a Pavlovian response at the voting booth among NASCAR-watching, Ford or Chevy truck-driving, beer-drinking high school dropout good ole' boys.

The Democrat symbol is constructed on memories of the 1960's and early 1970's, on memories of the Kennedy influence and the times when the Democrats were actually advocates of the little guy. It consists of a black man or a white woman, defined as “progressive” because they believe in “alternative spirituality,” they are “empathetic,” they are not perceived as evangelical conservatives, they support a “woman's right to choose,” they are vegetarian (maybe!) and they are the first of their kind to achieve high office. This symbol is also designed to produce a Pavlovian response at the voting booth. It worked quite well in 2006, when the Republicans showed themselves for what they really were – nothing more than the greedy, corrupt servants of a corporatocracy. We Americans knew we had been hoodwinked into an unjust war, and that we had been made into victims of a big business feeding frenzy, and many of us actually believed in the symbol of the Democrats as agents of change. This is what enabled the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress. The only trouble is that events since then have proven that the Democrats are much bigger on talk than action.

The 2008 presidential election has degenerated into a battle between symbols, and “news” analysis and coverage of the campaigns has focused only on the effectiveness of these symbols. In the Democratic primary, one symbol (the one with the blond hair) tried to tear the other symbol apart (the one with the dark skin). It was fairly obvious to many that Hillary Clinton was really only a symbol, and that her entire campaign was a gamble that she would be an effective Pavlovian symbol (“Vote for me because I am a woman! A vote for me is a vote for progress, for that very reason!). John McCain is also nothing more than a symbol (Vote for me because I am a decorated Vietnam vet! The world is a dangerous place, and you need a tough guy in office!). I had begun to hope that Obama would be something more than a symbol, but recent news coverage of his shift to the “middle” on key policy issues has begun to erode my hopes.

The problem is, as I have stated before, that the global “official” economy which dominates the world is an unjust system which is now in the process of breaking due to the worldwide end of cheap oil. Yet while that system still exists and is in any way viable, its masters actively fight against anyone who seeks to create a safety net of alternative systems. Examples of this include automobile-based transportation, which for decades was pushed by rich corporations such as the Big Three automakers and the American oil companies. Now this system is breaking down, and the evidence is that more and more people cannot afford the money to use it. But there are few alternatives and they are difficult or dangerous to use, thanks to long-standing opposition to these alternatives from the auto and oil industries and by such people as former Republican congressman Tom DeLay, who fought against a light rail system for the city of Houston, Texas.

Other alternatives which are being opposed by vested corporate interests include small farms, which provide a viable option to factory-farm food which is becoming more expensive due to increasing energy costs, and is increasingly being recalled due to dangerous disease outbreaks. Urban self-sufficiency is under attack, as large agribusinesses persuade Federal and state departments of agriculture to oppose allowing people to keep backyard animals such as chickens, forcing them to rely on the factory food/supermarket distribution chain instead. NAFTA is yet another attack on our ability to take care of ourselves, yet another means of enabling large corporations to virtually enslave people in low-wage jobs without an adequate safety net of small businesses to which these people could turn.

I could go on and on with examples. The point is that what we need now in a President is someone who will protect us from the corporatocracy and who will not get in the way when local citizens try to disentangle themselves from this breaking system. I knew that Hillary Clinton and John McCain support the evil status quo, no matter how they try as symbols to portray themselves. The viciousness of their attacks on Obama made me think that perhaps he was someone who would actually upset the status quo and protect small Americans from big business.

But now he is reconsidering his earlier opposition to NAFTA; now he is willing to grant prosecution immunity to telecom companies who spied on Americans as part of the “War on Terror”; he has supported a Congressional bill that would give expanded wiretapping powers to the government; and he seems to be backing away from an immediate, swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq. In short, he is starting to look like the sort of candidate who would pose no danger to corporate interests.

If he's trying to get my vote, this is a dangerous strategy. I am black and I am an evangelical Christian; yet when I need an airline pilot, an optometrist or a surgeon, I care far less about his religion or skin color than I care about his qualifications. I'm not really thrilled about voting for Obama just because he's black. After all, Robert Mugabe is also black, as was Idi Amin. I'm not saying that Obama is as bad as these two; I'm just making a point. I can't understand the women who rabidly supported Hillary just because she was a woman (maybe the fact that I'm a guy has something to do with my lack of understanding.) Don't these women remember Jezebel? (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:35-37)

At this dangerous and dicey juncture in American history, I care far less about a candidate's value as a symbol than I care about whether the candidate understands what needs to be done, and what that candidate will or will not do. I have been fooled too many times by people who sold themselves to me as symbols; I'm tired of people trying to fool me yet again. In 2004, this was also the view of 83 million people who were eligible to vote, yet who chose not to because they were tired of being treated like Pavlov's dogs.

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