Exxon Mobil under investigation on lying to the public and investors about climate change

In September, Climate Change News reported: At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. “Present thinking,” he wrote in the 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. [Continue reading…]

In October, the Los Angeles Times reported: Back in 1990, as the debate over climate change was heating up, a dissident shareholder petitioned the board of Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil companies, imploring it to develop a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its production plants and facilities.

The board’s response: Exxon had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company’s “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Yet in the far northern regions of Canada’s Arctic frontier, researchers and engineers at Exxon and Imperial Oil were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet.

Ken Croasdale, senior ice researcher for Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, was leading a Calgary-based team of researchers and engineers that was trying to determine how global warming could affect Exxon’s Arctic operations and its bottom line. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times now reports: The New York attorney general has begun a sweeping investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how those risks might hurt the oil business.

According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.

The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.

The sources said the scrutiny would include a period of at least a decade when Exxon Mobil funded outside groups that sought to undermine climate science, even as its in-house scientists were outlining the potential consequences — and uncertainties — to company executives. [Continue reading…]


Exxon has known about climate change for decades while spending millions to promote climate denial

Scientific American reports: Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation — an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.

Experts, however, aren’t terribly surprised. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science,” says Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University. But as it turns out, Exxon didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research.

In their eight-month-long investigation, reporters at InsideClimate News interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists and federal officials and analyzed hundreds of pages of internal documents. They found that the company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s management committee. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees — a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” In other words, Exxon needed to act. [Continue reading…]


Exxon sowed doubt about climate science for decades by stressing uncertainty

InsideClimate News reports: As he wrapped up nine years as the federal government’s chief scientist for global warming research, Michael MacCracken lashed out at ExxonMobil for opposing the advance of climate science.

His own great-grandfather, he told the Exxon board, had been John D. Rockefeller’s legal counsel a century earlier. “What I rather imagine he would say is that you are on the wrong side of history, and you need to find a way to change your position,” he wrote.

Addressed to chairman Lee Raymond on the letterhead of the United States Global Change Research Program, his September 2002 letter was not just forceful, but unusually personal.

No wonder: in the opening days of the oil-friendly Bush-Cheney administration, Exxon’s chief lobbyist had written the new head of the White House environmental council demanding that MacCracken be fired for “political and scientific bias.”

Exxon was also attacking other officials in the U.S. government and at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), MacCracken wrote, interfering with their work behind the scenes and distorting it in public.

Exxon wanted scientists who disputed the mainstream science on climate change to oversee Washington’s work with the IPCC, the authoritative body that defines the scientific consensus on global warming, documents written by an Exxon lobbyist and one of its scientists show. The company persuaded the White House to block the reappointment of the IPCC chairman, a World Bank scientist. Exxon’s top climate researcher, Brian Flannery, was pushing the White House for a wholesale revision of federal climate science. The company wanted a new strategy to focus on the uncertainties. [Continue reading…]


Why solving climate change will be like mobilizing for war

Venkatesh Rao writes: If scientists are right, and there is no reason to think they aren’t, averting climate change will require such large-scale, rapid action, that no single energy technology, new or emerging, could be the solution. Neither could any single non-energy technology, such as video-conferencing as a substitute for travel, solve the problem on its own.

There is always a possibility that a single cheap and effective solution will emerge, rendering expensive interventions moot, but few climate experts are willing to trust the future to that unlikely prospect.

The challenge therefore, is one of rapid, concerted deployment of a portfolio of emerging and mature energy and non-energy technologies. This means accepting a certain level of attendant risks. The Volkwagen emissions scandal illustrates these risks well: Aggressive forcing, through EU policy instruments, of the adoption of diesel engines (which are better suited to reducing emissions) created incentives that led to sophisticated gaming.

The Volkswagen scandal won’t be the last or the worst. Unlike many of the other objections put forth by climate skeptics, the objection that managing moral hazards at a planetary scale might prove impossible is a solid one.

Assuming we do manage to significantly accelerate deployment without cancerous levels of corporatist corruption, if emissions targets still remain out of reach, some growth must be temporarily sacrificed. At the same time, investment across the portfolio of energy technologies will need to continue.

In other words, we are contemplating the sorts of austerities associated with wartime economies. For ordinary Americans, austerities might include an end to expansive suburban lifestyles and budget air travel, and an accelerated return to high-density urban living and train travel. For businesses, this might mean rethinking entire supply chains, as high-emissions sectors become unviable under new emissions regimes.

What [Bill] Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude — wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear — only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.

None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. [Continue reading…]


Deforestation is altering the world’s climate

The New York Times reports: Like California, much of Brazil is gripped by one of the worst droughts in its history. Huge reservoirs are bone dry and water has been rationed in São Paulo, a megacity of 20 million people; in Rio; and in many other places.

Drought is usually thought of as a natural disaster beyond human control. But as researchers peer deeper into the Earth’s changing bioclimate — the vastly complex global interplay between living organisms and climatic forces — they are better appreciating the crucial role that deforestation plays.

Cutting down forests releases stored carbon dioxide, which traps heat and contributes to atmospheric warming. But forests also affect climate in other ways, by absorbing more solar energy than grasslands, for example, or releasing vast amounts of water vapor. Many experts believe that deforestation is taking place on such a large scale, especially in South America, that it has already significantly altered the world’s climate — even though its dynamics are not well understood.

“A lot of people are scrambling to make observations in the Amazon this year, with the expected big El Niño coming,” said Abigail L. S. Swann, an eco-climatologist at the University of Washington. “It’s expected to drive significant drought over the Amazon, which will change how much water trees have available.”

Humans have long settled in places where there is adequate and predictable precipitation, and large forests play a crucial role in generating dependable amounts of rainfall. Trees take up moisture from the soil and transpire it, lifting it into the atmosphere. A fully grown tree releases 1,000 liters of water vapor a day into the atmosphere: The entire Amazon rain forest sends up 20 billion tons a day. [Continue reading…]


Humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things

Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’ [Continue reading…]


Ad industry may gripe about adblockers, but they broke the contract – not us

By Andrew McStay, Bangor University

The latest version of Apple’s operating system for phones and tablets, iOS9, allows the installation of adblocking software that removes advertising, analytics and tracking within Apple’s Safari browser. While Apple’s smartphone market share is only around 14% worldwide, this has prompted another outpouring from the mobile and web advertising industry on the effects of adblockers, and discussion as to whether a “free” web can exist without adverts.

It’s not a straightforward question: advertising executives and publishers complain that ads fund “free” content and adblockers break this contract. Defenders of adblocking point out that the techniques used to serve ads are underhand and that the ads themselves are intrusive. Who is right?

[Read more…]


After eight futile years, Shell has given up drilling for oil in the Arctic

Quartz reports: After eight years and $7 billion of work, including some humiliating seafaring blunders and the black eye of the environmental spotlight, Shell has abandoned a high-stakes effort to find oil in the Arctic sea near Alaska.

The oil giant appears to have decided that, while global warming is melting a lot of northern ice, thus potentially opening up huge oil reserves, the Arctic is still an extraordinarily tough, risky, and expensive place to work.

The drilling effort in the Chukchi Sea may mark a close to an Arctic oil fever ignited in 2008, when the US Geological Survey issued a report saying that some 13% of the world’s remaining oil lay in the north — perhaps as much as 90 billion barrels of oil. Given that a 1-billion-barrel field is known as a supergiant, and that oil prices at the time were closing in on $100 a barrel, oil companies drooled over the prospects. Climate change even seemed to be co-operating, making the northern sea routes passable to drilling vessels and supply ships. [Continue reading…]


How do we get people to care about the environment? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

Brooke Jarvis writes: [Chris] Jordan is a photographer who once referred to himself, while joking with Stephen Colbert, as a paparazzo of garbage. Before going to [the Pacific atoll] Midway, he spent years trying to visually represent the baffling scale on which we produce and scrap the materials of consumer society. He explored ports and scrap yards, photographing immense, looming walls of crushed cars and oil drums, shipping containers and pallets, and later began creating digital composites to illustrate statistics too vast for the human brain to compute: a forest made from the cigarette butts thrown out every 15 seconds in the United States; a swirl of hundreds of thousands of cell phones, the discards of a single American day.

He’d created other series in the past — nature scenes, studies of alleys and puddles and urban trees bathed in the glow of neon signs — but nothing felt relevant to contemporary culture until he began trying to make the grand scale of human waste visible. It was his way of hunting the perpetual, elusive quarry familiar to environmentalists: a message that can get people to care.

But over time this work began to feel cold and conceptual, almost numbing. Jordan began to doubt that it could accomplish the breakthrough he wanted. So he started searching for something different: a way to help people make a powerful emotional connection to a broken world.

That’s when he heard about what happens to many Laysan albatrosses on the verge of flight. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis’s reception in the U.S. from the left and the right

Gerard O’Connell writes: Pope Francis comes to embrace all the people of the United States and is likely to encourage them to renew their devotion to family life and their understanding of the demands of solidarity as well as the responsible use of their global power.

As we have read in his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and as he spelled out clearly in the encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” this Jesuit pope from Argentina is calling Christians to a new simplicity of life and a depth of spirit that replaces materialism, hyper-individualism and the pursuit of constant pleasure with an integrity that knows what it is to sacrifice, to live in compassion and solidarity, to work for the common good, to care for creation, to show mercy and to attempt to pattern our lives after Jesus himself. His radical message is clear, simple and firmly rooted in the Gospels, which he never tires of encouraging people to read. [Continue reading…]

Jesus said to Rush Limbaugh, “Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when Rush heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. (Matthew 19)

Jesus wouldn’t have been welcome on Fox News. Indeed, as an undocumented Palestinian, he wouldn’t have even made it through U.S. Immigration.


Krushnic and King: The corporate nuclear complex

They’ve run the most profitable companies in history and, to put it bluntly, they are destroying the planet.  In the past, given an American obsession with terrorists, I’ve called them “terrarists.”  I’m referring, of course, to the CEOs of the Big Energy companies, who in these years have strained to find new ways to exploit every imaginable reservoir of fossil fuels on the planet and put them into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions.  One thing is certain: just as the top executives running tobacco companies, the lead industry, and asbestos outfits once did, they know what their drive for mega-profits means for the rest of us — check out the fire season in western North America this year — and our children and grandchildren.  If you think the world is experiencing major refugee flows right now, just wait until the droughts grow more extreme and the flooding of coastal areas increases.

As I wrote back in 2013:

“With all three industries, the negative results conveniently arrived years, sometimes decades, after exposure and so were hard to connect to it.  Each of these industries knew that the relationship existed.  Each used that time-disconnect as protection.  One difference: if you were a tobacco, lead, or asbestos exec, you might be able to ensure that your children and grandchildren weren’t exposed to your product.  In the long run, that’s not a choice when it comes to fossil fuels and CO2, as we all live on the same planet (though it’s also true that the well-off in the temperate zones are unlikely to be the first to suffer).”

Remarkably enough, as Richard Krushnic and Jonathan King make clear today, the profits pursued by a second set of CEOs are similarly linked in the most intimate ways to the potential destruction of the planet (at least as a habitable environment for humanity and many other species) and the potential deaths of tens of millions of people.  These are the executives who run the companies that develop, maintain, and modernize our nuclear arsenal and, as with the energy companies, use their lobbyists and their cash to push constantly in Washington for more of the same.  Someday, looking back, historians (if they still exist) will undoubtedly consider the activities of both groups as examples of the ultimate in criminality. Tom Engelhardt

Privatizing the apocalypse
How nuclear weapons companies commandeer your tax dollars
By Richard Krushnic and Jonathan Alan King

Imagine for a moment a genuine absurdity: somewhere in the United States, the highly profitable operations of a set of corporations were based on the possibility that sooner or later your neighborhood would be destroyed and you and all your neighbors annihilated.  And not just you and your neighbors, but others and their neighbors across the planet. What would we think of such companies, of such a project, of the mega-profits made off it?

In fact, such companies do exist. They service the American nuclear weapons industry and the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of potentially world-destroying weaponry.  They make massive profits doing so, live comfortable lives in our neighborhoods, and play an active role in Washington politics.  Most Americans know little or nothing about their activities and the media seldom bother to report on them or their profits, even though the work they do is in the service of an apocalyptic future almost beyond imagining.

[Read more…]


Nature can’t pay its own way – so let’s take the market out of conservation

By Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

For years, scientists and environmentalists have debated the best ways to conserve and protect natural resources from pollution and over-exploitation.

In the late 19th century, conservation advocates with the help of President Roosevelt succeeded in making Yellowstone the first US national park. Yellowstone’s status sent a strong message against unregulated commercial extraction and the model has since been replicated worldwide. However, the strict exclusionary nature of national parks was extremely burdensome for local and indigenous peoples who remained reliant on natural resources within protected areas.

The policy of “fortress conservation” was intended to give way in the late 20th century to a host of more sustainable alternatives, announced at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Conservation and development would be better integrated, and rural poverty addressed by bringing the poor into a global marketplace, while simultaneously delivering the market deep into the rainforests.

Since Rio, market-based conservation has gained a lot of traction, and almost all forms of nature have been commodified. Packaged into sleek financialised terminology such as carbon credits, ecosystem services or species banking, the market has become such a supposed panacea for conservation that selling nature has become, for many, the only method of conserving it.

[Read more…]


Edelman ends work with coal producers and climate change deniers

The Guardian reports: The world’s biggest public relations company has decided it will no longer work with coal producers and climate change deniers.

Edelman said it believes such clients pose a threat to the company’s legitimacy and its bottom line.

The exclusion of coal and climate denial, as well as fake front groups that oppose action on global warming, is outlined in internal communications obtained by the Guardian and confirmed by company executives. It signals an important shift in a company that reported earnings of $833m (£540m) and has played a critical role in shaping public opinion in the US and globally about climate change.

The new approach follows a two-year review of Edelman’s operations aimed at protecting what the company calls its “licence to lead”, following negative publicity about its work on behalf of the oil lobby and pipeline companies.

The conclusion was that coal producers and climate denial, as well as tactics such as greenwashing, were high-risk. [Continue reading…]


Living without money: What I learned

Mark Boyle writes: With little idea of what I was to expect, or how I was to go about it, seven years ago I began living without money. Originally intended as a one-year experiment in ecological living, I wanted to explore how it felt as a human being to live without the trappings and security that money had long-since afforded me. While terrifying and tough to begin with, by the end of the first year I somehow found myself more content, healthier and at peace than I had ever been. And although three years later I made a difficult decision to re-enter the monetary world – to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives – I took from it many lessons that have changed my life forever.

For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me, something I had previously only intellectualised. It is not until you become physically aware of how your own health is entirely reliant on the health of the great web of life, that ideas such as deep ecology absorb themselves into your arteries, sinews and bones.

If the air that filled my lungs became polluted, if the nutrients in the soil that produced my food became depleted, or if the spring water which made up 60% of my body became poisoned, my own health would suffer accordingly. This seems like common sense, but you wouldn’t think so by observing the way we treat the natural world today. Over time, even the boundaries of what I considered to be “I” became less and less clear. [Continue reading…]


Evidence-based medicine lacks solid supporting evidence

Tom Siegfried writes: For millennia, medicine was more art than science.

From at least the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece, physicians were taught to use their intuition, based on their experience.

“For it is by the same symptoms in all cases that you will know the diseases,” he wrote. “He who would make accurate forecasts as to those who will recover, and those who will die … must understand all the symptoms thoroughly.”

In other words, doctors drew general conclusions from experience to forecast the course of disease in particular patients.

But Hippocratic medicine also incorporated “scientific” theory — the idea that four “humors” (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) controlled the body’s health. Excess or deficiency of any of the humors made you sick, so treating patients consisted of trying to put the humors back in balance. Bloodletting, used for centuries to treat everything from fevers to seizures, serves as an example of theory-based medicine in action.

Nowadays medical practice is supposedly (more) scientific. But actually, medical theory seems to have taken a backseat to the lessons-from-experience approach. Today’s catch phrase is “evidence-based medicine,” and that “evidence” typically takes the form of results from clinical trials, in which potential treatments are tested on large groups of people. It’s basically just a more systematic approach to Hippocrates’ advice that doctors base diagnosis, treatments and prognosis on experience with previous patients. But instead of doctors applying their own personal clinical experience, they rely on generalizing the results of large trials to their particular patients.

You should call this approach the “Risk Generalization-Particularization” model of medical prediction, Jonathan Fuller and Luis Flores write in a paper to be published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. (It’s OK to call it ‘Risk GP’ for short, they say.) “Risk GP” they note, is “the model that many practitioners implicitly rely upon when making evidence-based decisions.”

Risk GP as a model for making medical judgments is the outgrowth of demands for evidence-based medicine, write Fuller, on the medicine faculty at the University of Toronto in Canada, and Flores, a philosopher at King’s College London in England. It “advocates applying the results of population studies over mechanistic reasoning … in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy.” Evidence-based medicine has set a new standard for clinical reasoning, Fuller and Flores declare; it “has become dominant in medical research and education, accepted by leading medical schools and all of the major medical journals.”

So it seems like a good idea to ask whether the “evidence” actually justifies this evidence-based approach. In fact, it doesn’t. [Continue reading…]


Guns, germs, and steal

We have all been raised to believe that civilization is, in large part, sustained by law and order. Without complex social institutions and some form of governance, we would be at the mercy of the law of the jungle — so the argument goes.

But there is a basic flaw in this Hobbesian view of a collective human need to tame the savagery in our nature.

For human beings to be vulnerable to the selfish drives of those around them, they generally need to possess things that are worth stealing. For things to be worth stealing, they must have durable value. People who own nothing, have little need to worry about thieves.

While Jared Diamond has argued that civilization arose in regions where agrarian societies could accumulate food surpluses, new research suggests that the value of cereal crops did not derive simply from the fact that the could be stored, but rather from the fact that having been stored they could subsequently be stolen or confiscated.

Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, and Luigi Pascali write: In a recent paper (Mayshar et al. 2015), we contend that fiscal capacity and viable state institutions are conditioned to a major extent by geography. Thus, like Diamond, we argue that geography matters a great deal. But in contrast to Diamond, and against conventional opinion, we contend that it is not high farming productivity and the availability of food surplus that accounts for the economic success of Eurasia.

  • We propose an alternative mechanism by which environmental factors imply the appropriability of crops and thereby the emergence of complex social institutions.

To understand why surplus is neither necessary nor sufficient for the emergence of hierarchy, consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

This simple scenario shows that surplus isn’t a precondition for taxation. It also illustrates our alternative theory that the transition to agriculture enabled hierarchy to emerge only where the cultivated crops were vulnerable to appropriation.

  • In particular, we contend that the Neolithic emergence of fiscal capacity and hierarchy was conditioned on the cultivation of appropriable cereals as the staple crops, in contrast to less appropriable staples such as roots and tubers.

According to this theory, complex hierarchy did not emerge among hunter-gatherers because hunter-gatherers essentially live from hand-to-mouth, with little that can be expropriated from them to feed a would-be elite. [Continue reading…]


How the super-rich threaten American democracy

Markus Feldenkirchen writes: The two candidates currently attracting the most attention in the American presidential primaries seem to be polar opposites. First, there’s self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders, who can pack entire arenas with as many as 20,000 supporters. And then there’s a man who claims to possess $10 billion, Donald Trump, who is leading in the broad field of Republicans. The two do, however, have one thing in common: They reject the US campaign finance system. One out of conviction; the other because he has the resources to finance his own campaign.

One, Bernie Sanders, takes pride in stating that he doesn’t want rich people’s money. Some 400,000 largely middle class Americans have contributed to his campaign so far, donating $31.20 on average. The other, Donald Trump, proudly announced recently that he had rejected a $5 million donation from a hedge fund manager. And that he is prepared to pump $1 billion of his own wealth into the campaign. One of Trump’s most popular arguments so far is that his rival Jeb Bush has managed to raise over $150 million. “Jeb Bush is a puppet to his donors,” Trump says disparagingly. Sooner or later, he argues, they will call in their favors. “I don’t owe anyone any favors.” It’s a message that is proving popular with potential voters. But is it really any more democratic that a billionaire can buy his own election instead of allowing himself to be bought by others?

Two fatal developments are converging during this election in the United States. The decoupling of the super-rich from the rest of society is an accelerating trend in recent years. And also the consequences of a series of rulings by the Supreme Court in 2010 that enable politicians and support groups to accept unlimited donations. This confluence of events is undermining the development of the world’s proudest democracy. [Continue reading…]


The web has become a hall of mirrors, filled only with reflections of our data

By mc schraefel @mcphoo, University of Southampton

The “digital assistant” is proliferating, able to combine intelligent natural language processing, voice-operated control over a smartphone’s functions and access to web services. It can set calendar appointments, launch apps, and run requests. But if that sounds very clever – a computerised talking assistant, like HAL9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey – it’s mostly just running search engine queries and processing the results.

Facebook has now joined Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon with the launch of its digital assistant M, part of its Messaging smartphone app. It’s special sauce is that M is powered not just by algorithms but by data serfs: human Facebook employees who are there to ensure that every request that it cannot parse is still fulfilled, and in doing so training M by example. That training works because every interaction with M is recorded – that’s the point, according to David Marcus, Facebook’s vice-president of messaging:

We start capturing all of your intent for the things you want to do. Intent often leads to buying something, or to a transaction, and that’s an opportunity for us to [make money] over time.

Facebook, through M, will capture and facilitate that “intent to buy” and take its cut directly from the subsequent purchase rather than as an ad middleman. It does this by leveraging messaging, which was turned into a separate app of its own so that Facebook could integrate PayPal-style peer-to-peer payments between users. This means Facebook has a log not only of your conversations but also your financial dealings. In an interview with Fortune magazine at the time, Facebook product manager, Steve Davies, said:

People talk about money all the time in Messenger but end up going somewhere else to do the transaction. With this, people can finish the conversation the same place started it.

In a somewhat creepy way, by reading your chats and knowing that you’re “talking about money all the time” – what you’re talking about buying – Facebook can build up a pretty compelling profile of interests and potential purchases. If M can capture our intent it will not be by tracking what sites we visit and targeting relevant ads, as per advert brokers such as Google and Doubleclick. Nor by targeting ads based on the links we share, as Twitter does. Instead it simply reads our messages.

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