Category Archives: Peak oil
In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.
Many of us are struggling daily with anxiety and questions about “what to do now.” Here are some (abridged) ideas from Rob Hopkins, Transition Towns leader, who wrote recently on post carbon.org:
“It’s an oddly Western notion that compassion and anger are incompatible polarities. Consider the ‘wrathful deities’ central to Tibetan Buddhism – wild, horrific visions who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil. They often carry ritual implements which symbolize wisdom and compassion. On its own, anger is a volatile, unskillful energy. Combined with compassion and wisdom, however, it can be a clear and powerful force. I see it in the work of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, facing militarization and brutality with resolution, strength and compassion. Wrathful compassion is a powerful tool, and we need it now more than ever before.”
Hopkins also recommends that we “dream big and unleash imagination – beautifully and with humor, care, kindness, and compassion…Before and after President Trump, we fetch wood and carry water – build resilient communities, model new futures, create new enterprises, support each other, and build connections. We speak truth to power in calling out the absurdity of economic growth and increasing emissions on a finite and ailing planet. We reimagine and rebuild local economies, weave imagination and playfulness through all that we do, and work to meet our communities’ needs rather than those of big business. We resist racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. We invest differently, tell new stories, and celebrate together.”
Richard Heinberg, my go-to guru on the future of energy – and therefore technology and society – just posted an important article, “Exploring the Gap Between Business-as-Usual and Utter Doom,” on postcarbon.org. Reminding us that technological progress will soon be running up against Earth’s natural limits and noting that experts in various disciplines “have pointed out dire consequences if policy makers don’t implement course corrections like population stabilization and decline, rapid carbon emissions reductions, and habitat conservation on a vast scale,” Heinberg says that since “society has failed to correct course, dire and multivalent consequences should now be expected…We should anticipate a future that is profoundly challenging; one characterized by societal disintegration and ecosystem failure. In the very worst case, the extinction of most animal and plant species, including humans, is conceivable. And the downward slide will begin soon, if it hasn’t already done so.
The enormous gap between these outcomes – business-as-usual growth and progress on one hand, and limits-induced collapse on the other – has always constituted a disputed yet vital space. The goal of those who say we can’t maintain business-as-usual has never been to promote collapse, but rather to suggest things we could do to alter current behavior and trends so that a crash will be more moderate and survivable. In effect, they have been exploring the gap, looking for landing points on the way up or down the growth escalator; or seeking to close the gap, lessening the boom so that the bust isn’t as severe.
The warning signs that industrial civilization is rapidly approaching non-negotiable planetary limits are now flashing. Each of the last 16 months has established an all-time global temperature record. The oil industry appears to have entered a terminal crisis due to its requirement for ever-higher levels of investment in order to find, produce, refine, and deliver ever-lower-quality resources. Plant and animal species are disappearing at a thousand times the normal extinction rate. And global debt levels have soared since the 2008 financial crisis, setting the stage for an even greater financial convulsion whenever the next cyclical recession hits.
In our new book, Our Renewable Future, energy expert David Fridley and I examine the potential transition to a mostly wind-and-solar energy economy, concluding that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we’d be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy. Solar and wind technologies produce a significant surplus of energy over and above the amount invested in building and installing panels and turbines. Further, a lot of current energy usage can be electrified and made substantially more efficient. But key aspects of our current industrial system (including cement production, the chemicals industry, shipping, and aviation) will be difficult to maintain without cheap fossil-fuel inputs.
We won’t know exactly what a post-fossil industrial economy will look like until we address such questions as how much investment capital we’re willing and able to muster for this purpose, whether the economy can continue to function in the face of higher costs for industrial processes, and what shape the financial system will take when GDP growth is no longer possible. But if we don’t make the effort to push the transition forward quickly, there won’t be a post-fossil economy: society will shudder and falter until it lies in ruins.
Given that business-as-usual airports, shopping malls, skyscrapers, and container ships have a small likelihood of remaining useful or replicable much longer, we should be exploring structures that are sustainable – identifying simpler pathways for meeting basic human needs. Since maintaining and adapting current levels of transport will likely be an insurmountable challenge, we might start by aiming to shorten supply chains and localize economies.
Social innovation will probably play a more important role in this adaptive and transformative process than the invention of new machines. Yes, we need research and development in hundreds of technical areas, including ways of building and maintaining roads without asphalt or concrete; ways of producing essential pharmaceuticals without fossil fuels; and ways of building solar panels and wind turbines using a minimum of fuels and rare, exotic materials. But we already have lower-tech ways of solving a lot of problems. We know how to build wooden sailing ships; we know how to construct highly energy-efficient houses using local, natural materials; and we know how to grow food without fossil inputs and distribute it locally. Why don’t we use these methods more? Because they’re not as fast or convenient, they can’t operate at the same scale, they’re not as profitable, and they don’t fit with our vision of ‘progress.’
This is where social innovation comes in. In order for the transition to occur as smoothly as possible, we need to change our expectations about speed, convenience, affordability, and entitlement, and we need to share what we have rather than competing for increasingly scarce resources. We need to conserve, reuse, and repair. There’s no room for planned obsolescence or growing disparities between rich and poor. Cooperation will be our salvation. We’ll be making these behavioral and attitudinal shifts in the context of profound disruptions to the economy and the environment, so a big part of our gap-closing work will consist of building community resilience. That includes assessing needs and vulnerabilities, diversifying local food sources, and strengthening social cohesion and trust by encouraging participation in community organizations and cultural events.” For more on all this go to www.postcarbon.org and www.resilience.org.
“When it comes to forecasting the future,” Heinberg says, “count me among the pessimists. I’m convinced that the consequences of decades of obsession with maintaining business-as-usual will be catastrophic. And those consequences could be upon us sooner than even some of my fellow pessimists assume. Still, I’m not about to let this pessimism (or realism?) get in the way of doing what can still be done in households and communities to avert utter doom. And, while decades of failure in imagination and investment have foreclosed a host of options, I think there are still some feasible alternatives to business-as-usual that could provide significant improvements in most people’s daily experience of life. The gap is where the action is. All else – whether fantasy or nightmare – is a distraction.”
Note: as always, I’ve significantly shortened and slightly edited this article. For the full version, go to www.postcarbon.org.
From a 3-22-16 article by Laurie Mazur for Yes! magazine
Perhaps the best answer comes from Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University, in his aptly titled How Many People Can the Earth Support? It’s an exhaustively researched 532-page book, but his conclusion can be summarized in two words: It depends. That is, the planet’s capacity to sustain human life depends on how resources are used and distributed and on the values and social structures that shape the way we live.
Take food – the number of mouths we can feed depends on what’s for dinner. If all of the world’s people ate like carnivorous Americans – 1,763 pounds of grain each per year, some eaten directly, but most fed to livestock, the 2-billion-ton world grain harvest would support only 2.5 billion people (there are now 7.4 billion of us). But if we all ate like people in India – a mostly vegetarian diet of just 440 pounds of grain per person each year, the same harvest would support a population of 10 billion.
So, there’s some elasticity in the planet’s carrying capacity: better, fairer resource use can expand it. But, in the coming world of scarce fossil fuels, that capacity will contract. In recent decades, for example, food production has pretty much kept pace with skyrocketing population growth, partly thanks to mechanization and cheap oil. Reductions in the oil supply would curtail food production, at least in the short term.
Shortages of natural gas would also make it harder to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer, which has helped triple crop yields since 1950. Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba, told the New York Times that, without nitrogen fertilizer, there wouldn’t be enough food for 40% of the world’s current (much less future) population.
And that’s without considering climate change, which could dramatically reduce crop yields in many parts of the world at a time when global food production must increase by 70% to keep pace with current trajectories of growth and consumption.
So, how many people can the earth support? We don’t know. But, given the uncertain supply of fossil fuels and the grim realities of climate change, it makes sense to aim for the low end of the United Nations’ population projections – about 9 billion people, rather than 13 billion, by the end of this century.
The good news is that we know how to do this. A half-century of experience has shown that the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring access to voluntary family planning services, educating girls, and providing opportunities for women.
The situation in Syria has seemed so complicated and depressing that I’ve all but ignored it for the past couple of months. Now, however, I’m trying anew to understand what’s going on. I hope you’ll join me by reading this condensed version of an article just published on the Socialist Worker website, socialist worker.org:
How was Syria turned into hell on earth? by Ashley Smith, Socialist Worker, 3-1-16
The U.S. and Russia celebrated the success of last weekend’s “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, purportedly organized so the United Nations (UN) could deliver humanitarian relief to besieged cities like Aleppo. The agreement didn’t include the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which continued to exchange attacks with government troops and Russian forces. In the end, the brief respite in Russian air strikes actually allowed dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army, along with Iranian militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to consolidate control over sections of Syria they’d re-conquered.
Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have justified their savage war by claiming that they’re striking back against ISIS forces that control large parts of the east of the country. In reality, Assad and Putin have been waging a counterrevolutionary war against a resistance to the regime that first arose as part of the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy rebellions. In the process, Syria has been plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe. In a country of 22 million, some 470,000 people have been killed in the war so far, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, with the government and its foreign backers responsible for 95% of civilian deaths. More than 11 million people – half the population – have been driven from their homes. Seven million have fled to other parts of the country, another 4 million have crossed the borders to surrounding countries, and more than a million Syrians have journeyed across the Mediterranean hoping to find refuge in Europe.
Russia’s military intervention last fall has destabilized European politics because of the effects of the refugee crisis and enflamed conflicts between regional rivals in the Middle East, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Amid the spiraling crisis, the U.S. has been forced to shift its policy in Syria. It had been committed to an orderly transition that would get rid of Assad and incorporate handpicked figures from the rebel side into the existing state, which could then be bolstered in the war on ISIS. Now, however, the U.S. seems ready to capitulate to Russia’s demand that Assad remain in power as the joint war on ISIS continues. It’s failed to challenge the Russian intervention, plainly directed toward helping the Syrian regime regain the initiative against rebel forces, not ISIS. Unless something changes, this will be a geopolitical victory for Russian imperialism and Assad’s counterrevolution against what remains of the Syrian Spring.
There are two central causes to this immense international crisis.
The first is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which set in motion the imperialist and regional conflicts that have come to a head in Syria. The Bush administration’s war on Iraq was designed to secure America’s status as the world’s only superpower. The Bush team wanted to conduct rolling regime changes across the Middle East; install puppet rulers in Iraq, Syria and Iran; and – with the region securely under America’s thumb – manipulate energy supplies to control potential imperial rivals like China. The plan failed because both Sunni and Shia Arabs rose up against U.S. forces.
To salvage the failing occupation, the U.S. turned to the classic trick of all empires: divide and rule. It pitted Kurds against Arabs, and Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims. That triggered a devastating sectarian civil war, in which the U.S. backed the Shia-dominated Iraqi state – despite Shia ties to Washington’s enemies in in the Iranian government – against the Sunni resistance. In this context, ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged as a force among embattled Sunnis, launching unrelenting attacks on the Shia population and its religious sites.
Iraq, once one of the most economically advanced countries of the region, was already devastated by a decade of bombing and economic sanctions, and the civil war further unraveled the social fabric. The invasion and the sectarian war caused the deaths of well over a million people.
Iran, the real victor of the Iraq War, could now count the new Shia state in Iraq in its list of allies that included the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – the so-called “Shia Crescent” sweeping from Tehran in the East, through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. To contain Iran, the U.S. turned to its historic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both see Iran as their principal rival in the region. Saudi Arabia used sectarianism to unite Sunni states in the region against the “Shia Crescent,” prompting Iran and its axis to turn increasingly to Russia and China as superpower backers.
Obama adopted a new strategy of balancing between the Middle East’s main powers in the hopes of defusing conflicts and stabilizing the region. The goal was to maintain America’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, while developing a live-and-let-live arrangement with Iran. When the U.S. made a deal with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia and Israel recoiled in anger. The U.S. responded by inking enormous weapons deals with both countries, antagonizing Iran, which doubled down on its relationships with Russia and China.
All of these geopolitical antagonisms have erupted in Syria. Russia, China, and Iran have lined up with Assad, while the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have tried to use the resistance as a tool to get rid of the dictator, while preserving his state.
But these geopolitical conflicts wouldn’t have emerged in Syria in the same form without the second cause of the crisis in the Middle East: the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring.
In 2011, students, workers and peasants rose up across North Africa and the Middle East against dictatorship and repression, as well as neoliberalism and class inequality. The rebellions, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then spreading around the region, were fought for freedom, democracy and equality. The wave of struggle swept away entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but the rulers of other countries in the region, though shaken, managed to cling to power, and the Arab Spring lacked the political development to go further.
Three agents of counterrevolution intervened to preserve the existing order against the tide of revolt.
First, the imperialist powers turned against the uprisings. The U.S. opposed the Arab Spring revolts from the start, turning a blind eye when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened to brutally put down Bahrain’s revolt. Only under duress did Washington abandon its opposition and call for “orderly transitions” in Tunisia and Egypt. It tried to use a grassroots rebellion to get rid of “frenemy” Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but that turned into a disaster, with the country devolving into civil war. This led the U.S. to renounce regime change in favor of stabilizing the existing order.
The U.S. wasn’t the only imperialist power to back counterrevolution. Russia and China also have imperialist stakes in the region. Russia has a naval base in Syria, alliances with Iran and the Assad regime, and investments in both countries. China does, too – it’s eager to invest in the region’s oil economy and curry alliances with oil-producing states to ensure independent access to energy supplies. China and Russia have therefore backed Assad with money and armaments to suppress the Syrian revolution.
The second force of counterrevolution has been the region’s ruling classes and their state machines, which have used brute force to crush revolts and stoked sectarian conflict to divide them. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed various Islamist militias fighting against Assad in Syria, and Iran has supported the Houthi revolt against the Saudi-backed state in Yemen (Saudi Arabia’s responded with a bombing campaign that’s laying waste to the country).
The final counterrevolutionary force is ISIS, which brought together personnel from Saddam Hussein’s former regime with remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq to oppose the Shia-dominated state’s suppression of mainly nonviolent demonstrations in Sunni areas in 2012. In 2014, ISIS carried out a stunning offensive across Sunni areas in western and northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and other cities to proclaim its new caliphate. While not supporting ISIS’s reactionary politics and heavy-handed repression, most Iraqi Sunnis view it as a lesser evil compared to the brutal sectarian rule of the Shia state.
In Syria, ISIS was an embattled, unpopular and mainly foreign force. But once it seized Mosul in Iraq – and, with it, enormous amounts of money and arms – it was strong enough to carve out territory in Syria as well. It hasn’t sought to engage in direct war with the Assad government. It has a de facto non-aggression pact with the regime, going so far as to trade oil with it. ISIS’s military moves in Syria have mainly targeted anti-Assad rebels in areas liberated from the regime’s control, with the aim of expanding the caliphate.
Assad’s regime, like the others in the region, is an utterly corrupt capitalist dictatorship. In recent years, Bashar al-Assad has specialized in imposing neoliberal measures, privatizing sections of state capitalist industry for the benefit of cronies linked to his family. He commercialized agriculture, impoverishing peasants in the countryside, and dismantled the social safety net, pauperizing urban workers. As a result, as Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami report in their brilliant book Burning Country, “inequality grew, until 50% of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 5% of the population.”
While nominally secular, Assad’s regime is controlled by the country’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Like other tyrants in the region, he’s been adept at manipulating Syria’s sectarian divisions, repeatedly posturing as the defender of the Alawite and Christian minorities against Sunni Islamists, who he portrays as a terrorist threat. The regime has also manipulated the country’s principal national division between Arabs and Kurds. It allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), rebelling against the government in rival Turkey, to base itself in Syria until 1998. At the same time, it denied citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds living in Syria, banning their language and crushing an uprising in 2004. The government did allow the formation of the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, at times cutting deals with it and at others repressing it.
Many grievances, including the government’s inadequate response to agricultural drought caused by global warming, drove Syrians to revolt against Assad in 2011. Tens of thousands marched peacefully in cities throughout the country, especially in the Sunni provinces, chanting slogans against sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism, like “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” and for nonviolence: “Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
Assad attempted to crush the revolt, deploying his police and paramilitary thugs, the shabiha, to attack, beat, jail, and torture thousands of activists. To justify this brute display of repression, and with the hopes of maintaining some base of support, the government claimed that the demonstrators were agents of foreign powers and Islamist sectarians who would attack the Alawite and Christian minorities. To make this threat more credible, Assad released 1,500 Sunni Salafists from his jails. They organized as many as 12 sectarian groups that targeted religious minorities and their places of worship.
Attempting to keep the Kurds from joining the revolt, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 of them and withdrew his forces from the Kurdish north, effectively ceding control of the area to the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Because of the history of Arab prejudice against Kurds and its own peculiar form of nationalist politics, the PYD kept its distance from the predominantly Sunni Arab revolutionaries and attempted to carve out a Kurdish autonomous zone, Rojava, in Syria’s north.
Threatened by the state’s savage counterrevolution, Syrian revolutionaries had no choice but to take up arms in self-defense. They formed an estimated 1,000 militias, won over the Sunni rank and file within the Syrian military, and forged the Free Syrian Army, numbering over 150,000 fighters, which progressively liberated cities and territory from the crumbling regime.
Assad retreated to predominantly Alawite strongholds among Syria’s coastal cities. In the liberated areas, revolutionaries built a network of local councils called Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that organized the struggle and attempted to replace services previously provided by the government.
With his regime collapsing, Assad turned to rule-or-ruin tactics. His air force bombed cities and dropped chemical weapons on civilians, laying waste to whole sections of the country.
Amid this catastrophic situation, various Islamist forces emerged within the revolution. Some were accepted as part of it; some competed with the LCCs and the FSA from outside, but still fought the regime; and others, like the al Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front, sometimes came into conflict with the FSA while also clashing with the regime.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar funded the FSA. But they never supported the revolution. The U.S., for example, never provided the heavy weaponry FSA fighters needed to defend their cities against Assad’s air force. When Assad dropped chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus in 2013, pressure built on the U.S. to intervene against Assad. But Obama balked, instead agreeing to a Russian deal to save the regime, on the condition that it destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
The U.S. and its allies hoped to co-opt the revolution’s representatives organized, first, in the Syrian National Council, and later, in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The U.S. wanted to use these bodies to put pressure on Assad to step down, then broker a deal that incorporated sections of the rebel leadership it could rely on into the existing state.
Regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided limited support to some Islamist forces, prompting many militias to rebrand themselves Islamist in order to procure desperately needed funds and arms. At the same time, the desperation conditions in Syria drove many to find succor in religion to alleviate their suffering. Thus, sections of the revolution increasingly gravitated to Islamist forces. ISIS, the most extreme and counterrevolutionary expression of this dynamic, continued to concentrate its fire on anti-Assad opposition groups rather than government forces.
After ISIS established itself as a power in Syria following its victories in Iraq, Assad claimed to be waging a “war on terror” against it. But other rebel forces were the overwhelming targets of the slaughter carried out by government forces – later even more effectively with support from Russian warplanes.
Since the rise of ISIS – especially after the terrorist attacks it orchestrated last year in Paris and elsewhere – all the imperial and regional powers have intensified their intervention in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has built an international coalition forged around NATO, but encompassing 66 countries in total, with the stated aim of degrading and eventually destroying ISIS. But Obama’s new war has only deepened the crisis in Syria and the region. It’s blown up more of the country, exacerbated the refugee crisis, and increased recruitment to ISIS, and will undoubtedly trigger more blowback, as ISIS resorts to terrorist tactics in the region and internationally.
The U.S. wants to avoid a protracted ground war against ISIS. Instead, Washington aims to provide air support for proxy forces on the ground overseen by military advisers and Special Forces. In Iraq, the Pentagon hopes to bolster the existing Iraqi government by getting it to incorporate the Sunni elite, integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi Army, and turn its united forces against ISIS. In Syria, the U.S. has escalated its air strikes against ISIS targets, but has found it difficult to secure proxy forces on the ground. A U.S. training program designed to field a fighting force against ISIS failed, largely because Syrians who might have taken part wanted to fight to overthrow the regime rather than being U.S. proxies against ISIS. The program, which recruited and graduated a total of 60 people, was wrapped up last year.
The U.S. has also struck a de facto cooperation pact with Assad in order to fight ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration established backchannel contacts with Assad to ensure that it could use Syrian airspace for its bombing runs. It also forged an alliance with the PYD and YPG. When the U.S. finally did expand its air strikes into Syria, its warplanes struck not only ISIS, but also the al-Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis tolerate because it defends them from the regime. Syrian Sunnis perceive this de facto alliance between the U.S. and the regime as a betrayal of the revolution, and, out of despair, some are joining ISIS for the same reason that Iraqi Sunnis see it as a “lesser evil” – however brutal and reactionary, it’s an alternative to violence and death at the hands of the state.
Late last year, Russia took advantage of America’s weakened position to intervene directly in Syria in support of the regime. The Russian air force backs up ground operations by government troops, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah, to retake the country’s liberated areas. Proclaiming that it was targeting ISIS, Russia’s directed 80% of its strikes against rebel forces.
Russia hopes to force the U.S. to accept Assad’s regime as an ally in the grand coalition against ISIS. Just like the U.S., Russia’s air force has supported the PYD, YPG and its broader umbrella fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nominally to fight ISIS. But the Kurdish forces have also attacked rebel fighters and imposed their rule on Arab areas in an effort to enlarge the Kurdish autonomous zone. Tragically, this has broken the potential unity between the Kurdish struggle and the Syrian revolution. The PYD’s calculation is that it can win liberation for Syrian Kurds with this strategy. More likely, the imperial powers will merely use and betray the PYD, as they’ve done in other countries, like Iraq.
Russia’s atrocities could eventually rival those that the U.S. committed in Iraq. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 679 civilians killed in January alone – 94 of them children and 73 women – as a result of Russian air strikes.
The UN Commission of Inquiry has accused the regime of the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure” and using starvation as a weapon of war. Doctors Without Borders reports that Russia and the regime have attacked its 67 hospitals with 94 air strikes, completely destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 of its staff.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has enflamed America’s allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, which launched a campaign of state terror against Kurds and the PKK within its borders, has objected to Russia’s intervention, as well as American support for the PYD. It classifies the PYD in Syria as a terrorist group and views the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone along its border with Syria as a national security threat. Earlier this year, Turkey shot down a Russian jet in contested territory along its border with Syria. It’s also carrying out cross-border artillery and air strikes on PYD and YPG positions. Turkey’s President Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. choose between supporting Turkey and supporting the PYD.
Saudi Arabia is also protesting Russia’s intervention and Washington’s retreat from its insistence that Assad must go, which it views as another American concession to Iran. That’s what is behind threats to send Saudi weaponry to Turkey and launch a ground invasion of Syria with Saudi forces. Justified as a war against ISIS, it’s really a threat to stop the advance of Assad and his allies.
Russia’s air war has driven untold numbers out of besieged cities like Aleppo, with many desperate to escape to Europe.
Outfoxed by Russian imperialism, worried about the growing consequences of the flood of refugees to Europe, and scrambling to maintain some leverage in the region, the U.S. government seems to be shifting its Syrian strategy in the run-up to the so-called peace negotiations set for Geneva, Switzerland, on March 7th. It’s accepted Assad’s participation in the process in order to continue with its priority of fighting ISIS, and is apparently willing to postpone a transition to a post-Assad regime until an uncertain date in the future. Secretary of State John Kerry, who long ago abandoned Assad’s removal as a precondition for any political settlement, now states that the U.S. and Russian views on Syria “are fundamentally very similar,” and that the replacement of Assad would come at the end of a long “transition government.” Such a deal will never be accepted by the majority of Syrian Sunnis, who rightly look upon Assad as a mass murderer. To frighten the various sides into accepting what’s on the table, however, Kerry’s floated a plan to partition the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Alawite states. This would not only trigger mass ethnic cleansing in Syria, but would destabilize the entire region. Turkey, for instance, would certainly oppose any plan that set up a new Kurdish state led by the PYD, since that would encourage Turkish Kurds to secede and join it.
The imperialist and regional powers offer no solution to the mess that their interventions and counterrevolution have caused. They’re all committed to preserving the rotten system that the people of the Middle East and North Africa revolted against in 2011.
The only lasting solution is to get all of the foreign powers out of Syria and Iraq, especially the U.S., but also Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The borders of all the countries of the region, of Europe and beyond should be opened to the fleeing victims of the slaughter. Finally, the struggle from below for democracy and freedom, the national self-determination of oppressed people like the Palestinian and Kurds, and the self-emancipation of the region’s laboring masses should be allowed to recover. That will require a radical left alternative, rooted in working-class organization, which stands for unity against national, sectarian, and ethnic prejudices and divisions.