Recent high profile conservation articles blame the loss of biodiversity on agriculture (e.g.: Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers, Maxwell et al. Nature 2016) but agriculture depends on biodiversity so something in the conservationist strategy has gone seriously wrong. The answer lies in what the conservation community has come to understand by the term ‘biodiversity’. To the majority of conservationists, the word refers to a relatively small number of the more charismatic species or groups, principally belonging to the vertebrates and higher plants. I call this ‘conservation biodiversity’. In contrast, the many millions of species that constitute the biodiversity that is the basic resource for all primary production, worldwide, I call ‘production biodiversity’. This is better known as the species in the complex soil and oceanic food chains that generate crops and fisheries. It is also the resource for other less familiar industries including pharmaceutical bioprospecting, engineering biomimetics and biological pest control (e.g.: Chapter 10, New Products and Industries from Biodiversity, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).
This confusion might be somewhat resolved by re-defining biodiversity:
Biodiversity is the genetic, biochemical, metabolic, behavioural and population diversity of all species on Earth. It is the basic resource for all primary and many secondary industries worldwide and is therefore at the core of the global economy and at the heart of all human societies. While biodiversity varies geographically and may change rapidly over small distances, it is found everywhere and is economically important to everyone.
Most of the estimated 30 million species on Earth are either microbial or invertebrate and generate the complex food webs and metabolic activities that support agriculture and forestry on land, and fisheries in freshwater and marine environments. Knowledge of the biology, ecology and utility of these species is being rapidly generated but a vast amount awaits discovery, including the total number of species and the biological wealth they represent.
Study of the economic values of the invertebrates is a work in progress but the importance of earthworms in agriculture were highlighted by Charles Darwin 150 years ago. More recently, the economic activities of insect pollinators have been closely monitored and valued showing that an enormous variety of bees, both native and introduced, wasps, flies and other insects generate agricultural incomes in the billions of dollars globally, for example: Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human beings (Potts et al., Nature 2016) and Global biodiversity report warns pollinators are under threat (Gilbert, Nature 2016).
Other insects are bred on an industrial scale for the biological control of pests through their predatory and parasitic behaviour. Other values are more elusive to the general public, for example, many people question the value of mosquitos but their larvae are intrinsic to the food webs on which freshwater fish, and hence human fishermen depend.
The economic values of microorganisms are probably best known through the activities of soil microbes as soil bacteria and fungi regulate the structure and chemistry of soils, interacting with their abiotic components to generate the nutrients upon which all plant growth, including crops, grazing forage, plantations and native vegetation all depend. The number of species involved is unknown although it is expected to exceed the number of all other species combined. While the exploration of microbes of the marine environments is still in its infancy, organisms are being discovered that do not fit any current biological classifications emphasising how little it known of this vast frontier.
Conservation research and practice, as carried out by zoos, universities, NGOs and government departments, is largely focused on a relatively small number of species, mostly vertebrates and flowering plants. Often charismatic, these species are those best known to science and the public. By contrast, the majority of microbes and invertebrates are less known and under-appreciated for their scientific, economic and aesthetic values. Little is known about whether or not any of them are endangered by industrial methods in agricultural and fisheries, global warming, pollution or other threats.
The situation is encapsulated by Professor Tom Curtis in the July 2006 edition of Nature Reviews Microbiology who wrote:
“I make no apologies for putting microorganisms on a pedestal above all other living things, for if the last blue whale choked to death on the last panda, it would be disastrous but not the end of the world. But if we accidentally poisoned the last two species of ammonia-oxidisers, that would be another matter. It could be happening now and we wouldn’t even know…”
It makes no sense to antagonise or demonise the most important non-conservation land-holders across the world. One rather obvious solution to this tragic situation is to put conservationists and farmers in the same room. Fortunately, this has already been achieved on a small scale and has resulted in landscapes transformed into mosaics of agricultural and conservation tenures, effectively mosaics of production biodiversity and conservation biodiversity. This recognises and enhances the mutual benefits of the two biodiversity categories. Mostly absent from those rooms have been representatives from the major agriculture industries and their government counterparts. If these parties who currently see themselves as enemies because of the current understanding of the word ’biodiversity’ do not get together soon, then George Monbiot’s fear that we have already passed ‘peak’ harvests may come true.
Donald Trump: The Peak Oil President?
This article was originally published in
Post Carbon Institute, 11 January 2017
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
The frequency of Internet searches for the term “peak oil” has waned dramatically in recent years; now even the number of articles announcing the “death” of peak oil has dwindled, so universal is the assumption that the concept is completely debunked. Why bother beating a dead horse? With supreme irony, it could be within the next few years when the maximum-ever rate of world oil production is actually achieved, to be followed by terminal decline. It’s too early to make a definitive claim, but the evidence is starting to stack up. And the implications are mind-boggling.
Last year’s average daily oil production rate will probably end up (when authoritative statistics are published) being about the same as 2015’s—roughly 80 million barrels per day, if we count crude oil only and exclude biofuels and natural gas liquids. And 2017’s output may well be down, due to the industry’s cutbacks on investment in new projects.
Figure 1. Global Crude Oil (and Lease Condensate) Production, 2006-2016. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Yet there are good reasons to be cautious in claiming a peak. Famously, several analysts have already called the peak too early—in 2005, 2008, and 2010. It was an understandable error. World production of conventional oil was indeed stalling during that time; what the too-early peakists missed was that a combination of extremely high oil prices, loose regulation, and stupid-easy financing would lead to increasing rates of extraction of marginal resources like tar sands and tight oil, starting in 2011. Further, the precise date of the global peak actually has relatively little significance, as the economic impacts of oil depletion will be spread over many years before and after that date. Indeed, those impacts have been visible for at least the past decade and arguably much longer, taking the forms of booming and crashing oil prices; economic turmoil within the oil industry; flattening demand, particularly in highly developed nations; and military conflicts in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the term “peak oil” implies a point in time, and plenty of people will disregard the very notion of a peak until it can be demonstrated in the rear-view mirror of oil production statistics.
In the 2003 edition of my book The Party’s Over, I endorsed the forecast of petroleum geologist Jean Laherrère for a peak of conventional world oil production in 2010, and of unconventional oil (and therefore total world oil) in 2015. Current statistics suggest that Laherrère probably made the best of the various peak-oil forecasts. Laherrère has continued to update his analysis in the intervening years, and on the basis of current data believes world oil production is peaking essentially now.
There was a lot that just about all peakists got wrong. Most of us subscribed to a simplistic notion of energy economics in which, as depletion bit harder, oil prices would just go up and up (I made no attempt to forecast oil prices in The Party’s Over). Well, prices did shoot higher for a while, and that’s when the peak oil concept gained its widest exposure. But high prices killed demand and also incentivized much higher rates of production of very-high-cost oil. The eventual result was the situation we see now, where tepid demand confronts a supply glut resulting from drillers spending other people’s speculative money on unprofitable tight oil projects—and an industry therefore operating in crisis mode. Recently, we’ve seen more sophisticated energy-economy analysis from Gail Tverberg and others, explaining why petroleum depletion can result in low oil prices and a temporary supply glut, as consumers’ ability to afford oil declines faster than actual oil production does.
Any talk of peak oil today faces seemingly contradictory evidence. OPEC has recently cut back on supplies in order to reduce a global glut of crude, and oil prices are down significantly from levels seen in the years 2011-2014. Also, enormous amounts of oil sit in storage. Surely (the conventional wisdom goes) as soon as the market rebalances, oil prices will go back up, drilling and exploration will resume again, and production rates will hit new record levels. For reasons we’re about to explore, that conventional wisdom may be as flawed as peakists’ early understanding of oil economics.
I will present two exhibits on which to base my case for that assertion. I’ll also offer a quick review of a couple of new and relevant books. Then, in a fairly long final section, I’ll discuss the implications of a possible peak of world oil production in today’s economic and political context. This will entail an exploration of whether Donald Trump might turn out to be the peak oil president, and what that may mean in terms of policies and outcomes. This is a lot of ground to cover; indeed, I thought about dividing this essay into several smaller posts. However, the themes seemed just too deeply intertwined. In any case, the result is fairly lengthy and meandering, so have a cup of tea handy.
Exhibit A: David Hughes’s Reports,
Including “2016 Tight Oil Reality Check”
During the past dozen years world conventional oil production has flatlined, as noted above, and nearly all of the increase in global supplies since 2005 has come from unconventional sources—tar sands, tight oil in the U.S. (produced through hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling), and deepwater oil. It is U.S. tight oil that has done the most to boost global oil supplies in these years. Thus the prospects for future production from this resource are highly relevant for understanding the overall status of world petroleum.
Figure 2. Comparison of the Annual Energy Outlook 2016 (AEO2016) projection to AEO2014 and AEO2015 for the Bakken and Eagle Ford tight oil plays combined, compared to the “Most Likely” forecast for these plays in Drilling Deeper. Source: J. David Hughes, 2016 Tight Oil Reality Check.
The oil industry and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy claim that tight oil production can expand at relatively low prices until roughly 2040, presumably forestalling world oil supply problems. However, the EIA’s forecast has drawn criticism. Since 2013, earth scientist David Hughes has been providing Post Carbon Institute with regularly updated, detailed assessments of American shale gas and tight oil resources and production. His first publication in the series, Drill, Baby, Drill, made two important points:
“First, shale gas and shale oil wells have proven to deplete quickly, the best fields have already been tapped, and no major new field discoveries are expected; thus with average per-well productivity declining and ever-more wells (and fields) required simply to maintain production, an ‘exploration treadmill’ limits the long-term potential of shale resources. Second, although tar sands, deepwater oil, oil shales, coalbed methane, and other non-conventional fossil fuel resources exist in vast deposits, their exploitation . . . require[s] . . . enormous expenditures of resources and logistical effort. . . .”
Hughes’s latest report examines the EIA’s most recent forecasts for tight oil. Since the oil price collapse of mid-2014, costs of production have declined and well productivity has increased. These developments have led many observers (including the EIA) to assume that the industry is learning, technology is improving, and tight oil production (which has fallen by nearly 20 percent since early 2015) will soon rebound to new highs. But Hughes points out that improvements in per-well productivity are mostly due to “high-grading”—the practice of curtailing drilling outside relatively small “sweet spots” where resources are concentrated. The length of horizontal wells has increased,
“. . . but as each well can now drain more of the reservoir it has reduced the number of locations available to drill. The net effect is that, at a constant drilling rate, better technology will exhaust a play more quickly at a lower cost—but will not substantially increase ultimate recovery.”
As for declining production costs, Hughes is skeptical that this is a sustainable trend:
“The improvement in the number of wells a rig can drill per unit of time has partially offset the effect on production of the steep decline in rig counts since mid-2014, and has improved economics. The service industry’s rate cuts have also had a major impact on the economics of the average well. But there are a limited number of drilling locations in sweet spots, and high grading plus the downturn in oil prices has resulted in their exhaustion at disproportionately high rates, leaving higher-cost oil for later. An analysis of top counties in plays like the Bakken and Eagle Ford shows that average well productivity has begun to decline, meaning that the best locations have been exhausted along with possible well interference (from wells being drilled too close together).”
If oil prices tick much higher, service companies will hike their rates again. Overall, tight oil producers have been losing money for years, and that situation doesn’t look likely to change.
Hughes assigns a “very high” optimism bias rating for the overall EIA 2016 tight oil forecast, “based on the fundamentals, given what is known from an analysis of well quality and production data from subareas within each play.” His reports suggest that even if oil prices had remained above $100 per barrel (instead of dropping in 2014 to its current range of $35-$60), U.S. tight oil production still would have ended up peaking before 2020. If oil prices significantly rebound and drilling rates do the same, production will increase above current levels (already there has been a slight uptick in Bakken output); but even in that case, the glory days of U.S. tight oil are in the past. The high-water mark of production in early 2015 is unlikely to be surpassed by much, or for long, before terminal decline sets in.
Exhibit B: HSBC Report, “Global Oil Supply”
As noted above, conventional oil production rates have been on a plateau for over 10 years. A plateau cannot be considered a peak until overall production commences a sustained decline. Further, this plateau has provided a base from which unconventional oil (mostly tight oil) has boosted total world output to record levels. Therefore two questions central to any discussion of the direction of world oil production are:
- When will the plateau in conventional oil production end?, and,
- Will it terminate in a sustained production increase, or a decrease?
A recent report from the investment bank HSBC offers plenty of reasons for thinking the end of the plateau will come soon and long-term production decline will commence. Released in mid-2016 to little fanfare, the report Global oil supply: Will mature field declines drive the next supply crunch? does not address the topic of “peak oil” per se. Instead, it examines the rate at which production from currently producing oilfields is diminishing, and prospects for replacement of that production from new oilfields and with more intensive methods of production.
The authors calculate that 81 percent of current world oil production is from oilfields seeing declining rates of production. In their view, a “sensible range for average decline rate on post-peak production is 5 to 7 percent,” which equates to about 3 to 4.5 million barrels per day (mbd) of reduced production each year. “By 2040, this means the world could need to replace over 4 times the current crude oil output of Saudi Arabia (or more than 40 mbd), just to keep output flat.”
The authors also note that output from smaller oilfields typically declines twice as fast as that from large ones, and that “the global supply mix relies increasingly on small fields: the typical new oilfield size has fallen from 500-1,000mb [million barrels] 40 years ago to only 75mb this decade.” Further, new discoveries of oil are shrinking, partly due to shrinking exploration budgets—though the trend began long before the oil industry’s recent troubles. “Last year the exploration success rate hit a record low of 5 percent, and the average discovery size was 24mbbls [million barrels].”
All of this implies that, while in the past decade downturns in output from old oilfields were replaced with new production enabling steady overall conventional oil supplies, replacement of production is much more doubtful in the immediate years ahead.
“The oil market may be oversupplied at present, but we see it returning to balance in 2017. By that stage, effective spare capacity could shrink to just 1 percent of global supply/demand of 96mbd [of all liquid fuels including biofuels], leaving the market far more susceptible to disruptions than has been the case in recent years. Oil demand is still growing by ~1mbd every year, and no central scenarios that we recently assessed see oil demand peaking before 2040.”
HSBC evidently did not include “central scenarios” in which demand is curtailed by the implementation of climate change mitigation policies or as a result of general economic contraction. In a contraction scenario, which I regard as quite likely, it might be difficult to determine whether, and to what degree, economic decline resulted from the oil industry’s failure to maintain net energy productivity in the face of rising energy costs for its activities.
Bonus Exhibit: Reviews of Cold War Energy by Douglas B. Reynolds; and Failing States, Collapsing Systems by Nafeez M. Ahmed
Peak oil books have largely fallen out of fashion. For a few years, it seemed a new one was appearing every month; now the pace is down to about one or two per year. The most recent is by Douglas Reynolds, professor of energy economics at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and it’s a good one.
In his first chapter, Reynolds explains why peak oil killed the Soviet Union. Most historians attribute the USSR’s crackup—“one of the most significant economic events of the 20th century” —to economic mismanagement or an arms buildup by the Reagan administration, but Reynolds finds these explanations lacking. The more likely trigger, in his view, was a sudden decline in Soviet oil production. An initial peak in 1983 led to further investment and subsequent output stabilization. But in 1989 production fell again, then plummeted in 1990—falling about 25 percent in the years immediately after 1988. The mostly closed Soviet economy was not excessively dependent on oil export revenues; however, it did depend on oil as the primary energy source to run the nation’s transport and food systems.
Some observers claim it was the drop in world oil prices in the 1980s, orchestrated by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, that killed the Soviet economy. Reynolds disputes this. He argues instead that Soviet oil production technology of the era had hit its limits, and it was scarcity of the physical commodity that undermined the nation’s economy and hence its political regime. Later, in the post-Soviet era, new enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, mostly imported from the U.S., enabled Russian oil production to achieve new record levels. EOR production will eventually hit its own limits, according to the author, though Russian output has so far (as of 2016) managed to avert a crash.
Reynolds applies this historical analysis to economic growth theory, arguing that conventional theory fails to take adequate account of the role of energy, particularly petroleum, in explaining the factors of growth. Further chapters address “Energy Theory of Value” and “Energy Return on Investment”—subjects of keen interest to peak-oil-aware students of economics. He also introduces “The Marginal Energy Return on Investment” as a measure of energy that makes sense to both physicists and economists. The author’s professional qualifications enable him to treat these subjects in a clear and original way.
Then Reynolds addresses current world oil trends, including America’s oil production. The U.S. hit its all-time crude oil production high in 1970, but has seen two periods of post-peak output expansion—the first in the 1980s due to exploitation of Alaskan resources on the North Slope; the second in recent years as a result of applying hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling technologies to tight oil resources, mostly in North Dakota and Texas. The latter has given the world a reprieve from what would otherwise have been an earlier onset of total oil production decline, though it is as yet unclear how long the reprieve will last (see Exhibit A above).
Figure 3. U.S. Crude Oil Production, 1960-2015. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Readers familiar with the peak oil literature will remember that Dmitry Orlov covered some of these same themes in his book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. However, Reynolds brings a very different set of skills and experiences to the discussion, and in drawing lessons from Soviet history comes to the following conclusions, some of which go beyond Orlov’s earlier work:
- Peak oil eventually comes.
- Oil consumption decline causes economic decline. Even a vibrant economy can succumb to peak oil.
- Oil is hard to substitute. Free markets can help with adaptation, but primarily on the demand side.
- Peak oil will cause peak government. There will be hyperinflation, and corruption will increase.
- A peak oil collapse can cause the disintegration of regional political ties. There will be new alliances.
- The military will decline.
Another new book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, by Nafeez Ahmed, covers overlapping subject matter. While peak oil is just one of the “biophysical triggers” of war, revolution, and terrorism that the author explores, Ahmed is one of the world’s best-informed journalists on energy supply issues.
Since the 2008 financial crash, social unrest has periodically erupted on every major continent—“from Greece to Ukraine, from China to Thailand, from Brazil to Turkey, and beyond.” Ahmed argues that policymakers and media observers have failed to comprehend the underlying causes of this tumult: the depletion of easily and cheaply accessed fossil fuels. The world’s increasing dependence on harder-to-get-at oil, in particular, has multiplying consequences for Earth’s climate, global food systems, and national economies, he claims.
Promotional materials for Ahmed’s book claim that it is the first to develop “an empirically grounded theoretical model of the complex interaction between biophysical processes and geopolitical crises, demonstrated through the analysis of a wide range of detailed case studies of historic, concurrent and probable state failures in the Middle East, Northwest Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Europe and North America.” While simplistic geopolitical theories are all too common, the best of them acknowledge the pivotal importance of essential resources.
In modern economies, the production and distribution of nearly all essential commodities (including food; see Figure 4) depends on energy in the forms of oil and electricity—most of which is typically generated from the burning of coal or natural gas. Thus energy systems, food systems, economic systems, and geopolitics are today inseparable, and a profound underlying shift in the quality and cost of our top energy source—i.e., petroleum—cannot help but have consequences that ripple through entire societies.
Figure 4. Caloric Inputs and Outputs per Capita in the United States, Based on Food Type (2002). Source; Canning, et al., Energy Use in the U.S. Food System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2010.
According to Ahmed, the depletion-led waning of the fossil fuel era is being accompanied by the compounding impacts of fossil fuel combustion, mostly in the form of climate change. The result is increasing disruptions in the availability of economic and ecological support services, even as more and more people require those services due to more frequent environmental disasters and continued population growth. This is a recipe for unstable governments, the rise of demagogues, the breakdown of alliances, and the emergence of new social movements. Nevertheless, the author holds out hope for a paradigmatic revolution in how civilization operates—“a fundamental epistemological shift recognizing humanity’s embeddedness in the natural world.”
Failing States, Collapsing Systems argues that international relations and domestic politics can only be understood by recognizing how “the political is embedded in the biophysical.” The book contains helpful graphical illustrations of oil production data, population, the food price index, economic growth, debt, and other relevant issues.
Implications for the Trump Administration
All of this underscores the realization that peak oil is potentially a very big deal (as many of us have been saying for a long time now). Again, the precise timing of the onset of the inevitable global petroleum production decline is still uncertain, though trends cited above suggest the oil world is getting increasingly “peaky”—both in terms of supply issues and signs of geopolitical flux. Also, the peak will in all likelihood not be marked as a sudden event, but instead will manifest itself via complex, protracted processes that include interactions among the oil industry, the economic system, the food system, and so on. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of people will view the symptoms of the peak as the actual cause of the increasing stress they are experiencing—never recognizing the role that energy plays in the economy and the general functioning of society.
To this volatile mixture now add one Donald Trump. Serious and numerous questions immediately arise.
What will the Trump transition mean for energy? The president-elect appears to have some understanding of the importance of energy for the health of the economy, and he has promised to expand energy production. But how successful is he likely to be in this?
In a separate essay I have already addressed the impracticality of Trump’s goal of ramping up domestic coal mining. Suffice it to say, the coal industry is dying regardless what the new president does.
But what about oil and gas? The nomination of Rex Tillerson (CEO of ExxonMobil) as the next Secretary of State is a powerful clue. Matthieu Auzanneau, writing for Le Monde, notes that Tillerson is departing Exxon as the company drifts toward insolvency as a result of declining reserves, rising costs, and falling profits. Russia, the world’s top petro-state, faces the same problem. Could Tillerson, whose business liaisons with Russia are legendary, make oil exploration alliances a cornerstone of diplomacy? Meanwhile, Rick Perry, former Texas governor, who witnessed a huge drilling boom in his home state and a simultaneous expansion of wind power, has been picked to head the Department of Energy. And Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate denier and unfailingly loyal fossil fuel advocate, is slated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly, Trump is interested in facilitating more drilling, and in shifting the economic and regulatory frameworks that constrain it.
Removing or changing regulations could help to increase oil and gas production, but probably not by much. While exemptions to the Clean Water Act (pushed through by then-Vice President Dick Cheney in 2005) helped spur America’s fracking revolution, regulations are generally not the biggest factor in whether oil or gas production goes up or down; the main trigger is prices. Similarly, while the opening of more federal lands to drilling would constitute a gesture welcome to the oil and gas industry, it would not necessarily result in an imminent boost to production, since those lands hold few prospects that would entice the now heavily indebted industry to invest in risky exploration. A significant factor in the fracking boom was low interest rates; but interest rates are set by Federal Reserve policy, which the Trump administration cannot directly control.
How about renewable energy? Trump has made some unfriendly comments about solar and wind power, and may seek to reduce federal subsidies for renewables. While this attitude may flip (Trump’s views have been known to change dramatically and quickly; also recall Rick Perry’s support for wind power in Texas), even in the best-case scenario it is unlikely that we will see the dramatic shift toward renewables that would actually be needed in order to significantly mitigate climate change or help the nation adapt to the impacts of fossil fuel depletion. An enormous build-out of post-fossil fuel infrastructure is needed, and Trump has big infrastructure plans—but those plans amount to doubling down on the nation’s existing reliance on fossil fuels by building yet more highways, bridges, and airports. And the way he proposes to fund the expansion permits skepticism that much will actually get built in any case. (It’s worth noting, parenthetically, that Middle East sovereign wealth funds are pledging to invest in U.S. infrastructure—an investment that just might be geared at least in part toward keeping America hooked on fossil fuels.)
The advent of President Donald J. Trump clearly has implications for global geopolitics, but of what sort? Since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. geostrategists have embraced the goal of global hegemony, which meant preventing alliances between key Eurasian powers (Russia, China, Iran) and encircling them with U.S. military bases; maintaining a coherent group of prosperous allies (especially including Europe, Japan, and South Korea); using military force to ensure no noncompliant nation is left standing in the Middle East; and pursuing global wealth consolidation through dollar-denominated trade under the auspices of U.S.-led international treaties and institutions. In recent years this set of policies has been increasingly stymied by China’s dizzying economic ascent (which occurred with U.S. encouragement but is now posing a geopolitical liability); by Russia’s stabilization and recovery under a leader who resists U.S. control; by the spectacular failure of U.S. wars in the Middle East; by economic decline and political dissension within the European Union; and by increasing economic cooperation and security alignment among Russia, China, Iran, and other nations (including trade and banking arrangements that circumvent the dollar and U.S.-dominated global economic institutions like the IMF). Together, these developments seriously imperil the U.S. project of continued world supremacy. Indeed, the erosion of American power has reached a crucial tipping point where the goals and tactics of the incumbent geostrategists must be questioned, even by insiders.
Again, Trump arrives at a key moment, arguing against the demonization of Russia, promising to implement protectionist trade rules to bring manufacturing back to the U.S, and pledging no new wars in the Middle East. It is too early to speak of this tweet-list as constituting a coherent alternative geopolitical strategy. But Trump is already at odds with currently dominant elements within the CIA and the State Department (which, along with the Pentagon and military contractors, comprise the so-called Deep State), and is allying himself with previously sidelined voices. Formidable and secretive, the Deep State has a momentum of its own, which any national leader resists at his or her own peril.
The past few U.S. administrations have presided over a period of economic stagnation in which the illusion of continued growth was maintained by jiggered statistics, massive bailouts, a historic ballooning of public and private debt, and the financialization of the economy, with nearly all gains going to the one-percenters while most others fared worse and worse. Now the backstops to economic contraction are failing. Regardless whether Trump or Clinton prevailed in 2016, the next leader would face serious decay and instability across the spectrum of systems supporting the nation’s ongoing functions.
If this is indeed the timeframe when the global energy economy flips from fossil fuel-powered growth to depletion-led contraction, then the recent election presents us with a bewildering new landscape of circumstances in which that flip will occur, and an astonishing new set of actors. In a chilling paragraph, journalist Chris Hedges frames the moment in familiar terms:
“The final stages of capitalism, Karl Marx predicted, would be marked by global capital being unable to expand and generate profits at former levels. Capitalists would begin to consume the government along with the physical and social structures that sustained them. Democracy, social welfare, electoral participation, the common good and investment in public transportation, roads, bridges, utilities, industry, education, ecosystem protection and health care would be sacrificed to feed the mania for short-term profit. These assaults would destroy the host. This is the stage of late capitalism that Donald Trump represents.”
Hedges calls the new administration’s guiding impulse kleptocracy—rule by thieves. The signs of imminent kleptocracy are certainly abundant: proposed heads of governmental departments have promised to destroy regulations and privatize assets—all under the justification that doing so will lead to more growth and more jobs.
Given these radical shifts in priorities, expect a purge of government agencies. For those who pledge allegiance to Trump, there may be a secure salary in store. One doesn’t have to be particularly qualified or competent, just willing to turn in any co-worker heard grumbling about the exalted leader. Expect no work on climate change to go forward. The compilation of accurate statistics (on the environment, energy production, and the economy) may be largely abandoned. Companies eager to help with the program may be awarded generous government contracts; those that make a fuss may be penalized. States and cities that try to fight back against the new administration’s policies may be treated as sites of domestic rebellion. In the worst conceivable case, terrorist attacks could justify a massive national clampdown, in which uncompromising journalists and teachers might be targeted in the name of national unity.
The new administration will remain deeply resented by enormous swathes of the populace. A gutting of regulations might temporarily grease the skids of commerce, but at the cost of exposing vastly more people to fraud, pollution, preventable accidents, and poverty. This could eventually make a lot of folks very, very angry. If the new leadership uses ever more desperate means to consolidate and wield power, expect ever more extreme acts of resistance.
Anyone who claims to know in advance how all this will shake out is blowing smoke. This is the most combustible mix of circumstances I’ve seen in my lifetime. Donald Trump is certainly not the peak oil president I would have chosen. But he promises to be a pivotal historical figure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Heinberg is the author of thirteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He is Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He has authored scores of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature Journal, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect, Public Policy Research, Quarterly Review, Yes!, and The Sun; and on web sites such as Resilience.org, TheOilDrum.com, Alternet.org, ProjectCensored.com, and Counterpunch.com.
Protecting People and Planet Against Trump and Trumpism
This article was originally published in
Common Dreams, 9 January 2017
under a Creative Commons Licens
Thousands marched from MacArthur Park through downtown Los Angeles on following election of Donald Trump in November. (Photo: Brian Feinzimer/LA Weekly)
These are the times to try our souls...
Donald Trump and a powerful collection of anti-social forces have taken control of the U.S. government. They seek permanent domination in service of their individual and class wealth and power. Trump’s presidency threatens immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, workers, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others. Indeed, it threatens all that holds us together as a society. We the people – society -- need to defend ourselves against this threat and bring it to an end. We need what resisters to repressive regimes elsewhere have called “Social Self-Defense.”
The term “Social Self-Defense” is borrowed from the struggle against the authoritarian regime in Poland forty years ago. In the midst of harsh repression, Polish activists formed a loose network to provide financial, legal, medical, and other help to people who had been persecuted by the police or unjustly dismissed from their work. Calling themselves the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR), they aimed to “fight political, religious and ideological persecution”; to “oppose breaches of the law”; to “provide help for the persecuted”; to “safeguard civil liberties”; and to defend “human and civil rights.” KOR organized free trade unions to defend the rights of workers and citizens. Its members, who insisted on operating openly in public, were soon blacklisted, beaten, and imprisoned. They nonetheless persisted, and nurtured many of the networks, strategies, and ideas that came to fruition in Solidarity – and ultimately in the dissolution of repressive regimes in Poland and many other countries.
"Social Self-Defense means we’ve got each others’ backs."
From the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, thousands of people began to resist his agenda. Demonstrations against Trump broke out in American cities; police chiefs, mayors, and governors declared they would not implement his attack on immigrants; thousands of people signed up to accompany threatened immigrants, religious minorities, and women; technical workers pledged they would not build data bases to facilitate discrimination and deportation. Discussion of how to resist the Trump regime broke out at dining room tables, emails among friends, social media, and community gatherings.
It is impossible to know whether the Trump regime will rapidly self-destruct; successfully impose a reign of terror that dominates the U.S. for years or decades to come; or deadlock indefinitely with anti-Trump forces. We do know that the future of the planet and its people depends on resisting and overcoming Trump’s agenda. The struggle against Trump and Trumpism is nothing less than the defense of society – Social Self-Defense.
Donald Trump is a self-aggrandizing person pursuing his own wealth and power. The Trump administration is filled with people pursuing their personal interests and those of a mélange of political cliques, corporations, industries, and foreign countries. Trumpism also incorporates a broader rightwing vision of restructuring the institutions of society to eliminate all barriers to the self-aggrandizement of the rich and powerful.
Donald Trump is adept at singling out individuals and institutions, from political opponents to journalists to a hapless beauty pageant winner and a local union leader, for slander and abuse. He is a master of playing off different groups against each other: white workers against African Americans, established residents against immigrants, men against women, Christians against Muslims, Americans against Chinese. However, Trump and Trumpism go beyond attacks on particular groups: They are undermining the foundations of a free and ordered society. They are dismantling the basic practices that make life something other than a war of all against all. And they are hell-bent on destroying the natural conditions on which our life on earth depends.
Social Self-Defense is the protection of that which makes our life together on earth possible. It includes the protection of the human rights of all people; protection of the conditions of our earth and its climate that make our life possible; the constitutional principle that government must be accountable to law; and global cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.
In the face of the Trump assault, protecting individuals, groups, and society as a whole go hand in hand. The attacks on individuals and groups are a threat not only to those directly targeted, but to our ability to live together in our communities, our country, and our world. It is a threat to all of us as members of society. Protecting those specific constituencies who are most threatened is crucial to protecting our common interests as people. Social Self-Defense means defending those who are threatened as a way both to defend them from injustice and to defend our common interest as people—as members of society. Social Self-Defense means we’ve got each others’ backs.
"In the face of the Trump assault, protecting individuals, groups, and society as a whole go hand in hand."
The manifestations of Trumpism did not start with Trump’s election; recent years have seen denial of rights ranging from mass incarceration to police militarization to soaring expulsion of immigrants to restriction of the right to vote. The struggle for a more just society has also been intense -- indeed, the emergence of Trumpism is in substantial part an attempt to quell the rising tide of Black, Latino, low-wage worker, LGBTQ, climate protection, and other movements. Social Self-Defense represents a continuation as well as a reconfiguration of those movements. If Trump’s election has a silver lining, it could be the emergence of a Social Self-Defense strong enough not only to defeat Trump but to implement a long-term vision of how to protect and restore our planet and its people.
The First Responders: Social Self-Defense has begun
From the day Trump was elected, millions of people began to resist him and his agenda. Their actions provide a preview of the future of Social Self-Defense.
Less than 24 hours after the election results were announced, there were 350 protest gatherings around the country in response to a call by MoveOn and allies. In the succeeding five days, thousands demonstrated daily in the streets. 8,000 people filled Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In New York, thousands more demonstrated outside Trump Tower. Protesters also turned out in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Las Vegas, Providence, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.
Donations poured in to organizations that would protect Trump’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union received $7.2 million from 120,000 people in the week after the election to defend the rights of “immigrants, transgender individuals, Muslims and reproductive rights groups,” and to fend off any plans to expand stop-and-frisk nationwide. Planned Parenthood received 128,000 donations – thirty times the normal rate - in the week after the election, and reported an eight-fold increase in applications to volunteer. Eleven thousand people signed on to donate monthly to the Sierra Club, nine times the previous record. On November 9 the Anti-Defamation League received fifty times its normal donations.
Kayla Santosuosso, deputy director of the Arab Association of New York, launched an effort to recruit escorts for people who might be affected by hate crimes and threats. "In the back of my head, I thought I'd make this Google Form and at the very least we'll have this list of 50 people that I can connect." Within a few days, more that 5,500 people had signed up to accompany vulnerable individuals - people of color, Muslims and LGTBQ New Yorkers. More than 30,000 non-Muslims pledged to register themselves if Trump’s proposal to require all Muslims to register is implemented.
In response to a call by Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander more than 1,000 Brooklyn residents gathered November 12 for the first of a series of #GetOrganizedBK meetings. The organizers said, “We must show up for New Yorkers facing hate-speech and hate-crimes welling up in our streets, subways, and schools.” Groups involved included Planned Parenthood, NY Immigration Coalition, 350 Brooklyn, and the NY Civil Liberties Union.
The resulting #GetOrganizedBK Facebook group described itself as “a hub for individuals, activists, organizations and community leaders to join together in our resistance.” Actions listed in early December included hosting a letter writing dinner for 12 friends who sent 100 letters to elected officials opposing Trump appointments; a petition to the New York Times asking that the euphemism “alt-right” be replaced by more accurate terms like Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and fascist (days later the Times did so); donation of 38 boxes of Kellogg’s cereal to a women’s shelter to help people in need and to support Kellogg for pulling ads from Breitbart; initiation of a Sister District Project to reach out to red districts around the country; organization of social workers and attorneys to help vulnerable immigrants; a “Kids Speak Out Against Hate” event; and a Candlelight Vigil to Resist Intolerance. At another community meeting, Mayor Bill De Blasio vowed that the city would block a Muslim registry, provide abortions if they were outlawed by the Supreme Court, not comply with any new federal stop-and-frisk directives, and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Similar self-organization happened across the country. In Los Angeles, according to Armando Carmona of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a 500-strong popular assembly was held just days after the election. "Folks shared testimony, personal experiences and their understanding and analysis of what's happening." There were “breakout groups to think about how to do more assemblies in our own communities, how to organize know-your-rights workshops, how to develop legal defense strategies and how to generate awareness” of the challenges ahead. In Montpelier VT—a city of less than 10,000—140 people showed up for an emergency community meeting organized by the Green Mountain Labor Council, AFL-CIO “to affirm values of tolerance and social, economic and climate justice” and discuss “actions we can take to protect our communities, defend democracy, and build a Vermont and country that works for everyone.”
“When they come for one, they come for all of us”
On December 1, World AIDS Day, 11 activists backed by demonstrators held a sit-in at the office of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. “Paul Ryan and Tom Price’s corporate health care dreams are a nightmare for people with HIV,” said Bryn Gay of the Treatment Action Group. “Their deadly budget plan is an unprecedented attack on people with HIV” and “we won’t accept millions of people having their access to health care cut off in exchange for a tax cut for billionaires.”
On November 29, workers in 340 cities joined “Fight for 15” actions to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to organize. They included McDonalds employees in more than 300 cities, other fast-food workers, home health care workers, Uber drivers, and baggage handlers and cabin cleaners at nearly 20 airports nationwide, including 500 who went on strike at Chicago's O'Hare. Fight for 15’s Scott Courtney said, “fifteen” has become “bigger than a number.” It’s “a symbol of opposition and resistance now - to Trump and his ilk.” (Shortly thereafter Donald Trump announced that his secretary of labor would be Andrew Puzder, head of the fast food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., who has opposed raising the minimum wage even to $10.10.)
As Trump announced climate change-denying cabinet appointees and plans to dismantle climate protection programs and accelerate fossil fuel development, climate protectors organized to circumvent his plans from below and above. In the aftermath of the election, the Illinois General Assembly voted to approve a Future Energy Jobs Package, proposed by grassroots groups in the Fair Economy Illinois Coalition; the bill invests $500,000,000 in new and targeted low-income solar programs, low-income energy efficiency programs, job training for work in the solar industry, and community solar programs. The U.S. Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda (aka #ClimateMayors), representing 31 million constituents, wrote Trump calling for support for climate action at the local level. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that if Trump withdraws the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, the hundred-plus mayors who have pledged to implement the accord should seek to join it in place of the U.S. government. When Trump’s transition teams proposed to eliminate NASA climate research, California Governor Jerry Brown replied, “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.”
The People’s Climate Movement organized protests, demonstrations, and rallies for the first 100 hours after Trump’s inauguration to tie together climate protection and protection of those Trump plans to attack. “We will not allow climate deniers to threaten the planet. We will not allow attacks on immigrants, communities of color, women, LGBTQ and workers to become the new normal.” 170 university presidents urged Trump to take action on climate change. At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, hundreds of scientists, answering a call to come “out of the labs and into the streets,” demonstrated to protect climate scientists and climate policy against Trump’s climate change denialism.
Within a few weeks after the election, more than eighty thousand people had listed themselves on Facebook as planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, on January 21st. Rev. Al Sharpton announced plans to lead a protest on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on January 14th, six days before the Inauguration. Rev. Dr. William Barber, initiator of the North Carolina Moral Mondays actions, launched a campaign for a nationwide boycott of the state to oppose its legislature’s attacks on minimum wage and employment rules, gerrymandering, discrimination against transgender people, and snatching away of the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor. As tech CEOs met with President-elect Trump, community, faith-based, and labor organizations that represent tech industry service workers formed Silicon Valley Rising, warning that “Trump’s policies present a dire threat to the lives and well-being of workers and contractors across the tech sector … be they immigrants, women, workers or Muslim Americans,” and are calling on tech companies “to play a leadership role in resisting unjust policies if they are put forward by the Trump Administration.”
"Forces too numerous to list have lined up to fight Trump’s cabinet nominations."
Canada, France, and other countries are considering sanctions in response to Trump’s impending climate-destruction juggernaut. “A carbon tariff is an option for us,” said Mexico’s environmental secretary Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo. “We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries.”
In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, a group of prominent environmental, trade union, civil rights, progressive, women’s, gay, and other groups initiated a United Resistance Campaign based on a Pledge of Solidarity and Resistance Against Trump. “We pledge to stand together in support of racial, social, environmental, and economic justice for all, and against Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and all those forces which would tear apart a democracy of, by, and for ALL the people.” Signers pledged “to act together in solidarity” whether in the streets or in the halls of power. “When they come for one, they come for us all.” A national #Earth2Trump Resistance Roadshow “building a network of resistance against President-elect Trump’s attacks on the environment and civil rights” left the West Coast heading to the inauguration promoting the pledge. Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders and Representative Nancy Pelosi asked Democratic members of Congress to organize rallies around the country on January 15 “to vigorously oppose the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it and throw our health care system into chaos.”
Meanwhile, forces too numerous to list lined up to fight Trump’s cabinet nominations. For example, 350.org organized a “Day of Denial” and called demonstrations in 50 states to tell Senators to vote against Trump’s climate denier cabinet appointments. The Working Families Party began holding weekly “Resist Trump Tuesdays” actions at every local congressional office to demand that they publicly denounce Trump’s cabinet appointees. More than 1,000 law professors issued a statement opposing Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks and others were arrested, handcuffed, and hauled away in a police van when they sat in at Sessions’ Alabama office.
Less than a week after the election, thousands of students staged walk-outs on more than eighty campuses nationwide demanding their schools refuse access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, continue to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and protect students regardless of documentation status. Less than a week later the presidents of 180 colleges and universities issued a statement in support of DACA. “To our country’s leaders, we say that DACA should be upheld, continued and expanded.” This is “both a moral imperative and a national necessity.” A score of universities—including the entire California State University system, Portland State University, Rutgers, Yale, Brown, Pomona, Reed, and Columbia—pledged non-cooperation with immigration enforcement, specifically prohibiting immigration agents from entering campuses and refusing to share information about students’ status without warrants or court orders.
More than 500 counties and cities already have policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Despite Trump’s threat to defund “sanctuary cities,” Politico was unable to find a single city that is reconsidering its sanctuary policy as a result of the election. On the contrary, at least 37 cities have reaffirmed their positions and at least four cities have newly declared themselves sanctuary cities since Trump’s election. Jim Hart, the County Sheriff of Santa Cruz County, wrote an open letter that was sent to parents saying school children are “expressing concern about being detained and deported at school.” He assured the community that “Sheriff’s Office personnel do not and will not investigate immigration status.” It is the job of local law enforcement “to make sure our community members are safe and our children can attend school without fear. This is our job and this is what we will continue to do.”
Some 450 congregations of diverse denominations have offered to provide some form of sanctuary, ranging from living space to financial help to transportation to school. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles passed a resolution calling for "holy resistance" to Trump's immigration proposals and declaring itself a "sanctuary diocese.” In Brockton, MA four churches have pledged to take in immigrants fearful of being deported. "If you need a safe place, once you enter the doors of this building, you are safe," said the Rev. Abraham Waya, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, which can shelter 100 people. "We will host you and take care of you for as long as it takes."
Volunteers for Philadelphia’s New Sanctuary Movement, which includes 17 churches and two synagogues, increased from 65 to more than a thousand in the two weeks after Trump’s election. "We have an emergency hotline that people can call if ICE shows up, and it is staffed 24/7," said director Peter Pedemonti. "Our plan is to have an alert system so that if ICE comes to get someone, everyone shows up at their house as soon as possible to pray, sing and film ICE. The purpose is to accompany and show solidarity with the family and to pressure ICE not to do this."
In the U.S. Congress, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are crafting a bill to shield children living in the country illegally from being deported if they grew up in the United States and have stayed out of trouble. California state Senate President Kevin de Leon has filed legislation to prevent state and local law enforcement agencies from working with federal immigration officials to deport undocumented immigrants. It would also prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from enforcing immigration laws in public schools, hospitals, courthouses, and other “safe zones.”
The strategy of Social Self-Defense
These actions appear to be on the way to being the greatest outpouring of civil resistance in American history. They target nearly every aspect of Trump’s devastating and wide-ranging agenda. But the Trump regime will soon control the major governmental levers of power in the U.S.: the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and presumably the Supreme Court, not to mention the military, the national security agencies, and the federal bureaucracy. Under such conditions, how is Social Self-Defense possible?
Gandhi once wrote, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” The depredations of the Trump regime will not be able to continue for a day without the cooperation of some and the acquiescence of most of those whose lives and future they are destroying. Trump will only be able to continue his destructive course if others enable or acquiesce in it. Social Self-Defense can defeat Trumpism without weapons or violence if it can withdraw that cooperation.
"The depredations of the Trump regime will not be able to continue for a day without the cooperation of some and the acquiescence of most of those whose lives and future they are destroying."
We have no way to know how long it will take to overcome Trump and Trumpism. His regime and its successors could last for decades – consider Mubarak or Berlusconi. Alternatively, they could rapidly succumb to popular disenchantment and internal contradictions. While elections two and four years from now provide important milestones, the timeframe for the struggle against Trump will depend primarily on the gradual or rapid development of a Great Repudiation in which the American people decide to act decisively to eliminate him.
Trump’s defeat requires a shift in power away from him and his supporters to his opponents. That process starts with a cumulative disillusion and repudiation – apparently already under way. It requires an on-going expansion of Social Self-Defense in civil society and government. It must make Trump’s actions increasingly ineffective—neutralize them. It needs to undermine Trump’s wobbly pillars of support. The result may be in effect a period of dual power, in which Trump remains in office but he is unable to implement his agenda because of popular resistance. Depending on circumstances, it may also require peaceful “people power” uprisings like those that have removed dictatorships and reestablished democratic processes in many countries around the world. Sooner or later the transfer of power will need to be ratified by popular elections.
Social Self-Defense is not an organization—it is a set of practices to be engaged in by myriad organizations, hopefully in close coordination with each other. It draws both on established and newly emerging organizations. The community assemblies in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Montpelier, and many other locations illustrate how new organizations can arise for Social Self-Defense—often interpenetrated with existing ones. Other examples of self-organization: A group of young millennials agreed to set aside $20 a week each for travel and bail for when they may need to go to a demonstration and risk arrest. And the immigrant youth organization Cosecha is establishing a network of “activist circles” that each consist of anywhere between 3 and 150 people. Social Self-Defense need not become a single organization or umbrella group. But it requires that pre-existing issue- and constituency-based groups expand beyond their accustomed practices to act in concert with each other to resist the Trump agenda.
Social Self-Defense requires coordinating three strategic objectives. First, minimize the damage Trump does to people and planet. Second, terminate the Trump regime ASAP. Third, lay the groundwork for expanding protection of people and planet. These are part of a continuous process: Slow the Trump assault by pushing back; then begin to roll it back; ultimately evacuate him from the stage of history.
"The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people."
The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people. They must be persuaded that Trumpism is bad for them personally; bad for the groups of which they are part; and bad for society as a whole. They must be able to see that better alternatives are possible and that their action can make a difference.
This requires reaching out beyond the initial anti-Trump base. For example, people throughout the country could support Fight for 15 to organize in the depressed, low-income areas that swung for Trump in 2016. The fight to preserve health insurance could similarly concentrate on protecting people in poor rural and urban counties. In the face of Trump’s dubious promises to restore coal mining, a group of senators introduced the RECLAIM Act to provide $1 billion to create new jobs and economic opportunities in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry through the reclamation of abandoned coal mines.
Every victory is valuable both for what it accomplishes in itself and as a building block for the ultimate defeat of Trumpism. Social Self-Defense defines its own criteria of success. Protecting one immigrant from attack or deportation is a victory. So is exposing one brutal act of repression or securing medical care for one person who has been denied it. The most important criteria for success are the growth of the movement and the expansion of public support.
It will take months or years for the Trump regime to eviscerate, coopt, or eliminate the institutions that might resist it. There are still courts, legislatures, local and state governments, legal, educational, labor, media, and other civil society institutions. People power needs to be expressed not only through direct action, but through supporting and rebuilding those institutions willing and able to resist Trumpian tyranny. While there is at present little possibility for an “inside game” that attempts to influence the Trump administration from within, cooperation with anti-Trump politicians and institutional leaders is essential to the success of Social Self-Defense. The success of Social Self-Defense will depend on combining civil resistance in social institutions and the streets with political resistance in the institutions of government.
Such a strategy is already being forged by the First Responders.
Social Self-Defense in the political arena
We want our elected representatives to help defend society against Trump’s attacks.
Although Democrats are in the minority in both houses of Congress, they still have significant powers. They can hold hearings on appointments, legislation, and executive policy; speak out and campaign around the country against Trump’s actions; in the Senate they can filibuster; if President Trump commits high crimes and misdemeanors that provoke public and congressional outrage they can move to impeach him. We want them to use every available power to expose, condemn, slow down, weaken, and to the extent possible halt Trumpism’s anti-social plans. That includes resisting appointments, executive orders, legislation, and Trump’s often anti-democratic and outlandish pronouncements. We want our representatives to build a unified force to oppose Trump’s agenda and to hold each other accountable not to sell out.
An immediate objective is to take back the House and/or Senate in 2018. That requires driving down Trump’s public support. Anti-Trump representatives need to show the disastrous effects of Trump proposals and expose Trump’s corruption and stupidity.
"[Democrats] must split the Republican Party by making Republican officeholders fear they will pay politically if they don’t break with Trump."
They must split the Republican Party by making Republican officeholders fear they will pay politically if they don’t break with Trump.
Many Democrats have already stated that they are willing to work with Trump, at least in limited areas like infrastructure and trade. But there must be redlines for any cooperation. There can be no compromise when it comes to human rights, protection of the climate, constitutional limits on the power of government, or global cooperation to protect the human future. Even Trump’s most attractive programs are likely to be laced with threats to equality for women and minorities, labor rights, and the environment – and if so there can be no support or compromise. And any cooperation with Trump’s agenda—or even failure to oppose it—risks legitimizing and normalizing his regime and offering him credit for winning bi-partisan cooperation.
Congressional Democrats can also begin laying out attractive alternatives that meet the needs of those to whom Trump appealed but who he is now dissing. Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign laid out a progressive program that had wide support, not only within the Democratic Party but even among many people who eventually voted for Trump.
What our representatives do will depend heavily on what the people do. We need to define the Trump agenda not as a slight variation on “normal politics” but as an attack on society. We need to use petitions, letters, calls, and social media to urge government officials, the media, and institutional leaders to deny that Trump’s agenda is anything but an attack on human rights, the natural environment, constitutional government, and global survival.
We need to protect the protectors, ensuring money and support for those in Congress, local and state government, and the political system more broadly who are demonstrably fighting Trump. Advocacy groups need to collaborate and form broad coalitions to fight each of the elements of Trump’s agenda.
Citizens in safe progressive Democratic congressional districts need to direct resources to support Democrats and fight Republicans in marginal districts, both by providing resources to candidates and by supporting issue activism.
Finally, Democrats who may be tempted to compromise with Trump must be made to realize that they will be risking their own political future to do so. Advocates for Social Self-Defense need to develop means to pressure Democrats to find their backbone: For example, they can issue multi-issue ratings of courage vs. cowardice in standing up to Trump—with the obvious implication that money and support is more likely to flow to the resolutes than to the wishy-washies.
What Social Self-Defense is defending
While Trump and Trumpism threaten individuals and specific groups, they also threaten the essential principles that make it possible for people to live a life that is not nasty, brutish, and short. Defending these principles is a common interest— indeed necessity—for all of us. Conversely, defending the rights and wellbeing of every individual and group is central to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all.
As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights points out, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Similarly, the protection of the earth from devastating climate change and other environmental destruction is essential to the preservation of ourselves and our posterity. The fundamental principle of constitutionalism—that governments and their officials must be ruled by law—is necessary in order to prevent tyranny. The recognition that human beings are part of one species and must share one planet is necessary to prevent efforts to advance one nation, people, or other group by destroying others.
These principles provide a basis for unifying the struggle against Trump and Trumpism – indeed they are already emerging in one form or another in the resistance that is already under way. They provide a way to ground the objectives of the anti-Trump movement in the most fundamental principles.
"Defending the rights and wellbeing of every individual and group is central to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all."
These principles can define not only what Social Self-Defense is fighting against, but what it is fighting for. They provide the ultimate grounding for the case against Trumpism. They can serve as the basis and justification for alternatives proposed by progressives and others. And they provide “red lines” that must not be crossed in any kind of cooperation with the Trump regime.
Human rights: International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney observes that Trump’s comments that there should be a religious test imposed on entering the U.S., or that there should be state-sponsored torture, or that families of suspected terrorists should all be killed are all “violations of international human rights” and the values that underlie them.
A high proportion of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s other proposals are likely to result in deprivation of human rights as well. Their housing, education, healthcare, and other social welfare proposals will result in deprivation of the human rights to housing, education, and healthcare. Their proposals to dismantle labor law will eliminate the right of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and undertake concerted action -- and their basic human rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and expression. Their proposals to further restrict the right to vote undermine the fundamental right to equality. The list could go on to include discrimination against LGTB people, women, racial and religious groups, and other infractions too numerous even to list.
Social Self-Defense means protection of human rights.
The earth: Our individual and common life depend on our natural environment. Trump’s assault on every aspect of the environment has already begun. His proposals for expanding fossil fuel production and burning spell catastrophe for the earth’s climate. His appointees to head the EPA, Department of the Interior, Energy Department, State Department, and other agencies have dedicated their lives to destruction of the environment as a means to private enrichment.
As a recent federal court decision makes clear, “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” A stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, “without which there would be neither
civilization nor progress.” According to that decision, protection of the “public trust” – the essential natural resources on which human society depends – is so basic that it need not even be written in the Constitution, for it is assumed to exist from the inception of humankind.
Social Self-Defense means protecting the public trust and a climate system capable of sustaining human life.
Government under law: Richard Nixon notoriously said, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” This is the doctrine of tyranny, against which society has struggled since the era of the “divine right of kings.” Donald Trump propounds the same constitutional doctrine, for example in his statement that, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” While constitutional interpretations can differ, a doctrine of unlimited presidential power is tantamount to tyranny.
As constitutional law teacher Garrett Epps recently wrote,
Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.
Social Self-Defense means making governmental institutions and officials subject to law.
One people, one planet: Donald Trump’s bellicose threats and insults to other countries and their leaders pave the road to war. His threats of unilateral economic aggression pave the way to international conflict, trade wars, and downward global economic spirals. His repudiation of global efforts for climate protection pave the way for both American self-destruction and the destruction of the rest of humanity.
It is a truism that the world today is too inter-dependent for any one nation to provide for its own wellbeing unless it also assures the wellbeing of the rest of the world community. The problems of individual nations, races, and religions cannot be solved by making economic, military, or environmental war on others. Security and environmental wellbeing require global cooperation.
Social Self-Defense means international cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.
What can we expect of the Trump regime?
The election of Donald Trump is part of a larger political development that includes Brexit in Britain, the rise of LePen in France, and the emergence of repressive racist, nationalist, xenophobic rightwing regimes in Poland, Turkey, Brazil, India, and elsewhere. In most cases these are regimes that have the trappings of democracy – political parties, elections, and the like – but in which government is used by self-aggrandizing leaders and cliques to perpetuate and expand their own wealth and power.
These regimes typically combine charismatic leaders, traditional conservative forces, and multiple forms of political repression. They make appeals to non-elite constituencies based both on economic interests and on nationalist, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and other appeals to hate and division. The recent wave of such regimes has been in part a response to the catastrophic consequences of corporate-led economic globalization, manifested in the Great Recession and the growing inequality and rapid deterioration in economic conditions for a large segment of the working class in the countries it affected.
In the U.S., Republicans now control almost all the national governmental levers of power as well as a majority of state legislatures. Trump has largely unrestricted power over the executive branch, including the power to direct the armed forces, issue executive orders, set policy for government agencies, declare states of emergency, and order assassinations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gives the President almost unlimited power to use force any place in the world at any time – and Trump has a cabinet-full of generals advising him about how to do so. Republicans in Congress control the Federal budget and legislative power with few legal limits except filibuster and appeal to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s career has been marked by willingness to flout legal and constitutional limits. His modus operandi is largely based on instilling stigma, fear, and distraction. He appears unconcerned with actual problem-solving. He is highly opportunistic; in fact, it would be difficult to find any consistent goal other than his own wealth, power, and fame. He is also highly erratic, engaging in unpredictable actions whose motivations beyond personal pique and vengeance are often obscure. He accepts no responsibility or accountability for his actions and their consequences. The almost unimaginable incompetence of Trump and the people closest to him makes outcomes even more unpredictable. There is every reason to expect that his behavior as President will continue or even amplify these traits; that, however, means that the details of his behavior will be unpredictable and in many cases enigmatic. Neither his signals nor his expressed policy statements necessarily predict what he will do.
The Republican Right, which controls both houses of Congress, is more predictable. It has consistently pursued an agenda that includes tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations; expanding military budgets; dismantling of government programs and regulations that aid the poor or protect the common good; suppression of civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism; disempowering organized labor, African Americans, and other groups that may oppose them politically; elimination of reproductive freedom and other rights of women; legally imposing religious norms and practices; and other policies too numerous and notorious to mention.
There are some areas where Trump’s past pronouncements and established Republican policy appear to be in conflict. Examples include international trade agreements and spending on infrastructure. Whether such matters will lead to significant conflict among Republicans that might weaken their unity and power remains to be seen. Trump’s cabinet appointments, however, suggest that most of his policies will represent traditional rightwing Republican programs carried to an extreme that ignores even the most certain and disastrous consequences.
One thing that virtually all Republican leaders agree on is the goal of permanent political domination. So a prime and unified objective of both “populist” and “conservative” factions will be transforming the political process to assure their permanent political power. That will undoubtedly include restricting the right to vote; strengthening the role of money in politics; shaping electoral districts to further favor Republicans; and protecting undemocratic institutions like the Electoral College. It remains to be seen how much it will also involve use of intimidation and violence, hacking or otherwise stealing elections, and court rulings that further skew representation.
Where Democrats win nonetheless, we can expect local, state, and national equivalents of the recent rubbishing of democracy in North Carolina, where the Republican state legislature called an emergency session to gut the powers of the incoming governor. In a Washington Post op-ed titled “The GOP coup in North Carolina previews what we’re going to see everywhere,” Paul Waldman describes legislation that will
cut the number of appointments the governor can make by 80 percent; make his cabinet appointments subject to state senate confirmation; transfer authority for the state board of education from the governor to the superintendent (a Republican ousted a Democrat this year in the election for that seat); move the authority to appoint trustees of the University of North Carolina from the governor to the legislature; and dilute the governor’s control over the state board of elections and mandate that the board will be chaired by a Democrat in odd-numbered years (when there are no elections) and a Republican in even-numbered years (when there are elections).
One way in which Trump differs from previous rightist Republican presidents like Reagan and the Bushes is a willingness to activate the masses; his style is closer to fascism than to conservative authoritarianism in that respect; Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, rather weirdly describes himself as a “Leninist”—presumably referring not to his political objectives, but to his approach to power. Senior Trump associates are already forming a group that will provide “a surround-sound support structure” to bolster Trump’s agenda. The “working motto” of this “outside hub” is “Unleash the Potential.”
President Trump will control many levers of power for repression. The FBI, the CIA, and the national security apparatus provides enormous opportunity for spying on, framing, and otherwise harming opponents and for provoking violence through agent provocateurs. Control of prosecutors and influence over judges will give wide latitude for legal repression—foreshadowed by Trump’s campaign promise to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton. Equally important may be the discretionary power not to prosecute violent and illegal action. Such toleration could extend to individual acts of violence directed against members of racial and religious groups; impunity for mob violence; and winks and nods for militias, KKK, and similar groups. In other times and places such groups have often formed the basis for paramilitary forces and death squads. Terrorist attacks and alleged terrorist threats will offer opportunity for the many kinds of repression experienced after 9/11. Congress, too, has ways to get into the repression act: Newt Gingrich has already called for establishing an updated version of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.
A likely tactic for Trump and his supporters will be to criminalize his opposition. While Social Self-Defense is an effort to protect and restore constitutional government, it is likely to be branded a criminal conspiracy. Those who oppose Trump and his agenda may well be targeted not only for persecution but for prosecution. Those who have been subject to such repression elsewhere have often been able to use “political jujitsu” to publicly define such abuse of law as one more crime of the regime.
In sum, the factors that are likely to determine the nature and course of the Trump era include Trump’s own idiosyncrasies; the Republican Right; the need and opportunity to use repressive and fascist techniques; unpredictable forces and events like war, foreign meddling, economic crisis and other “unknown unknowns’; and the actions of Trump’s opponents. For the time being, pro- and anti-Trump forces are probably both too strong for rapid knockout blows.
How might the Trump regime be terminated?
The defeat of Trump’s Republican congressional allies in 2018 and his own defeat in 2020 would be a great way to reduce their threat to people and planet, and it should be pursued to the extent possible. However, there are problems with pursuing it as the sole strategy. Trump and his allies have made clear they intend to restrict the ballot to establish their permanent political domination, and there are only limited forces to restrain them from doing so. The use of fear and terror have been common in the American past – the KKK, for example used systematic violence to disenfranchise black voters. Control of the courts and state governments provides ample opportunities for stealing elections. It is also not clear that, if defeated at the polls, Trump would leave office voluntarily; his refusal to state before the 2016 election that he would abide by the results, and his claim that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, raise the question of whether he would accept defeat.
Tyrannical regimes from Serbia to the Philippines to Brazil and many other places have been brought down by “people power” -- nonviolent revolts that made society ungovernable and led to regime change. While the U.S. has a strong tradition of social movements based on people power, it does not have a tradition of using mass action and general strikes for the defense of democracy. However, in situations where democratic institutions have been so weakened or eliminated that they provide no alternative to tyranny, such methods have emerged and been used effectively.
Social Self-Defense against Trumpism is most likely to succeed through a combination of electoral and people power methods. The overcoming of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia – while accomplished under circumstances far different from those in the U.S. today -- provides an example of how they can be combined.
Despite Milosevic’s circumventing of electoral laws, repression of universities and media, and ethnic cleansing, in 1998 Serbia was still holding elections of a sort. An activist group called Otpor formed around the goal of driving Milosevic from power and began hundreds of small actions of resistance around the country to counter pervasive fear of the regime. Its plan was that
activists would compel the regime to call elections; they would create massive turnout around a united opposition candidate; they would join other nongovernmental organizations in carefully monitoring election results so they could document their victory; and they would use mass noncompliance – leading up to a general strike – if and when Milosevic refused to step down.
In 2000, Otpor pushed 18 of Serbia’s squabbling opposition parties to form a coalition to support a unity candidate, promising to deliver 500,000 votes to the unity candidate but threatening to put 100,000 protesters at the door of any politician who betrayed the coalition. As elections approached, the regime called Otpor an “illegal terrorist organization”; police raided its offices and shut down independent radio and TV stations; an average of seven activists were arrested each day.
Meanwhile, the opposition organized ten thousand election monitors. They announced exit polls showing Milocevic had been defeated by a 50% to 35% margin. Instead of accepting the results, Milocevic refused to leave office and demanded a run-off election.
Otpor announced a deadline for Milosevic to concede and 200,000 people demonstrated in Belgrade. The opposition called on the population throughout the country to “perform any acts of civil disobedience they have at their disposal.” Miners struck; TV and radio stations opened their airwaves to opposition voices. As the deadline approached, cars and trucks filled the highways heading toward Belgrade. Police put up roadblocks and were issued orders to shoot, but seeing the size of the convoys they abandoned their barricades. Half-a-million people gathered in Belgrade. Police fired tear gas, but when the crowd stood its ground riot police began running away or joining the crowd. The opposition candidate declared victory and Milosevic accepted his defeat.
Hang together – or hang separately
Historians emphasize that there were great political divisions among the KOR activists who first developed the idea of Social Self-Defense. But they were able to act together around the specific agenda of resisting the Polish regime’s attacks on workers and society as a whole.
The individuals and groups who oppose the Trump agenda are as diverse as the targets that agenda threatens. Trump and his supporters have the potential capacity to play them off against each other and to make deals with them one by one. There will be enormous pressures on advocacy organizations, movements, parties, and even activists themselves to sell each other out.
Social Self-Defense is a means to unify ourselves around mutual aid and around our common interests. It defines Trumpism not only as a series of separate threats to different sectors, constituencies, and policy agendas, but also as a unified— and therefore unifying—common threat. It allows us to use each action and campaign against one or another Trumpite abuse as a way to strike a blow against the Trump project as a whole. It thereby provides a frame for solidarity.