Sunday, July 14, 2019

A rare glimpse of what the members of the elite think: What are they going to do when things get really tough?

"A lot of these laws and regulations were designed back when the US had a finite amount of energy. Before the new technology was put into place."  Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, at the meeting titled "The Fight for EU Energy Security" held on April 11, 2019, in Brussels. Mr Sondland is evidently convinced that the US oil resources are "infinite," or nearly so. Full video of the event.

Scott Fitzgerald said once that "The rich are different from you and me” and Ernst Hemingway is reported to have answered, “Yes, they have more money." Maybe this exchange never took place, but I believe that Hemingway was right: the rich are not really different from ordinary people, apart from having more money. That is, they are not smarter than us. Their riches are the result of luck and of a certain capability of being in the right place at the right moment, including being born from a rich father.

I think that the same conclusion is valid for the category we call the elite. They are not different from you and me: they are not smarter, they just have more power. The concept of elite, of course, is a little vague. Let's say that they are people who have a certain capability of putting into practice their beliefs and so have an impact on the world. The commoners (you and me) cannot do that: at best we can vent our frustrations on the Web: it is what I am doing here!

So, if something important happens in the world, it is because the elites want it to happen. The president of the United States can decide to bomb a foreign country and it will be bombed. Senators and MPs can create laws that will be valid for everyone in the country and it will be applied. The military may lobby to siphon ever-increasing sums of money out of the taxes paid by everyone to build more and more expensive weaponry, and they will normally get it. Rich people may move huge amounts of money to support the extraction of fossil fuels, and that's done, no matter whether it is a good or a bad deal.

As we go down in the hierarchy, these capabilities fade gradually and disappear at the fuzzy boundary that separates the elites from the commoners. The elites and the commoners behave in similar ways, although it may be possible that the members of the elite are more aggressive. But the point remains: some people, up in the hierarchy, can do things we can't do.

I am not inventing all this: it is the "Elite Theory" that says that the world moves the way the rich and the powerful want it to move. It has been well-known for more than a century and probably it was well understood also in ancient times. A recent study that shows how commoners have little or no decisional power in a democracy was published by Gilens and Page in 2014 and their conclusion is that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Not surprising, I'd say. But note that there is no such thing as a secret "government of the elite" of people dressing in capes convening in a dark hall in the basement of the White House, in Washington. It is just that the pushes generated by powerful people average to a certain direction according to their prevailing beliefs. And the world moves in that direction.

So, what do the elite think? Maybe we can get a glimpse of that from what Mr. Gordon Sondland said when speaking at a meeting about the EU energy security in April 2019. Among his many dubious statements, one stands above the others: "the US had a finite amount of energy before the new technology was put into place." That's the same as saying that the fossil energy available in the US is now infinite.

Now, Mr. Sondland is surely a member of the US elite. He is a rich man, reported to have donated $ 1 million to support Donald Trump's electoral campaign. No wonder that he was given the prestigious post of US ambassador to the EU. But that was not just a reward for previous credits: Mr. Sondland is perfectly suited for the job of peddling US natural gas to the Europeans. If you have time, listen to him speaking at that meeting. Smooth, self-assured, convincing, the kind of person who could sell whiskers to cats.

The interesting point is that I think Mr. Sondland really believes that the US energy is infinite because of technological progress (*). Of course, I can't get inside his head but it was said in such a matter-of-factly tone that I'd bet he does. It is a belief that fits well with the current debate in the media. Of course, just a fringe believe that hydrocarbons are physically infinite, but most people are now in a phase of complete remotion of the concept that such a thing as "depletion" even exists, to say nothing about being a problem for the foreseeable future. The same is true for climate change.

If we can take Mr. Sondland's sentence as representative of the way the elite think, I guess it proves that they are influenced by their own propaganda. As I said, they are not different from you and me: they watch CNN and Fox News, too. And, like most people, they are unable to reason in quantitative terms, they cannot understand complex systems, they have no knowledge of physics, and they use only extremely crude, intuition-based models.

That, I think, explains a lot of things about what's happening in the world today. The elites think that technology can provide "infinite resources" and that's why their financial branch is pouring enormous amounts of money into a money-losing enterprise such as shale oil. And it also explains why their military branch is so fixated with petty little wars while the ecosystem is going to Hell. They are just acting according to their beliefs.

Of course, that's what's happening now. What if something really big changes the elite's cherished beliefs? How about a new oil crisis? What about a truly gigantic climate-related disaster? That may open up some interesting scenarios. Overall, people's behavior is well described by something that James Schlesinger said, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic." There is no doubt that the elites are in full complacency mode, right now but, if things get really tough, will the elite go into panic mode? And, if so, what happens?

Likely, the panicked elite will not react in a rational way: that's not one of the operating modes of human beings. Most likely, they will keep their trust in technology: if Mr. Sondland believes that it could make fossil fuels infinite, then more technology can solve other problems. If fracking ceases to work we can apply more technology and get liquid fuels out of coal, why not? Or maybe restart an all-out effort with nuclear energy, and damn the radioactive torpedoes. And climate change? Well, the scientists can think of some way of dealing with it: spray something in the atmosphere, put mirrors in orbit, whatever.

It could be much worse: the elite may decide that the problem is just that there are too many people consuming and polluting. Then, they could think of ways to solve it - you guess how. Or they may simply decide that, after all, what do they care about the commoners? They'll just work at saving themselves and the commoners will be left to reach the bottom of the Seneca Cliff, underwater. It is just what the Roman Elite did at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. And we will see the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda. Interesting times ahead.

(*) What if Mr. Sondland was lying and he knows perfectly well that the US fossil reserves are not infinite? That changes little in the situation, except that it would indicate that a larger fraction of the elite (including Mr. Sondland) is already in panic mode.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)