Saturday, February 20, 2016

Groundswell: The Case for Fracking

Book Review: Groundswell: The Case for Fracking – by Ezra Levant (McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

This book was fair overall. The most important part is probably the geopolitical analysis although some of that has changed since the book was published a year or so ago. Climate change aside, cheap energy is what grows our economies and that growth is what provides opportunities to an ever-growing global population. Fracking, a predominantly American industrial phenomenon has without a doubt led to cheaper energy for all Americans, at the gas pump, and in electricity and gas bills. It has also BY FAR led to the largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions among any country ever due to providing the ability to replace coal power plants with gas power plants – and that is with a 20% higher population! Much of this book focuses on fracking and shale gas & oil as a means to reduce dependence on foreign oil & gas, particularly from countries that favor political ideologies and practices with which we disagree. Levant takes on the Russian energy monopoly and manipulative policies and the current oil and gas ‘cartels.’ He also addresses criticisms of fracking. He does not come across as an energy expert or a policy expert so I would rate the book fair overall. He is Canadian and mentions his previous book, Ethical Oil, which posits Canadian tar sands oil as ethical compared to the “conflict” oil of the Middle East. While this is true it is also true that tar sands oil is carbon intensive and should be limited to small production to keep it viable as a possible future source in case of supply problems – though not likely for quite a while. 

The first ‘frac’ job was done in 1947 in Kansas, by J.D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation as a means to increase gas production when gelled gasoline was injected under hydraulic pressure to create fractures in the gas-bearing rock. The process was patented by Halliburton in 1949. By 2000 over a million ‘frac jobs’ were done on American wells. Long before that wells were “shot” with explosives to try and increase production with variable results. With fracking, gas and oil production were reliably increased and it became standard for so-called “tight” formation wells. It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that fracking was combined with horizontal drilling in shale by George Mitchell’s Mitchell Energy in the Barnett Shale that the new fracking revolution began. Frack jobs got bigger – they had to since the horizontal wells were accessing more reservoir. More and more sand and water were pumped into each frac “stage” of the shales at high pressure and production increased. Horizontal wells are far more efficient at accessing hydrocarbons than vertical wells. Shale is a continuous resource compared to traditional conventional reservoirs that require porosity, traps, and seals. Thus the wells are more predictable and costly “dry holes” are avoided. Fracking revitalized the American oil and gas industry to such an extent that it was overdone and now there is oversupply. Many people don’t realize that before that we were importing far more oil and gas - from countries that don’t meet our political, human rights, or environmental standards. Fracking gave us the opportunity to withdraw some financial support for these regimes. Instead of enriching countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, Nigeria, and Iran we were/are enriching our own economy. These days about 90% of wells in North America are fracked. Without fracking, gas and oil prices would be phenomenally high and there would likely be tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of wells drilling everywhere just to try and keep up with demand. Coal would be far cheaper than gas and so would be keeping our carbon emissions going up rather than dropping as they have. Our air would be dirtier and health problems from that would be much higher than they are now. Renewable energy would probably be further along but at great cost and even then would almost certainly be just a larger blip on the screen than it is currently. Fracking from shale gas has also helped the U.S. manufacturing industry as low-cost gas compared to other countries offers favorable economics here compared to there. The same is true for the chemical and fertilizer industries.

Levant notes that after 9/11 the U.S began increasing its hydrocarbon imports from Canada as it had become overly reliant on imports from the Middle East from countries like Saudi Arabia that are rated among the worst countries in the world in terms of human rights abuses.

He equates the activist backlash against fracking with the backlash against Canadian tar sands but I disagree. In terms of emissions, pollution, and land degradation fracking is much more benign than the oil sands mining. The narrative of a decade ago that we are running out of oil and gas is no longer the case as fracking and horizontal drilling have unlocked massive amounts that can last decades. Even early in the shale plays some anti-drilling pundits were talking about the “shale bubble,” of the impossibility of keeping up supply with growing demand. Now (2016) we only have one third of the rigs running and we are still significantly oversupplied for the near-term. Some had stated emphatically that by now we would be running out and as it happens we have discovered more accessible reserves since then and extended future supply out for decades longer at least. Fracking has allowed the U.S. to achieve some degree of energy security compared to pre-fracking times when natural gas was scarce and expensive. Renewable fuels like wind and solar require direct subsidization, high upfront costs, and significant back-up supply due to their intermittency. Expensive energy has a disproportionate effect on poor and minority people he argues, citing the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Cheap gas means cheap heat and cheap electric. While environmentalists often deride natural gas as not being a “bridge fuel” to a lower carbon future, the fact is that it already is and it is also saving people money and significantly improving air quality. There are a few issues like methane leakage, spills, and explosions, but those are really minor overall compared to the benefits even though they should and are being addressed. 

Levant distinguishes between ethical energy and conflict energy, comparing North American gas to Russian Gazprom gas, Iranian ayatollah gas, and Qatari sharia gas. This was also his argument in favor of developing the Canadian oil sands but I think the gas argument is much better. He does have a point though when he says that we should buy from countries that are peaceful, ethical, have good human rights records, treat their workers fairly, and have adequate environmental standards. Many of the countries with the best oil and gas reserves fail in several of those categories. Some of these countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Nigeria have poor environmental records and they have no plans for big improvements. He gives some of these countries ratings in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Of note are the rankings out of 163 countries: Saudi Arabia ranked 99th, Russia 121st, and Nigeria 153rd. The U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and Norway – all countries with oil and gas industries and some with fracking, are all in the top 25. Saudi Arabia is known to have covered up some very large oil spills. Thus importing gas and oil from these countries is seriously contributing to pollution and climate change compared to other countries. The Gulf countries are known for ill treatment of workers, especially indentured foreign workers who have little rights and some consider to be slaves. Women, gays, minorities, and minority religions are openly persecuted and in some cases executed in these countries.

Levant is correct to note that oil trading is global compared to gas trading which is mainly localized due to difficulty of transport. Oil tankers outweigh LNG carriers 4300 to 365 and the LNG ships can only carry about 10% of equivalent capacity as the oil tankers, he notes. Gas trading is also landlocked, dependent on available supplies, pipelines, and oceanic LNG terminals. This is why Russia can monopolize its gas and charge high rates. In fact, it charges variable rates, depending on how it views relations with the receiving country. This is Russian cronyism at its finest. Russia, Iran, and Qatar were said to have 60% of gas reserves (before the shale gas additions). One aim they have is to create a gas OPEC, a cartel that can fix prices. Shale gas threatens them as shale oil threatens oil OPEC. There is significant evidence that these countries, particularly Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have been secretly and not so secretly supporting anti-fracking sentiment. Russia has directly done it in Bulgaria, after then Secretary of State Clinton promoted it. Levant notes the extraordinary coverage Al Jazeera (owned by the emirate of Qatar) has given to the anti-fracking movement. Putin’s Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) is basically the gas OPEC that owns 70% of gas reserves (pre-shale gas) and 85% of LNG exports (less now that Australia has increased its capacity and the U.S. is also beginning to do so). The GECF pledged to keep from overproducing gas to keep prices high (price-fixing a la OPEC). The only threats to this manifesting reality are shale gas development in European countries, which is not likely to occur soon or at any great scale, and increased LNG exports from non-GECF countries which is in the works. Until then, most of Europe and much of Asia is beholden to Russia for gas and Russia has shown that it can and will use gas as a weapon.

Russia’s state-controlled gas producer, Gazprom, quite openly treats former Soviet bloc countries more harshly in terms of gas pricing than European countries. In some cases it sells gas for less to European countries further down the same pipeline that it sells gas for higher prices to former Soviet bloc countries, especially those who do not have their own gas supplies. Such discriminatory pricing would be illegal in any country with free trade policies, says the author. In addition Gazprom prefers long-term contracts that are hard to break, to further its cronyistic monopoly. The European Commission has tried unsuccessfully to investigate Gazprom for unfair business practices but the Russian government prevents any such investigations. Basically, Russia has the ability and exercises it, to blackmail its customers, especially those former Soviet-blocs without their own gas supplies. Ukraine and Belarus were offered trade deals by Russia. Belarus relented but Ukraine chose not to agree. As a result Belarus gets gas at less than half the price that Ukraine got it. Russia also threatened Moldava with the same result if it joined the Western Europe Energy Community. Lithuania and Poland have sought investigation of this energy blackmail. Gazprom has also tried to undermine competitors in Turkmenistan, the country with the 4th largest gas reserves. They have also flexed their muscle against Turkmenistan by shutting off Turkmen gas flowing through Gazprom’s pipelines with not enough notice, dropping pressure causing explosions in the Turkmenistan lines and long-term supply disruption, which resulted in Turkmenistan reluctantly agreeing to get paid far less for its gas. Basically, Gazprom is a rogue monopoly that makes U.S. and European companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP angelic by comparison. And yet much of the European Union: Germany, Turkey, the U.K., Bulgaria, and many others buy much of their gas from Gazprom. Russia has every reason to oppose shale gas and Russian media has done just that. All the while Gazprom is not known for its environmental focus. It is known, however, for its leaky pipelines, which contribute significantly to methane emissions.

Levant then goes through the criticisms of fracking: contaminated water, water use, secret chemicals, and seismic activity. Although these are concerns, most are significantly over-hyped. The possibility of water contamination is almost entirely through spills which do tend to increase as activity increases and as more waste water is produced due to the new type of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking). There have been some cases of methane migration when drilling through aquifers but it is usually limited in degree and extent and methane itself bubbles out and is not considered a poison. The fracking process itself has not been implicated in water contamination despite attempts to implicate it. Water use has been shown to be manageable and in the shale gas fields of the northeast over 90% of water is treated and reused. Secret chemicals are mostly benign and used in very small amounts (highly diluted) and most importantly there is no path to exposure besides spills. Companies and states now routinely publish the chemicals and amounts of them used at each well. Seismic activity has become much better understood. It results almost entirely from waste water injection although there have been some cases caused by the fracking process. Areas and formations where this occurs and has further potential to occur have become well known and should slow in the future as disposal in certain formations and areas adjacent to basement faulting is reduced and as injection pressures are reduced.

Next he examines anti-fracking activism, first noting Bill McKibben’s initial embrace of the new shale gas supplies when he was leading protests of coal power plants demanding that they switch to gas. As gas prices have dropped that indeed has been happening but McKibben has since stopped praising gas and now demonizes it. Levant makes the case as many others do that the selling of carbon offsets is akin to the Church selling indulgences to rich sinners!

Next he notes the drastic increases in employment, tax revenue, and land owner royalty income in shale gas and oil states, at least until the bust that began mid to late 2014. The current oil & gas downturn shows that it is possible to overdevelop and become too dependent on such revenue and income. The shale gas boom has helped many farmers from going under even though activists will claim that it has destroyed their land. The U.S. has the advantage that in most cases the landowners own the minerals under their property. The typical production rate was 12.5% but many shale producers made deals with landowners to give them up to 20% in addition to large bonuses of up to $5000 or more per acre. This is not the case in other countries and would be one impediment to European shale gas development.

Levant goes through the prospects for shale development around the world. Unfortunately there are many impediments to that happening: nonexistent landowner royalties, anti-fracking sentiment, lack of infrastructure, lack of regionally available equipment, services, and expertise, and perhaps most importantly, unconfirmed geological potential. China, Argentina, Algeria, the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Russia, and Brazil are said to have the most reserves in that order but that is subject to change. Eastern and Western Europe also have potential and that could lead to gas independence for those countries beholden to Russia. Unfortunately the results of drilling and pre-evaluation in Poland, Denmark, and Romania have not been encouraging. China is trying to develop their shale resources but is still pretty far behind their original estimates. Lack of infrastructure, cost overruns, and the current low gas price environment are perhaps their main problems. Argentina is having some luck as the wells look promising and their government props up internal natural gas prices to encourage development.

The first country he covers is Poland. He notes the unfortunate history of Poland as unfairly getting the short end of many wars and conflicts, most recently the WWII Holocaust, Hitler’s Germanification of Poles, and Soviet brutality to Polish people and churches. Now they are victims of Russian gas and oil monopolies, with gasoline as much as $20 a gallon and natural gas as much as $15 per mcf. The Polish government has to subsidize the cost of gas or the people could not afford it. Poland would love to develop its own shale gas and be free of Russian cronyism. Another possibility for Poland is to receive LNG from the Baltic. For this they would have to build a receiving and gasification terminal and a pipeline to move the gas south. Lack of basic infrastructure such as roads is also an issue. Unfortunately, I read that the latest well tests were not encouraging for Polish shale gas but there will no doubt be more tests. The Ukraine has the same problems with Russian gas as does Poland and several other countries. In fact, this is a big part of what has prompted the conflict between Russia and Ukraine where Russian aggression, propaganda, and dishonesty has been displayed for the world to see. Although one might call it a civil war it was the Russians who fomented dissent and continue to aid rebels. In the past they had shut off gas to Ukraine several times in the middle of winter, demanding more money. Apparently, there is also a Soviet-era past of suppressing Ukrainian culture in what has been called Russification, including the widespread murder of Ukrainian cultural elite: writers, artists, intellectuals, and priests. Energy freedom would certainly benefit Ukraine. Ukraine has long been the victim of Russian cruelty. The starvation of 3-5 million people induced by Stalin in 1932-33 is now known as the Holodomor genocide. There was also the poisoning of opposition leader Victor Yushchenko. Putin’s propaganda arm has succeeded somewhat in recasting the murderous Stalin as a hero. Levant notes the demoralizing effect of Russia cutting off winter gas to the entire country of Ukraine as reminiscent, at least symbolically, in the minds of the people, of that starvation episode.

Germany produces some of its own gas but consumes about seven times as much and most of it comes from Russia. Even with their powerful green lobby and their renewable energy revolution their carbon emissions are rising. This is due to phasing out nuclear and replacing much of it with coal, particularly dirty lignite coal and some lignite-rich wood (also with high carbon and pollution footprints). The renewable transition has been expensive and has led to higher energy prices, although Germans do not have as high per capita energy use as those in the U.S. Germany has some shale potential but demands to ban fracking as France has are pretty loud so it is doubtful the gas will ever be extracted.

France was importing nearly all of its gas from Russia, Algeria, and Libya (keeping Gaddafi paid up). The Paris Basin likely holds significant quantities of shale gas and oil but fracking has been banned due to the perceived environmental effects which have been overblown. Wells were drilled, some fracked, by both French companies like Total S. A. and other companies from Canada and the U.S. when the government pulled the plug. Of course, French companies like Total S.A. do frack in other places and have such investments in the U.S. and Canada as well.

The Bowland Shale in the U.K. is thought to contain massive quantities of natural gas. U.K. wind turbines have been developed to the point where they are ubiquitous and there is significant public backlash against wind power- the noise, the landscape effects, and the bird killing effects. With the early fracking tests near Blackpool there were small earthquakes detected – somewhat higher than the typical microseismic effects of fracking. This led to a huge backlash. It was determined that the well in question was drilled very close to a major fault and that likely was the issue. The Royal Society recommended a “traffic light” style monitoring of seismic activity which has become the norm in areas where it occurs and also in the geothermal industry which is considered “green.” Right now the biggest issue is public acceptance as there has been quite a bit of protest of fracking due to the propaganda of American environmentalists.

Bulgaria is another country wanting to be rid of Soviet (now Russian) influence. Bulgaria gets almost a hundred percent of its gas from Russia and was also cutoff when Ukraine was cutoff. It had some shale gas and exploration was underway with Chevron leading it but was cut off as fracking was banned in Bulgaria due to the influence of pro-Soviet factions of the government as well as some public protest – likely approved by those pro-Soviet forces. Gazprom reacted in various strong ways to Bulgaria’s effort to be free of it – buying up gas stations in one instance. There was one upshot: after Bulgaria banned fracking, Gazprom did renegotiate newly expired gas contracts at a lower rate.

Lithuania is another country long beholden to Soviet and Russian interests – they get a hundred percent of their natural gas from Russia. They were being charged high rates for it as well. When the possibility of drilling for shale gas in Lithuania and perhaps more important, talk of building an LNG receiving terminal on the shore of the Baltic Sea (which is currently being built), Gazprom suddenly decided to decrease its price a little bit. Chevron was active in the country exploring for shale gas, which is significantly shallower in Lithuania than in Poland, and the country’s president Dalia Grybauskaite is pro-fracking. Gazprom has sought to cause problems with Lithuania’s move toward energy independence. Incidentally, the name of the LNG terminal is called “Independence.” 

Shale gas drilling in China has been occurring and has been moderately successful. The issues have been economics since they started to produce when prices were low, cost overruns (typical in early days of a technology), corruption (slowly fading), and lack of infrastructure. China has worked to secure needed oil and gas from many parts of the world – Africa, SE Asia, invests in U.S shale gas, and imports gas and oil from Russia. China doesn’t have an environmental lobby like most of Europe so that is not an impediment. Even so, the ramping up of shale gas production, though significant, has been behind initial estimates.

Israel is another country that would prefer energy independence, especially from Middle Eastern countries that oppose its policies. After the Arab Spring and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government came to power in Egypt the pipeline bringing gas from Egypt to Israel was bombed 14 times and eventually the government officially cut them off. Lucky for Israel significant new gas supplies have been discovered offshore Israel and in the Mediterranean. The large Leviathan field and the closer Tamar field, which came online in 2013 will save Israel massive amounts of money and lower electricity prices. They may be able to export gas to Turkey, which is also reliant on Russian gas, and Cyprus. The biggest boon for Israel is not economics but energy independence from hostile regimes.

He gives a history of Quebec’s tense relationship with Canada. Separatists almost won the vote in 1980. Quebec imports most of its oil (92%) from overseas, from OPEC members like Saudi Arabia and Algeria. All of its gas is imported as well. While there have been calls for Quebec to produce its own gas and oil through fracking there are moratoriums on offshore (Gulf of St. Lawrence) production. The people lean to the left and take cues from France which recently banned fracking. Since most people speak French as a first language they also get much of their news from France. Almost all Quebecers want energy independence but are also opposed to getting from fracking shale (due to environmental propaganda). Quebec banned fracking for five years in 2013. Apparently, Quebecers are in debt and must rely on handouts from other provinces like oil-and-gas-rich Alberta and British Columbia. One company, Lone Pine Resources, was sold permits to drill by Quebec for $250 million and then the moratorium was enacted. They are seeking redress from NAFTA to get their money back. Similar issues have occurred in New York State when fracking was banned.

New Brunswick is another poor Canadian province reliant on revenue from other provinces. They have a high unemployment rate and few prospects to get out of poverty. They tried an LNG import terminal but bad timing for pricing caused the project to be abandoned after working below par for a while. New Brunswick has shale gas and drilling and producing it could help the local economy as well as lower energy prices. After a tough battle that involved anti-fracking activists paired with First Nations people the province decided to ban fracking for now. As is typical some companies invested in the region were left stranded. Nova Scotia is in a similar situation, with a horrible local economy and with shale resources identified. Since 2011 the government has put a moratorium on shale exploration as it reviews the environmental issues.

Next he explores activism and celebrity activism beginning with Josh Fox’s movie Gasland. Fox knows little to nothing about the oil and gas industry. The movie is overrated, highly inaccurate, and demeaning in my opinion. It did, however, bring up some issues in the oil and gas industry that were problematic. There was a need for better regulation and in most cases better regulations were indeed enacted. It also stirred a lot of people against fracking. At the time the boom was happening too fast. There was too much truck traffic in some areas, too little regulation, not enough training of workers, and poor oversight and organization. Over the next several years most of those problems went away but anti-fracking activism did not and has not. It is still running pretty strong as a well-organized effort. The problem with anti-fracking activists is that they have little to no interest in making the process safer. They are insistent in an all-out ban, period. Such an uncompromising approach is unrealistic and unwarranted. They have been emboldened by the moratoriums in New York, New Brunswick, France, and a few other places. They still benefit as does everyone by paying lower gasoline, oil, natural gas, electricity, and consumer products costs. He notes that Matt Damon’s anti-drilling film that flopped called Promised Land was partially funded by a company owned by what he calls the dictatorship of OPEC country United Arab Emirates. Yoko and Sean Lennon, Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, Daryl Hannah, and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi have also been celebrity anti-fracking activists. Fox argued that there was a kind of government conspiracy to promote fracking at the expense of the environment, implicating the EPA and especially Dick Cheney and his one-time company Halliburton who developed fracking. The myth of the “Halliburton Loophole” as an exemption to the Clean Water Act was long peddled by the “fractivists.” Particular studies – several thoroughly debunked and shown to be deceptive – are oft relied on by fractivists along with their main scientist-collaborators who often show the same unwillingness to consider that they might be wrong – in light of the many studies that disagree with their early findings. There are some problems with fracking, mainly the higher chance for spills due to more wastewater and more activity, methane migration, and methane leakage. All of these problems are being addressed more and more by the industry, have improved overall, and will likely continue to improve significantly. There are problems with the conventional oil and gas industry, the gas storage industry, and the gas utility industry regarding methane leakage due to aging infrastructure as the recent massive leak in California showed. They will likely be addressed soon as well. Fractivists’ focus on fracking chemicals has also been overblown as there are far less used than depicted and most are benign. Some of the chemicals Fox highlighted are used in many other industries as well. Along with fractivism rose many biased environmental news sources, some supposedly respected, but most follow uncompromising anti-fossil fuel positions: Eco Watch, Food & Water Watch, ProPublica, DeSmog Blog, Climate Progress, Grist, and many others. While some do provide good information, the biases are clear. There are well organized local groups everywhere there is oil and gas development and in liberal university towns near development where the anti-drilling sentiment is most vocal. It should also be pointed at that most issues with spills and water well quality problems due to methane migration were dealt with by oil and gas companies by settling with plaintiffs, sometimes for large sums of money, even if the companies did not think they were at fault or knowing the problem was temporary and non-toxic. There was a rash of anecdotal stories about harmed farm animals and local health problems that oddly never occurred with conventional oil and gas activity that utilized the same processes and potential avenues of exposure. I think this could be attributed to the “nocebo” effect as is possibly much of the so-called “wind turbine syndrome” where the low sound of the turbines is said to make people sick. However, in that case some doctors say that could well be the case. In the oil and gas cases, they have yet to provide any evidence or avenues of exposure to contaminants that could cause the health problems. There could possibly (but this is doubtful) be some very localized issues with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and increases in ground-level ozone but overall in some fracking areas like Pennsylvania the air quality has improved significantly as coal power plants were replaced by gas power plants. Pennsylvania has long had well water quality problems and since Gasland’s nonsensical attributions of some of the well water problems to oil and gas activity there have been several large-scale studies that showed little to no effect on groundwater with the exception of predominantly temporary increases in methane migration in certain areas where methane just below aquifers had long been a problem. The biggest problems occurred early in the Marcellus play and have become far less common with better drilling and cementing recipes and techniques. The EPA recently declared fracking generally safe in terms of groundwater issues.

In addition to the biased news sources and websites, some of which are funded by foundations these anti-fracking foundations fund several anti-fracking activists and biased studies. People are actually being paid to oppose fracking. There are now activists doing “citizen science” trying to find air emissions from oil and gas facilities. These are ill-trained people not unbiased scientists. There are local county governments using taxpayer money to take water samples in order to try and prove shallow aquifer water contamination from waste water injection wells thousands of feet below the surface, a geologic near-impossibility. There is significant fear-mongering and when people are afraid they get mad.

Levant sees the fractivists as Luddites intent on sabotaging the industry if they can’t shut it down and that can happen. An oil worker was shot (but recovered) in West Virginia recently by a person (still at-large as far as I know) who complained about a leaking oil well before shooting him and running off. Levant also notes that it is no secret that Russia (read RT, the Russian propaganda news), Qatar (read Al Jazeera), Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia all favor fractivist views that emphasize the potential environmental problems of fracking even though their own environmental records are among the poorest in the world. He notes that wealthy countries like France can afford to ban fracking and pay extra for Gazprom gas but countries like Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and others are being maltreated by Putin’s Russia and deserve to develop their own resources if it is possible.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Book Review: Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea – by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library Chronicles, 2008)

This was an interesting read giving unique perspectives of history. Much of the book focuses on nonviolence movements of the 17th through 20th centuries from the Quakers to abolitionists to Gandhi to Vietnam and later war protestors. The book begins with quotes from Mozi (5th century BC China) and Bertrand Russell and a forward by the Dalai Lama, where he notes non-violence as a way of life (as exemplified by Gandhi and King) rather than just in the political sphere. However, much of the book does focus on the political aspects of nonviolence in history. I think perhaps practicing nonviolence as a way of life would be good to explore in its own book. This book, however, is quite valuable history. 

Kurlansky first points out that there is no word for nonviolence, ie. ahimsa is merely non-himsa. He thinks that is because it has always and everywhere been seen as a marginal point of view. I am not sure if I agree. One might simply employ the word “peace.” He thinks all societies, even if they did not like violence, have considered it necessary under certain circumstances. He calls nonviolence a “dangerous idea” because it has often threatened the established order – was seen as extreme. He thinks the efforts of pacifists and advocates of nonviolence have had more influence on events than history credits them. He distinguishes the terms pacifism and non-violence. Pacifism is passive and harmless, more of a state, he says, while nonviolence is active and often dangerous. He considers nonviolence as “a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” Advocates of nonviolence see it as a more effective political means than violence. Mahatma Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, or “truth force.” Gandhi, in line with Hinduism, Jaininsm, and Buddhism considered that humans were all working toward an ideal of nonviolence (ahimsa) and pure ahimsa (or as pure as is possible) would be perfection. This idea counters others that say it is human nature to be violent. Those religions advocated nonviolence as an ideal but in practice there were various interpretations, some that allowed (mostly) defensive war and killing animals for food. Confucius advocated a non-violent approach to politics as ideal but probably not practical. Mozi advocated “mutual love,” a form of the so-called Golden Rule, later advocated by Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, and many others. Jewish teaching was to love one’s neighbor and Christian teaching to love one’s enemy. In Taoism as well as many other religions, he says, is the idea that as humans evolve nonviolence will become more likely.

“Eastern religions, which Westerners tend to regard as ethereal and only workable for the dreamiest of idealists, actually have a pragmatic side. They recognize that violence is wrong, that nonviolence is the path that ought to be taken, but they also recognize that humans are weak and imperfect and that only a few of the most evolved and extraordinary among us will choose that path and stay with it.”

Judaism holds an ideal of nonviolence in the commandment “You shall not kill.” However, in its history there have been many violent episodes without due provocation, so while attitudes are peaceful there is ambivalence. When asked to recite the Torah Babylonian Rabbi Hillel gave his famous statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary on this. Go and study.” His contemporary and fellow Jew, Jesus, taught unconditional love and turning the other cheek rather than eye for an eye so he was seen as a reformer. He was tortured to death for his radicalness and to discourage others but the effect was the opposite – his pacifism and nonviolence inspired his followers and others, although many “Christians” throughout history through the present could not be said to have followed his example. The early Christians were pacifists. He gives the story of Origen who castrated himself to show his own sincerity (one might argue that as a self-violent act) but held his precepts of nonviolence in the face of Roman militancy as Christian nonviolence was becoming problematic for Romans. He was tortured and executed in 254 CE. Christian conscientious objectors to warfare were martyred. But when Constantine had his war vision and accepted Christianity as valid and defended it, things changed. It later became the main state religion. Kurlansky notes that in general when a state embraces a religion, the nonviolent teachings lose importance as states are more prone to violence. There was still conscientious objection. Some were later branded as saints. Apparently, in the fifth century an Algerian bishop, Augustine of Hippo wrote a treatise on “Just War.” Saints were martyrs. Martyrs were those killed. Thus being killed (in warfare) could qualify one for sainthood. Martin of Tours, who in the past had declared that he would not fight but was willing to go unarmed between the two fighting armies. The battle did not come to pass so he was spared but he later became the first unmartyred Catholic saint. He became a symbol of military valor in a kind of flip-flop of non-violence to violence. Augustine’s “just war” idea continued to be developed and became the basis for many Christian military campaigns. Eventually the “Peace of God” had morphed into the crusades. Killing Muslims and other non-Christians became more acceptable, in part to stop aggression from them but eventually offensive wars were begun.

Early Islam, a word that means peace, was seemingly peaceful and nonviolence was an enforced ideal. Mohammed was not accepted as a prophet by a group of Jews in Medina and later his first military campaign was said to be defensive against an armed Jewish group that rose against him. Soon warfare became a mainstay of the prophet. At first it was necessary defensive warfare. He fought nineteen campaigns during his life utilizing an expanded definition of defensive warfare. After his death is when the spread of Islam really began. Despite such Quranic passages as “God grants to gentleness what he does not grant to violence” and “Whoever kills a human being should be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind,” the genii was let out of the bottle and conquest and conversion by the sword and attendant slavery became commonplace. The Quran can be interpreted peacefully but many clerics have put forth interpretations that favor violence against aggressors and apostates. The idea of jihad was split: “Greater jihad was the struggle to be a pure and good person, while lesser jihad referred to armed struggle.” But a few hundred years later the concept of jihad or holy war would be used in war propaganda and the model has remained. When Islamic power declined in the 11th century it was the Christians who waged jihad on them with the offensive Crusades. It was called a holy war to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens as were previous holy wars between Christians, between Muslims, and between the two. Islamic and Christian concepts of holy war actually came from Old Testament accounts of Jewish campaigns ordained by God. War propaganda involves demonizing the enemy so that the offensive warriors will feel that their cause is just. Apparently it was the success of the first Crusade that altered the Islamic tenet of lesser jihad to become a duty and after the invasion of Baghdad by the Mongols (many had previously converted to Islam) the lesser Jihad became more important than the greater jihad. Sadly enough, these religions and their state sponsors are still caught in this web of demonizing other religions and justifying warfare and violence.

Kurlansky notes that in Medieval times those in the monasteries avoided the military campaigns and were not supported by the Church. The Franciscans kept vows of non-violence, as did the Cathars and the Bogomils, inspired by the 3rd century C.E. profit Mani who syncretized a religion with elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Buddhism. Along with the Manichaeans the Cathars and Bogomils were denounced as heretics, persecuted, many imprisoned and killed. They all strongly advocated nonviolence to humans and animals as well as vegetarianism. The Cathars were more active – they spoke out against the Church considering them a fraud. The Church spread obvious lies about them and their “perversions.” They were more Christian in orientation than the Manichaeans. In the 12th century the Waldensians, probably inspired by the Cathars, also rejected violence. Another movement in the 15th century was inspired by the Waldensians. They were the Taborites from Czech Bohemia, inspired by Jan Hus, a peasant priest from Prague. Unfortunately, the Cathars and the Taborites came to advocate violent revolution in defense. The Waldensians survived to become part of the Protestant reformation. The Anabaptists also rejected violence and some were executed. Basically, all of these “fringe” Christian sects interpreted literally Jesus’s teachings on love, pacifism, and patient endurance of persecution – perhaps the main teachings that were meant to be interpreted literally. Later, Mennonites also refused military service. Protestant mystics also preached nonviolence. The Quakers began in the 1600’s in England and came to reject violence. William Penn converted to Quakerism in 1667 and noted that a nonviolence movement could begin with one person rejecting it. Incidentally, Pennsylvania was not named after William Penn the Quaker pacifist but after his father William Penn the admiral and war hero.

Quakers began migrating to American in 1656. They were not well-received. Some were driven away and beaten, others executed. Towns passed anti-Quaker ordinances. William Penn, the Quaker, invited all manner of pacifists to his Pennsylvania. They shunned war and had open and favorable relationships with the Native Americans. There were small but significant numbers of American conscientious objectors, not all religious, in all the wars for which service was required before the American Revolution.

The author notes the Italian law professor, Alberico Gentili, who in the late 16th century advocated for just wars and the idea of pre-emptive strikes, such as the modern invasion of Iraq. He used examples of the Romans attacking Carthage since if they didn’t the reverse would eventually happen. He also invoked ideas that certain enemies were “inferior,” lewd, or primitive, and needed to be conquered. He used similar logic to justify slavery. This was an ancient argument made even by Aristotle. In the 17th century John Selden and Thomas Hobbes argued similarly. Even Thomas Jefferson, who said all men were equal, also said that the black slaves were less equal. Hobbes and Rousseau argued that warfare was natural to humans. John Locke also advocated that the rights of the colonialists superseded the human rights of the slaves. Later, Marx and Lenin would also say that taking up arms was necessary for a revolution. Meanwhile, William Penn proceeded with his “holy experiment” where Quakers and other pacifists came to live in Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies. Pennsylvania did not act in military solidarity with the other colonies and often made its own peace deals with Indians. In 1756 the Quakers were voted out of power and their influence began to wane. Although there were notable dissenters against the conquering of indigenous peoples that would probably have been slaughtered whether they resisted or not, they had little choice but to resist and the genocide happened. The Cherokee nation took a different approach by setting up a government similar to the American one and developing their own writing system. Even so, they were removed from their home area to a reservation in Oklahoma in a brutal march known as the “Trail of Tears,” and thousands died along the way. Nonviolence did not work for them unless perhaps one considers that it could have gone much worse.

In New Zealand the war-like Maori resisted colonialism. However, in 1869 after some years of struggle, a Maori leader named Te Whiti decided to claim the Islands peacefully and allow the Europeans to dwell there as well. Te Whiti’s group collected ploughs and began to plough the land vigorously to grow crops. They were arrested but continued to plough without resorting to violence. This group of Maoris were called Parihakas and wore a white feather. The British army sent many of them away to prisons but they continued to be nonviolent. They did protest their fate by refusing to pay taxes. Te Whiti died in exile in 1907 and was buried with a cloud of white feathers. He is credited with preventing the genocide of his people and today there are half a million Maori in New Zealand, about 20% of the population.

During the American Revolution it was realized that many Americans rejected warfare (but were also anti-British) but were called upon to contribute in other ways such as paying war taxes. But pacifists were still persecuted since they were a threat to growing the revolutionary movement. The author considers that the American Revolution could have been conducted without violence with the British giving up due to the unprofitability of the colonies, but that does not seem very plausible to me. Although there were some nonviolent “victories” in Massachusetts there was no other case of a successful nonviolent revolution against the British Empire, until Gandhi anyway. The Quakers favored negotiation, noting that some in the British Parliament favored their so-far peaceful revolution, but “patriots” like John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Ben Franklin saw violent revolution as the only real choice. People were forced to fight in some places – they were “lynched,” a practice named for Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia who would hang war objectors by their limbs until they shouted “Liberty forever!” Kurlansky notes that the Revolutionary War was a brutal one with many civilian casualties and family members turned against one another even though it is considered a just war in history classes. Oaths of Renunciation and Allegiance were required of many of the war resisters who would lose land, homes, or be imprisoned if they didn’t comply. Ironically, the revolutionary leaders regarded their taxation without representation as slavery and yet they kept slaves. Eventually, groups of Quakers did volunteer to fight in the war. War brutalities were committed by the revolutionaries as well as the British.

The War of 1812 also brought war resistance for religious reasons. He mentions the tract of David Low Dodge who in 1815 founded the New York Peace Society. Apparently, he worked to discredit war in a business-like manner, pedaling his wares: knowledge of the non-virtues of war. By 1828 an umbrella group was formed to unite the various peace societies: the American Peace Society. They became an important intellectual voice. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at some of their events. By the late 1830’s William Lloyd Garrison, a working-class abolitionist activist joined forces with the peace society. His was a more secular voice. He strongly rejected both slavery and violence and called people to action. He was both admired and hated. After a few violent slave rebellions Garrison was unjustly accused of fomenting such activity by way of his adamant views. A mob almost tortured and hanged him but he was rescued by police. Lawyer Wendell Phillips observed him being dangled by rope out of a high building and was impressed by the way he kept his composure and eventually became one of his closest collaborators. He inspired many people in both the nonviolence and anti-slavery movements. But violent slave uprisings happened, including the successful one in Haiti where for about twelve years the Haitians fought back Napoleon’s attempts at racial extermination. It was very bloody on both sides. Napoleon lost 50,000 troops and Haiti became a sovereign nation but the effects of the violence would last centuries and may still be around today. After this the French and British decided to end their pursuit of slavery. Garrison did not support a war to end slavery as other abolitionists did and tried to dissuade those who sought to provoke it. He debated about it with fellow white abolitionist John Brown who provoked rebellion and was killed for it and called a hero by many. Garrison and others also praised his intentions but not his methods. Garrison was pragmatic in supporting Lincoln’s war but not happy about it. Many in the north were fighting to free the slaves but many also were not. Many in the north were anti-abolitionist, seeing them as instigators like John Brown. Lincoln was afraid to free the slaves for fear of resistance to the idea. After the war things were not so much easier for the African Americans as “black codes” were passed. The KKK rose in power. The blacks could stay there under oppressed conditions or go north were they could earn small sums of money working long hours and live in urban slums.

The 19th century also saw peace societies form in Europe. Some dreamed of a united Europe. People such as Victor Hugo, Alexis de Toqueville, the Archbishop of Paris, and the Grand Rabbi of France attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1849. Another group was the International League of Peace and Freedom, founded in 1867. Karl Marx was in opposition to the groups proposals. He did not advocate violence but like many he was distrustful of pacifists. Subjects like racism, militarism, and peace agreements were discussed at these conferences. “Civilization is peace, barbarism is war,” wrote Frederic Passy, the French economist and peace activist who won the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Alfred Nobel’s secretary, Baroness Bertha von Suttner wrote a famous anti-war novel in 1889, Lay Down Your Arms. She is thought to have persuaded Nobel to add the Peace Prize which she won in 1905. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie set up a $10 million dollar fund to abolish war. Imperialism was the cause of many wars, skirmishes, and injustices. In America there were critics, anti-imperialists like Mark Twain. They spoke out against the Spanish-American War and the invasion of the Philippines.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell was also actively against imperialism and war. In 1917 he was denied a passport to give a lecture at Harvard and was stripped of his professorship at Cambridge. In 1918 he spent six months in prison where he was able to write some books. The horrors of World War I led to more anti-war sentiment. Even in 1917 when America entered the war, anti-war sentiments were spun as espionage. People went to prison and some were badly beaten. Some were even sentenced to be executed but none were killed. Propaganda was promoted to instill hatred of Germans. After World War I there was more consideration for peace. Authors like Hemmingway and scientists like Einstein spoke against the necessity for war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was published in 1929 and read around the world. Also in the 1920’s came The Permanent Court of International Justice and the League of Nations to help prevent future wars. This worked OK until the rise of Hitler, who began to be aggressive, invade, and practice extreme racism and oppression overtly. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. had little choice but to join the war wholeheartedly. During World War II one in every six federal prison inmates was a conscientious objector. Gandhi noted in 1938 that he thought the Jews could help themselves most against the Nazis through nonviolent activism. That was not to be and their small attempts at uprisings were put down harshly or in their passiveness they were tortured and murdered. Denmark accepted German occupation but showed some passive resistance by working slowly, destroying equipment, and helping those the Germans pursued. They refused to pass anti-Jewish legislation and hid the 6500 Jews in the country from the Nazis and they escaped to neutral Sweden. Even though the Jewish population there was small very few were killed. Hundreds of thousands were taken and killed from the Netherlands and France. Millions were killed in Poland despite armed uprisings. In Hungary about a hundred thousand were given Swedish passports by Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg. Many hundreds of thousands of others in Europe risked their lives to save Jews as well. Kurlansky notes that in WWI there was much propaganda told so that people would hate the Germans but in WWII there was not, even though there were far more atrocities being committed and that the Allies goal was not to save the Jews as in the American Civil War the goal was not mainly to free the slaves. He thinks a nonviolent approach would have been better in both cases. Maybe he is right but it is hard to see the world ready for that and the question remains as to how else the aggressions could have been stopped without fighting back. Roosevelt was strongly criticized in 1936 for accepting a small amount of Jewish refugees. Many were turned away. Anti-Semitism was strong in America. Years later WWII was depicted as a just war to stop the Holocaust. PTSD was strongly repressed and it was much later when soldiers admitted that they committed atrocities that would have appalled them if committed by someone else. Some people spoke out against Allied bombings on German civilians and later on Japanese civilians. Truman cited Pearl Harbor as the justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as a desire to end the war sooner.

It was estimated that 187 million people died in warfare in the 20th century. That’s about 3.6 war killed humans per minute or 1 person every 16 seconds round the clock for a century (as my calculator showed). However, Kurlansky notes that from 1945 onward there were more victories for nonviolence than ever before. Mohandas Gandhi was the star of the idea. He admired Thoreau and Tolstoy and corresponded with Tolstoy. He was influenced not only by Hinduism but by Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity. He was trained in Britain as a lawyer and yet ended up adopting Indian traditions, including a strong ascetic bent. He cut his teeth encountering racial discrimination against Indians while living in South Africa. He developed a method that combined nonviolence and pragmatism into a powerful force for change. He called it satyagraha, or “truth force.” In India he organized boycotts, strikes, protests, and symbolic marches to change unfair British rule. Kurlansky mentions the warlike Muslim tribe, the Pathans, who controlled the Hindu Kush area between India and Afghanistan. The British had been fighting them off and on for a century. When they joined Gandhi’s nonviolent movement they couldn’t believe it. They were tortured. Their leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Badshar Khan (Khan of Khans) eventually assembled a nonviolent army of 80,000, the Khudai Khidmatgars, the Servants of God. They had to swear an oath to renounce violence and vengeance, to forgive oppressors, and lead a simple life. His vision of Islam would be a great and wise one to apply:

“That man is a Muslim who never hurts anyone by word or deed, but who works for the benefit and happiness of God’s creatures. Belief in God is to love one’s fellow men.”

Gandhi was disappointed in the terms of independence, the division of India and Pakistan along religious lines.

Gandhi’s methods were very influential and eventually were inspiring to the budding civil rights movement in America. A group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation founded by anti-WWI protestors adopted Gandhi’s methods. Their leaders, particularly A.J. Muste who studied under Gandhi, thought that Gandhi-style nonviolent activism could be applied to racial discrimination. In 1942 they (Muste, Rustin, Farmer, and Houser) formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They started the “Journey for Reconciliation.” Black Quaker Bayard Rustin (in 1942) refused to ride in the back of the bus, was taken by police and beaten, while remaining passive. They called him “crazy” and that was considered the first “freedom ride.” Rustin went on to travel to India for six months and back for more protests and more beatings. A.J. Muste convinced Martin Luther King to adopt nonviolent methods. 

Muste would also become an anti-nuclear protestor. Books and movies explored the implications of nuclear weapons as the ultimate weapons of violence or as the supreme deterent as children crouched under desks in Cold War drills. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also working on Civil Rights with many beaten and killed, both black and white, was somewhat critical of Dr. King. Soon they would be taken over by Stokely Carmichael and become the Black Panther Party. The black power movement now had a more aggressive posture and sometimes violent manifestations although they still advocated nonviolence on the whole. Meanwhile the student anti-Vietnam war movement was growing. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had gotten up to 100,000 war protestors but could barely contain a nonviolent stance. Just like the Black Panthers they had the Weathermen who flirted with violence or at least aggressive posturing. As Carmichael would later quip: “[nonviolence] is a very stern discipline.” While their views were rationalized in various ways a nonviolent activist could only say they failed to uphold the discipline. Infiltration of the nonviolence movement by thugs was recognized as a threat by Gandhi. Government spies were known to infiltrate and instigate as well.  

In the 1980’s came the first open nonviolent protest of the Mexican government. Rigged elections were challenged. Fraud and embezzlement were confronted. In 2000 the first “fair” election is thought to have happened and the long-entrenched ruling party was displaced peacefully and without major incident. In the late 80’s came the Communist-bloc anti-Soviet movements. Several of these adopted nonviolent methods. In Poland the artists, students, and workers who had long lightly opposed Soviet rule, organized the Solidarity Movement, a coalition of workers and intellectuals as well as the Church. They adopted a method of nonviolent noncooperation. Adam Michnik argued from prison in 1985 in favor of nonviolence. His most poignant point was perhaps, “We have no guns.” Kurlansky notes that the combination of pragmatism and idealism is what has lead to successful nonviolent movements. Alexander DubCek, the leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia happened to also be a pacifist. He wanted not to revolt or overthrow, only to reform. When the Soviets came with tanks he urged nonviolence among the Czechs. Eventually, the successful strategy of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland would simply be to kindly refuse to cooperate.  

Meanwhile in Argentina in 1977 it was a group of women who would take on the ruthless military dictatorship, protesting the frequent disappearance of their sons. They were the “Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo.” They formed larger networks. They were beaten but came back, and protested peacefully. By 1982 the regime came down as later did Marcos in the Philippines.

In South Africa there was racial inequality and violence. Nonviolence was advocated off and on to end apartheid. Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu urged people to pray for the police and to pray for the whites in South Africa. Boycotts were more effective than violence. Finally du Klerk and Mandela were brought together as they both came to realize that violence as in the past would not serve either of their ends. Reconciliation then became the focus.

Unfortunately, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been raging violently on for many decades now, seemingly unfixable. Oddly, many Palestinians think that their violent campaigns have been successful when it is quite obvious that they have only produced suffering and so their pride is an illusion. While there are many peace movements amidst this conflict and many people on both sides long for peace, the leadership has not waned in its rhetoric. All sides in all conflicts are raging their “Just wars,” from the war on terrorism to wars of liberation from occupation to class conflicts and ethnic skirmishes. Human tribalism seems hard to break through. Rhodesian-born president of Zambia and advocate of nonviolence, Kenneth Kuanda said, “The issue is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.” Clearly in the Israel-Palestinian conflict violence is not working. That much can be said without a doubt. The same could be said for the horrendous state of Syria and parts of Iraq.

How does one define success? The war in Vietnam became an unpopular war. Was that a success of the anti-war movement? Maybe so. Perhaps, he notes, because the Vietnam War was not celebrated, the traumas induced by the horrors could be openly dealt with. PTSD is now studied intently and treated carefully. The guilt and shame associated with killing can be addressed. War observers have long noted that many soldiers fail to kill – even when well-trained they do not want to kill. We know that behind the enemy combatant, however we were taught to hate them, is a real person that seeks happiness just like us. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught youngsters not to trust army recruiters. They too have been fairly unpopular wars, especially the invasion of Iraq. The effects of it still linger, perhaps throughout the world.

Kurlansky ends with a numbered list of 25 lessons. They are pretty general. Here are a few:

8. People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.

16. Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence.

18. People motivated by fear do not act well.

24. The miracle is that despite all of society’s promotion of warfare, most soldiers find warfare to be a wrenching departure from their own moral values.

Glad I read this book. Some of it might even apply to our everyday conflicts and arguments with our fellow humans in a less than war sense.