snake oil and other elixirs

In the last note, I mentioned a comment in a new blog note from George Mobus in his Question Everything blog, a passing brief kind of lament about it being a little tiresome to be often writing the same things over and over. As I said earlier, I know the feeling. When the same circumstances and events persist, they remain just as much of a problem, and it seems little to nothing about the subjects at hand is getting through to people, reaching some conscious comprehension and understanding, all you can do is point the same stuff out again, and hope that maybe somebody notices the stuff.

I also pointed to one of the recent notes in Mobus’ Question Everything blog titled Peak Complexity?, and that short essay was another excellent piece of basic insight among many that have been written by various people, and are available to all online here on the WWW, which share common characteristics: they nail a large chunk of truth of reality right on the mark, and they are virtually ignored by all except a fairly small minority of people. Mobus articulated, extremely well, an explanation of why this is. People feeling overwhelmed by overcomplexity, in many things, start to shut down, deliberately or unconsciously blocking things out and ignoring them.

Given that, it should not be very surprising to find an epidemic of another feature of present day America that I’ve given some attention more than once writing here. That would be the remarkably common and increasingly “normal” tendency for people to grasp at all sorts of simplistic magic wand “solutions” that are, in reality, usually some kind of 21st century version of magic snake-oil remedies sold by people who are seemingly much different than the sort of 19th century travelling swindling hucksters who sold worthless magic elixirs to gullible locals, before moving down the road to a new batch of innocents who had not heard that their wares were useless. There might be a lot of differences between the modern snake oil salesmen and the wagon borne characters of ye olden times, but, in essence, we’re really looking at the same kind of thing.

It’s vaguely interesting to think about some differences between the two general situations, and it’s not entirely an academic subject or idle thought exercise.

Going back to the days of assorted travelling snake oil elixir salesmen bouncing around the country in horse drawn wagons, setting up somewhere, and doing their show, probably the most obvious and fundamental issue there, in answering the question “how could so many fools fall for this scam?”, revolves around the idea “they didn’t know!”, and the circumstances of that.

There would be the matter of basic knowledge and education, of course. I don’t imagine that the characters playing this game were rolling into cities and offering their wares on the campus of a college or university, or setting up among the proceedings of a conference of physicians. But another element of this strikes me as a little strange on reflection. I suppose that a lot of the ability for the weasels plying worthless wares to get away with it was down to the circumstances in communication, or, to be exact, the lack of that. By the time the locals somewhere realized that the “miracle cure” they had bought was just a small bottle of cheap brandy mixed with pond scum, or whatever it was, the seller had disappeared to the next county or the next town down the road, with none of the locals there aware of the experiences of previous customers.

Now, of course, we would at least like to believe that the general populace is better educated, more knowledgeable, and we like to imagine ourselves, with some justification, as living in “the information age”.

The thought that hangs around in my mind now, thinking about this, is that these days, we’re surrounded by all kinds of snake oil remedy nonsense and swindles and deceptions, but it’s a different situation from the days of travelling hucksters selling worthless stuff in little bottles off the back of a horse drawn wagon, depending on the ignorance of people in isolated pockets who don’t know about the people who already discovered the scam. Now, people bombarded and saturated by nonsense via cable TV and the WWW end up fooled by assorted scams by an opposite effect: they’re so bombarded and saturated by some nonsense being sold to them that it’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, so that they start to accept it as valid by sheer pervasive repetition. It’s everywhere, all the time, so many people just start to think that it must be valid, because they see it and hear about it so much, they figure it must be valid, it must be for real, it must work, it must be good.


In the past few days we’ve had the horror story of the water supply of a large region of the United States, in West Virginia, contaminated by a mysterious unnamed “chemical” that made water unusable toxic waste. The chemical turns out to be something called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), and the source of the leak of that chemical is an operation called, and this is not a joke, “Freedom Industries“. It almost sounds like a cliché, something that would be made up as an entity in a piece of fiction written by somebody trying to summarize a narrative of dysfunction and careless misbehavior in American society today. It hardly seems necessary to look into the story in depth to make a guess about the political pose of the people running that company. My guess is an easy one, and I would be shocked if it turned out to be anything different, that the people running that operation vote straight Republican party tickets when elections roll around, and happily cough up campaign funding money to any political actor running for public office that rants against anything resembling rule of law to protect the populace, or, for that matter, the very planet that sustains us, as “Big Government” evils of regulation opposing “freedom”, with the word “freedom” corrupted and perverted so thoroughly that it is in danger of becoming yet another word that loses its meaning from repeated abuse.

Looking at this one particular story, immediately, this leads down paths of a couple of major snake oil topic items.

Item one is the actual substance involved in poisoning the water supply of a whole collection of counties in the area and its purpose. It turns out that the chemical MCHM is a key ingredient in a process that is supposed to produce one of the major snake oil remedies being hawked to people, the mythical notion of “Clean Coal”. The capitalization there is deliberate, as it’s practically sold in all the assorted PR propaganda sales spiels as a kind of product item, something where you might half expect to find the little trademark symbol next to the words like a brand name, like “Clean Coal™“.

Recent years have brought us occasional references to “Clean Coal” as another little political sound bite item, a kind of playing card to lay out to score a superficial appearance of a point, an empty gesture of policy statement, that makes an appearance as just another element of putting on a show that appears to be addressing an issue while really doing nothing, a proposal of a “solution” that solves nothing. I recall the dog and pony show of the 2008 presidential election campaign, once the primary election circuses of the Republican and Democratic parties had concluded, and it was down to a choice between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. At some point, during the television shows produced under the misnomer of “debate”, both candidates made what were apparently deemed to be the proper poses and gestures and declarations about the supposed wonder solution of “Clean Coal”.

From anything I’ve seen to date, it’s all bullshit, a classic case of modern snake oil remedy, but for the politicians, it’s an easy answer to make a shallow appeal to the maximum number of potential voters and “interests”. There is no such thing as clean coal, regardless of whatever magic wand somebody claims to have invented to change the properties of physical matter with insignificant costs and no problematic effects. However, so many people would like to believe in it that it takes on illusions of validity based on a kind of wishful thinking that goes like: we wish this to be true, therefore it’s true.

If some cardboard cutout of a human being comes along and looks sincere and earnest as they say that if you put them in charge, you can keep your cake, and still eat it, too, mobs of people will line up to attend a rally to cheer for them.

I’m not here to write a whole essay on the subject of the silly scheme of “Clean Coal”, it just serves as a pretty stark example of how widespread a nonsensical idea can be. It’s not really hard to understand how this can be. It’s pretty much just an exercise of working through and making a list of general categories of people who would like to find a neat simple magic solution that solves anything they see as a problem while posing no problems, cost, or inconvenience. It’s a fantasy ghost “solution” that puts on an appearance of being a “solution” that is all things to all people. When the phrase comes up, it’s usually tossed out without getting into anything real and substantial about how it really works, or showing that it works at all.

You can find a similar phenomenon in the subject of people tossing out superficial verbiage about a supposed “hydrogen economy” that has been coughed up every now and then for years, and always just as much coming in the future as it always has been, never actually arriving in the present. There are good reasons why it’s always in the future, and never arriving in the present.

If we stay in the realm of “energy”, we still have the continual bombardment of the general public with all kinds of happy but hollow PR propaganda, that tells people about the same things I’ve been talking about for a long time now, about a wondrous miracle of coming energy independence revolving around hydrocarbon deposits in the form of both oil and natural gas, locked in formations of shale rock, and waiting to be unlocked by “new” methods of hydraulic fracturing. We’ve been over all this before, of course, so anybody who has been reading what I have to say is aware of it. It’s not random coincidence that I’m thinking of the phrase snake oil, and there’s also a recently published book by Richard Heinberg using that term for the title, as he addresses this very same mix of propaganda, delusions, and deceptions regarding oil and natural gas in shale, and the actual reality involved.

As I mentioned in an earlier note, even within this general subject, aside from the flat out deception and pretense and delusion, we have extra complications like people casually tossing around the phrase “shale oil” while misusing it, adding confusion to the whole matter because of confusing the actual meaning of the term, conflating kerogen, which is not crude oil, and the substance actually meant by the term “shale oil”, with tight oil, actual petroleum crude found in shale rock formations. But clarifying that runs into the problem that it only helps when the people you’re addressing actually want to know, to understand something. It turns into futility when it’s directed to people who are determined to avoid understanding anything that will blow the ability to maintain a pretense.

There, I’ve eaten up several paragraphs of space within the energy domain, but the phenomenon of snake oil popularity ranges well beyond that subject. Raise the topic of “the economy” and anything that even remotely ends up involving politics, and after a while it starts to seem as if we’re swimming in a sea of nothing but snake oil remedies, to the point where some people seem to have completely lost all their bearings in sorting anything out, something we could phrase in a different way by saying that people’s internal bullshit detectors are overloaded and clogged to the point of failure.

I think for a moment about the ongoing circus of American politics, in all its mixed glory of hubris, idiocy, corruption, incompetence, petty squabbling and maneuvering, and generally growing evasion of reality, in damned near anything that matters. This comes to mind now with the realization that we’re just days away from the 2014 edition of the traditional presidential State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Much of the content of the coming speech from the president is probably predictable, in both substance, or lack thereof, and showbiz features. Just as predictable will be the sideshow absurdity of the obligatory “Republican response”, as the team games play out with some spokesmodel of the Republican party articulating their deep devotion to the principle of “the opposite of whatever Obama says“.

In the latest edition of Richard Heinberg’s online Museletter, an interviewer asks Heinberg:

In Snake Oil, you write that we must reduce our dependency on fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Which steps should be taken in this ‘project of the century’ and on what time scale?

Heinberg replies:

We really need a wartime level of mobilization, prioritization, and implementation. Obviously, one of the priorities must be to build renewable energy generation capacity. But we must also completely rethink transportation, agriculture, and building construction/maintenance. This isn’t just about how we get energy; it is also about how we use it. We have built entire societies to take advantage of the unique properties of energy sources that have no future. For example, oil is energy-dense and portable, making it a perfect transport fuel. Without oil, we will not have an airline industry in any recognizable form. Altogether, society will be less mobile. That means we have to start thinking about how to re-localize production of food and other basic necessities. We also need to redesign our cities so that people do not need cars in order to live. These are enormous projects, and we must accomplish them by mid-century. There is absolutely no time to waste.

That really does cover an awful lot in very succinct form about where we are, and what we need to do, based on the obvious about where we’re going. There are no magic wands for this.


Museletter 260: Shale gas, peak oil and our future | Richard Heinberg

Have the Obits for Peak Oil Come Too Soon?

Diminishing Returns, Energy Return on Energy Invested, and Collapse | Our Finite World

The Schizophrenic Society

Only the American People Have the Power to Stop The Imperial Machine by William Blum | Dandelion Salad

The Fate of a City | KUNSTLER

The Disenchantment of American Politics — And the Coming Uproar | KUNSTLER

Welcome To The Blackstone Recovery: Over 11 Million Americans Spend More Than Half Their Income On Rent | Zero Hedge

Leftovers | Economic Undertow

#TPP: Fast Tracking a Corporate Agenda | Dandelion Salad

John Galt Contaminates West Virginia Water Supply Because Industries Demand Freedom | emptywheel

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