So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!

Tipping points need Paradigm Shifts: Paradigm Shifts are Tipping Points

If you are familiar with the history of science you have probably heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Thomas Kuhn describes how science progresses not by gradual evolution but by revolutionary transitions or “paradigm shifts” between “normal science” and new models of reality.  Normal science chips away at small areas of ignorance around the fringes to build out the basic accepted framework of knowledge. The new model or paradigm, on the other hand, incorporates all the information explained by the previous framework, but also explains incongruities in the old “normal” or accepted view, as well as incorporating new observations and problematic evidence that the previous paradigm could not explain.  A classic example would be the shift from Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory.

We very well may be at a point today where economics is undergoing a paradigm shift from the classical paradigm based on the assumption of perpetual growth, to a new ecological economics that takes into account the finite resource base, the ecological basis of human societies, and the planetary population limits that classical economic theory ignores entirely.

French mathematician René Thom developed catastrophe theory in the 1960’s to describe sudden transformations in natural systems.  Under certain conditions, a system will sudden transition into new very different kinds of behavior. This bifurcation value of the parameter is sometimes also called the “tipping point.”  The concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his immensely popular book by that name, in which he describes situations in everyday life in which such sudden fundamental transformations occur.

Today, we appear to be at or very near a “tipping point,” in our relationship to the earth system of which we are a part.  Much evidence now supports the idea that if we do not experience a cultural tipping point immediately, we will shortly find ourselves at a catastrophic ecological tipping point – beyond human control – that will lead to a fairly rapid slide into conditions that will force species extinction in a matter of a few decades.

What will it take to turn the corner from the “business as usual” approach which attempts to apply old imaginary entities such as “free markets” and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” in attempting to respond to the economic implications of climate disruption, which is fundamentally outside the old economic paradigm?  That is the question of our time.  Only by a rapid cultural paradigm shift in political economy will humanity be able to respond adequately to the catastrophic consequences of the old model on the biosphere.

As markets developed in corporate industrial economies, and as corporations and cartels extended their domination over economies, the concept of free markets became irrelevant of to actual economic systems controlled by a few corporations.  Yet, the “science” of economics, as well as the practice of corporate business held onto the concept as a useful ideological tool to maintain political power. But both the ideology and the practice of market economics are increasingly detrimental to any scientific understanding of the relationship of economic behavior and systems to the biosphere on which we all depend.

Tipping points and paradigm shifts are like chickens and eggs.  Tipping points in human systems are constituted by cultural paradigm shifts.  The evidence of the failure of classical economics to operate as an “invisible hand,” guiding an ideal distribution of income and wealth without political intervention is now overwhelming, despite the political and economic power of corporate and academic “free market” ideologues.  The evidence of the severe damage of corporate-industrial economies to the planet is now irrefutable.

Yet the existing institutional interests fight hard to retain their cultural and political control.  The consequent inability of the political economy to respond to the ecological crises it has generated is now so obvious as to be undeniable [except, of course, by Senator Inhofe and a few other corrupt science deniers].  Not only is the paradigm no longer defensible as a framework for economics, but its ecological consequences are no longer tolerable from the perspective of human survival.

It is increasingly clear that a massive reduction in resource extraction and a re-allocation of existing resources by means of a comprehensive reorganization of society to effectively change the ways in which we live – in order to drastically reduce carbon emissions –  is necessary in the near term.  Otherwise, global warming will continue to the point where human action becomes futile and human survival is no longer possible.

After Obama: Apocalypse or What?

It ought to be clear to just about everyone who had hoped for “change we can believe in,” that very little of significance will likely emerge from the Obama Presidency in its final years.  Whatever the outcomes of the mid-term elections, the political commitments of the president, as well as the Democrats in Congress, are likely to continue to put the interests of the ruling elites – the energy industry, Wall Street Banksters, military contractors, the prison-industrial complex, and international industrial corporations – above the public interest.  The entrenched power of the “Deep State” –  that informal assembly of the most powerful political, economic, and military elites that shape national policies in all domains – is in full control of the nation’s direction.  No matter what we may imagine Obama would like to have accomplished, it is clear that the interests of the most powerful institutions and the wealthiest individuals who are represented by the army of lobbyists in Washington who control congressional [in]action, will continue to limit the range of actions that this president will take.  What we have here is an elite plutocracy behind a thin veil of a hollowed out imaginary representative democracy.

Sadly, however we interpret the humanitarian causes referenced by eloquent impassioned rhetoric, the substance of those great speeches simply has not been reflected in national or international policy, except in the smallest of ways.  “Yes we can!” – well, how did that work out for us?  The widely popular principle of universal health care – routine in “advanced” nations except for our own – was taken off the table at the very beginning of the effort for “health care reform” in favor of protecting the economic interests of the unnecessary health insurance companies, the middle-men of the consequently expensive and distorted health care system.  The wind-down-the-wars president became Commander in Chief of Drone Assassination and Civilian Massacre.  The self-righteous indignation over Russia’s occupation of Crimea in response to the West’s pressuring Ukraine to join NATO and supporting the overthrow of its elected government – both seen as military threats by Russia– is nothing if not massively hypocritical.   Obama’s climate change policy of “all of the above” panders to the entrenched corporate interests of coal, nuclear energy, and fracked gas and oil, all of which are the main drivers accelerating the crisis of a destabilizing biosphere.  Meanwhile, Obama makes oratorical gestures toward human and planetary survival, while carefully avoiding any threat to corporate sovereignty.

Nothing, really, seems to be going all that well.  “Trickle down economics”?  How has that worked out for you?  Extreme wealth and income disparity to the point of economic destabilization, extreme climate disruption accelerating and politically ignored, extreme corporate control of mass communications constraining public understanding of the crises, never-ending propaganda supporting the fantasy of never-ending economic growth and consequent resource depletion, etc. – it all adds up to socio-economic as well as ecological disaster.  After all, the crises we face are only intensified by of the politics of business as usual – and that has been the problem all along.  So, the serious question now is what can be done outside the Obama presidency and after it ends, particularly when no Democrat or Republican made president by corporate controlled elections is any more likely to face the idea that the nation and the planet are in deep trouble.

Exactly what can anyone do, who has observed the politically moribund corporate state that prohibits the national concerted action necessary to re-establish some semblance of democratic process, no less a massive redirection of public policy toward international action to save the planet from certain biospheric catastrophe?  It is now quite clear that electoral politics – even if voter suppression could be reversed, gerrymandering unwound, and elections democratized – is too slow and cumbersome, given the proximity of disaster.

Of course, those things must be accomplished anyway.  But major actions must be taken now to stop continued expansion of the fossil-fuel economy and replace it.  Setting goals for utilities to produce ten or twenty percent of energy from renewable sources by 2030, and the like, are nothing more than pathetic gestures in the present emergency.  Even rationing energy production may be necessary in the short term.  But is it possible?

A new kind of thinking seems necessary and a new kind of action is required now – direct citizen action.  What is it and how can it be initiated and executed?  The beginnings of direct citizen action to stave off some of the worst projects of the oil and gas industry – protests of the Keystone XL pipeline and of oil and gas fracking around the country – offer examples of immediate lines of citizen action, along with divestment.  Such actions must be intensified, expanded and multiplied.

We are entering an apocalyptic era – not in the evangelical sense, but in the sense of the original meaning of the word, “to uncover, reveal, or disclose” – and we need to respond accordingly.  The catastrophic character of anthropogenic climate disruption will be revealed to us, even though we may have already ignored it too long.  A majority of citizens in a recent poll were still deceived into believing that Keystone XL is a ‘job creator’ and necessary for “energy independence.”  Wrong, but also irrelevant.  It is clear that much propaganda must be overcome to uncover the truth about dirty coal, nuclear, and fracked oil and gas, so that the nature of the crisis we all face can be fully revealed and collectively acted upon.

What Middle Class?

In recent memory at least, Americans have been uncomfortable with the idea of class.  That somehow has caused a retreat to the middle.  In the context of the myth of universal opportunity for mobility through achievement, it’s almost like Garrison Keeler’s Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.”  The “lower class” is not seen as an economic stratum as much as an admonition of individual personal failure or an attribution of questionable personal character applied to a “lower class of people.” In the individualistic consumer society, one just does not talk about “class structure.”

The very idea of class is a taboo subject in the American political discourse – which is so stilted anyway – with the exception that the wealthy immediately invoke “class warfare” if publicly called upon to accept a rate of taxation as high as that of their clerical staff.  Any other time, the denial of class in America is great cover for upper-class privilege.  That seems to make the rest of us “middle class,” by fiat – except for the “undeserving poor” – despite the vast economic disparities manifestly apparent to any casual observer.

The problem now is that the American class structure is changing radically and it is hard to ignore.  It is clear that on any objective measure the middle class is disappearing as the rich get obscenely rich and the poor are joined by so many formerly middle class.  What is most interesting and most disturbing about all this is that the pattern of change in the class structure is so similar to that which preceded the Great Depression.  That too escapes entry into the political discourse as the same old arguments against economic reform mimic those which opposed FDR’s New Deal.

Politicians routinely invoke “the middle class” when they are trying to show how empathetic they are to the plight of the American people – at least the American people who are not “low class.”  But as livable employment escapes more and more Americans, the politicians’ actions continue to reflect only the short-term interests of the corporations whose lobbyists dole out those “contributions” that somehow are not defined as bribery.

What about the Upper Class?  What about the Lower Class?  What about, well, the American people?  Well, that concept is increasingly as moot as it is continually invoked as an icon of political purity by those who exploit it – that cartel of corporate and governmental power elites Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state,” which is so entrenched that its decisions stand regardless of who gets elected. [1]   Remember the revolving door?

The term, middle class, has become increasingly meaningless as large numbers of people who were not long ago earning middle range salaries have fallen on hard times because of the malfeasance of upper class financial and corporate decision makers.  But there is much more to it.  The entire trajectory of the endless-growth economy has been predicated on reducing the need for labor by capital investment in technology to expand growth.  In its final stage, as menial jobs are outsourced – except for direct service work such as fast food and manual cleaning jobs – the technical and intellectual jobs with middle level salaries are fast being automated or outsourced too.  Combined with the exploding kleptocracy at the very top levels of the financial and political sectors, enabled by the Deep State of which they are members, the impact of this trend is to decimate what one might have described as the economic middle class.

So, the ranks of the lower class have been swelled by former middle-class folks and most lower-class folks, working or unemployed, are already at the bottom with no prospects of upward mobility.  The irony, it seems, resides in the fact that the very elites who do everything they can to eliminate labor costs just love to call themselves the “job creators.”

So, again, what’s with all this talk about taking care of the middle class?  What I suspect most politicians are doing when they appeal to that term is that they are referring to those “regular Americans” who fit their stereotype of culturally and behaviorally acceptable or legitimate “Americans,” that is, the most likely voters.  It’s pure demagoguery.  This, of course, flies in the fact of the growing populism among a wide swath of Americans who are gradually realizing that the “middle class,” just like the “American Dream,” is an illusion glossing over a system that is rigged against them, but increasingly cannot be sustained.

[1]  Lofgren, a former congressional staffer, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS show, and posted an essay describing the ruling political-economic cartel, “Anatomy of the Deep State.” Read it at:  His book, The Party’s over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, is about how congress really operates.