Science and Our Sanity: We Need the One to Keep the Other

The world has become so complex these days that it is often hard to find solid ground to stand on. The barrage of all kinds of claims to the truth is unrelenting. Not only arguments of fact and complex detail, but subtle and not so subtle images of glory or destruction compete for our attention. Every manner of powerful interests attempts to influence our emotions as a way to get to our intellect. Images often have more emotional impact and exert more power than words do.

We are bombarded with, in Carl Sagan’s words, “pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Some especially egregious congressional apologists for ‘climate denial’ come to mind. But it is when we recognize propaganda and weigh it against the available evidence that we can retain our sanity and make reasoned decisions.

Marketing Democracy
Propaganda is everywhere. Marketing is its most pervasive form of ‘communication.’ Unfortunately, marketing is in part based on some fairly solid scientific evidence of how human beings can be influenced. Also unfortunately, the science of marketing has invaded the political arena in some very powerful ways. Nothing is off limits in the art and science of political persuasion. On top of that, the power of persuasion is exercised in extremely lopsided ways because of the accelerated impact of money on access to the channels of mass communications.

When money talks, democracy walks. When communication is controlled by a hierarchy of elites, democratic political deliberation is not on the agenda and is nearly impossible. Any debate that occurs is framed in the ideological terms chosen by the power elites. After all, they own the channels of mass communication. As U.S. society reaches unparalleled levels of hierarchy, communication is more and more controlled by the increasingly powerful plutocracy. No amount of ‘democratic’ formality can change that. Sheldon Wolin calls this “Managed Democracy,” with democratic appearing social formations which are actually controlled by the corporate state.

The congress has become the paid agent of the corporate elite. The cultural acceptance of directly observable political corruption never ceases to amaze. The pandering to corporate interests by both the congress and the Supreme Court is nearly grotesque. The president’s actions seem bounded by his obeisance to the Wall Street bankers who got him elected. It’s all such a tidy package.

The so-called ‘debate’ over the reality of anthropogenic climate chaos demonstrates the power of marketing over the power of facts. What is demonstrable scientific fact becomes politically debated by the crude application of pseudoscience and superstition. On top of that, crass rhetorical tricks and media filtration of information suppress even the most urgent real-world crisis. Interestingly, the recent surge of climate disruption all over the world, but especially in the U.S., has placed powerfully experienced facts right in the face of propaganda. When disruptive climate events become a personal experience, no amount of Koch brothers’ propaganda can override the factuality of damage to one’s farm, business, or household.

Science and Sanity
The powerful fossil-fuel corporate lobby will force congressional inaction and manipulate state legislators as long as it can. The petroleum-industrial-congressional complex would squeeze the last possible profits out of the petro-industrial era before being forced to change by the power of facts. If allowed, it would continue its insane course until the consequences bring down not just the whole economy, but threaten the survival of humanity. However, the evidence is now overwhelming and ordinary people can understand direct evidence of danger to them and their families. Threats to survival stimulate very sane responses, like paying attention to the science of climate change.

Years ago, Carl Sagan deplored the “decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media,” which constricts any meaning into 10 second sound bites. The result has been the blurring of facts with vague impressions and imagery, shaped for emotional impact rather than conveyance of information. Sanity may yet be saved by the direct experience of people. Although the U.S. education system has been ‘dumbed down’ for generations, the native intelligence of people cannot be overridden by propaganda in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Science shall prevail, and if it does soon enough, our sanity may yet survive.

Living in Fear of the Other: The Process of Destruction

No power elite in the world is immune from becoming a perpetrator of the process of destruction of a population of Others. Unwarranted extreme power of corrupt officials is often enhanced by manipulation of the mass media to demonize an “out group” of Others. Information control and propaganda allow elites to control “public opinion” and see “the Other” as the epitome of danger. With these tools, a political-military elite can lead the way to a classic “process of destruction” of a subjugated population.

Such was the situation in the classic case of institutionalized demonizing of Jews leading to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Similar processes have arisen in South African apartheid, the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, and even to the “New Jim Crow” and “illegal aliens” in the U.S. In the post-911 world of U.S. wars of choice collectively characterized as “the war on terror,” all peoples of the Muslim religion have become the collectively demonized Other.

Of course, violence works both ways, but the process of destruction is usually extremely asymmetrical. America is demonized by the victims of its military incursions into their societies. But they have little recourse. The processes of destruction – in the form of U.S. state terror – perpetrated upon populations of Others, breeds new hatreds and more non-state terrorists with little resources to commit violence, but whose outrage sustains fanatical commitment. Drone attacks on villages and night raids killing whole families in their homes breed more “insurgents” than they capture or kill “terrorists.” The application of the word “terrorist” to all victims of indiscriminate military assaults demonstrates the absurdity of efforts to justify the process of destruction.

In wars between actual armies, a certain symmetry emerges in the process of destruction, to the extent that technological power disparities allow. But in highly asymmetrical conflicts, the relative power of the two sides is so disparate that the destruction is almost entirely one-sided. Whatever atrocities are committed on either side, the extreme disparity of destructive power, its use, and effects is a moral trap the dominant power cannot escape without exercising considerable restraint. Such self restraint is uncommon at best.

Elites and the Process of Destruction

Throughout history, corrupt elites have inflamed the fear of the Other to secure their own political power. Propaganda demonizing a subjugated population of Others encourages broad participation or willingness to accept a process of destruction of Others. Elites motivate their followers to condone or participate in inhumane treatment of an oppressed population of Others. Gradually exploitation and criminal violence, sanctioned by the state, are escalated, institutionalized, and rationalized as “justice.” Destruction is conducted with impunity against those who are deemed outside the ‘chosen’ population. In a recent post on TruthDig.org, Chris Hedges quotes a crucial passage from Raul Hilberg’s monumental work, “The Destruction of the European Jews”:

“The process of destruction [of the European Jews] unfolded in a definite pattern,” Hilberg wrote. “It did not, however, proceed from a basic plan. No bureaucrat in 1933 could have predicted what kind of measures would be taken in 1938, nor was it possible in 1938 to foretell the configuration of the undertaking in 1942. The destructive process was a step-by-step operation, and the administrator could seldom see more than one step ahead.”

Destructive Fear of the Other

And so it has been with other historical and contemporary examples of “the process of destruction.” The Cheney-Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq was stupid and naïve (though more brutal than Saddam ever was, and far more destructive). Each foolish step seemed a blind effort to recover from the previous blunder. Ultimately, the entire enterprise emulated an “outdoor prison.” The entire Iraqi population was in effect tortured by destroying the country’s infrastructure and means of survival for many of its people.

The all but forgotten genocidal ‘carpet bombing” of the people of Viet Nam resulted from a gradual ‘escalation’ of the impositiion of destruction in a vain attempt to control an entirely misunderstood people.

The latest assault by the Israeli Defense Forces’ massive fire power against the civilian population of Gaza, Palestine, is the result of a similar “mission creep” grounded in an irrational fear of the dehumanized, subjugated, and dis-empowered Palestinian people. Its vastly disproportionate destruction of an impoverished subordinate population is excused by the flimsiest of applications of the ‘terrorist’ meme to a powerless people.

The mass incarceration of urban youth of color in the U.S. is another escalation of “the process of destruction” that Hilberg elucidates. Steadily over decades, the young black and brown populations of U.S. cities have become a caste of isolates. They are denied any meaningful way to engage in the economy and tainted as ‘felons’ for the rest of their lives. In U.S. cities, young men of color are stigmatized because of the profits law enforcement agencies accrue by incarcerating them. “Law enforcement” is rewarded with funding and equipment as part of the “war on drugs.” Yet young whites, who use drugs in equal proportion with the Others remain unscathed, for they are not “Others.”

In each case, ‘the authorities’ expand their level of violence in the process of destruction by building the fear of the Other and by demonizing and punishing a whole population for the alleged crimes of a few. In each case, the process of destruction is driven by the business of profiting from official violence. Orwell understood it all.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part III: Ecological Transformation

An ecological society will require some basic changes in the way we live. Most analyses of climate change are about disruptions leading to untenable future conditions. Specific reductions in carbon emissions will require transformation of economic infrastructure, which is rarely discussed.

To stabilize global temperature, return to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is necessary. That goal might be achieved if a tipping point is not reached before we take major actions. We are already at about 400. Several indicators suggest such a tipping point is near, where positive feedback loops will amplify already accelerating trends, even if we drastically cut emissions. Warming melts tundra releasing methane, causing more warming, etc. Calling for “further research” excuses intolerable inaction. We must act now based on what we know now.

Carbon Control
It is impossible to list all major contributors to carbon pollution in a blog post. But here are some major categories of carbon polluting infrastructure we need to get under control.

● The Built Environment. More carbon emissions come from fossil fuel burned to heat, cool, and supply electricity to homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and factories, than any other source.

Transportation. Cars, trains, boats, and planes consume huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Energy Production. We burn a lot of carbon fuels in the process of extracting the raw materials from which those fuels are refined. Power plants emit 40% of U.S. carbon pollution. Fracking, the latest technology for extracting oil and gas, is itself a major methane polluter and consumes huge amounts of water and fuel. Tar-sands extraction and processing is another big one. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is so dangerous.

Electronics Everywhere. Little thought is given to the immense amount of electricity used to run electronic equipment. ‘Phantom load’ from computers, music electronics, and appliances in standby mode accounts for about ten percent of the electricity usage in households. “The Cloud,” consists of many competing computer “server farms” the Internet giants use to store and process data of all kinds. Let’s not forget the giant telecom corporations. The NSA and other surveillance operations consume massive amounts of electrical energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

The Military. The various branches of the armed forces consume more fossil-fuel energy than any other economic sector. Not surprising. Always contemplating future threats to its viability, the DoD has been pursuing research on alternative propulsion systems and energy sources for a number of years.

These diverse economic sectors involve infrastructure powered by fossil-fuels. Each requires different changes to achieve carbon-neutrality. Priorities must be set and ‘least-impact’ parameters established to make reasonable decisions for each of these sectors. Who is doing that?

Conversion of Economic Infrastructure
All infrastructure conversion requires technology, materials, and labor. Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is labor intensive, which translates into lots of jobs. Most talk of energy efficient buildings is about new construction. But existing buildings produce most of the energy wasted. So investing in retrofitting existing buildings with energy conserving technology will best upgrade this sector of infrastructure.

Conversion to electric cars seems inevitable. But it requires infrastructure – mostly solar-powered charging stations to allow commuters to use their cheap second-generation Teslas. International trade involves massive amounts of mostly diesel fuel consumption. Advanced designs for solar and wind driven ships are now proven. But new ship building takes time. Meanwhile, the false economies of corporate “free trade” must be restrained. The free movement of capital to exploit cheap immobile labor must be curtailed so that local labor can be employed to serve local needs.

If the environmental and social costs of fracking were taxed, the practice would come to a screeching halt. It poisons local water resources, spews lots of methane into the atmosphere, and accelerates global warming. A carbon tax reflecting the real costs would put an end to fracking and accelerate solar power installations and adoption of electric cars.

The Cloud” provides no better data storage than increasingly cheap local storage, which by comparison minimizes electricity use. It should be abandoned for most computing purposes. “Phantom load” is easily controlled by inserting ‘smart’ power bars between the source and all those electronic gadgets and appliances.

The best way to reduce military energy consumption is to stop all the futile wars of choice, eliminating a major source of terrorism as well as the huge environmental costs of war. Cancel absurd super-weapon projects. The vast savings could be converted to useful activity, like converting to an ecological economy.

These are only a few of the economic conversions that are necessary to bring carbon emissions under control while converting to an ecologically viable economic infrastructure and employing millions of citizens.

Necessary Social Mobilization
Here’s the rub. The large scale infrastructure conversions required to realistically control carbon pollution to minimize climate chaos are huge. Yet, national and international institutions remain moribund. Their response to the climate crisis consists mainly of false promises and finger pointing. A major social mobilization is necessary and must be from the bottom up.

Direct action is needed now to mitigate climate disruption and dampen its most extreme effects. Only engaged citizens can take such immediate action. Awareness is surging. Clear mechanisms for meaningful effective action must be made a matter of public knowledge. Bill McKibben and 350.org have made divestment from fossil-fuel industries the centerpiece of direct climate action. Move your money to local credit unions and banks. Drastically slash corporate consumerism — what do you really need and from what local source can you get it? Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates for solar installations while they’re still available. Be creative. Momentum follows action. Join others. Act.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part II: Infrastructure of an Ecological Economy

Almost everyone agrees that much of America’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, electrical grid, power plants, etc.) is in desperate need of repair or replacement. Economic ideologists of corporate “free enterprise” oppose public investment as they attempt to drive corporate taxes to near zero. Nevertheless, we must find a way to move beyond these old powerful forces and ask the more important question. What infrastructure? Here is where we must part with the economic ideology of general “growth” as the answer to every economic problem. Climate disruption forces economic policy to be driven by the immediate need for carbon-neutral infrastructure.

Ecological Energy Production
First and foremost, we must radically reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. If we don’t, climate chaos will soon turn into economic and social chaos. Simply repairing existing infrastructure would add a lot of carbon and stimulate more carbon-producing activity. Under current conditions, almost any construction or reconstruction process would worsen climate disruption because it relies on fossil-fuel energy. To develop “carbon neutral” industry or products will inevitably involve some carbon emissions too. The only way to minimize that is to go to the root of the problem: energy production. Some predict that within two or three years, half of automobile production will be electric cars. Great. But if the energy to produce them continues to be from coal-fired power plants, well, not so great.

So, in considering the upgrading of U.S. economic infrastructure, the first priority must be to convert energy production from burning fossil-fuels to the proven renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, geo-thermal technologies. Hydro-electric generation is great, but there is little opportunity for it. To be clear, nuclear power is a non-renewable, highly expensive and dangerous, and an economically futile path. That is why neither big investors nor big insurance companies will touch it without government guarantees and subsidies. For an ecological economy, nuclear power is simply off the table.

Strong Systems: Distributed and Human Scale
So called “economies of scale” are over-rated. At a certain stage in the industrializing era, bigger factories that took advantage of labor-saving technologies were more cost-effective. But beyond a certain point, returns diminish and size becomes a burden. The power grid is a good example. The big investor-owned utilities have profited from their monopolies — by law, not by efficiency. The giant electric grid with long transmission lines is very inefficient and vulnerable. Now, “smart-grid” technology is available and can better manage a grid, reducing waste. But size is still a problem.

Systems analysts have long known that the larger and more complex a system, the more vulnerable to disruption it is. Smaller self-sufficient power grids, interconnected for backup, are much more reliable, efficient, and defensible. With today’s advanced science and technology, small local systems have advantages that were not available to small tribes and communities of the pre-industrial world. Today, large complex systems are vulnerable to climate chaos, terrorist attacks, and internal system failures, not to mention internal corruption.

Whether it’s power grids, industrial production, food production, or other economic activity, small local systems are the most effective. But they are strongly resisted by powerful existing institutions. The problem, of course, is that the entire trajectory of the industrial and industrializing worlds has led to centralization and gigantism. Concentration of wealth, income, and political power in the hands of an integrated power elite has been the result. This has prevented the establishment of a rational economic policy to serve the public interest. Distributed power, whether electrical, economic, or political, conflicts with the interests of the power elites. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to not only respond effectively to climate chaos, but to establish viable economies for human societies.

The Hard Part: Achieving an Ecological Society
The power elites have a firm grip on the existing national economic and political institutions. That is clear. That renders electoral politics nearly moot for effecting sufficient change quickly enough. In the little time left before climate disruption engulfs the world in economic, political, and social chaos, radical changes are necessary. Any time extreme changes must be accomplished in a short time, a lot of unknowns arise. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety causes resistance. Add in all the corporate propaganda and political stagnation is a likely result. That is the state of the national political scene today; not so, local communities.

Despite all the denial propaganda, many people are directly experiencing the immediate impact of the initial stages of climate disruption. Drought, floods, extreme storms, and other extreme weather events are confronting people’s lives directly. Awareness is rapidly growing. The U.S. may be lagging behind most countries in responding to the threat, but public awareness is catching up quickly.

An uncountable number of small groups all across the country are taking action in their local communities to spur adoption of solar energy, resist fracking, and establish community action networks to accelerate societal response to climate disruption, from the grass-roots up. That is exactly the last best hope for human mitigation of global warming and for adaptation to the effects that are already upon us. Part III of this essay will discuss the particulars of the localized political and economic actions that may bring about an ecological society.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part I: From Growth to Development

Economists are often confused by their own wallowing in esoteric but useless mathematical formulations of unquantifiable human complexities. But we just can’t afford their foolishness anymore. Investment in infrastructure is desperately needed, but not by merely restoring the infrastructure of the old growth economy. That needs to be replaced by a new viable infrastructure for an ecological society. This paradigm shift will require re-thinking core economic ideas to transform economic and social relations.

Great Recession Redux
Old notions die hard. Case in point: the recent/current “Great Recession” of 2008 was/is the inevitable outcome of endless-growth economic policy – which is also destroying the ecosphere upon which we depend. Yet political and financial elites cling to their failed economic ideas. Some politically ignored but eminent economists have cut through that veil of illusion. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and especially Joseph Stiglitz – only two of whom are Nobel laureates – see right through it. No complex mysterious forces of economic nature beyond human understanding were at work. Just centralized financial power and greed were enough.

More important, the political-economic response protected the perpetrators and perpetuated the economics of ecological disaster. I love Joseph Stiglitz’s metaphor on how it went down. A deranged paramedic rushes the DWI culprit to the hospital, leaving his victim to bleed out on the street. Similarly, Wall Street’s gamblers were bailed out while the American people were left with a newly bloated national debt. Time for a paradigm shift.

Responding to Crisis
The same accelerating concentration of wealth, and faltering employment and wages that accompanied the housing bubble continue today. The “solution” proposed by most economists is either to “grow” our way out or cut government spending — more plutocratic ideology. The real solution is clear: Resuscitate the victim and charge the perpetrators for their crimes. Neither has happened or is about to. As the combined climate-disruption and economic-instability crisis intensifies, we may see a surge of interest in an ecological economic policy that can slow climate disruption while stimulating a viable economy.

Aside from prosecuting Wall Street criminals, let’s look at the economic-ecologic mess that we’re in and how it might be fixed. With a trillion dollar loss in housing wealth, the American unemployed and under-employed cannot engage in the spending that would stimulate the economy. And the financial geniuses of Wall Street can still borrow from the Fed at near zero interest with “quantitative easing.” They can “lend” that money to the government for a few percent more. It’s a totally secure investment for the plutocrats using none of their own “reserves.” Don’t look to Wall Street for a solution.

The biggest corporations have no incentive to invest their huge cash reserves in the faltering economy. Without evidence of demand, they will hold onto their cash. As a bonus, they get to keep hundreds of billions of their cash income overseas and avoid income tax. Bottom line: neither the corporate nor financial elite will solve the crisis they created. These scofflaws will act to increase their power and wealth until the government bails them out of the next crisis they cause.

Ecological Infrastructure
Both the Keynesian and ecological economists would invest in infrastructure to improve both employment and economic health. This would stimulate demand in the economy and give the corporations a reason to invest in production. But just stimulating “economic growth,” without an ecologically grounded industrial policy would be like a band-aid without adhesive, or worse. Instead, a public investment policy heavily weighted toward investment in the replacement of carbon-based with carbon-neutral energy production is necessary. Throw in a living wage as public policy and the result will be a vibrant economy with minimized climate disruption.

Part II of this essay will discuss how infrastructure investment can energize the economy, but not by inducing unfettered “growth” for its own sake. Instead, we need big investments in stable ecologically viable development that simply retires the old fossil-fuel energy production and builds new industry for an ecological economy. Significant displacements of existing economic institutions will accompany such change, but they are necessary. The societal rewards will be immense.

Independence: Illusion and Reality

I get It. We’re celebrating the American Revolution and our independence from England today.  But the idea of independence has an odd history in the U.S.A. We treat the concept as a cultural icon, we fight “for freedom” around the world – or so we claim. We give little thought as to the real functions of any particular war of choice we allow our leaders to start. We live in a bubble of self-congratulatory national glorification. We excuse our elite’s attempts to dominate the world for their profit and power — and our debt. We give a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex President Eisenhower so emphatically warned us against in his farewell address.

Independence and Human Rights

So, you could say we deceive ourselves about just how “independent” each one of us really is. We hold up our ideals of personal freedom, free markets, free trade, free press, and freedom from government intrusion in our lives. Yet we willingly submit to the violation of our civil and human rights by corporate and government agencies. We tolerate mass surveillance of every citizen who has a phone, credit card, or computer by the NSA and its corporate collaborators.

We buy the argument that we should not be upset “if you have nothing to hide.” We ignore the fact that “big data” allows mass manipulation. We tolerate congressional oversight committees that allow spy-agency officials to lie to them. We accept police military assaults on homes — modeled on our night raids in Iraq — on “suspicion” that there might be some marijuana present. We endure regulators giving free reign for Big Banks to speculate with borrowers’ money and bring down the economy with impunity. We put up with local homeowners associations micromanaging property owners’ private lives over illusions about ‘property values.’ We permit the oppression of others. We value the “right to be left alone.” But we tolerate unwarranted “stop and frisk” harassment of young men of color and we ignore their mass incarceration.

Interdependence is Real

The contradictions in our misapplication of the principle of independence seem unbounded. But let’s look at what “independence” really means and how it relates to “interdependence.” I think that may give us a clue about why we are getting ourselves into so much trouble, both at home and around the world. In our relations with each other and the planet itself, we assert our rights to plunder everything in sight. But in a finite world where we are already upsetting the ecological balance to where survival is dubious, that just does not work any more.

In practical terms, our independence is an illusion. It doesn’t fit reality. In a more modest framing independence is very important. But what’s the difference? The reality of human “interdependence” needs to be considered. We have been living on the basis of an illusion of total independence ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution. It worked fairly well for the entrepreneurs as long as there was room for expansion. The industrializing nations did invade, occupy, and exterminate native populations all over the world.  They destroyed the independence of others wherever they found it in order to expand their own. That’s how those opportunities were kept available for the “independent entrepreneurs” of Empire.

Conquistadors, robber barons, and pioneers, as well as the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Hank Paulson, and Donald Trump have been the prime beneficiaries of independence. Yes, an odd assortment. All of these folks were/are innovative — and often ruthless. One person’s entrepreneur is another person’s oppressor. So called independent actions do not happen in a vacuum. Pure independence would be approximated only by a hermit.

But we must not forget social-economic power; that is what most entrepreneurs seek and gain, usually by using/exploiting others. Our idealism implies that independence is for all. Our political elites pretend to “export democracy” to the world. We equate independence with economic growth, the dominant value of American culture. But that has been achieved by the few dominating the many.

Moral Economy

Underlying it all is the fact that all human life is grounded in one way or another in inter-dependence. The very richest of the 1% are clearly dependent upon the willingness of others – such as banking regulators – to tolerate their “independent” financial speculations. In a moral economy, risk would fall on the risk taker, not the rest of us; only then could he be truly independent.

But a truly moral economy would be based in equitable interdependence, where risk and reward would be shared by all who are interdependent in their relationships. That is not about to happen in the corporate state that has evolved with over-indulgence in an illusion of independence. The most powerful elites control the most powerful institutions that now constrict the independence of “the 99%.” They squeeze the earnings of employees. They conduct mass surveillance to “manage” the population. They impose various restrictions on political participation to protect their power. To attain true independence we need to establish a morality of equitable interdependence — we have our work cut out. Happy 4th!