Racism and Climate Denial Are Positive Feedback Loops

Learning is usually an exalted concept – in the abstract. But the practice of learning does not often measure up to the ideal. That is clear in the way we treat our schools. Social learning reflects the failures and deficits in personal learning. Power fears truth. Institutions perpetuate the prejudices and magical thinking of their members, who take their direction from the elites upon whom they depend. People too often believe what is convenient for protecting and maintaining their wealth, position, or other form of power. This is called ideology: language constructed to justify power.

Political and economic elites are able to promote their ideologies, which in turn are deployed to promote their political or economic power. The process is a closed positive feedback loop. That is why the public interest is so rarely represented in the actions of government institutions and corporations. It is also why we so often hear subjugated or exploited populations repeat the very propaganda that elites use to oppress them. What is the matter with Kansas? The Big Lie repeated over and over again, in the absence of contrary facts, is believed. Critical thinking is in short supply.

Police Racism Denied
Positive feedback loops between power and language reinforce power while excluding any language or meanings that might diminish power. “The rich get richer.” Any conflict that may threaten power is framed as a question of “us” versus “them.” The powerful are, ideologically, right by definition. Anyone who challenges the ideology of power is by definition wrong and a threat to “law and order,” or “public safety,” or “economic growth,” or “family values.” The public interest is not represented by elites, who do not represent the public as they seek greater power and wealth.

The head of New York City’s biggest police union publicly berated the mayor because the mayor publicly acknowledged the problem of racism among police. The mayor had “crossed the line,” having violated the traditional ideological unity of mayor and police. The outrage at a revelation of the “us vs. them” police ideology had nothing to do with the truth. The mayor had offered negative feedback disrupting the closed loop of authoritarian police ideology. The truth was what every Black parent knows. The mayor publicly stated that his Black son had been given the same warnings that other Black children are given by their parents about the dangers of experiencing police racism on the streets of New York City.

Social media – mostly communicating smart-phone video – has now publicly exposed racist police brutality all across America. Most Americans already knew at some level but may not have directly witnessed it. Formerly silent, many citizens now demand that police crime be prosecuted without bias, because what they knew all along is now publicly exposed and intolerable to anyone with a shred of compassion. Negative feedback has broken into the positive feedback loop.

Climate disruption Denied
Climate denial has the same ideological structure as racism; it is just applied to another population: scientists. Here again, widely distributed ideological propaganda funded by power elites wielding great wealth, such as Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, dominates the mass (corporate) media. Racism dehumanizes and demonizes its victims, facilitating brutal violence against them. Climate scientists are characterized as greedy research-grant seekers who produce results that some government conspiracy with unclear motives dictates. The fears of large segments of uneducated and poorly educated citizens are exploited by the power of propaganda.

The solid facts of biology demonstrate that race is a social construction having little to do with genetics and everything to do with social definitions. Statistical differences are explained by social-economic conditions. Similarly, the solid facts of climate science demonstrate that the earth is warming to dangerous levels and that the only explanation supported by facts is anthropogenic carbon emissions during the industrial age. Massive and diverse data sets are collected and analyzed by thousands of independent scientists around the world. That work leads to clear findings that have catastrophic implications for human survival. This means little to the climate deniers.

Why do climate deniers seem so irrational? They are irrational because they live in a cognitive positive feedback loop that excludes negative feedback. Their magical thinking helps them stay there, since a key element of magical thinking is a high degree of comfort with ignoring facts that conflict with one’s rigidly held belief. Climate deniers participate in a “universe of discourse” that only allows consideration of statements that provide positive feedback to support their beliefs. Their sources of information are limited to the corporate media that sustain the ideology of the fossil fuel industry. Those same sources purvey magical thinking to replace any critical thinking that might attempt to enter the loop.

Living in the Real World
The kinds of magical thinking and intellectual positive feedback loops that exclude negative evidence that characterize racism and climate denial have been around for a long time. But conditions have changed. The costs of catastrophic social and earth-systems failure loom ever larger as our complex systems break down and become increasingly unsustainable. The Internet is littered with magical thinking and all sorts of ill logic and fakery, along with just plain goofy stuff. But social media also offer a channel of communication that provides vividly real facts.

The pervasiveness of the culture of police racism is increasingly harder to deny. The growing availability of information on increasingly unprecedented weather events, and related disruptions of earth systems, makes climate denial more difficult to sustain. But the converging crises of our times grow rapidly more urgent. The race to a great transition is on. Will we make it or will it unmake us?

Becoming Indigenous: Settling a Population Adrift in an Unstable World

In the modern and post-modern worlds, we are set adrift. Who now lives fully integrated with a clan, tribe, or other group ‘emplaced’ for many generations in a particular location and fully integrated into the ecology of that place? Nobody on my block! We are all individuated, barely a member of a family, and that family is probably scattered across the country, if not the globe.

Is that a problem? Very much so. For most people in the industrially developed nations – in the U.S. more than most – mobility is a way of life. Rich or poor, people move in response to economic conditions, and not always with much success. We have long passed the point where family or clan, or place for that matter, are more important than our job or a potential job. We are usually located in some corporate setting with hopes for a career path, not a geographic one.

Nevertheless, the coming transformation of the place of humans in the world makes what may now be thought of as “lifestyle” choices a matter of survival. The idea of becoming indigenous may be easily misunderstood. As intended here, it is meant not as a fashion statement, lifestyle choice, or sudden personal adaptation of native folkways. As time runs out for humanity to respond to the extant and looming catastrophic consequences of industrial pollution of the ecosphere, a massive reorientation will be necessary. The remaining indigenous peoples offer a potential source for guidance in designing a new way of living in harmony with the earth that may not otherwise sustain us. The world will be very different in any case.

Indigenous Peoples and Interest Groups

Until the dawn of the Industrial Era, people were organized around kinship. Economic activity and trade were an aspect of the life ways of core social groupings. Human groups existed in stable locations. People were indigenous. Most indigenous peoples left in the world today are the residual elements of populations that were colonized and/or enslaved during the colonial and imperial eras. Almost none are truly isolated from the industrial nations or industrializing nations that constitute most nations on earth. Some ethnic groups have retained a semblance of their traditional culture and stayed together in one area. More and more are reviving their language and cultural practices. But in most cases, the influences of the larger globalized economy are very powerful.

Most of us organize our lives around our jobs. What little time is left may be devoted to some special interest such as sports, hobbies, or other entertainments. As often as not, engagement with that interest is via a ‘flat screen.’ We are a culture of spectators, whether watching NFL games or even while engaged in the unreality of a “World of War Craft.” Our illusions are illusory. The illusions of indigenous mythology are real in their cultural functions of sustaining viable relations with each other and with the natural world. Many of the illusions of the modern/postmodern world are little more than dysfunctional.

Extractive Economics and Indigenous Culture

The displacement of everyone in industrial culture is an inevitable result of the endless extraction of materials for the endless production processes of the endless-growth economy. No place is sacred if profit can be extracted from the land or water. The expansion of industrial production that necessitates more and more extraction of resources for both energy and products has no internal limits. In fact, it requires that there be no limits. However, for decades now the earth’s systems have been showing us their limits increasingly in climate disruption and ecological destruction.

The blindness of industrial culture to the earth’s limits on the exploitation of ecologies and earth systems is precisely the opposite of the awareness inherent in the cultures of indigenous peoples. People who still live intimately with their environments directly perceive the elements of Nature that they must respect. Their long traditions are built around that awareness. The irony of the end of the industrial era is that as the growth economy accelerates toward its catastrophic end, only its victims can show a path to human survival. Only the wisdom of the indigenous peoples who industrial culture defines as “backward,” can even come close to salvaging some semblance of civilization from the fast approaching chaos.

Becoming Indigenous

The globalizing economic/political leviathan is in for a big surprise, and very soon. It continues to minimize the adaptations necessary to convert from fossil-fuel energy production to “renewable” energy production, with nearly no sense of the necessity of energy conservation. Yet nearly nobody involved recognizes that a viable place for humanity on the planet in the near future will require a total transformation far beyond anything currently contemplated. It will be such a vast reorganization of economic activity and social relations that the term “paradigm shift” is hardly sufficient.

The new indigenous activism of native peoples from around the globe has grown rapidly around the principle of climate justice. The connection between the destruction of local ecologies and the threat to the entire planet posed by the globalized economy is obvious to indigenous activists. Protecting local land and resources and defending all earth systems are synonymous to them. Wide cultural divides exist between indigenous peoples from Canada to Brazil, from Uganda to the Pacific islands. Yet they are united and work together in the struggle defending the earth against plunder by the globalizing world economic system.

Significant numbers of citizens in the industrially developed nations must “become indigenous,” but not by merely mimicking any particular native peoples. For us, becoming indigenous must entail a new recognition of the essential relationship of our species to the planet. We must also recognize that relationship outside the paradigm of the industrial era. “The old ways” can help guide us, but it will be difficult, requiring us to abandon many of the ideas and conveniences we daily take for granted and don’t really want to give up. We must build new understandings of the unprecedented transformation that lies ahead by learning what it really means to be an indigenous people. Such a creative reintegration of humanity with our world may be the greatest transformation of the human experience ever.

How to Not Talk About Human Response to the Threat of Climate Disruption

They said the old John Kerry was back. Well, I listened to Kerry’s ‘impassioned’ speech before the United Nations Climate Conference, COP20, in Lima, Peru, but was not impressed. Were it not for the blatant hypocrisy it represented, I might have been inspired by his somewhat forced passion. Kerry was urging the developed and developing nations to put aside their differences over who is to blame for carbon emissions. He urged them all to work together to reduce world carbon emissions. The only methods he mentioned involved conversion from fossil fuel to alternative means of energy production.

International Collective Self-Deception

Kerry knows that the Western industrial nations are the source of most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere today. He should also know that the prosperity of industrial societies stems largely from exploiting non-industrial peoples and their resources throughout the industrial era. Yes, developing nations are now emitting more and more tonnage of CO2, with China and India leading the pack. The ‘developing’ nations – mostly former colonies – are at the point of passing the developed world in total annual emissions. But in the U.S. emissions continue to increase at alarming rates, while they talk of making progress. At the same time, many less industrialized nations are very low emitters – they live closer to indigenous ways, wasting very little energy or resources. Yet they increasingly suffer from the effects of the emissions of the industrial nations over the past 200 years. First, indigenous peoples suffered domination by the empires that still extract their resources and pollute their lands. Now they suffer from the profligate waste of empire. Naturally, they seek reparations for the damage our consumer societies have already caused them and they want assistance in adapting to the effects of continuing climate disruption.

The U.S. leads the industrial nations in arguing for “voluntary” emissions reduction targets while dodging any legal commitment to attain agreed targets. It expects the less industrially developed nations to turn away from the path that the U.S. and its allies followed for all that time and continue following today. And it makes gestures toward giving financial support for them to avoid the mistakes we made and to adapt to the damage we long-term industrial polluters have already caused them. But little real support already pledged has yet been given. So, the hypocrisy is palpable.

But wait, there’s less!  As I listened to Kerry, I found no mention of the root causes of the carbon emissions that have already caused significant global warming and will continue to do so. The profligate consumption so endemic to industrial corporate culture requires vast amounts of energy and waste to sustain it. Look around K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, or Macy’s – and your own garage. Endless stuff. The entire corporate industrial complex depends on a steady stream of consumption and disposal of its products to sustain good revenue numbers for that quarterly report, which maintains or grows the corporate stock price. It all revolves around unending growth of production. Not production for human need, but corporate need for production. The more stuff is produced, the more people buy, the more profit is made. No end in sight; no end contemplated. It’s a great unsustainable self-deception.

The Production Trap

It is not a human need-driven system. It’s a production/consumption growth-driven system that needs ever increasing consumption to absorb its ever-growing production need. On top of that, the direct consumption of energy is a great ‘profit center’ for the fossil fuel industry. So, the entire economy is organized around a process that is in direct conflict with John Kerry’s words expressing concern over the continued growth of carbon emissions. He argued for all nations to cooperate in converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative energy production. But he did not argue for constraint on the consumption or waste of energy. He did not argue for reducing the vast quantities of wasted energy built into our system of production/consumption. That would conflict with the core assumption of the economic system we are tied to – a system we must escape.

In a debt based economy, expansion of production and consumption is the only way to keep up with the payment of debt based on the continual growth of the debt through compound interest. To keep up, the system needs more and more consumption and that means more and more waste as well as more energy production for increasingly questionable purposes. Converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative ‘renewable’ energy production does not reduce energy consumption. It stimulates more energy availability as fossil fuel producers continue to supply their product and to compete with the new sources of energy production.

Renewable Illusions of the Corporate State

Equally important but largely ignored are the environmental and resource costs of ramping up alternative energy production processes. Each has its drawbacks. Environmentalists have given little thought and almost no public discussion of these problems. I had long known of the toxic waste generated by production of micro-electronics so quickly replaced in the rapid development of the computer industry; the same applies to smart phones, tablets and laptops, and the explosive number of new devises powering the “Internet of Everything.” The star renewable energy technology, photo-voltaic solar energy production, relies on the same technology and materials. There are limits.

Recently, Ozzie Zehner* carefully reviewed the environmental and resource costs of each ostensibly “renewable” form of energy production – along with the politics and economics of their promotion – with results that must be very disappointing for many environmentalists. The largely ignored dirty elements of “clean energy” production require a complete rethinking of how the project of moving energy production away from fossil fuel might be accomplished. Zehner’s findings also call for a revisiting of much less exotic but simpler more effective methods for significantly reducing carbon emissions. The answer, though complicated in a variety of ways, is to simply reduce consumption and conserve resources. That will take complex forms of social reorganization, not exotic technologies, something that the corporate state, as evidenced by John Kerry’s hypocritically impassioned speech, is entirely disinterested in. It is up to the rest of us to seek a new path with the help of the wisdom of indigenous knowledge and ways of living.
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* Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Ending Police Brutality: It’s Not That Simple

The smart phone videos of cops harassing or beating unarmed Black males have exploded on social media. Newspaper articles discuss the various difficulties involved in prosecuting police for excessive force, murder, etc. Video pundits left and right proclaim or admit that something is just not right. They acknowledge that Black parents have to train their boys to be cautious when confronted by a policeman or they will face extreme danger.

Law enforcement officials scramble to demonstrate their commitment to improving “training” and “cultural awareness.” Law professors ponder the possibilities of revamping the procedures for assembling grand juries when an officer has killed another unarmed Black child or young Black man. Politicians pontificate on how to restore the Black man’s “trust” in police and the justice system – as usual, they get the cart before the horse.

Well, none of them seem to get it. Police abuse and killings of Black men have a long history, although it is largely buried in social amnesia. The nature of the problem is quite unlike the conventional characterizations heard in the mass media. We are living in the era of denial of racism – you know, “post-racial America.” The growing protests over police brutality put the lie to that illusion. But the persistent denial makes it very hard to discuss the culturally ingrained and conceptually re-coded racism that is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Racism is still rampant in America. It is re-coded and resurrected in numerous ways. The re-coding allows many to behave in racist ways while conceptually denying any “racism” is involved because they no longer use those old racist words. The language is much more subtle. But the violence is not. People of good will and intention are being fooled by all this, and they mistake the combination of racism and just plain viciousness for a failure of training or of criminal justice process. Certainly training and process are defective. But that is only a result of the deeper problem of racism and dehumanization in American society.

We must remember that racism is a particularity of dehumanization. The young men and women of the U.S. (and every) military routinely characterize “the enemy” as sub-human. In basic training they are drilled with the admonition to kill a dehumanized other. Civilian populations of the invaded countries are difficult to distinguish from “insurgents.” This facilitates the killing, torture, and hated of whoever is found in a house in a night raid based on very flimsy “intell.” The parallel with home invasions by militarized “swat teams” in Camden, Compton, or Cleveland is distinctly disturbing. Many returning veterans who have experienced horrors of combat where civilians and resistance fighters are indistinguishable, find little opportunity for employment other than as police.

But racist police violence in the U.S. did not start with returning veterans disturbed by the extreme violence and dehumanization they experienced in combat. It began right here at home. It is endemic, not just to the police, but to the culture. The culture of racism and the culture of violence are distinct social formations, but they are also very closely linked and often combined. Relations of power and vulnerability lead to dehumanization, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence. The language of police I heard on some of those viral videos on Facebook and YouTube is exactly the language of the high school bullies we have all heard. As one student put it to me a few years ago – he was a cadet in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy – “a lot of the cadets are the guys who liked to beat people up in high school.”

Improved training will not do it; tweaking the relations between police and prosecutors will not do it; revising procedural manuals will not do it. Body cameras may stifle it but will not resolve the problem. Only changing the entire police culture from the top down and hiring as officers only recruits who can understand what “peace officer” means, can turn the tide. That is a daunting task. Whether the cities or the nation are up to it is doubtful. That it is necessary is entirely certain.

Something else is also certain. Until such a massive rebuilding of law enforcement with a new cultural core and massive replacement of officers who cannot meet a humanitarian standard, police abuse of citizens will continue. It must be done from Los Angeles to New York City, from Ferguson to Albuquerque, and across the entire nation. There is no other way.