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.
* Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

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