Romancing the End Game: Do We Want to Gamble Our Lives?

Opinions vary. We don’t really know exactly how little time is left before humanity must mount a massive campaign to reconfigure our relationship to the planet before it’s too late. But I would be willing to bet that we have next to none.

Examples of such human folly abound. The historical/archeological record shows that a number of human groups have collapsed by failing to recognize their peril. They defiled their local ecology to the point where they could no longer survive as a group within their environment. It is interesting to note that in many cases, the elites engaged in excessive programs of self-aggrandizement, monument building, and lavish privileged religious rituals and festivals. They finally crossed the point of no return and were essentially doomed by their failure to act in a way that would lead to their survival.*  Take away the cultural garb and our own elites look the same.

Yet, as an industrialized people, we don’t seem to believe it can happen to us, no less to all of humanity. Wall Street, Pentagon, and media corporate elites seem to be mimicking in their actions those historical failed elites. They have far more power, but can hardly be excused for ignorance. The world’s political “leaders” have diddled and dodged for decades since the first clear indicators of impending climate disruption became widely known. World “leaders,” after all, follow the dictates of their corporate benefactors.

Failure to Respond

We don’t know exactly even if enough time remains to avoid collapse. What we do know is that the little time left is rapidly shortening and the task ahead is increasingly monumental. Yet, we face several very serious psycho-social and political-economic barriers to major movement down the right path.

We need neither romanticize nor demonize any former or currant culture to realize that each has its strengths and weaknesses — in various proportions. Jared Diamond and others have demonstrated the folly of very different groups that have ignored the requirements of the relationship they had with their micro-environment. In some cases they could have continued to sustain themselves if they had not ignored the problem. In some cases, such as the Vikings in Greenland, invaders failed to take lessons from the indigenous people and simply died off. The self-absorbed character of today’s industrial-consumerist culture is a study in not taking lessons from the real world in which our economy operates. Our economy is, as they say, unsustainable.

With today’s industrial-consumer culture, we are so estranged from the natural world that we have become extremely vulnerable to large scale system failure. The cult of “science will save us” as we continue down the same consumerist path, will only distract from the hard facts of the massive changes already clearly necessary. Today, it is no mere micro-environment that we are contaminating; we have already seriously disrupted the homeostasis of most major earth systems.

Inconvenient Science

Much of Western science has been corrupted by its subordination to the corporate growth machine. That machine perpetuates the myth that all we need to do is come up with some new [profitable] “technological breakthrough” and all will be fine. Only independent scientific research and analysis will have a chance of pointing to the specific material changes that are necessary to stop the lemming-rush to societal collapse.

Climate science has been relatively untainted by corporate corruption, since its subject matter was of little political importance until recently. Its findings were either generally practical or merely academic. Farmers, airline pilots, and many others benefit from weather information and understanding of climate processes. Academics pondered the nature of earth systems. But now, the facts of climate change have major political implications for many economic policies and practices. The most powerful institutions and people will be profoundly affected. Climate science has been supported by governments around the world for decades because the knowledge gained is of general economic benefit. But now, that knowledge is poised to change the course of history.

Whatever his shortcomings may be, Al Gore certainly picked an appropriate title for his film on climate change: “An Inconvenient Truth.” The realities of climate disruption could not be any more inconvenient for the political-economic elites that operate the corporate state. The continuation of the growth economy is of prime importance to them – it is the source of their ability to continue extracting wealth from the rest of us. The elites who run the largest institutions are not unaware of the impending crisis of climate and economy. Yet the financial/corporate elites remain addicted to their various money-power trips no matter how much they understand. Their expansionist extractivist industrialist ideology maintains them on their fiscal drug habit until the next quarterly report and their next obscene ‘bonus’. Death is inconvenient, but it happens anyway. The extinction of a species is far more tragic.

Ending Illusions

In this light, the unabated accelerating consumerism and productivism we see today are much like a gambling addiction. Facts, timing, and probabilities are easily distorted just to get that next fix. But the marker will be called in. It has been said that the greatest satisfaction in buying a new [fill in the blank] is at the point of purchase, not in its ultimate use. It’s the addict’s brief rush. That is because so much of what is produced and consumed is not useful. It is only an image of some form of satisfaction, but is fundamentally waste. Many things can be both useful and beautiful. But most of them do not emerge from the marketing of industrially produced “consumer products.”

Only by re-establishing a collective awareness of the roots of human existence will we be able to find a balance in our relationship to the earth systems that have sustained us, until now.


*  The best known documentation of ecologically failed societies is Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

The Chasm between Environmental Theory and Human Imagination

Reading [and writing] about climate disruption and social change is disturbing enough. But the unabated climate-disrupting and society-disrupting economy of extractive wealth concentration, keeps me wondering whether we have much chance at all. Lately, I have a growing sense that something very fundamental is missing in the discussions of most environmentalists. Well, maybe more than ‘something’ – some things.

For one thing, too many environmentalists are too tuned to simplistic solutions, most of which are tied to some profitable enterprise. Another thing, most of the solutions that dominate the public discussion are about competing methods of energy production. Little is said about reducing energy use – something the Europeans are far better at than we are. A third missing element is that discussions of climate change almost entirely exclude consideration of emerging social chaos.

Chaos Ignored

Various forms of chaos related to climate disruption and social breakdown seem to be rapidly accelerating. Most analyses of the situation continue down a multi-lane road of refining conceptual understandings and defending tightly held misunderstandings. But the discussions, however insightful, provide little “on the ground” development of lines of action that reflect the urgency of the human condition.

Having a better understanding of the collision course of the extractive-growth economy with the earth systems it disrupts is more and more important. But movement toward viable science-based and practical counter measures is not merely imperative, it is urgent. Every imaginable countermeasure would likely involve such major social change that avoiding chaos seems unlikely.

Discussions of climate action tend to be global in scope and vague on specifics. Yes, it’s a global problem, but actions must be taken in concrete ways in particular places – both geographic and institutional places. That can only happen when urgency aligns specific carbon emissions suppressing actions with practicality to yield optimum effects.

Some emissions-reducing actions are theoretically great, until all the “overlooked” energy inputs and risk factors are considered. But such strategies are often far too lengthy in implementation. Even if adding nuclear power plants were a viable option, it would simply take too long to accomplish. With nuclear power, the theory has worn very thin and honest total-cost and ongoing risks vs. benefit calculations yield very negative results. But time makes it irrelevant anyway. Climate chaos will already have caused economic and social chaos.

Imaginative Practicality

The time it would take to implement an action and the magnitude of its relative impact are critical variables in any attempt to determine priorities. For the most part, actions that can be taken quickly will also require less energy inputs to accomplish. That is a good thing. For example, a comprehensive program to retro-fit insulation and weather stripping in homes, office buildings, and factories could significantly reduce carbon emissions. The “built environment” consumes 40% of all energy produced in the U.S. A program to reduce that could be implemented quickly.

Production of insulation materials would of course need to be ramped up. Needed materials will have to be produced in much greater volume in existing factories and begun in new or previously abandoned factories. Training of new employees could be accomplished fairly quickly. Much of the work is not all that complex. Energy-efficiency evaluators could be fully trained in a few months. Unemployment, of course, would plummet if such a program were nationally implemented.

Here – and in many other examples of potentially quick and feasible carbon emissions suppression programs – is where human imagination seems to falter. I hate to use the term, “political will,” but there it is. The political-economic forces that dominate our society, polity, and media, do not have the imagination to recognize the potential of the most important strategies for carbon-emissions suppression. A program of massive reduction in emissions from the “built environment” alone presents huge business opportunities.

Dangerous Distractions vs. The Real Deal

Total social mobilization is required for many of the less sexy but more effective actions to suppress carbon emissions to very low levels. Whatever the net benefits of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, their levels of reduced carbon emissions are far too insufficient in the short run. “Winning too slowly is the same as losing…” as Bill McKibben put it.

The production of ethanol as an “alternative fuel,” for example, is driven almost entirely by dominant political and economic forces – special interests – not by any motivation to reduce carbon emissions. It is not a viable climate stabilization strategy; it is a good strategy for agri-business to make a lot of money. Ethanol production will never contribute to carbon emissions suppression, but it will suppress food production. It is a dangerous distraction, the exact opposite of an evidence based rational priority.

If we expect to get anywhere in the attempt to restraint global warming and the catastrophic consequences of planetary thermal overload, somehow a societal cost-benefit based comprehensive strategy must be implemented. Good grief! That would require large-scale science driven setting of carbon-emissions suppression priorities and their implementation at scale.

The current political climate leaves little room for wide-eyed hope. Necessity demands collective creativity. It seems that only a broad and committed social movement demanding the most effective actions can actually force a comprehensive carbon emissions reduction strategy to be undertaken.

Death Dance: The Downward Spiral of Police-Citizen Conflict

Maybe New York Mayor De Blasio’s public statement acknowledging the problem almost everyone is aware of was the tipping point. He described having cautioned his “bi-racial” son about the dangers of interacting with a police officer in New York City. The NYPD reaction was immediate outrage and public expression of disrespect for the man with civilian authority over law enforcement. Mayors are always supposed to publicly support their police, “right or wrong.”

Well, the public light recently shined too brightly on multiple police killings of unarmed Black men and boys. The bright light of media coverage also shined on the failures of the criminal justice system to take such crimes seriously. The relationship of civilian authority over, and oversight of, police in this nation is coming under serious scrutiny. And it doesn’t look good.

Police as Political Interest Group

The role of police in society has not always been clear. Bias in favor of the powerful and persecution of the vulnerable are not new. But things are different now. The failed drug war has not failed to incarcerate large numbers of young men of color and establish a New Jim Crow.[1]  The drug war has produced a new class of economic and social outcasts. Now, most civilian police all across the nation have been ‘militarized.’ They conduct ‘drug raids’ on the homes of American “suspects,” or serve simple warrants, on the model of a military assault on a terrorist cell. Poorly trained and educated young men are enticed with powerful weaponry and other technology of war. Too many of them have had too much experience with the brutality of soldier-civilian contacts in America’s “wars of choice.” Too many are drawn to the powerful imagery of the “Warrior cop.”[2]  They see themselves as a force apart from society and its problems and they feel unfairly expected to fix things.

But more disturbing is the growing strength of the police as a political interest group. Americans too easily want to turn over civic responsibility to “the authorities.” But it gets us all in trouble. Any group or organization given too much authority will inevitably misuse it. Police are supposed to be the agent of the civilian authority of law in society, not an independent political group. That is why their militarization is a threat to the already tenuous threads of democracy we yet retain. But when an enforcement agency of civil authority becomes an interest group in itself, it becomes a direct threat to a wide range of human rights in civil society.

Disrespect for Human Life

Under conditions such as I have just described, the perceptions of persons exercising authority as law enforcement officers tend to put down the populations they are sworn to “protect and serve.” Militarization alone has that effect, easing the burden of committing violence on, or killing, other humans. The drug war and the perception of all members of vulnerable populations as the other – seen as less human, even innately ‘criminal’ – leads to a lack of human empathy.

With the exception of the elites, urban populations are generally suspected of being guilty of something. Their collective character is commonly denigrated. “Excessive force” becomes normative behavior. Until recent media coverage, it went largely unreported and unnoticed by suburban, mostly white, America. “Racial profiling,” “stop and frisk,” and high rates of police killings of unarmed young men of color, all reflect the growing disrespect for human life among some police. We do live in a society whose international policies allow extrajudicial official killings of the other around the world. The soldier’s seemingly simple freedom to kill ‘the enemy’ comes to be admired and even emulated in a culture – supported by corporate media – where violence is portrayed as the standard solution.

The Behavioral Sink

Chronic stress and unstable conditions lead to anti-social behavior, whether in rats or in humans. When highly stressful conditions produce bad behavior, the bad behavior of some stimulates bad behavior by others – it is a behavioral sink. But it’s not just overcrowding or deprived conditions that produce social pathology. Institutional corruption plays a big part, as does cultural conflict.

Today, a familiar pattern of escalating conflict expresses converging patterns of disrespect for human life that encourage violence, in both police and some citizens. Many police have little respect for the lives of young men of color – and others too. Some who protest that lack of respect show a similar disrespect for life by refusing to honor the lives of two New York City police officers and suspend their protests until after the funerals of the assassinated officers. Many officers conflate the protestors with the insane assassin. It is a behavioral sink.

Immense Need for Institutional and Cultural Reform

Primary responsibility for breaking the cycle rests with those who have the most power to do something about it. That would be “the authorities.” It won’t happen by looking to the head of a police benevolent society, who reacted to Mayor de Blasio’s unvarnished statement in the manner of a spoiled teenager. Many humane law enforcement officers are embarrassed at the kind of cold indifference to the real problem of police anti-social behavior and unjustified violence, sometimes reaching the level of lawlessness, of some fellow officers. But only when the civilian authorities in charge of the police are pressured by the public to transform police practices from the manner of gangsters to the ethical practices of true peace officers, will civil society and democracy return.

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1.  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
2.  Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books, 2013.
3.  John B. Calhoun, “Population density and social pathology”. Scientific American (1962). 206 (3): 139–148.

Conserving Energy: The Overlooked Key to Mitigating Climate Disruption

Increasing production of renewable energy at competitive cost is the core strategy for environmentalists whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions and minimize the damage caused by the climate effects of global warming. The goal is to replace fossil fuel energy production with clean renewable energy production. It is widely known that per capita energy use has increased significantly in recent years. But the idea of limiting or reducing total energy use is rarely a topic of discussion among either environmentalists or politicians. Conserving energy is just not that exciting and does not provide a clear target for the investment of capital. Nobody wants to tell the public that its energy consumption is excessive; it’s easier to focus on replacing fossil fuel with ‘renewables.’

The Production Transition

Most of the debate around the growing use of energy has to do with its production. In New Mexico, for example, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is a dominant investor-owned utility company. PNM plans to replace its old San Juan coal-fired plant with other coal-sourced and nuclear-sourced energy production. New Energy Economy is a clean energy advocacy group trying to get the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC) to reject the plan and require more investment in solar and wind energy production. Critics complain that the plan will lock New Mexico ‘rate payers’ into costly liability for (1) future damage to the environment and public health caused by continued mining and burning of coal in the Four Corners region, and (2) nuclear power plant risks and huge future decommissioning costs. And the costs of producing electricity will be greater as well. PNM is one of the most intransigent utilities in the nation, seemingly dragging its feet in every way possible to block solar and wind energy production. PNM’s ownership of and partnering with other investor-owned utilities in coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities most likely are drivers of its plans.

California has structured its relations with utilities differently. Incentives are in place that allow utilities to make more money if energy is conserved. Significant investments are being made in very large solar farms in the high desert to reduce dependence on burning fossil fuel. In contrast, despite boasting some 300 days of annual sunshine and a lot of wind, the state of New Mexico has taken little advantage of alternative forms of energy production. Yet, whatever level of effort made at reducing carbon emissions by converting from fossil fuels to alternative or renewable forms of energy production, the problem is almost universally seen as only an economic conversion problem. That is, if we just get off using fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources of energy, carbon emissions will go down and climate catastrophe will be averted. But that is not quite true.

How much is the addition of solar and wind powered energy production helping us reduce carbon emissions? Well, not so much. In the U.S., emissions have continued to increase. Every discussion of how to mitigate climate change is framed in a context of assuring continued economic growth. In that context, solar and wind add to the total energy production and may even encourage more consumption and waste.

Houston, we have a contradiction!  First, the entire economic system is structured to encourage over-consumption. The culture focuses almost entirely on economic materialism. Second, the consumer culture is now infused with the idea that everything must be upgraded at shorter and shorter intervals. Current product replacement regimes far surpass the old slower paced “planned obsolescence” product design criteria. The “greening” of marketing and advertising do not reflect production and consumption practices that would result in any energy conservation. The entire environmental movement, it seems, has been captured and marketed as another means to achieve the economic growth encouraged by the corporate state.

Another even more disturbing problem has been brought to light but has not been widely discussed among solar or wind power ‘productivists.’* The new high technologies for renewable energy production not only consume considerable quantities of fossil-fuel sourced energy in their manufacture and installation. They also deploy significant amounts of the rare earth, heavy metals, and other exotic and toxic materials. These are the same materials used in the production of all the microelectronics in computers, smart phones, and the endless array of ‘smart devices’ that comprise the burgeoning “Internet of everything.” The manufacture of such devices consumes vast quantities of water, polluting it in the process, in addition to materials that are increasingly in short supply and often very toxic. Hardware upgrades constitute a growing problem of waste and pollution rarely talked about or considered in assessing the value of ‘renewable’ sources of energy.

Social Transformation, Not Production Transition

When the energy consumed in producing renewable energy production systems is combined with looming shortages of materials and increasing waste and pollution, it becomes clear that transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to ‘renewables’ will fall far short of achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to avoid climate chaos over the next few decades.

Other strategies, often simpler and with far less environmental impact, are available, but they will require that we radically reorganize our economy, social policies, and the way we live. Devising ways to reduce energy use and waste will require a lot of creativity and work; this will generate jobs that use relatively little energy while directly reducing the excessive energy use and waste that cause carbon emissions. Investment in such jobs will be in direct conflict with the capital investment regime under which we now live.
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* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Zehner’s insightful and comprehensive study of the intersection of environmentalism and the growth economy goes beyond merely showing how difficult the situation is; he makes valuable suggestions for realistic policy changes that could be far more effective by reducing energy consumption, than the ‘whiz-bang’ high-technology based ‘productivist’ approaches to reestablishing a viable relationship between humanity and our biosphere.