Can We Get There from Here? Stalling on the Path to Species Survival…or Not

You can find just about any message you’d like to hear about climate change. The gloomiest of fatalists: “It’s too late; we’re doomed; party on.” The science denier: “It’s the greatest hoax ever to deceive the American public; those scientists are just making these claims to get grants.” The suburban consumer: “It’s not my problem; is the mall down that one-way street? I need a new engine for my power boat.” The corporate ‘environmentalist’: “Buy more solar panels now!” Or the agri-business CEO, “corn-based ethanol is the renewable fuel we need, and it’s Roundup-Ready.” And on, and on…

So, what’s your message? Or, more to the point, what message do you believe and what are you willing to do about it? How about: “Global climate disruption is moving much faster than we expected. We must act decisively and quickly. We must demand that our so-called leaders initiate major national and international programs for climate-disruption mitigation and adaptation, now. But we must also realize how difficult that will be, since Congress is owned by the corporate, financial, and military elites who profit from the dying fossil fuel economy.

Facing Facts

In any case we need to take every action we can now in our local communities, since it is at least possible to influence local decisions. Otherwise, enough simply cannot be done before real climate catastrophes occur around the world. Many such regional climate disruptions will lead to societal collapse, mass starvation, climate-driven migrations, resource wars, and general chaos. “I’d really like a new swimming pool in my backyard like my neighbor’s, but maybe I ought to put in new weather stripping around those leaky doors and insulate the walls and ceilings in this old house. I could contact that local 350.org group and help them persuade the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuel investments.”  Or?

Many such actions can be taken. The “I can’t make a difference; I’m only one person,” excuse doesn’t cut it. Anyone with a basic understanding of what is happening is morally bound to act in whatever way they can. Without major human intervention into the degrading environmental conditions that humans have caused, we will soon experience the most devastating breakdowns of living earth systems not yet quite imaginable. To think otherwise is sheer folly – utopian delusions that only serve to further enrich the elites before the whole system collapses. As James Gustave Speth put it, “Soon it will be abundantly clear that it is business as usual that is utopian, whereas creating something very new and different is a practical necessity.”*

Replacing Business as Usual

Well, “business as usual” happens to be extractive corporate capitalism thinly disguised as Adam Smith’s small community freeholder individual entrepreneur capitalism that briefly existed at the dawn of the Industrial Age. “The Capitalism We Have” is a massive leviathan of environmental destruction and human exploitation. It is a politically subsidized corporate system for dominating the world economy. It’s goal is to concentrate wealth in the hands of the financial and corporate elites at the expense of the people and the planet. It extracts everything it can from the earth and produces as much waste as it can get away with. Via the corporate owned mass media it promotes its ideology of neo-liberal (laisse faire) economics of plunder and exploitation without restraint. Its political power prevents any serious reform, such as was modestly attempted in response to the Great Depression of the 1930’s with modest success before being cut off by political actions of the financial elite. Popular access to the national political process is virtually cut off. Most people know that something is very wrong but are largely cut off from real answers because of corporate control of most media.

The ideological debate was never won. Neither the socialism that was nor the capitalism we have reflects much about the ideological imaginaries of that debate. I have to conclude that the debate itself was entirely irrelevant as an exercise in seeking truth; it is pointless to pursue. It was only a weapon in struggles for power between private corporatism and state collectivism. What matters now is the real system that operates most of the world economy today. That system is trans-national corporate capitalism, which skillfully exploits the ideologies of individual freedom and entrepreneurial innovation and “small business” to cement ever more centralized corporate control of the politics and economics of most societies today.

The Path to Survival

Interestingly, despite all that corporate power over the economy, politics, and culture, more and more people realize that the system is not working for us or for the planet. Sure, many see no personal path to help right the system. But many in various sectors are taking actions in their own local interests and that is a good start. One of the most important steps now is to coalesce the range of movements for social and environmental change into a coherent worldwide movement working for a new Great Transformation that can save the living earth systems upon which we all depend.  That transformation will evolve as we struggle to fix the damage we have done and prevent as much further damage as possible.  The result, if we are lucky, will be a far more humane world.
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* James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Caravan Books, 2008.

Adolescent Cop Mentality

The flow of video evidence of police tendencies to use violence as the primary tool of their trade steadily increases. Some write this off as an artifact of technology or as individual incidents not representing the whole of law enforcement. But as I look at all those citizens’ smart-phone videos taken largely because they happened to be there and were shocked by what they saw, I see something else. I see an adolescent sense of insecurity displayed. And I see an adolescent tendency for one’s ego to be easily threatened by anything less than absolute control and in need of being protected by force.

The individual cases of “excessive use of force” vary in context, setting, and issue. But in each one, the officer seems to be triggered by any action or words that can be interpreted as a threat to his absolute authority. “Absolute” is the operative term here; the adolescent mind tends to think in absolutes. Yes, in every such case I have reviewed, the officer is male. I have yet to see an example where a female officer initiated violence upon a citizen. It is hard to not reflect upon how males are socialized in this society (and other societies as well) to express their manhood in violent ways. Even at my age, I remember the institutionalized violence of high school football. The kids are allowed to wear more protective gear now, but the violent expectations are pretty much the same.

Violent Institutions
Rarely recognized or discussed in the media is the self-selection of those with the most violent tendencies entering into police academies. I remember well the guys in high school who simply loved to get into a fight; they enjoyed any opportunity to beat someone up. I will never forget, many years later what a college student who was in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s training academy told me. He said that all the guys who had been the most violent in his high school also applied to the academy. “They loved to beat people up,” he reported. “Now they will have unlimited opportunities.” Anyone who lives in L.A. County is aware of the Sheriffs’ reputation for excessive violence.

L.A. Sheriffs Deputies are routinely assigned to work in the county jail when they first graduate from the academy. There they get to see and interact with both the worst criminals and the most vulnerable of the county’s population. This is where they learn the rules of domination and subordination. Recently, what was widely known but not publicly reported finally hit the media. A virtual conspiracy among the young deputies and their senior leadership at the jail involved routinely using excessive force on both inmates and their visitors and even falsely arresting visitors. Indictments followed, along with numerous stories in the L.A. Times.* Disgraceful as this is, such institutionalized violence is not confined to the rare rogue officer or department; it permeates American law enforcement. Something so deeply entrenched in a culture is not merely a matter of “better training.” Training is only part of the problem.

To even begin to face the problem of police violence and the tendency to single out young men of color for such treatment, we must look beyond individual incidents and training protocols. We have to face the fact that the problem is a deeply rooted cultural fact of American life and history. From the earliest days of the British colonies on this continent, the intolerance for dehumanized “others” has been evident.

Adolescent Exceptionalism
The so called “winning of the West,” idolized in Hollywood’s “Cowboys and Indians” movies, was largely a brutal history of genocidal extermination of the indigenous peoples of the land “discovered” by Europeans and occupied by force. The westward expansion merely continued the conquering of native populations, deemed sub-human and hence with no human rights. The legacy of slavery is in part one of exploitation of dehumanized “others” by elites that monopolize of the means of violence. The Other is a stranger, never quite human. The list of “N-word” equivalents continues right up to the latest “war of choice.”

The “freedom” so cherished by “gun rights” advocates also reflects historical violence against perceived sub-humans. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was negotiated so that southerners could legally form militias to hunt down escaped slaves. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, etc., all point to a perceived inherent right to dominate “others” all over the world, excused by an imagined American “Exceptionalism.”

In a cell-phone video I just saw, some unruly whites complained of (restrained) police efforts to clear a bar where “disturbing the peace” was asserted. Their objections reflected the same cultural arrogance. The idea that “we” (white) Americans have some special status in the world that exempts us from police or other abuse is pervasive. One of the white protestors repeatedly said, “You can’t do this; we’re Americans.” As a nation we have no compunction as a nation in terrorizing villages in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere with drone strikes, night raids on homes, or bombing just about any target, etc., as long as the people there are not “Americans.”

Typically, the focus of “law enforcement” often is not on enforcing laws or catching criminals, but instead on asserting total control over targeted citizens who have little or no resources to challenge their having been abused. “Resisting an officer” in the conduct of his abuse of a citizen is the highest form of “disrespect” for the status-anxious cop. His sense of security is only fed by absolute obedience to his every unreasonable demand. Only by passive acceptance of unreasonable search, seizure, and/or battery upon the person perceived as unable to invoke costly legal recourse is obedience demonstrated.

That said, it is important to remember that police behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is institutionally encouraged by the power elite that would prefer to ‘disappear’ the homeless and all other “surplus populations” not needed by the corporate state. More “training” is not the answer, since training is part of the problem along with recruitment for violent tendencies and indifference to necessary attributes of a PEACE Officer — compassion, problem solving, and other ways to avoid violence. Neither maturity nor deep ethics are part of the emerging police state. A new vision for law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
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* See, for example, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-los-angeles-sheriff-indictments-baca-20131209-story.html

The Essentials of Resilience in a World of Growing Chaos

By now, it ought to go without saying that the evidence is in – after all, global warming has been recognized by scientists for decades. The accelerated release of “greenhouse gases” since the dawn of the Industrial Age is now causing accelerated warming of the planet with multiple interacting deleterious effects. We just don’t have time to argue the scientific consensus vs. the propaganda of the growth economists and industrial apologists. It is what it obviously is. Far more important challenges than “climate deniers” lay ahead. Resilience will be the key to meeting those challenges.

The most urgent question today is what must be done now and in the near future to achieve major mitigation of carbon emissions. The second most urgent question is: What can we do to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate disruption already “in the pipeline”? Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand, although adaptation without mitigation is akin to seeking a more comfortable collective suicide. Without rapidly reducing the release of greenhouse gases, conditions will become so extreme that humans and many other species will be unable to adapt and survive. The species-extinction rate is already extreme by evolutionary measure.

Mitigation and Adaptation

So, resilience must be understood as the ability to both mitigate the sources of climate change and adapt to climate disruption in just the right balance. This must be done in the context of improving knowledge of the climate changes that are already occurring. We know that some of the processes are also accelerating because of interactive positive feedback loops. But the methane and CO2 releases from nascent arctic permafrost melting are not yet accounted for in the current IPCC climate change models. We need to know and immediately act upon the most strategically important climate disrupting factors. We must choose those factors with both the greatest impact on climate and the most potential for rapid and radical mitigation.

Fortunately, some mitigation efforts may also have adaptive benefits. For example, a massive program to improve the energy efficiency of buildings will not only reduce energy use and waste. It will also provide better shelter from extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, some attempts at mitigation will both reduce carbon emissions from energy production and stimulate more energy use and waste. It is almost universally assumed that the installation of renewable energy production technologies to replace high-emissions production, such as coal-fired power plants, will simply reduce emissions. However, the extraction, manufacturing, and installation processes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can encourage expanded energy waste because of greater availability of energy at lower cost.

The Politics of Necessity

We live in a minefield of cost-benefit dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of strategic alternatives. Then there is the problem of the political economy. Little if any meaningful and timely climate action at an adequate scale can be expected from the corporate state. Profligate U.S. energy consumption has caused more of the extant climate disruption than any other nation. Yet our “leaders” – both corporate and governmental – treat any commitments to carbon reduction as if it were just another trade-deal negotiation. The fact that China recently surpassed our current level of emissions does not relieve the U.S. of its responsibility for the highest levels of over-consumption and waste. We led the world into this mess and we ought to take the lead in unwinding the fossil-fuel driven growth economy. We can and must lead in the development of an ecological economy with appropriate infrastructure and social structure as well. That will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished by conventional means.

The current social structure is uniquely adapted to the perpetuation of the failing industrial leviathan. What David Korten calls the “Sacred Money and Markets story” sustains a social structure comprised of alienated individuals, fragmented families and communities. That social structure is dominated by a corporate state, which is driven primarily by the interests of the financial-military-corporate-political elite. Comprehensive whole-society-level mobilization and centrally coordinated action could theoretically make the most difference most quickly. One of the greatest contradictions of our current dilemma is that, the power structure steadfastly resists such action. Its capabilities include a significant potential for “command and control” over climate action. However, its interests are in continuing with “business as usual.”
Interestingly, China has a lot of command and control capability because of its one-party dictatorship. Oddly, so does the U.S. – since the two-party state operates as one corporate state. Yet, it will not take significant climate action since its interests lay in exploiting the present situation more than in human well being. Such action is in direct opposition to the short-term financial interests of the power elites to retain the system they control and from which they profit so handily.

The Ultimate Resilience

Throughout history, people have risen up in response to oppressive conditions and attempted to overthrow kings, dictators, and other regimes. But climate change, as Naomi Klein puts it, “changes everything.” Not only are conditions such that any kind of violent rebellion is impossible if not suicidal. But structural change through normal political processes is almost entirely blocked by the two-parties-as-one oligarchy.

Change must come from people organizing themselves at the local level in a number of ways, where access to political decision-making is at least possible. Many groups in communities all over the nation, and across the planet as well, are organizing to take local actions to either resist or replace the control of their lives by the corporatocracy. If they create enough momentum, these actions will evolve into the new economy. The resulting eco-community based life in harmony with our living earth systems will become the ultimate resilience.

Overcoming Ideology: New Actions and New Ideas

Efforts to find a viable path to mitigating climate chaos and forging an ecologically viable economy are just not moving fast enough. They seem bogged down in struggles over old ideas and inadequate actions. Even some of the most esteemed liberal economists who are not on the corporate bandwagon have failed to escape this trap.

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both highly respected liberal economists, oppose the crass neo-conservative economic ideology of corporate imperialism. Yet, in his own way each remains trapped in the general economic ideology of extractive capitalism as the only way forward. Krugman imagines robust restrictions on carbon emissions without curtailing economic growth. Stiglitz imagines a ‘reformed’ capitalism where healthy competition can be restored. The imaginary and the possible are not necessarily the same.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has received vastly more attention and sales than ever expected of a heavy economic tome. Piketty seems to expect inequality to be reduced by expanding economic growth. A simpler version of the myth of sharing a “bigger economic pie” or the “rising tide lifts all boats” story is available in any Econ. 101 class. Unfortunately for these fables, inequality is a positive feedback loop – greater power begets greater power.

Meanwhile, Krugman argued in his September 18, 2014 New York Times column, that carbon emissions can be reduced cheaply amidst strong economic growth. He does not mention the skyrocketing depletion rates of many important industrial materials – including petroleum – upon which continued economic growth depends. The connection between economic growth, growing poverty, and climate disruption is nowhere to be found.

Stiglitz writes in last September’s Harper’s Magazine, that Piketty is wrong in concluding that inequality is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Instead, he says, ‘capitalism as we know it’ isn’t truly competitive like a capitalist system should be. Our system’s growing extreme disparities in income and wealth have been engineered by the wealthy. Stiglitz would reform capitalism.

Ending Economic Ideology

Stiglitz and Krugman are stalwart and articulate critics of the neoliberal economic ideology that attempts to justify corporate dominion over economic and political policy. However, despite their rather sophisticated economic analyses, our present economic system is what it is because it is not allowed to be reformed. The concentration of both wealth and income in the hands of a small elite is inherent in any economy in which excessive political power accrues to the financial elite. Inequality is becoming extreme, extractive demands of industrial production grow ever stronger as resources are depleted, and the devastation of the planet continues. Reform? You can’t get there from here.

As the international death dance continues around failed commitments to reduce carbon emissions, sufficient national and international actions to curtail climate chaos seem ever more unlikely. We know a lot about carbon emissions and the most important sources. Technically, the necessary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could be planned as effectively as the U.S. mobilized the entire economy upon entering World War II. But execution is a political matter and therein lays the collective failure. Another way is needed and not even the most sincere and smart conventional economists seem able to help.

Increasing poverty, massive concentration of income and wealth, and accelerating climate disruption all have the same cause. The economy of endless growth required by the debt-driven imperatives of extractive capital is not susceptible to political reform. The very financial and corporate elites that drive the economy have captured and completely control the key players in the political process. We must look elsewhere for solutions. And elsewhere we will find them.

Resistance and Replacement: Actions Reforming Ideas

The people and the planet desperately need resistance to and replacement of the very institutions that even the most liberal critics of economic and environmental failure cannot give up. As neo-conservative economic policies still seek to solidify the empire of growth, progressive leaning conventional economists seek to reform what needs to be replaced. Powerful financial and corporate elites do not give up easily. Consider Jamie Diamond’s arrogant dismissal of Elisabeth Warren’s desire to regulate Wall Street’s excesses. The conversation in which it occurred is noted in the Afterward to the paperback re-issue of her book, A Fighting Chance.

Neither resistance nor replacement will be easy. But both will be nurtured by the growing sense among more and more people that we are on a path to catastrophe and need an immediate course correction. There is much to learn from non-violent movements of resistance that have succeeded, as reported in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Even so, new models of resistance must involve accelerated withdrawal from the consumerist complex – no easy task. There is still a place for the forms of resistance seen in the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. But Gene Sharp, whose From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, inspired those movements’ strategies, urged practical agility and creativity in fighting oppressive forces.

Today’s forces of oppression, especially in the ‘industrially advanced’ nations, are of a different order than the old dictatorships. The “inverted totalitarianism” with a façade of democratic formalism, as Sheldon Wolin describes in Democracy Incorporated, calls for new creative forms of resistance. Naomi Kline argues for ideologically driven forms of resistance in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. However, new ideologies of humane social and economic relations, economic justice, and ecological society must be shaped by resistance that has direct and meaningful relationships to the immediate crises we face.

Replacement of the failed perpetual-growth political economy and its extractive energy-production and consumption practices requires even more creativity and organization. Various books, magazines, and Web sites, such as John Brown Childs, Trans-Communality, David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future, Yes! Magazine, and Resilience.org – to name just a few – seek alternative cultural and political as well as economic paths. Works like that of Juliet B. Schor, author of True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, point to the formation of a new society grounded in humanity’s relationship to the earth and all its inhabitants. The idea of the good life is captured in that title. Many families and communities are experimenting with new ways of living outside of institutional entanglements. But much more is needed and on a much larger scale.

The hard part, of course, is getting it done, especially with so little time before catastrophic consequences of our current path become unavoidable. Some argue that it is too late. But that claim is pointless. We fight not because we will win; we fight because we must win.