The Big Climate Blunder and Its Antidote: Risking Everything for What?

The Industrial Era has provided prosperity for many in the nations that industrialized first. In many ways it has also involved the plunder and pollution of both Body and Planet for over 200 years. After beginning to improve material existence for industrialized nations, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, the broadening participation in prosperity began to fade. The widely praised success of the industrialized nations of the North was achieved on the backs and at the expense of the non-industrialized peoples of the South.

Colonialism and later imperialism were essentially a massive transfer of materials for industrial production just as slavery was a forced transfer of human labor for agricultural production. The result was prosperity in Europe and North America and poverty nearly everywhere else. At first, environmental degradation was mostly in the South except in Northern factory towns; now it is everywhere. The culmination of the Industrial Era is climate disruption and its converging catastrophes of social disintegration, poverty, starvation, and war – unless drastic actions are taken now.

The Worst of the Best
But prosperity had its costs for the people in the industrial North. It has increasingly distorted human life by marketing more and more meaningless products while wages decline and jobs are lost. Capital is mobile; labor is not. NFTA, TPP, and other international trade agreements betray citizens and national sovereignty in favor of unfettered international capital movement. The worst of prosperity for the growing numbers who are excluded is that the poverty and pollution caused by extractive industry and international trade fall disproportionately on them. The worst of pollution is that the politics of extractive industrial technology have allowed increasingly toxic materials invade living systems everywhere.

Any real democracy would have put on controls to protect the public interest. Our false democracy serves the corporate interest in immediate profit at the expense of the public interest in health and happiness. Exposure of the smallest microorganisms and the largest ecological earth systems to the myriad of chemicals in the waste of prosperity wreaks havoc on living systems. The diverse and ubiquitous forms of industrial and consumer waste never existed over millennia as living systems evolved. So they never had a chance to develop resistance to the toxic effects of unnatural waste. Biological evolution occurs at a pace vastly slower than the speed with which the industrial revolution has polluted the planet. Today’s unprecedented rate of species extinction is accelerating with no end in sight.[1] Humanity depends on the complex web of life for its survival. But our power elites are locked into a death dance of short-term and very short-sighted self-enrichment. [2]

Larger earth systems, mainly climate and the oceans, are key determinants of the stability and survival of species in local ecologies. In addition to widespread exposure to toxins, climate disruption has also caused major damage to local ecosystems as well as larger earth systems. The damage is seen in key components of these systems, such as acidification of the oceans and increasingly erratic storm patterns. These large earth systems play major complex roles in local ecological conditions over time, and have major impact on their stability. What recently appeared to some as a hiatus in global warming, measured as average atmospheric temperatures, was actually an artifact of the oceans absorbing much more carbon dioxide and heat than had been expected. This has caused unprecedented acidification of ocean waters, massively disrupting the food chain by causing many species of crustaceans to be unable to form their shells. Coral reefs are dying; clam and other populations are plummeting. Changes in ocean temperatures are having major effects on weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina, which in turn cause more extreme weather in various locations.

Prisoners of Greed
The extreme danger of doing nothing or doing a little about global warming is increasingly obvious to most thinking humans who have access to basic climate-change information. But one factor in policy decisions that is rarely mentioned is the relative comparison of risk and reward for different lines of climate action and for different political interests. Power elites are ‘in the game’ but play out their personal (high salaries and obscene bonuses) and corporate (stock prices) short-term interests, without reference to the public interest or the interests of humanity.

“The Prisoners Dilemma,” is an exercise used by game theorists and behavioral researchers to better understand how human decisions are made in conditions of variable risks and imperfect information. It is a simple game. Each player has two choices. If player A chooses the potentially high-reward option, s/he can win all, but only if Player B chooses the moderate reward option. If both players choose the potentially high-reward option, both lose. However, if both players choose the moderate reward option, both players win moderate rewards. Ultimately, it is about greed and aggression vs. cooperation and moderation. In such simulations, the players usually learn over several iterations of the game that the moderate-reward win-win scenario works best for all. But learning takes time.

In the real world where situations are much more complex, the risks and rewards can vary widely. But despite claims of free-market fundamentalists, cooperation often performs far better for all involved than does greed. Our economy of ever-growing extractive capital and industrial and consumer waste has in recent years performed very well for those power elites who have chosen the potential high-reward option of greed. (The rest of us seem to have chosen the moderate reward option, and we are losing.) But just as in the Prisoners Dilemma, the continuation of the plunder capital model of success is ultimately unsustainable. Because these “corporate robots” are captives of the magical thinking of the Sacred Money and Markets” ideology, they are slow learners when it comes to cooperation and protecting the commons.

Games are abstract forms; they can be repeated endlessly by simply starting over regardless of the outcome. But the real world is not a game; it has real boundaries of time and environment. When we destroy earth systems, there is no do-over. Extinctions are forever. We cannot restart destroyed ecosystems; we can only try to save them before it is entirely too late. We cannot rewind the growth economy, nor can it go on much longer. All we can do is create a new economy that does not destroy the earth systems upon which we depend for survival. The old failing growth economy will die of its own failures or we will transform it into a living economy that supports both humans and the rest of life on this planet. We must choose quickly.

Choosing Life
Ever more concentrated wealth in the hands of the power elites ultimately will destroy their dominance. It is an open question whether their downfall will come at the hands of climate catastrophe or social rebellion, or both. The timing and success of cooperation overcoming greed will determine the degree of chaos avoided. We also wonder whether the necessary Great Transformation of the economy and society can happen before climate disruption leads to increased food insecurity, poverty, mass migration, water wars, and related catastrophes.[3] We must say yes, turn away from the international corporate growth economy, and shape resilient local community economies in harmony with the living Earth. No small task.

Life, of course, is much more complicated than the “Prisoners Dilemma” game. Yet, games can help us learn more about human behavior and decision making. Other social psychological patterns are also informative, such as the “free rider syndrome.” I liken the Wall Street financial elite, the President, and the Congress to a gang of subway riders who jump over the turnstile to get free rides at everyone else’s expense – only the consequences of their ‘free ride’ are far worse. They take vastly more and cost the rest of us vastly more, both on an immensely grander scale: that of the global economy. They destroy the system in order to continue plundering it.

These elite players routinely take the high-risk option in seeking the high reward – but they have already rigged the game. They ‘socialize’ the high risk (pass off the losses to the rest of society). They ‘privatize’ the high rewards (capture for themselves the phantom wealth generated by their financial and economic manipulations). They do all this through personal and corporate control of “the game” – but they don’t seem to understand that it is not a game; it is a life and death struggle for humanity. Just a few of their methods include:

• legislating tax reductions for the rich;
• preventing climate action, which would cut into their pollution-producing profits;
• eliminating legal controls on financial speculation, cutting government programs that are in the public’s and planet’s interest;
• keeping wars of choice going for huge arms industry and banking profits;
• reducing government control over international financial transactions, trade, and money laundering; and
• forcing through Congress international trade deals – such as NAFTA and TPP – that legalize corporate sovereignty over governments, preventing health, labor, and environmental regulations that might interfere with their profits.

In the short run, that high risk is borne by everyone else and the high rewards are theirs. We have to understand, many of the most powerful are clever sociopaths; that is how they got where they are. Others are merely highly paid skilled functionaries, supporting the system that rewards them and punishes deviance from corporate “values.” They can retire to their high-security estates and revel in their clever success, though many are unable to quit their quest for ever more power. But their greed is ultimately self-destructive in spite of their denial and their political power. They may even survive a little longer in their gated compounds than some less privileged. But nobody will escape a dying planet. We may all lose everything if their gamble fails, and it will. It is only the rest of us who can make a difference, if we will.[4]

The most important question is whether we will be able to do something about the coming collapse in time to avoid it. That is why to do anything less than take extreme actions to constrain climate chaos is suicidal. That is also why our situation is so difficult. To wait for the President, the Congress, or the financial and corporate elites to take drastic actions to transform the growth-at-any-cost economy to a sustainable living economy is both futile and suicidal too. Only by massive social mobilization can the power elites be brought under control and the economy transformed to align with the requirements of living on the Earth. Perhaps Pope Francis’ encyclical and his invitation to Naomi Klein to the Vatican conference on climate change portend a major shift toward the Sacred Life and Living Earth story. Yes, there are signs everywhere that the Great Transformation has begun. But we must hasten it.
[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” Science Advances. Vol. 1 no. 5 (19 June 2015).
[2] David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015) makes an important point: Because of the predominance of the culture of “Sacred Money and Markets” the power elites are not so much in control of the corporations (“money seeking robots”) that rule the economy. Rather, they are mere cogs in the leviathan of corporate plunder of the Earth’s living wealth. Control rests with the Story, which, as he argues, must be changed.
[3] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011) takes us on a tour of numerous locations around the world where the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate disruption” is already fueling migrations, wars, and starvation amidst the devolution of failed states and collapsing economies unable to sustain growing populations whose “carbon footprints” are vastly smaller than those of the industrialized nations that have caused most of anthropomorphic global warming.
[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) chronicles both extractive capitalism’s disruption of the climate and the political failure of mainstream environmental organizations to institute effective climate action policy. Klein concludes that only a mass movement from below that transforms the social order can save the planet. David Korten (2015) offers a transformative framework for replacing the “Sacred Money and Markets” narrative that dominates the planet today, with a “Sacred Life and Living Earth” narrative capable of producing and sustaining a moral economy in the interests of humanity and the planet.

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