Individual Climate Ethics and Social Action

Climate action: can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything we can, take shorter showers, and install some solar panels, will that prevent the looming climate chaos? We could buy an electric car and low-emissions consumer products, maybe even go “off the grid.” But would that be enough to avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem is far deeper than that. Global warming and the climate destabilization it causes result from systemic defects endemic to industrial civilization itself. Changing middle class consumer “lifestyle” choices is only one small, though necessary, part of the whole solution. Alone, it would be far too little and much too late. That means, in some sense, everything must change and change quickly. The massive changes required are a very uncomfortable prospect for middle and upper class sensibilities. Most of the remaining middle class (and above) believe that the “climate problem” can be fixed with new energy technology, better consumer choices, and recycling, but it cannot. the flaws endemic to a system cannot be fixed by tinkering with its symptoms.

So, how can change adequate to this rapidly advancing climate crisis be accomplished? That is the big politically unacknowledged question left largely unaddressed. False promises abound. I have read too many emissions reduction targets to count (you know, 20% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, etc.). The reasons for choosing the baseline year are never explained, but they are arbitrary and politically self-serving. Why are the CO2 levels at the beginning of the industrial revolution not the baseline?

The politicians never specify the source of the numbers touted. They appear unrelated to any findings of climate science. Nor do they specify how or fr.om what industrial process emission reductions can be obtained – they mean nothing. They are no more than feeble political gestures meant to dodge the questions the elites don’t want to answer. The non-binding “commitments” made at the latest UN climate conference, COP21 in Paris, 2015, have been promoted by governments and corporate media as a major breakthrough. Yet they lack substance, being devoid of any specific actions to reduce energy use by industries or consumers, as emissions continue unabated.[1] We are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity, both historical and current.  And we have lots of data on every form of ecological and climate disturbance, including evidence of their accelerating expansion. We are also awash in vacuous platitudes and abstract “plans.”

The Crisis is Now

From dozens to two hundred species are variously estimated to be going extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway and thoroughly documented.[2] Its primary cause is indisputably the ecological havoc produced by industrial civilization. In the U.S., new car sales are booming, as is consumer finance debt, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has yet to exceed ¾ of 1%. Some coal-fired power plants are slowly being replaced by natural gas, which, because it is extracted by fracking, now produces as much in carbon pollution as coal. Other coal-fired plants are being replaced by utility-scale solar power. At the same time, solar credits for homeowners and businesses are being cut back or eliminated as investor owned utility companies desperately try to hold on to their economic power by exerting political influence.

The environmental damage and total emissions from natural gas, when the toxic waste and methane leakage of fracking are considered, are well documented. They are at least as bad as those from the coal-fired plants they replace. Nuclear power, a miserable financial and environmental failure, is still touted as a zero-emissions option. Corporate nuclear power interests still seek government subsidies for construction and insurance that corporate underwriters will not write. Nothing is being done about the vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of the national power grid; it could be taken down not just by a terrorist attack, but by its own internal weaknesses.[3] Actual security of power grids can only be achieved by distributed power generation. Smart metering and local power management would allow automatic isolation of failed components. All of this is technically feasible now. Only the political power of corporate financial and energy elites prevents the needed changes from being implemented. None of this is affected by individual consumer lifestyle choices.

There are so many ecological fronts on which climate destabilization is accelerating that it is nearly impossible to keep up. It is no less difficult to mount the massive changes required of us to actually make a difference. Euphemisms continue to trump direct confrontation of difficult political and economic policy decisions. Given the inaction of moribund national institutions, it seems only some kind of mass social movement can put enough pressure on those institutions to act in the public and planetary interests. Public resistance to the status quo is necessary – think 350.org’s rapidly growing fossil-fuel divestment movement. Rapid replacement of institutionalized fossil-fuel energy production is required – think accelerated installation of distributed solar and wind technologies for power production. Also think universal upgrading of insulation and weather stripping on existing buildings and net zero energy efficiency for all new construction – not just showy demonstration projects. We don’t need Bill Gates’ pie-in-the-sky technological innovation to feed his venture capital; we need to take the critical steps that present no technical problems, are available today, and have the most near-term chance to mitigate the current trajectory of climate destabilization.

The building of local and regional institutions and community actions must create resilience, not just by adapting to increasingly dire rapidly deteriorating conditions. The best way to adapt to the climate disruptions that are already happening and accelerating is to mitigate them both locally and nationally. That will require significant curtailment of excessive and superfluous production, consumption and unnecessary waste. To do these things we must radically changing our relations to the institutions – collectively best described as the corporate state – that perpetuate the problem while issuing political platitudes and false hopes.

What if the true costs of extraction-production-transportation-consumption-waste had to be paid at the big-box checkout line? Or better, let each currently “externalized” cost be paid at its respective point of extraction, manufacture, transportation, or consumption. The total of such payments should reflect the full environmental cost and be deposited in a public trust to be applied directly to mitigating the causes of global warming. The culture of consumerism would be significantly dampened if the true costs of industrial society had to be paid up front. Again, this is entirely beyond the reach of individual ethical action.

Individualism and Collective Action

For those of us who already take climate disruption seriously we must directly address one of the most important factors that contribute to weakening the climate movement. We must not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. When it comes to climate mitigation, self-satisfaction is a very dangerous vice. Individual action by those who are aware of the planetary crisis and care, while necessary, will never be enough. Widespread individual action will not happen by itself. We could each recycle everything we can, and the industrial juggernaut would still march on to climate collapse and social chaos. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism. It will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan continuing its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. The paradox of individual and collective action will remain as long as individuals do not organize to produce large-scale collective action.[4]

The extant momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some plausible level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. Some argue that it already has – all the more reason to take maximum collective action to minimize the damage. The change we need is systemic and it is now. That will not happen until a social movement even broader than the political revolution Bernie Sanders hopes for can mobilize at a vast scale.

Only a mass social movement can force the economic and political elites to transform the extractive industrial economy (or get out of the way) so that an ecological society can be built. Such a movement is emerging in part from such actions of resistance as the movement for fossil-fuel divestment by universities, retirement funds, and government agencies, initiated by 350.org. Movements of resistance are also growing at the local level in some initially small ways all across the U.S., as well as around the world. Particularly committed and active are indigenous groups whose lands and ecosystems extractive industries threaten. Only when these and other local movements take off, will the societal level changes we need be possible. That is why collective action at every level possible is necessary in diverse ways.

Much more is needed and on a much larger scale than has so far occurred. One might suggest the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s or Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence from colonial Great Britain as models for a new climate movement. Numerous other examples of non-violent political movements could be cited. However, the kind of change required by the climate crisis is of a very different order. It is vastly more complex and involves deep structural changes, especially in the industrialized nations, that remain yet to be started or even fully envisioned. The U.S. civil rights movement forced some major changes in public behavior toward Black citizens; it is now clear that the more complex and deeper cultural change sought remains far from achieved. Today, it is not just freedom from oppression for individual groups that we need; it is the total transformation of the global political economy.

Transformative Action

The needed transformation is not unrelated to current struggles of diverse oppressed groups around the world. It is, after all, the capital-driven process of industrialization that has caused most of the poverty and oppression so widespread in the world today. The Black Lives Matter movement, despite fairly broad support by individuals in the white middle class, is unlikely to make significant progress in itself. Until the politics that created a militarized police across the U.S. is transformed into a democratic government whose priorities are guided by a commitment to the quality of life of the people, police will still act in the interests of the corporate state. Similarly, government climate policy will continue to favor corporate techno-industrial false solutions until forced to do otherwise. So far, climate politics favor the conveniences demanded by wealth. They do not reflect the needs of the people or the planet. Instead, a strong commitment to human values and wellbeing must guide climate policy. It is currently guided by corporate financial interests. Only a massive social movement for democracy can change that.

At the same time, we must all do whatever we can do individually, knowing it is not nearly enough. We must do what we can and not be satisfied by our limited personal actions; we must forge alliances to organize larger socially transformative actions that can penetrate the shield of corporate wealth. Most importantly, we must join any effort we can in our local communities and regions to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path that will otherwise add human extinction to the rapidly growing list of other species already destroyed.

[1] Sara Nelson, “The Slow Violence of Climate Change,” points to James Hansen’s assessment that the COP21 accords are “just worthless words.” She also points out that current national commitments, in the unlikely event that they would be realized, would add up to a 2.7 degree Celsius global temperature rise, which would, by sea-rise alone, annihilate many of the world’s major cities as well as island nations, producing massive climate induced population displacements. Accessed at:  http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/35293-the-slow-violence-of-climate-change.

[2] Details of the currently accelerating mass extinction and previous such events can be found in The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert.

[3] Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (New York: Crown, 2015) points to the vulnerabilities of the national power grid, discusses responses to an attack or failure. But he never questions the centralized structure of the grid or how it can be decentralized to distribute power production, increase efficiency, and reduce vulnerability. Koppel’s book does, however, provide a sobering view of the devastating consequences of a widespread power outage as it would occur with our current power grid.

[4] The recent article by Peter Kalmus, “How Far Can We Get Without Flying?” Yes! Magazine, illustrates the dilemma of individual vs. collective action. Kalmus, a climate scientist, decided to stop flying to cut his carbon emissions and became aware of some of the implications of a post-oil future. But neither all climate scientists, nor the general public, will stop flying or engaging in other climate-destructive consumer behavior on their own. It will take a large scale social movement to change the culture of consumerism that feeds the industrial leviathan. Accessed at: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying-20160211  Reposted at:  http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-02-16/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

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Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

Questioning Capitalism: Goldman Sachs on Corporate Profit Margins

Bloomberg News reported on February 3, 2016, that a new report from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts wonders whether currently very high corporate profit margins can be sustained. They are at near record levels, despite a stagnant real economy characterized by record low wages and listless job growth and declining opportunity structures. Well, according to the report, profit margins have expanded due to four trends: strong commodity prices, cheap goods made in emerging markets, demand growth from emerging markets, and improved “corporate efficiency” resulting from the use of new technology. Corporate profit margin strength, it seems, has little to do with the strength or weakness of the U.S. domestic economy.

Historically, profit margins oscillate, but periodically revert to the mean. The Bloomberg story quotes the Goldman report thus: “We are always wary of guiding for mean reversion. But, if we are wrong and high margins manage to endure for the next few years (particularly when global demand growth is below trend), there are broader questions to be asked about the efficacy of capitalism.”

 

So, the question is, what are those broader questions about capitalism to which Goldman Sachs alludes?

Essentially, if profit margins continue at historically very high levels while investment in real economic activity (i.e., actual production of goods and services, other than the “financial services” sector which has grown insidiously in recent decades as a proportion of total GDP) remains stagnant, then what is actually happening to capital to make it produce such record profits?

I would suggest that we already know the cause, but most Banksters – the executive elites of the biggest banks – thus far have been unwilling to recognize it explicitly. Capital has become increasingly abstracted from the economy. That is, it is essentially feeding upon itself instead of feeding economic activity in the real world the rest of us inhabit. As long as large financial institutions are allowed to continue to generate phantom “value” by creating derivative financial instruments and by cannibalistic mergers and acquisitions, the function of capital will continue to be one of incestuous abstract ‘capital formation’ rather than fostering useful economic action. The Goldman report also mentioned, but apparently did not emphasize what I think is far more important than any external factor: the use of capital and cheap money from the Fed to undertake mergers, acquisitions, and share buybacks instead of investing in company projects that could contribute to “main street” economic activity.

The biggest multinational corporations have been awash in capital, with little incentive to invest it in production of benefit to society ever since the crash of 2008. Goldman does not elaborate, or at least the Bloomberg report doesn’t, but it is not alone in sensing that something is very wrong with the current condition of corporate capitalism.

What is capital, anyway? I would suggest that, ordinarily, it is nothing more than credit applied to the labor required to extract and process materials or to do other work that produces goods or services useful to some segment if not all of a society. But that is not what most of the “capital” held by central banks, investment houses, and large corporations does today. In fact, it seems quite a stretch to even call it capital, since it really does not venture outside the finance-capital complex in any real way.

Why do you think so many economists were afraid of hyperinflation when the Fed infused so much money into the central banks after the crash? The Fed bought up toxic “assets” – derivatives comprised of defective mortgage fragments. Operators like Goldman Sachs had sold “credit default swaps” – uncovered bets that claimed to insure a payoff if risky investments failed. The Fed covered trillions of dollars of losses by these speculators, resulting from their uncovered bets, by issuing debt upon the U.S. Treasury. “We the People” took on those losses in the form of an increased national debt.

Most economists assume that when money is “printed” – or, more commonly, electronically posted to the accounts of Fed member banks – it will be lent out to various entities in the real economy. That would result in too much money chasing too little goods and services, thereby driving up prices. But that never happened with the massive infusion of trillions of dollars of what some consider “phantom money” into the nation’s biggest financial institutions.

Why did this massive “printing of money” not cause hyper-inflation? Because the Big Banks and Brokerages did not lend it out to businesses. And they certainly were not about to lend it into the collapsing housing market they had triggered. So, in effect, they spent it on themselves. They bought up each other, they bought back millions of shares of their own stock from the public, driving up “valuations” in the stock market, and they also used it to retire some of those toxic assets. That was not inflationary for the whole economy since it was isolated from the real economy; but it was and continues to be inflationary for the financial industry, which had already expanded significantly as a percentage of the national economy. Those same banks and investment houses – like Goldman Sachs – have grown immensely since the “Quantitative Easing” that forced the American people, via the federal treasury, into such a huge increase in debt.

Republicans and corporate Democrats are fond of whining about the odious prospect of a “redistribution of wealth” that might occur “if we raise taxes.” And they always refer to the damage that would cause “small business.” But of course, it is Big Business (corporations) and Wall Street that make the political contributions that “encourage” politicians to take such a stance. However, the greatest transfer of wealth in human history has been accomplished by the government itself by creating massive public debt to finance the “bailout” of the nation’s financial elite, further enriching the CEOs of the Big Banks and investment houses in the process.

Of course, taxes have not increased in any significant way since the 1950s, just the opposite; they have regularly decreased, mainly for corporations (through loopholes, exceptions, and subsidies) and the very rich. The rest of us are paying for this crime. The greatest heist in history was not a bank robbery; it was the Banksters robbing the people.