The Charlatan, the Huckster, and the Fate of the Planet

The Narcissistic Billionaire Sociopath vs. the Corrupt Corporate Crony

I once believed in the idea of progress. I did not think of progress as an inevitable march of humanity toward a better life; it was not the illusion of happiness through chemistry and consumerism, as the corporate elite would have us believe. I thought that with greater knowledge, people could act more rationally.

At the onset of my career as a college professor, I thought, we could surely do better if everyone were just more educated and understood the nature of the physical and social worlds. Then people would vote for the candidates who had the best ideas to create progress through enlightened policies. I held to that belief for quite a while, as I watched the U.S. education system deteriorate for thirty-five years. I retired no longer an optimist, but as a stubbornly hopeful realist. Back then, I was sure I would have died of old age before any major devastation from global warming would affect many people.

That was then and this is now. The world has changed so much yet remained the same. The immediate effects of climate destabilization are upon us, yet ignorance prevails. Trump’s Tropes play directly to the most ignorant forms of fear and resentment. The last half century of corporate-cash driven social policies carried out by the corporate state has deeply dumbed down and impoverished much of the population.

False Politics and the Corporate State

I have a feeling that Hillary Clinton harbors a genuine set of humanistic concerns for people and families everywhere. But I doubt that such sympathies will overcome her financial obligations to the giant institutions of the corporate state. Her claims of liberal policies and empathy for the victims of the corporate state she supports ring hollow. The liberal political class is dead in all but name and muted slogans.

The so-called conservative political class is in disarray. Its corporatist elites have played the racist scapegoating card to the ignorant resentments of the declining white middle and working classes to the limit. The Republicans have pandered to Tea Party racists and xenophobes for so long that they have lost control to a megalomaniacal narcissistic neo-fascist sociopath. The prospect for an American fascist state is no longer speculation; it is just as real as the likelihood that the neo-liberal (free-market) economic policies that favor corporations over people will continue.

The corporate elite, which funds most “liberal” and “conservative” candidates, seeks stability and predictability. Neither of these political styles veers far from the established political-economic orthodoxy. The continued hegemony of the financial, military, and industrial power elites depends on the continued subservience of the political class to its corporate benefactors.

The power elites support conventional liberalism and conservatism because both are good cover stories for maintaining control over the public and private institutions of the corporate state. That is why both Republicans and Democrats in congress agree to vote for legislation such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and similar so-called free trade deals. They have no problem giving away national sovereignty to multinational corporations as long as they get to feed at the lobbyist’s trough.

Meanwhile, the charade of national political elections pits political personalities against one another in mock combat of ideas that carefully avoid addressing the great global crises of our time. No candidate other than Bernie Sanders even mentions the emerging catastrophic climate collapse. Bernie, however, does not detail the crisis or offer specific actions commensurate with the urgency of the crisis. Well, Hillary vaguely alludes to it, but no more. Climate denial is, of course, one of Trump’s Tropes.

This 2016 election cycle, however, is a little different. We must question Chris Hedges’ contention that it really does not matter whether the Charlatan or the Huckster wins the presidency, because of the apparent extreme danger of a man who has no center. Narcissists and sociopaths do not have policies; they merely seek social power and personal recognition. They are inherently dangerous because they have no human empathy. Yet, the counter argument that the Huckster will continue to serve the short-term corporate financial interests at the expense of the public interest in avoiding climate collapse, also has merit.

Two Kinds of Political Deceit 

The Charlatan plays to the ignorance fostered by climate-denial, birther, and racist propaganda, while the Huckster gives faint lip service to liberal environmental and social justice concerns while serving the financial and corporate elites. Both exhibit war-mongering tendencies. Neither represents the public interest in seeking peace, community, or climate stability.

The problem with the Obama state department was not that Hillary caused the Benghazi disaster; rather, it was that they both fostered repeated militarist interventions seeking “regime change” without a scintilla of sensibility for what might come after. They use the resulting chaos, such as the rise of ISIS, to excuse further interventions. Who benefits from all this? The arms manufacturers and dealers do, as well as the fossil-fuel industry, and their congressional cronies.

The Charlatan-billionaire’s ignorance of international affairs matches his racist scapegoating and political bullying. But what does that matter if a sociopath has the codes enabling a nuclear strike anywhere in the world? We are living through as very messy time, so far. Part of the reason for that is the rigged electoral system, which normally allows only candidates from the two-party corporatist political establishment to run for office. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in very different ways, disrupted that “normal” political process.

Popular Progressivism Disallowed

For decades, Bernie caucused with the Democrats; a life-long Vermont independent from Brooklyn, he was one of them in all but name and moral stature. His liberalism was true and consistent, unlike the establishment Democrats whose consistent corporatist voting records belied their public protestations of concern for the people. Bernie was able to mount a near successful primary campaign by directly expressing and appealing to the real concerns of the people. His populist social-democratic programs were explicit, essentially the kind of FDR progressivism that has always been popular because of its focus on the well-being of the people. That is why he was able to draw millions of small donations via social media. His honest unpolished “Grampa Bernie” persona became his unconstructed charisma.

The contrast between the corporate media patronizing of sensationalistic Trump Tropes and his racist xenophobia, and their treatment, or should I say avoidance, of Bernie Sanders, was profound. The corporate media gave the billionaire bully billions of dollars in free television exposure, while carefully excluding the “democratic socialist” from coverage. It was an uphill battle for Bernie all the way. The Democratic National Committee had to let Bernie run in the primaries because he had worked with Democrats in the congress for decades. But the DNC had its own corporate candidate and did whatever it could to defeat him while claiming neutrality. It is remarkable that against all those odds, he came so close to victory.

Held back severely at the beginning of the race and torpedoed throughout, Sanders came closer to winning than anyone expected. In a fair race, without the DNC dirty tricks and media blackout, he surely would have won the nomination. But what is fair about normal politics in the U.S.A.?

The tragedy of the charlatan and the Huckster is not that the Democratic Party establishment unfairly defeated Bernie Sanders. Nor is it that a narcissistic sociopath was able to take over the Republican Party to the shock and dismay of both corporatists and extreme fundamentalists.  It is that the American people and the population of the planet are now put at grave risk by the inverted totalitarian of the corporate state, whether Charlatan or Huckster resides in the White House. The “choice” is now between short-term financial interests of the corporate state and the pure demagoguery of a neofascist would-be dictator. The contrast of each with the social mobilization necessary to save the people and the planet from complete climate collapse will differ, but in either case is gravely profound.

Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

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Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

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Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

The Irony of Crisis and Opportunity

Sometimes irony offers a vision of opportunity. If we are aware of the tragic outcome of a contradiction between the intention and the effects of an action, we may escape tragedy. That awareness may provide a chance for something far better than the original intent. Ignoring such contradictions, we risk disaster and may never notice the opportunity they bring.

Dramatic irony can be traced back to the Greek classics. That is because the ancient Greeks had such a good grasp of the human condition. Human folly often results from continuing down a path our mistaken ideas dictate despite overwhelming evidence that it will lead to tragic consequences.

Today, we rush headlong into multiple converging crises. Power elites have institutionalized and marketed as “normal” the ironies of modern and post-modern life. Individual tragic outcomes of poor choices continue to unfold. However, the very culture of industrial society has embedded a deeper irony in the dominant institutions that shape our thought and control our lives.

We take the imaginary elements of mass consumerism as elemental, natural, and real. The propaganda that drives consumer “lifestyles” has succeeded. The irony of chasing an image of “individualism” by falling victim to mass advertising escapes most consumers. The opportunities to escape the treadmill of lower wages, consumerism, and debt, usually pass by unnoticed. They are not part of the culture, so we do not recognize them.

The Crises of Illusion

A key premise of the industrial economy that drives mass culture is that the answer to every economic problem is more economic growth. To get a sense of the general understanding of its role, I set up a “Google Alert” on “economic growth.” As a result, I get several “alerts” every day, each reporting dozens of media stories whose topic is economic growth. It is a popular topic in the mass media everywhere. I received far fewer alerts on the topic of “climate crisis.”

The almost universally central issue in such stories involves how economic growth can be stimulated, maintained, or increased. Stories about economic growth from all around the world, each assume that economic growth is the engine of human progress. I have yet to find a story via Google Alerts that poses economic growth as a problem for the future of humanity. Of course, I can find such stories by going to climate change websites or a growing number of books on the end of economic growth on a finite planet. Does anyone read books?

Therein lies the irony. The financial structure industrial economies of the world require continued growth in order to service growing debt and return profit on capital. Where there has been “room to grow,” that has worked out pretty well. However, some serious contradictions in that system and their irony are visible to those willing to look. Growth on a finite planet must have a finite limit.

The earth has limits and we are reaching them. Yet, economists such as Julian Simon claimed for decades that technical innovations, resource substitution, and free markets could overcome any such limits.They were believed, and many still hold to such magical thinking.

Growth did not happen so much from internal innovations in technology and economy as it did from exploitation of others. Technology did assist Western exploration and domination of the rest of the world through colonialism, then imperialism. Both provided the material and human resources to foster Western growth. Gunpowder, sailing ships, and the sextant helped get things started. The oppression of native peoples around the world continued for centuries under the guise of assisting in their development. In fact, the Western colonial and imperial nations were extracting their natural resources and exploiting their labor. That continues today, to the exhaustion of both.

Finally, present day regimes of neo-liberal international finance foist “structural adjustment” nations it has forced into debt, to assure their continued financial subordination and exploitation. The whole history of the economically “advanced” nations involves extraction of resources and domination of populations for expansion of economic control of the world. The economic growth of the West, touted for its cultural superiority, succeeded only by oppressing people in other parts of the world. Smug neoclassical economic ideologues bury such facts behind their pseudo-scientific theories that do not stand up to empirical observation.

The global consequences of the system and illusions of economic growth are emerging as a “catastrophic convergence” of multiple global crises.  Growing problems of poverty, resource depletion, financial collapse, resource wars, refugee migration, and of course, climate destabilization all result from the juggernaut of extractive capital and the industrial growth it feeds. The contradictions of the global system of extractive capital are far more complex than Karl Marx could have imagined, but they do contain the seeds of its destruction. We must find ways to make that destruction creative.

Irony and Opportunity

Of course, everlasting economic growth is as much an illusion as a “perpetual motion machine.” Most people recognize the absurdity of a frictionless machine that can run forever without external inputs of energy. However, the ideology of endless economic growth as the source of human progress is a deeply entrenched imaginary in our economic culture. The corporate controlled mass media reinforce the image of “growth is good” daily and hourly.

Nevertheless, the earth is a relatively closed system with one external energy input – the sun. It is also a highly complex array of living earth systems we call ecologies and their living subsystems. Each is interdependent with the others. We humans are a once-small but dangerously overgrown part of that complex. We increasingly disrupt the stability of all the relations between complex ecological systems we barely understand yet need for our own survival.

The deepest irony of human experience resides in the effects of economic growth on the very systems it relies on for its energy and material resources – inputs that keep it going. We live on a small planet and we are not going anywhere, despite fantasies of escaping earth’s problems by space travel. Our problems and their solutions must be faced right here.

The profound irony of our hugely successful trajectory of economic growth is that its failure results from its temporary success. We have achieved, by application of fossil-fuel based energy to technological innovation in production, massive global economic growth. However, that growth in energy/materials extraction consumption, and waste, is disrupting the very earth systems that have sustained it.

Yet, the very same crises forced upon us by our perpetual extractive growth economy, now offer several windows of opportunity. We can solve those crises and save humanity by transforming our relationship to the living earth systems upon which our survival depends. However, that will require abandoning the very perpetual-growth system we convinced ourselves is necessary and inevitable – the endless-growth machine of extractive capital.

Another level of irony is involved. The global crises we created by trying to control our environment can only be averted by “creative destruction” of the system we accept as inevitable. A New Great Transformation of the human systems of economy and technology will happen. However, for human survival, both economy and technology must align with the natural requirements of our environment.

The irony of that opportunity presents a path to a new viable and sustainable relationship to the world we inhabit. To avoid our own species extinction as global climate and ecologies destabilize we must rapidly integrate human activity with the requirements for sustaining our living environment. Only then, living earth systems may re-stabilize. Otherwise, the New Great Transformation will be one of our extinction.

Ironically, the ever-increasing efficiency of industrial production has excluded many from participating in the rewards of the growth economy. Yet the sustainable system we need would do just the opposite. Our understanding of “rewards” must change as we face our condition. Only a vastly more equitable distribution of wealth can be made compatible with the stability of living earth systems.

In The New Great Transformation, we must rely on energy inputs other than fossil fuel, nuclear power, and so-called “bio-fuels.” Conversion to a new ecological economy will inevitably involve much more human energy inputs (work) than are found in the dying growth economy powered by energy stored in the earth. It will also draw upon capturing the boundless ongoing energy inputs of the sun. That new configuration will provide the valuable jobs that the stagnating automated production processes of the economic growth machine have taken away.

The opportunities we face lay in uncharted waters. Yet, take them we must. If not taken, these opportunities will surely disappear, leading humanity to join so many other species in the sixth great extinction now underway. Our crisis is our opportunity. Our greatest challenge offers the greatest opportunity ever for humanity. We must take it or die.

The New Great Transformation of humanity will be one of either complete disaster or a development unprecedented in all of human history. If we act correctly and quickly, we may be able to achieve a new ecological society, even among the ruins of the dying industrial leviathan. We have the knowledge, but can we organize it in effective collective action? We must take this opportunity even though, as is now inevitable, we must go through a period of immense chaos and pain. If we do not, we simply will not survive. Out of chaos can come great creativity. That is what we need now.

International Trade Emissions: Shipping and Aviation Overreach

International transport emissions_ship-plane_Flickr.Phil.Norton

International Trade and Travel, Warming the World

The climate crisis will not wait for anyone. Unfortunately, the widely praised Cop 21 UN Climate Conference agreements this past winter failed to take committed action of adequate urgency. Instead, it accomplished what many thought impossible: it gained agreements from most nations to standards for voluntary actions to reduce carbon emissions by the 2%.

That standard scientists had already agree will be insufficient to avoid major climate disruption. Neither the inadequate 2% nor the aspirational 1.5% will possibly be achieved under the regime of uncommitted voluntarism. If you add up the voluntary actions, assuming they will be achieved, the result is around 3% of pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon. The climate consequences of that much warming will be catastrophic. We are beginning an international death dance as already accumulated greenhouse emissions continue to disrupt the climate. There is more to come and no relief in sight.

The most recent UN Climate Agreements failed to address carbon emissions from shipping and aviation at all. Each comes under the jurisdiction of separate international regulatory bodies. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulates international commercial aviation. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulates international shipping. Neither of these organizations is particularly focused on reducing carbon emissions.

The IMO has a committee assessing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The ICAO has a committee looking into market mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes. In neither aviation nor shipping are meaningful steps being taken now to actually reduce carbon emissions by these industries. Both facilitate the growth in international trade, which as a centerpiece of the globalized growth economy is a major factor in accelerating carbon emissions and climate chaos.

Aviation and Shipping Emissions: Global Inefficiency

The global growth economy relies heavily on transporting goods and materials in giant cargo ships, driven by huge diesel engines. The airlines increasingly transport goods as well as people to meet the pressures of just-in-time parcel delivery, tourism, and business travel. The “flying public” continues to grow, largely oblivious to its carbon footprint.[1] The airline industry alone accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions. That may not sound like much, but it is. International shipping accounts for more than another 2% of global human-made emissions as of 2012, according to the IMO. Emissions from aviation and shipping are likely to grow with the global economy, barring another international financial collapse. No serious regulatory constraint appears on the horizon.

A common misconception about shipping is that because goods made in China and shipped to the U.S. cost less than those made here, they are also more energy efficient. Not so. Economic distortions based on the international flow of capital to exploit lower labor costs do not make for energy efficiency. They just lower costs of manufacture. Much fossil fuel is burned because of international shipping of goods that could otherwise be manufactured in the country of consumption. The “global economy” is a huge contributor to carbon emissions overshoot. Financial “efficiencies” of distorted capital and labor markets do not produce energy efficiency; they produce waste and pollution, along with labor injustice.

Economic globalization has accelerated both oceanic shipping and aviation. Significant growth in both are projected for the coming decades. At the same time, no viable constraints on resultant carbon emissions are likely. The UN Commission on shipping is mired in accumulating data on fuel consumption. Airlines are mostly developing optimistic projections of becoming “green” via unrealistic plans for adopting new fuels and unproven technologies. Most of it is little more than propaganda. It is all predicated upon unsustainable growth. It is another example of the sham of the “greening” of business as usual. The consequences will be catastrophic.

Mother Nature Makes No Exceptions

“Text urging countries to pursue ‘concrete measures’ through the IMO and ICAO was dropped in the second week of Paris talks,” reports Megan Darby in an article in www.climatechangenews.com. These industries are transnational; they are not located in any one nation. Left to their own devises, these sectors will act like other industries and promote false images of climate action as they seek the least-cost options they are allowed. Because shipping and aviation are not mentioned in the Paris agreements, neither have any formal obligation to meet any particular emissions-reduction target. Acting in the public interest is not a viable option for any one company when not required of all its competitors.

Some airlines are promoting their “green” programs in spite of their marginal efforts to improve energy efficiency, even projecting responsibility onto their customers. Admonishing passengers to travel lighter is a trivial factor as jumbo-jet travel grows. KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, on which I flew recently, is a case in point. I was quite impressed by the service, efficiency, and friendliness of all the KLM employees with whom I had contact. Their professionalism was superior to any other airline I have experienced in the last decade. The Dutch seem so well organized and happy.

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About to board KLM “heavy”

But KLM operates on the same emissions illusions as other airlines. On the long flight back from Amsterdam, I surveyed the options on the video screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Under the heading “About KLM,” I found a statement on the environmental policy of the airline. It made the usual claims about the company’s efforts to reduce emissions by various minor efficiencies and plans for future improved technologies. It was a slick piece of marketing copy with virtually no substance.

Commercial aviation, like global shipping, is rife with waste. The relatively low prices for flights to various countries support travel that far exceeds genuine need. Airline prices do not reflect the true costs of aviation for the planet and all of us who reside upon it. What would the price of a ticket from Los Angeles to New York, or New York to Paris cost, I wonder, if the cost of the attendant carbon emissions to the planet were built into the ticket price? If prices reflected those externalized costs, I would likely stay home. If the costs to the planet are considered, both airline travel and shipping will be severely curtailed very soon.

Transportation and communication are core sectors of the endless-growth global economy. Neither can be sustained in their present configurations if we intend to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Emissions resulting from the use of information technology – smartphones, the Internet, and cloud computing – account for another 2.5% of all carbon emissions – another sector that largely ignores its own carbon footprint. Every element of the current globalized economy will have to be completely transformed rapidly to avoid total climate catastrophe. Yet, little of this has even entered the public discourse. Calling this a “global crisis” is a vast understatement.

[1] An interesting article by Peter Kalmus in Yes magazine, reflects on the carbon footprint of commercial aviation by analyzing his own professional travel. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has chosen to not fly because of the calculations he did to estimate the CO2 emissions per mile from flying. His 50,000 miles of flying in 2010, he calculated to have produced most of his total carbon emissions. But the mono-nitrogen oxides that form jet contrails and seed cirrus clouds, add to atmospheric warming as well. A round trip, Los Angeles to Paris and back, emits 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – that’s 10 times the annual emissions of the average Kenyan. The article is posted at http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-02-16/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying.