Plastic Graduation: We are All in it Now

When Dustin Hoffman starred in “The Graduate,” I could relate to the situation in which his character found himself.  “Benjamin Braddock” had just graduated from college and sought some meaningful path in life. Even though I was nearly half way through a PhD program, I was still not entirely clear on where my path may lead. I had explored several majors as an undergraduate, before settling on a degree in Sociology.

Even as a PhD student, I took courses outside my field. Why I took a course in pre-revolutionary Russian literature, I will never know. Yet, even today, the understanding of the Russian culture it gave me informs my interpretation of the bizarre Putin-Trump political orbit. That statistics course in math department provided a very different angle on probability than I got in the statistical research classes in sociology. And that Latin American history class provided a wealth of information that served as context for my exploration of the role of U.S. efforts at empire and economic development in the region.

None of that diminished the cultural ambiguity I felt then. Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, captured an essential angst of the time. Fresh out of college in the turbulent 1960s, Benjamin wondered what his place might be in a world riddled with hypocrisy and change. At a party given by his upper middle-class parents to celebrate his graduation, Ben wonders about his future. Mr. McGuire takes him aside.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics. [1]

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

When Mike Nichols directed “The Graduate,” glass bottles still contained all drinks. Today, plastics have proliferated in the bottling and packaging of just about everything. Despite the inundation of the oceans, lakes, rivers and land with plastic waste, their use in all kinds of consumer products and processes continues to accelerate. The narrow economics of consumer marketing even forces a plastic “clamshell” over a head of lettuce. The ubiquity of single-use plastic grocery bags is constrained only by a few cities banning them and charging ten cents for a single-use paper bag to encourage the use of multi-use bags and “save the trees”

Surfing junk_ocean-plastic-pollution_Monterrey Bay Aquarium

Surfing Plastic Waste

In 2015, the world produced 448 million tons of plastics, according to a new study reported in Science Advances,[2] a magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meant for wider public audience. The AAAS also produces the prestigious technical science journal, Science.

This first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured, estimated that “…8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” By 2050, about 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste “will be in landfills or in the natural environment.” It is disturbing to note that less than ten percent of plastic is recycled, despite the proliferation of recycling programs.

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Tortoise Trapped in Plastic

This vast quantity of plastic waste is fundamentally incompatible with and severely damages the ecosystems it enters. First, it is not “bio-degradable,” and is particularly damaging to marine life. The “Great Pacific garbage patch,” also known as the “Pacific trash vortex,” discovered in the late 1980s, circulates in North Pacific. It contains “exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic[3] plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.”[4] Furthermore, plastic waste damages wildlife, wildlife habitats, and humans, causing disruption of endocrine levels and biological functions.

Plastics may be the icon for the core dilemma of industrial modernity. The scientific evidence is clear. This ubiquitous product of industrial production/consumption threatens most ecosystems, just as the “byproduct” carbon dioxide already disrupts the climate stability upon which human life has depended since long before the industrial revolution. The cheap convenience of plastic products and packaging threatens the very ecosystems that sustain the lives of humans and the countless species whose extinction now occurs every year at accelerating rates.

Can humanity reign in the self-destructive project of plastic production, consumption, and pollution? We find very few signs of progress so far. The Trumping of climate action as well as national democratic process and international agreement on climate action is a major setback. It is now up to human communities everywhere to self-organize, assert their sovereignty over the conditions that threaten life itself, restore ecosystems, and abandon the life of plastic over-consumption. Can we graduate from the school of plastic waste?

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[1] “Note: the bolded line is ranked #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.” Accessed at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Graduate.

[2] Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,”
Science Advances 19 July 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782

[3] Pelagic means in open waters, not near the bottom and not near shore.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch, citing several sources of scientific research on oceanic debris.

Transparency, Transgressions, Bots, Trolls and Hackers

Today, we live in a world of illusion more than ever before. We cannot be certain where much of the ‘information’ we are exposed to comes from or how accurate it may be. The lie is the new normal. Deception has grown as politicians and corporate CEOs ignore calls for transparency. We must do our own research, but most do not have the resources, skills, or time.

As is clearer by the day, some yet unknown level of influence by Russian bots, trolls, and hacks of U.S. electoral computing networks and political email may have tipped the electoral balance in 2016. “Fake news,” political opinion, and facts are routinely conflated in attempts to control the public perceptions of the increasingly difficult problems we face. Deception dominates discussion. Discerning thoughts do not.

It is easy to become paranoid under the conditions we now face. The role of a “free press” is to question authority as well as any other claims to truth. News operations should challenge opinion with facts to lead where they may. More often broadcasters merely report conflicting opinions as if facts do not matter. Only a few good investigative reporters remain and judges threaten them with jail if they do not reveal their sources of evidence of official transgressions or institutional corruption. Whistle blowers have no protection in the new security state.

Reality Show Trumps Reality

The president attacks all major media, from CNN to the New York Times, as “fake news,” never bothering to substantiate his claims with any evidence whatsoever. His fawning ‘supporters’ simply believe whatever he says. That is relatively easy for those unable to engage in critical thinking. Too many naively believe in the empty loftiness of “Make America Great Again,” as an easy rhetorical remedy for their very real pain. Trumpist spin-doctors conflate political leaks of administrative transgressions with national security threats.

Nostalgia for an imaginary past that never was nor ever will be is no basis for public policy. Neither should empty rhetoric that frames the propagation of delusions in flag-waving sleight of hand, claiming to produce jobs while stealing the commonwealth for the oligarchs. Taking deregulation to the extreme while pushing for vast tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting deeply into healthcare on the backs of under- and unemployed Americans reflects the accelerating trend toward complete oligarchy.

Tilting Toward Collapse

There will be no job-growth in a nation that has collapsed under the weight of rising sea levels, extreme draught, flash floods, failed crops, resource exhaustion, and superstorms – not to mention top-down corruption. Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer was longtime chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air Program. He was also an early force in the U.N. efforts to track climate change caused by global warming. Oppenheimer recently estimated that our chances for staying under the maximum two degrees of global warming called for in the Paris Climate Accords, are now less than 10 Percent. Many agree that the maximum to avoid catastrophic climate change is 1.5 degrees.

Our shrinking probability of success in meeting minimal emissions reductions to avoid climate chaos has resulted primarily from the imposition of intellectual dishonesty upon the public discourse. On top of that, various efforts to take collective action contrary to the interests of the fossil-fuel industry have faced attacks on all fronts. Massive funding of front groups and state legislation opposing climate action by the Koch brothers, the use of bots and trolls to influence elections, and the avoidance of transparency in corporate and governmental actions, all contribute to an atmosphere of fear and illusion, stifling rational action.

A website set up to help consumers choose low-emissions based products within their zip codes to reduce their carbon footprint and save money was attacked by what appeared to be Russian bots and trolls, severely damaging communications with its users and prospects. Expensive security upgrades became necessary. Its efforts to recover the losses and expand its services, the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign of A Parallel World were stifled, apparently by trolls working in the interests of fossil energy.

More and more, a Trumpist federal administration and the propagandists it enables have taken control of the public discourse. They make every effort to stifle dissent and thwart efforts to counter the destruction of the fossil-fueled industrial economy.

Eminent Reasoning

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular articulate astrophysicist with a growing media presence, offers an extremely important four-minute video on “Science in America”

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Neil deGrasse Tyson  ~ Source: Brainpickings.org

containing, in his words, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” It is all about finding truth in the face of emotional, ideological, and delusional denial of facts in order to avoid the difficult political decisions that are necessary to solve the monumental problems we face today. His clear common-sense approach to explaining the role science has played, demonstrates how it more than ever needs to play a central role in salvaging progress for American civilization. Please watch it and tell me what you think.

The Russians are Coming! But the Plutocrats are Here!

The extent to which narcissistic sociopathy has become the new normal for ‘presidential’ behavior is truly astounding. Why is that? Well, for one, denial and projection characterize the psychology of the base. Trump’s base denies countless news reports indicating various contacts between the Trump presidential campaign insiders and Russian intermediaries associated with the Kremlin and projects them onto a vast liberal conspiracy.

Trump has repeatedly claimed he “has nothing to do with the Russians.” Yet, evidence of various meetings and associations keeps popping up. Numerous sources report that Trump made financial deals with Russian oligarchs and/or banks in the past. His son told a golfing reporter that the Russians were an unlimited source of financing for Trump projects.

Of course, we do not know what financial entanglements the president may still have with Russian oligarchs, since he refuses to divulge his diverse international business dealings or release his income tax returns as every other president has done. But, so many around him have had direct contacts with known Kremlin officials or their surrogates. For Trump politics is finance is politics.

Intergenerational Kleptocracy

Now, his son, Donald Jr., has admitted that he, Jared Kushner, Paul Manifort – Trump’s campaign manager at the time, widely known for having “made millions promoting Kremlin-friendly interests in Ukraine”[1] –met with a Russian lawyer close to the

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Assange-Trump-Putin Triangle. Source: Salon.com

Kremlin who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Donald Jr. admitted that the meeting happened shortly after Trump Sr. captured the Republican nomination. Now, just how illegal is that?

Numerous reports of other meetings between Trump associates and Russian diplomats have surfaced. Trump could not avoid firing General Michael Flynn shortly after appointing him national security advisor; he had lied about meetings with Russian officials. He had also concealed payments from foreign governments including Turkey.  Jeff Sessions “forgot” his meetings with Russians, as did Trump son-in-law and political point man on everything. How many appearances of inappropriate contacts with Russians by Trump associates, in the context of Trump’s financial secrecy and dark financial history with Russians is enough to raise suspicions? The list goes on…

People Don’t Change

David Kay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, has followed Trump’s antics for decades. His new best-selling book, The Making of Donald Trump, chronicles Trump’s exploits since Johnston first met him in Atlantic City in 1987, when he immediately saw Trump as a modern day P.T.Barnum. In 1990, Johnston broke the story that while claiming to be worth billions, Trump actually had a negative net worth.

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Poker-face Putin. Source: The Independent

Whatever his net worth today, Donald Trump has become an important asset for Vladimir Putin and his aspirations to become a member of the world’s ruling elite. At the G-20 summit Trump played right into Putin’s hand. Gary Kasparov, the world’s greatest chess player and Russian dissident-exile, likens Putin to a champion poker player and Trump as a buffoon.

In any case, the plutocrats are in control, both here and in Russia. That would not have changed much if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, but we must remember that Putin hates Hillary as she does him. To whatever extent Hillary is beholden to Wall Street, Donald Trump is beholden to his own self-aggrandizement and little else. An exception, perhaps, are the Russian oligarchs who apparently funded those mysterious European bank loans Trump obtained when the big U.S. banks would no longer do business with him because of his consistent failure to pay debts. Plutocrats here, oligarchs there, all aspire to become the most powerful global ruling class in history. Yes, the Russians are coming, but the plutocrats are here.

[1] See Stephanie Baker and Daryna Krasnolutska, “Paul Manafort’s Lucrative Ukraine Years Are Central to the Russia Probe,” Bloomberg News (May 22, 2017). Accessed at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-05-22/paul-manafort-s-lucrative-ukraine-years-are-central-to-the-russia-probe

The Manchurian President and His Great Wall

Remember the old movie, The Manchurian Candidate? The 1962 political thriller depicted a veteran of the Korean War, who had been brainwashed while a prisoner of war, to assassinate the leading presidential candidate so that the vice-presidential candidate could win the presidency. A secret “palace coup d’état” would then impose a draconian suspension of democracy in service to the KGB.

A 2004 remake starred Denzel Washington playing the other veteran who knows something is wrong. The remake updated the conflict to the Persian Gulf War and the perpetrator to a U.S. corporation, “Manchurian Global.” A slick candidate for the U.S. presidency has been “brainwashed” to do the bidding for a foreign power – a corporation foreign to American democracy, that is. The inevitable struggle between good and evil ensues.

The Manchurian Candidate Wins

I think we have an apt metaphor here for the rise of Trumpery, the results of which we all now experience. However, these days the president may or may not be helping the Russians. But they appear to have helped him jam the culture of core American values and national security in service to the Billionaire Class and especially his own (secret) global financial interests. The whole thing, morally as well as socially and economically, is far, far away from serving ordinary Americans. It is, in a word, foreign; the new normal of political corruption has infected many Americans through the demagoguery of the Manchurian President. He had come out from behind the wall of privileged wealth to claim common cause with the people. Total betrayal.

The financial and corporate elites in whose interest Trump promulgates endless executive orders are foreign in every way but their rhetoric. They care no less for the public interest than does the Manchurian President. The Vicar of Venality encourages the congress of Republican corporatists to trash the modest Affordable Care Act in favor of massive tax cuts for the super-rich, disease and death for the “losers” — us. He stifles as many federal agencies that work to protect the public interest from plunder capital as he can. He viciously assaults public discourse via hateful twitter tropes.

Atomic TrumpThe “Reality TV” show that now guides the nation entails the Branding of the President as the only real “winner” among the rest of us “losers.” The amoral Trump Brand touts greed and meanness as its central principle for gaining the power that allows him to take what he wants, whenever he wants, from whomever he wants — from contractors or employees who he refused to pay to pretty women he feels entitled to grope at will. We must realize that he projects this evil vindictive brand across the world in our name. Our nation’s security suffers for it.

More Shocks to Come

These are dangerous times and we all need whatever bits of useful advice we can garner to counter the Manchurian President. That is why I recommend you read Naomi Klein’s latest book, which gives valuable insight into both Trumpery and its application of the neoliberal economic (and political) “shock doctrine” to our own nation.

The first few chapters of her new book, No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, integrate Klein’s insights from previous books on branding, disaster capitalism, and the climate crisis, to offer what may be the most intelligible answer to the question, “What is Trumpery?” Her new video, “How to resist Trump’s shock doctrine,” outlines some key actions the rest of us should take. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

The history of the American political economy exposes a very long and persistent attempt by privileged elites to destroy the democracy that would interfere with the completion of their hegemony. Nancy Mclean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, makes one thing very clear. Much of what passes as ordinary “conservative” politics is part of a larger plan to destroy democracy in America.

The Great Wall of Trump’s racist misogynist rhetoric symbolizes something far more sinister than a physical deterrent to illegal immigration, instilling fear of the infiltration of terrorists, or Trump’s juvenile denigration of women and anyone not a U.S.-born white male. Of course, it elevates a certain xenophobic fear of the other in an uncertain world, adding to the angst that breeds the extreme nationalism and racist scapegoating that demagoguery has always encouraged and exploited.

Naomi Klein emphasizes in No Is Not Enough, that as aberrant as he is personally, Donald Trump is in a much deeper sense the logical result of the campaign to destroy democracy in the name of a libertarian future for the super-rich. His actions are a perfect fit for the neo-liberal agenda of the billionaire plutocrats who would rather not have to deal with a democracy in their quest for total power.

Transcending Trumpery

Trumpery is not so much about building a physical wall on our southern border as it is about reinforcing and extending the Great Wall of Disparity dividing us all off from those 600 Super-rich who make up the 1% of the 1% of wealthy Americans who gain from his policies. The tweets are his personal form of the much broader distractions the corporate mass media propagate daily to redirect public attention from the plunder of the our commonwealth.

As Robert Schenkkan’s brilliant new play, “Building the Wall” demonstrates, the achievement of a fascist state will come through the creeping engagement of ordinary ‘functionaries’ (people) in the machinations of oppression. The ultimate result – genocidal practices that remain at the core of the cultural heritage of the corporate state – further delay the unfinished American Revolution. It was integral to Canada’s colonization of indigenous peoples as well. Given the national political situation, resistance must continue. But the remaining viable path to survival of humanity in spite of the plutocrats is to transform local communities to harmonize with their ecosystems and each other to thereby replace the plutocracy with direct local democracy. Only such a transformation can at last complete the American Revolution.