Thank You for Your Service to the Rich and Powerful

Today is Veterans Day. When I hear the ritually grateful expression, “Thank you for your service,” offered to a veteran or current military service member the speaker has never met before, I wonder why the statement makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because such ritual expressions of appreciation for military service reflect no real understanding of the actual sacrifices the veteran may have made.

In most cases I have encountered, the person expressing that ritual gratitude has no idea of the actual service performed by the military service member or veteran to whom s/he has directed the ritual accolade. In such contexts, it just seems a bit hollow. Many such expressions appear as a thoughtless ritual rather than a deep expression of personal gratitude.

A Culture of Pseudo-Patriotism
However, I think that there is more to it than the fact that so many of such expressions consist of empty conformity to a perceived ceremonial obligation to show respect. Some such expressions emanate from civilians who have never experienced the military, no less a combat tour. Yet, others who express that thanks are veterans themselves.
Clearly, however, all such gestures are part of the culture now, an obligatory expression of gratitude for military service “in defense of the nation,” or, especially since 9/11, for the dedication of first responders (firefighters and police officers) who risk their lives to protect the public from disaster or crime.

Does the person reciting, “Thank you for your service,” have any idea of what that service entailed, or what it may have actually defended? I would say that many such expressions of gratitude for service give little thought to the question, “In service to what or whom?” Most simply assume that the service is to us, the people of the USA. That allows the appreciator to feel easily patriotic.

Corruption Conflicts with Patriotism
It is important, of course, to distinguish between the dedicated service of warriors from the machinations of political leaders and parties who so easily send them into harm’s way. We in the US have a long, if mostly unacknowledged, history of heroic warfighting in response to patriotic stories that cover corrupt purposes of politicians and economic interests, which have used and abused warfighters by placing them in service to disguised private, usually corporate, pecuniary ends. We might want to keep in mind that of the many wars fought since the inception of the United States of America, in only a few cases was the “homeland” ever threatened.

Two Kinds of Service
One of the greatest of American war heroes ever, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, was the only person awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, all for separate actions. Speaking about the wars he engaged in, Butler put it this way in his small outspoken book, War is a Racket, criticizing war profiteering, as well as US military adventurism and nascent fascism. “Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” His critique of American wars is as relevant today as ever.

We celebrate Veterans Day with far too much complacency, happy to drink a few beers rather than go to that dull job another day. Patriotism is love of country, and that takes vigilance, which is still the price of freedom. The politics of hatred and racism that are on the rise today serve no purpose than to further centralize wealth and power by manipulating people into a false sense of patriotism, such as “white nationalism,” in direct disguised opposition to the love of country. We cannot allow our patriotism to be corrupted by the demagoguery of the rich and powerful.

Facing a Fantastic Future: Fantasyland, Apocalypse, or Hopeful Realism?

We usually think of something as fantastic if it is so wonderful and amazing that it seems like fantasy. I suspect that is where Walt Disney got the idea for his “Fantasy Land” and the other fantastical components of Disneyland, Disneyworld, and all those animated entertainments. Much of it suggests unbounded human futures through industrial technology and an inevitable triumph of good over evil. However, the future is now, and its progression appears vastly more complex than Disney could ever imagine, quite unpredictable, and fraught with danger.

If we project present trends in climate, biosphere, ocean life, and even political economies, we find little to suggest the kinds of fantastic futures with which Disney entertains the multitudes. To be honest, each cycle of hard-data projections leads to a progressively more dire future. Without extreme human action to thwart the worst of the consequences of the global corporate extractive industrial consumer economy, our future will certainly become catastrophic and very soon.

Into the Anthropocene

The destructive forces that the “technosphere” has already unleashed move us from the relative earthly tranquility of the Holocene geologic epoch, into the Anthropocene. The defining feature of the Anthropocene epoch is the rise of human-created techno-industrial complex adaptive systems to a planetary force that has already begun to destabilize the Earth System. Yet, planet Earth is itself a complex system that, within its own limits, sustains the many interacting complex adaptive systems we call life. Industrial-consumer civilization has already disrupted its balance. And that is only the beginning.

When a sufficiently large disruptive event occurs—an asteroid impact or an internal disruption such as 200 years of extractive industrial development and waste—the stable relations among Earth-System components lose their mutual balance and may spin out of control. The whole Earth System has undergone diverse and cataclysmic changes over millions of years of geologic time. Yet, we humans have experienced only the most recent brief period (11,000 years or so) of stability in the biosphere—the Holocene. That stability is what allowed the rapid development and expansion of Homo sapiens. Our cultural misapprehensions of Nature as composes of mere objects to be exploited ultimately caused us to destroy the stability of our environment (the Earth System) and potentially ourselves.

We might expect some future extreme disruption of relative planetary stability such as another asteroid hit, but that does not matter anymore, for we have created our own cataclysmic disruption of Holocene tranquility. The “great acceleration” of global economic growth is reflected in both CO2 emissions and average global temperature. We have moved too far already down a dark path of self-destruction while holding on to a delusional fantasy of omnipotence over an Earth System that will no longer tolerate our hubris.

A Predicament is Not a Mere Problem

Here is the fundamental cultural predicament we must overcome to survive. We hold tightly to the illusion that we can control an external world that nevertheless has begun to bite back. As the stability of the Holocene begins to fall apart, we perceive the growing dangers as “problems” for which we can devise “solutions,” which will ultimately fail because we frame them within the very same paradigm of human domination of Nature that got us into this predicament in the first place.

With Peter Kalmus, we must acknowledge the necessity to abandon the linear thinking of the Newtonian model of science that enabled our excessive control over parts of Nature. We must rapidly learn to harmonize with our Earth-home by Being the Change (2017) we so desperately need. That necessity is now. Gregory Cajete, an indigenous scholar of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, made this abundantly clear in his book Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (1994). Indigenous peoples saw this coming long before the findings of climate scientists employed by Exxon, which hid them from the public and entered into a campaign of misinformation and denial. The fact that a respected NASA atmospheric scientist and an indigenous scholar of American Indian culture should come to essentially the same conclusion is profound.

The upshot of all this is that we need to break out of our industrial-consumer cultural trap and recognize that the Anthropocene will become an epoch of extreme chaos and likely human extinction. We must face the fact that seeking techno-industrial “solutions” to a condition that is far graver than any mere “problem,” is a dead end. Only by radical transformation of human societal organization to reach harmonious relations with our places in the Earth System will give us the chance to survive and possibly thrive within the limits of our species existence on planet Earth. That is the only way to become hopeful realists, enabled by visions of a future we can live with.

What is Sustainability? Even the Experts Struggle with its Complexity

Many folks toss about the term, “sustainable” quite cavalierly these days. Like “green products” and “green consumption,” it often implies that a practice or product can continue as part of the industrial-consumer economy for a very long time. Yet the global corporate economy as presently constituted is hardly sustainable itself.

Well, quite often the product or practice touted as “sustainable” is not, since it is intimately entangled with the global corporate economy of endless growth, which all the evidence demonstrates is clearly not sustainable for more than a couple of decades or so. Is that as far ahead as we dare look?

Even some forms of “renewable” energy are not all that sustainable when we consider their relationship to the global extractive economy. Take so-called “renewable natural gas,” for example. The only natural form of natural gas comes out of the ground and is not renewable.

An Important Exercise in Seeking Sustainability

Last week, I attended an important conference on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) in Toronto, Canada, at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto (UTM). It is a beautiful campus set in a wooded environment outside the central city. Some of the newer buildings conform to the LEEDS standards for energy efficiency. A real concern for sustainability seems to pervade the campus culture.

UTM CampusThe Mississauga campus even has a master’s degree program in Sustainability Management, led by Professor Shashi Kant, who also organized this first sustainability conference, slated to repeat every two years. The conference demonstrated both the importance of developing sustainable lifeways and economic systems in the very near future and the difficulty in clarifying what really is sustainable and what is not.

In my post last week, while I was at the conference, I pointed to the problem of “renewable natural gas” not being sustainable, as well as not really being “natural.” How can waste from over-consumption be sustainable when the global system of extraction-production-consumption-waste on a finite planet overpopulated by overconsuming humans be sustainable? After all, the global economy driven by capital accumulation generated by over-production and over-consumption has already overshot the Earth System’s capacity to sustain it.

The End of Endless Growth

An exceptionally articulate presentation by Brett Caraway, “Interrogating Amazon’s Sustainability Innovation,” explained the ultimate unsustainability of Jeff Bezos’ model of corporate growth expressed in the unprecedented growth of Amazon. The Amazon growth story is the epitome of endless corporate economic expansion that will surely end sooner than almost anyone imagines. The presentations at the conference will be published online as Proceedings of the STTPA.

These were not the only important issues for human survival into the Anthropocene explored during this international conference of diverse professionals, academics, businesspersons and government officials.

Of course, anyone concerned with the destruction of ecosystems, the destabilization of the climate, and the increasing risks to human survival we face must consider what we can do to carve out a sustainable future. That was the goal of the conference. Much work remains to be done. As we move into the unpredictable forms of instability shaping up in the very near future, we must recognize that our own behavior and beliefs are fraught with contradictions and predicaments. Success will depend on the human ability to break out of conventional thinking and get very creative in our attempts to shape our own future.

Renewable Energy and Sustainable Life

I deepened my carbon footprint this week by flying to Toronto for a conference at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) The topic seems crucial for understanding how we must move forward to stem the tide of planetary destabilization of climate, ecosystems, and the threat of societal collapse.

The first two sessions I attended involved producing “renewable energy” from the waste humans produce in such huge quantities. One focused on “RNG,” that is, “renewable natural gas” extracted from food waste and used to heat homes and generate electricity. The other presented research on attitudes of consumers toward “waste diversion” from landfills and incineration and the “food waste profiles” of Canadian households. They got me thinking about the ambiguities built into the concepts of “renewable” and “sustainable.”

The End of the Era of Industrial Agriculture

The lifespan of industrial agriculture as we have known it is likely to end in the next couple of decades. Neither the forced growth of monoculture by fossil-fueled fertilizers and pesticides nor the depleted soils killed and eroded by such methods can last much longer, especially in the context of an increasingly unstable climate.

Massive industrial-crop failures are on the way. Forty percent of food production in industrial societies ends up as waste. Under those conditions, the massive waste has to go somewhere, whether bloated landfills, giant incinerators, or processed to produce gas to fuel boilers for home heating, engines for cars or trucks, or electricity generation.

Because industrial-agriculture is not sustainable, the extraction of “natural gas,” which is essentially methane, is not really “renewable” nor sustainable. These are slippery ideas, because their meaning depends on the situation to which they are applied. You could argue that as long as the food-waste flow continues, then methane extracted from that waste is “renewable.” But in fact, such strategies are stop-gap measures. They do not contribute to a sustainable economy or a stable society.

Not all Renewables are Sustainable

Ultimately, and soon, the only sustainable path for human economies is one that harmonizes with the ecosystems upon which we depend. That is simply because, despite the industrial-consumer myth of separation from Nature, we are part of Nature. Human survival depends on the continued stability of the ecosystems in which we live. Regardless of our urban or suburban, or even rural residence, we cannot escape the fact that we live within the Earth System that afforded us relatively stable climates and ecosystems for the eleven thousand years of the Holocene epoch. That stability is on its way out. Every scientific indicator leads to that conclusion.

Tomorrow, I present a paper at this conference titled, “Let’s Get Real: Societal Transformation for Ecosystem Restoration into the Anthropocene.” [I will post it on my website next week.] As the title suggests, what we need is not narrow forms of renewable energy within the framework of the industrial-consumer economy. Rather, what has become a necessity of sustainable human life on this planet is to transform the ways we relate to our Earth home and to each other.

How to Control Complex Adaptive Systems to Survive

We live in increasingly complex systems, more and more of them are of our own making, though not always of our own conscious design. There are two basic kinds, natural complex adaptive systems, such as the Earth System and its many subsystems, and human-made complex adaptive systems, such as social groups and corporations. It appears that we have been losing control of our relations with both, at an accelerating pace.

As some folks now know – perhaps not enough – we live at the end of an exceptionally stable geological epoch, the Holocene estimated to have lasted about 11,000 years. The human population exploded from just one of many species on planet Earth to the dominant force during that period. Scientists debate the exact end of the Holocene and the start of the new epoch, the Anthropocene. Yet, it is clear that humans have already altered many components of the Earth System, from atmosphere and oceans to ecosystems and even the Earth’s fragile crust.

The New Science of Systems, and Us

Science developed on the Newtonian model of a mechanistic world. We can describe many parts of the universe using that system of linear thinking, up to a point. Such description led to the ability to control or many alter parts of the material world around us. We can intervene in causal chains, such as “A causes B, which in turn causes C.” If we understand such relations, and they are not beyond the range of human action, then engineering (the application of scientific knowledge to achieve some material goal) can alter some aspect of our world.

Nevertheless, we live within complex systems the details of which reach far beyond our understanding, just because they are so complex. The interactions of their components can be self-organizing, adapting to changing conditions. By retaining the linear model of the world, we can never reach an adequate understanding of complex adaptive systems. So many positive and negative feedback loops are involved that linear models are simply not up to the task.

Now, human social organizations, from families to multinational corporations, are complex adaptive systems that evolved in relation to the particular environments.  Today, of course, we inhabit the entire Earth. Ecosystems are also complex adaptive systems, about which we have barely scratched the surface of understanding because we have always treated them from a narrow linear way of thinking.

In the past several decades, the rise of complex systems science has begun to break past the barriers of linear thinking to explore the nature of both natural and human complex adaptive systems, from ecosystems and climate systems to social networks. Unfortunately, however, we based the “great progress” of human technologies and economic systems on the linear thinking of Newtonian science. As a result, humanity has already overshot the capacity of Earth System habitats to carry the load of human industry, consumption, and waste needed to remain stable. We have thrown them out of balance.

Controlling Ourselves in the Unpredictable Anthropocene

So, now we have a very different kind of problem. We must achieve a very different kind of progress. Today we must dial back the profligate destabilization of the whole Earth System caused by the global industrial-consumer economy in order to try to regain some of the stability remaining. That is the most urgent matter because our survival depends on re-stabilizing the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere, the key subsystems of the whole Earth System.

Everyone knows now that we must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero if we are to have a chance of succeeding in stabilizing the Earth System we have so severely disrupted. But almost nobody talks about how that might be accomplished. Sure, talk of converting to renewable energy production and a variety of other technical changes abounds. The necessary changes are monumental in scale and scope. But ideas about how societies whose very structure is organized around burning fossil fuels can accomplish them without societal collapse remain beyond public discussion.

Here is the central fact – the unacknowledged two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room: In order to reduce human plunder of the Earth enough to achieve enough stability of the Earth System in the decade we have left to survive, we must reorganize societies to such an extent that we have trouble even imagining such change. We have entered what I call a New Great Transformation of the entire Earth System, by our own unconscious doing. That is also forcing a transformation of humanity’s relationship to our Earth habitat. We can only take control of the New Great Transformation by completely changing our relation to the Earth System and each other.

The Meaning of the Youth Climate Movement

Here is a brief video that shows the nature and prospects for the global youth climate movement led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and others even younger, who realize that they will be the real victims of the accelerating climate chaos as the planet heats up. Sociologist, Dana R. Fisher adds some context on how the youth climate march evolves.

As Greta Thunberg put it the other day at the UN Climate Summit, New York City, Sept. 2019

“People are suffering; people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Greta gives Trump the Eye of disgust

The comfort and false security of the status quo is fast disappearing, even for the very rich and privileged. Although the world’s poorest nations will suffer most at first, despite the fact that they have contributed least to the crisis, soon enough climate chaos will cross all walls of privilege.


Apocalypse Maybe? Risks of Chaos and Violence

As I watched Richard Engel’s “On Assignment” program last night, which focused on the unmitigated ruthlessness in the rise and fall of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond, once again the human capacity for violence and even the creation of a cult of death collided with my sense of how good and brave people can be. Despite the growing immediacy of the climate emergency, we also see the growth of movements proclaiming various forms of violent racist xenophobia, from the death cult of ISIS to the cult of hatred and violence spewed by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.

I had just read an article by Michael Mann, a friendly critique of Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Of course, these two stellar public intellectuals come at the existential threat of climate chaos from very different backgrounds.

Michael.E.MannMichael E. Mann is one of the top climate scientists in the world, famous for his graphic rendition of exponential growth in the heating of the planet forced by the workings of the global corporate growth economy – the “hockey stick” of exponential growth. Mann envisions mounting broad institutional action to stem the tide of climate chaos.

Naomi KleinNaomi Klein became a famous journalist by producing a series of books articulating the the essence of accelerating political-economic changes we experience today. In particular, her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how “disaster capitalism” dominates and exploits vulnerable nations. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, stands as the go-to source for understanding the global political economy that continues to accelerate the climate crisis.

The Difference

Mann’s problem with On Fire is that he worries that too great an emphasis on collective political protest that links the climate crisis with demands for economic and social justice risks, will alienate independents and moderate conservatives. These folks may be pivotal in mounting serious national climate action. But they may not be so progressive as to support the entire agenda of the Green New Deal. Besides, the Trumpists are sure to yell, “Socialism!” Well, they will do that anyway. However, I am not sure that trope has much traction these days.

Naomi Klein seems to take her argument a step further in On Fire. She pins her hopes on growing collective protest against inaction by the reactionary corporate state. She rejects “market mechanisms” such as cap and trade, which serve mostly to allow big polluters to dodge their culpability. Michael Mann is not so sure we should let such options go. He wants to “decouple” the climate action movement from the progressive social agenda. He also voices a couple of minor inaccuracies in Klein’s essays, but lauds her overall effort.

To Agree and Disagree

Well, I agree and disagree with both these important figures in the public discussion of how to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the carbon emissions that are central to the global industrial-consumer economy. On the one hand, we should not reject any tactic that might contribute to climate action. On the other hand, some techniques may be more viable and quick to implement than others.

However, in neither case can we accomplish such a radical reduction in carbon emissions without a so far largely unanticipated radical reorganization of society around a very different energy-use regime. Merely rolling out renewable energy production to feed a continuing industrial-consumer culture will be far from enough change. If we look seriously at exactly how to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade, we cannot do so without dismantling the corporate state, as we know it.

We have to face the fact that our corporate economy functions on absolute loyalty to the illusion of endless economic growth driven by fossil fuels, which is anathema to any meaningful climate action. It is also inherently inequitable, since, as Peter Kalmus so eloquently explains, the structural flaw in corporate capitalism is that “…money exhibits a gravitational attraction whereby wealth accrues more wealth.” The debt-based fossil-fueled corporate economy feeds a “black hole of wealth” for the few and growing poverty for the rest. A New Great Transformation of society, therefore, would necessarily entail reduction of social and economic injustices along with reduced carbon emissions, overproduction, and waste.

Violence or Community

Whatever path we take, a great deal of chaos and violence is likely to occur. That is where my reaction to Richard Engel’s reporting comes in. Humans are capable of not only vast creativity and kindness; they are also capable of unfathomable violence toward each other and the world around them. What climate-action path can we choose that will also minimize the violence and destruction likely under conditions of growing chaos? I cannot escape the conclusion that re-forming viable communities at the local ecological level may serve us best. Only when humans unite in groups of a size and mandate capable of engendering great cooperation, can we avoid the worst of the violence to come.