Cascading Consequences of Terminating Trust

Trust. Who do you know that you know you can always trust? How much does it matter to you? Do you trust your money to buy today’s value next year? Probably not. You know that several presidents have taken “executive action” to tweak the official calculation of inflation to make it look smaller than the increase in the prices you suffer at the grocery store. Now, with the current occupant of the White House caught in over 10,000 lies, how can you trust anyone anymore?

Some things are highly predictable. Others are not. As a general pattern, where I live the weather is quite hard to predict beyond the next few hours. Some days I can predict that it will not rain for the rest of the day. That happens when I have seen the voluminous data compiled into an electronic weather map that shows Santa Fe in the middle of a big high-pressure system. Easy, no rain today.

Predictability and Trust

Rain squallOn other days, I know with a high degree of certainty that it will rain in the area, but whether it happens at my house is a roll of the dice. I can look out west toward the Jemez Mountains and see scattered rain squalls. Whether they reach my garden is subject to a number of factors most of which change as the storm clouds approach or turn north. At that level, the weather at my house is unpredictable. It has nothing to do with trust.

Trust clearly involves predictability, but that is not all. We do not trust or mistrust the weather; we just know it is only partially predictable. When we trust a person, something more is involved – moral motivation. We can predict friends or enemies’ behavior without necessarily trusting them. We may predict an enemy’s behavior without trusting them at all.

Why? Because trust is an integral part of a relationship. The weather does not predict or trust us at all. We try to predict the weather with very limited success, not because of trust but only because of past patterns that we know are often consistent, in general, if not in any specific case. We have certain expectations of politicians, but generally, we do not trust them.

Presidential Prevarication

We can trust some politicians some of the time. That happens when we know that they hold certain values and stick to them when it comes time to vote on a bill put before the legislative body. Various politicians trust each other because they have long-standing relationships involving moral commitments some of which cross party lines. Despite the general untrustworthy character of national politics, it seems clear that politicians have to trust each other to some extent to get anything done. That, of course, is one of the reasons politicians get so little done in this era of political acrimony.

Then, throw into the mix a president who nobody trusts and who trusts nobody. Demanding total allegiance by subordinates but “throwing them under the bus” at the slightest impulse not only causes a great deal of staff turnover. It also eliminates trust as subordinates scramble to predict the next impulsive absurdity or policy blunder devoid of any expert consultation. The sycophants struggle to make sense of their own boot-licking.

Predictable Mistrust

Commentators have recently pointed out, in response to the latest act of trust violation by the pretend-autocrat, that back when impeachment threatened Nixon, he continued to sign legislation the parties considered important for the nation. The parties involved had retained a sufficient level of institutionalized trust to “work together in the nation’s interest.”

In the present instance, however, where prevarication prevails and the only value demonstrated by the president is the self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of the modern icon of sociopathic narcissism, trust is simply out of the question.

Pelosi and Schumer

Pelosi and Schumer ~ Vox

I doubt that Pelosi and Schumer trusted Trump to negotiate an infrastructure bill in good faith. Yet, they were duty bound to make the attempt. I get the distinct feeling that Pelosi in particular is playing the self-described ultimate player. Cornered by continued failures and court decisions upholding the constitutional separation of powers against his blanket assertion of total executive power, the would-be dictator flails out with increasingly erratic impulse. Even his impulse to be unpredictable is predictable. However, that is no basis for trust.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Climate Reality vs Industrial Culture

Green.New.Deal_AOC.MarkleyThe Green New Deal (GND) may or may not have much chance as a framework for drafting realistic climate legislation. Not only does a slavishly Trumpist Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, defy Senate tradition and democratic principles to fight any proposal the president does not like. He and his Republican cohorts block anything the Democrats propose, just as they embodied the Congress of No in racist opposition to anything President Obama proposed, even ideas formerly floated by Republicans.

Deep Denial

But an even deeper problem underlies the probable fate of the Green New Deal, even if, perchance, the 2020 elections were to install a Jay Inslee as President and capture the Senate for the Democrats. On the one hand, over 600 organizations, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org have signed a letter supporting the framework of the Green New Deal. However, in what may ultimately constitute a greater barrier to rational and necessarily extreme societal action to stave off the most severe consequences of climate chaos, including societal collapse, some of the largest environmental groups have refused to sign the letter supporting the Green New Deal.

Among the refusers, according to The New Republic magazine, were “the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society. Two green groups founded by deep-pocketed Democratic celebrities are also absent: Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America.”

Techno-Industrial Culture

Why the resistance from the biggest environmental organizations? In part, these groups object to the exclusion of still unproven carbon-capture technologies from the GND plan. GND exclusion of “market mechanisms” that where tried profited polluting corporations able to manipulate carbon trading but failed to make a dent in carbon emissions, was also a factor. The Sierra Club expressed the need for a more “inclusive process.” Resistance by the non-signers seems to center around what the Green New Deal excludes, such as nuclear power, geoengineering, and market-based mechanisms for trying to limit or sequester carbon emissions.

Here’s the thing. For a long time now, the biggest environmental organizations have depended on the biggest corporations for much of their revenue. These organizations saw financial success by extracting small concessions for big donations. In effect, they were paid off to demand only changes that the corporations considered minor “costs of doing business.” Now they want technologies favoring big corporate interests, included in the GND. The biggest environmental organizations remain captives of the techno-industrial culture.

Most institutions in the U.S. remain captured by the culture of neoliberal economic theory, that is, the ideology of the mainstream economy, which asserts that all good things come from free corporate markets. The climate-denialist and techno-industrial ideologies have infiltrated even philanthropy, to the extent of biasing research funding toward a milder take on the dangers of climate change than demonstrated by hard scientific data.

Resistance to the GND results in part from the fact that the public discourse remains under the control of an ideology that frames the “climate problem” as “fixable” by conventional technologies and market mechanisms that the corporate and financial elites control. That is the stance of the so-called “environmental modernists,” who cling to the dying ideology of technological innovation and free corporate markets as the essence of human progress.

Societal Collapse

There is nothing comfortable about the most precise scientific predictions of climate chaos leading to societal collapse. Nevertheless, with a high degree of certainty, the data show that the self-amplifying processes of system breakdown built into existing and forecasted planetary effects of global warming brought on by the overconsumption inherent in the industrial era. These processes will force the collapse of financial, political, economic, and ecological systems, and finally of society itself, all of which humans depend on for survival and comfort. If we try to hold onto our unsustainable comfort, we will lose the battle for survival.

Collapse is simply outside of the lexicon of big environmental organizations, no less most of the members of Congress or the American population. Nevertheless, the facts of destabilizing changes in climate, global finance, and politics, all foretell an extremely uncomfortable near future approaching human extinction, unless we undertake radical uncompromising climate action now.

Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

Decision to Land

In aviation, it is all about making the right decisions and executing them with precision and exact timing. From what I have learned about the incident when Captain Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a flock of geese took out his engines, the man is a consummate aviator. He rapidly assessed his dire situation and made the best possible choice, which was outside the normal procedure.

Facing Reality

One of the big human tendencies in aviation that gets people killed we call, “get-there-itis.” All sorts of pressures, mostly social, keep some pilots on a course that circumstances demand they abandon. A former FAA weather briefer reported in a webinar having briefed a pilot determined to get to Reno for a Thanksgiving dinner. He was just not listening to her warnings of severe turbulence and thunderstorms along his flight path. The briefer heard his children in the background boarding his airplane. In desperation, she said, “Sir, do you want your children to live?” “What?” She finally had his attention. “Well, if you proceed, they very well may not!” The father’s pilot-ego stood down.

I cannot help but consider the “get-there-itis” syndrome as an ironic metaphor for the present course of humanity toward climate catastrophe and societal collapse. Power elites, in their deep cultural denial, keep insisting we find (wildly inadequate) business-as-usual “solutions” to global warming, which will keep us on that terminal path.

Abort!

On our way to the Negrito airstrip in the Gila National Forest a couple of years ago, the fuel pressure indication began acting up again. I felt that the likely cause was in the fuel pressure sensor. I could not imagine how the fuel pump could cause such high pressure. By the time we were within 20 minutes to our destination, the fuel pressure indication had gone up and back down to normal several times. It was getting disconcerting.

Now, over the remote Gila National Forest, with fewer and fewer roads and meadows appeared below us. I remembered reading of a pilot who had ‘crash landed’ his Glasair Sportsman in the trees and walked away. The Sportsman has a tubular steel cage as its superstructure, similar to that of an Indi racecar, making it relatively “crash-proof” compared to an easily crushable aluminum airframe. That’s nice, but who wants to crash? I had no interest in pushing the boundaries.

IMG_1560 (1)When the fuel-pressure indicated over 100 psi, I made my decision. I pressed the ‘Nrst’ button on my GPS, already aware that the nearest airport (TCS) was at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I turned to follow the magenta line on my primary flight display, the shortest path to the airport.

Safe Landing

I contemplated for a second the broader irony of the name of my new destination. We landed without incident, beginning a new phase of our “inadvertent adventure.” Rather than risk an engine fire and a 100 octane flaming crash in the forest, we would miss the camp-out. We spent the next few days finding a mechanic, diagnosing the problem, waiting for a $40- sensor, and installing it in about 10 minutes. We took off at dawn the next morning and enjoyed an uneventful flight home, before dangerous thunderstorms built up as forecasted for the afternoon.

Humanity is at a turning point. We must make a major course-change in our unrelenting adventure and achieve a balance with nature. Can we land in a livable climate by drastically changing direction? We have no time left to contemplate that decision since we must act now to abort our flight of fantasy. It may be hard to turn away from the imaginary destiny of our utopian dreams, but we must. The risk has become extreme.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: II

A while ago, I read a post by Richard Heinberg on resilience.com titled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” after the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Resilience.com is an excellent source for all sorts of analyses and opinion on the climate crisis, sustainability, and strategies for global-warming mitigation and adaptation.

Heinberg is an economist who has written a strong argument for The End of Economic Growth in his book of that name (New Society Publishers, 2011). He is one of a small group of economists who recognize the fatal flaws of neoclassical economics.

These “deviant” economists have criticized the dominant economic ideology of our time: endless economic growth (the Empire of Globalization) as the engine of human progress. Heinberg’s point in the resilience.com article is twofold.

First, most people know that something is terribly wrong with the economy, the climate, and our national and international political processes. Second, most who are aware, including most environmentalists, implicitly deny the depth and urgency of the problem.

Calif.Wildfires_Stuart_Palley-20140216_06

Unprecedented California Wildfires  ~  Wired.com

As we move toward a New Great Transformation of society forced by global economic growth, rife with unknowns, it is more difficult to “handle the truth,” than to figure out what the truth is. David Wallace-Wells’ article, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us,” in the New York Times, got it right. The crisis is now and we have much to fear.

The Decline and Fall of Electoral Politics

The preference for “none of the above” was widespread in the 2016 electoral season. I characterized it as a fight between “The Charlatan and the Huckster.” Clinton was widely perceived as dishonest, not trustworthy, and beholden to Wall Street. While it is hard to imagine that she does not understand it, her interest in the climate crisis seemed weak and obligatory.

Clinton’s attitude exuded disinterest born of corporate affiliation. An interventionist Democrat, insufficiently interested in consequences of political or military action, she too often looked for clues as to “Who Should we invade next?” Her State Department was too quick to support the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zolaya of Honduras. But her greatest weakness was the portrait the extreme right painted of her as dishonest.

Trump, the certified narcissistic sociopath who deployed his demagoguery very effectively, played on the fears and resentment of many Americans in a time when many had lost ground in seeking the American Dream. Michael Moore predicted he would win because Moore knew the attitudes of the American working class. Trump’s Tropes pandered to white working-class resentment of economic and social power-loss by focusing on hate, bombast, Hillary bating, and climate denial.

You Can’t Build a Wall to Keep Out Climate Chaos

The narcissistic sociopath continues his demagogic climate denial while he diverts attention from ubiquitous corruption in his administration by fear mongering demands to “build the wall” on our southern border. His “M.O.” is to double down on whatever inanity he last spoke. At least with Hillary, we would have had a relatively stable (in the very short run) period of business as usual as the climate crisis built.

Now, after two years, corruption prevails and Trump’s henchmen continue dismantling any federal program that either protects the environment in some small ways or protects the people from damage by the corporate state and its empire of globalization. The crisis deepens from the failure of national and international action to counter the destructive forces of deregulation, extreme inequality, and climate chaos. What’s a citizen to do?

As Bruno Latour puts it in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Polity Press, 2018), we desperately need to rethink the role of humans on planet Earth and learn new ways to inhabit the Earth. The alternative is societal collapse.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

Colorado Rocky Mountains_google.images

Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.

 

The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.

Debate on “Modern Monetary Theory” Misses the Mark

Artificial wealth comprises the things which of themselves satisfy no natural need, for example money, which is a human contrivance.

~  St. Thomas Aquinas

Buzzwords seem to rule public discussion of just about everything. Money is no exception. Now it’s “Modern Monetary Theory.” What’s that? Well, it depends on who you ask. In modern times, debates usually center on public debt and the government’s fiscal and monetary policies.

An article in Boomberg News argued that the supporters of The Green New Deal favor Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Critics argue that the costs of universal health care, publicly funded higher education, infrastructure buildout, and conversion to 100% renewable energy production would require unsustainable public debt. MMT supposedly sets no limits on public debt. That is apparently not quite true, but within the U.S. monetary system and corporate political squeeze on public spending, the costs of the Green New Deal, if financed by public debt, would be quite high.

Of course, if we calculate the infrastructure damage of climate chaos even if we met the limits of the Paris Accords – never mind the costs in terms of human lives – the comparative costs of implementing the Green New Deal would be trivial. In that sense, costs are relative. The underlying question is: What does society want to achieve and is it willing to pay for achieving it?

The Debt Illusion

Money is a social construction. It exists by social convention, by consensual definition. Throughout history, money has taken diverse forms, as long as the forms taken could provide the security needed for money to be money. That is why gold worked so well as currency until the global economy grew so large that the supply of gold could not keep up with the need for more currency.

Scholars have written some very large books on the nature of money and debt. How money evolved is quite fascinating. David Graeber’s book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, is quite enlightening, particularly regarding the diverse forms money has taken in history.

Public debt is not necessary; instead, it is a convention devised by bankers to control the economy of nation states. In that, the banks have succeeded.

If a sovereign nation controlled its central bank, it would not need to borrow the currency it issues since it is the sole source of authority to create money. The creation of the U.S. Federal Reserve as a banking cartel in 1913 made that impossible.

The expanding Roman Empire paid its soldiers using gold and silver coins it minted from metals mined mostly in Spain and Portugal. It did not borrow its money from anyone. Among the many causes of the fall of the Empire, was the fact that when the mines played out, the Empire could no longer satisfy its need for more coins to pay an expanding army. The operations of the Empire were stifled because it could not pay its soldiers.

Money need not be based on public debt, but in the industrial economies of the modern era, it is. That political choice enriches the banks and the corporations they fund, and it impoverishes nations. Neither supporters nor critics of Modern Monetary Theory seem to get this.

Implementing a national project or sustaining an institution is not a matter of how much debt we can tolerate. Rather, it is a matter of political will. The lavish support for the military that sustains the global modern industrial-consumer economy demonstrates that.

Fearful Fantasies and Fiat Money

To work effectively, money has to be made of a material and in a form that has some unique irreplaceable quality that makes it impossible to replicate by just anybody. That is why rare metals worked so well until economies grew so large in the modern era that the money supply could not expand enough using gold and silver.

When paper money replaced gold, the idea of “fiat money” implied that paper money was not really “real money” like gold. Nevertheless, it worked because it is hard to counterfeit, making it unreproducible by anyone other than the sovereign (for the most part).

Unnecessary debt combined with the failure to tax corporate profits creates annual deficits, which add to the national debt. The central bank creates fiat money through the sleight of hand of issuing government debt in the form of bonds as the basis of “loaning” money created out of nothing, to the government. If the sovereign issued money without the mechanism of “borrowing” from the central bank (in the U.S., the Federal Reserve) it would not create debt by issuing money.

It’s crazy. But the banks that in practical terms own the Federal Reserve love it.

If a sovereign issued money solely on the basis of needing to fund worthy projects, to hire the workers and buy the materials to complete the projects, the money would, as a result, circulate among the population of the nation, providing the ‘buying power’ needed to generate the goods and services people need.

National debt is unnecessary. In stark contrast, something very much like the Green New Deal is as necessary as anything can be. It is a matter of survival.