Bill Gates or Bill McKibben: You Do the Math

I had just finished reading Bill McKibben’s new novel, Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, when I stumbled upon Bill Gates’ blog, www.gatesnotes.com, which I had not looked at for quite a while. I have to admit, I had been rather miffed at the overconfident elitist strategy Gates pursued at the Paris Climate Change Conference at the end of 2015. He began to organize all his “billionaire buddies,” as I prefer to call them, to achieve a “new energy breakthrough” to meet the world’s (presumptively ever-growing) clean energy needs with one great sweep of technological prowess. At the time, he focused mostly on a new generation of smaller nuclear power plants. More of the same techno-industrial growth culture applied to the problems caused by the techno-industrial growth culture.

Any “new energy breakthrough” as a response to the need to reduce carbon emissions drastically, has several problems. Perhaps most importantly, it relies on the assumption that at the center of what we need lies New Technology. Well, that should not be

gates-billionaire bucks

BIG

surprising, coming from Bill Gates, whose meteoric rise to become one of the world’s richest men rested squarely in his talent for monetizing new technology. He is attempting the same thing with renewable energy, having convinced twenty-three nations, the “Mission Innovation” coalition, to accelerate research and development of new energy-production technologies for investment by his “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” composed of 23 of the wealthiest individual investors in the world and seventeen giant corporations.

Not All Innovation Is the Same

My first ‘personal computer’ was an NEC 8000, purchased around 1980, just before the iconic IBM personal computer had its debut. It had everything the IBM PC would have, but in a less convenient profile. The NEC PC ran on the operating system that would soon become “MS-DOS.” Once acquire, Microsoft licensed it to IBM for its new PC. I had worked with ‘mainframe’ computing, mainly for statistics and electronic mail applications on campus. The NEC PC was a game-changer for me; it was quite powerful for its time, including remarkably robust spreadsheet, word processing, and database applications.

As I later discovered, the operating system included virtually all the features for which MS-DOS and Microsoft later got credit. Gates made a shrewd business decision in acquiring the rights to that OS. MS-DOS was not a technological “breakthrough.” It was existing technology repackaged and marketed as the industry standard operating system for personal computers, because it was the default OS for the IBM PC. Microsoft never did succeed much at innovation; it dominated the software market by sheer force of position, buying out many small companies that did innovate then marketing their innovations as Microsoft products. Neither Bill Gates nor his employees invented MS-DOS, they acquired it and adapted it to the new IBM PC, which rapidly became the industry standard for personal computers.

So, what’s my point? Well, Bill Gates has not changed. His philanthropic model is distinctly entrepreneurial, and I dare say, self-serving. He seeks to control new technology by financing some of it and making business arrangements with other corporations and governments to fund R&D, then investing profitably in its deployment worldwide. It is “Microsoft-Big” all over again. Lots of extractive/industrial capital needed for such an approach, just what Gates has waiting to invest.

Community Creativity or Global Industry

Bill Gates strategy is exactly the opposite of what we need to downsize the industrial monolith that is destroying Earth’s living systems. In numerous venues, Gates argues that “We need an energy miracle” to prevent catastrophic climate change. Well, what we really need is a societal miracle to transform our economies into low-energy-use ecological communities, and even achieve negative carbon emissions wherever possible and restore collapsing ecosystems. Only then will be able to minimize the most catastrophic consequences of climate chaos toward which we are currently plummeting.

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Resist, Replace, Restore.  Photo Credit: Greenability Magazine

But why would Bill McKibben, who may be the nation’s most identifiable climate activist, write a novel? Bill, of course, is a long-term ‘Vermonter,’ as well as a co-founder of 350.org. The Vermont attitude may be what it’s all about. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is its political face. In Bill’s novel, subtitled, “A Fable of Resistance,” a rag-tag assortment of independent Vermonters decide that the only way to “keep it small,” is to secede from the United States of America. McKibben explicitly disavows that approach, merely using it as a story line to illustrate the issues from an ‘on-the-ground-in-the-real-world’ perspective. Radio Free Vermont does not provide answers, but it does point in the right direction.

I probably expected too much in the way of climate action in the story. But I guess Bill’s point is that we all live in our ordinary worlds, yet we have to take extreme steps to come to grips with the growing confluence of catastrophic crises in the larger world. The difference between our lives and the requirements for making the radical turn away from depending on big energy-intensive industrialized institutions and infrastructure is immense. And the road toward creating small ecologically grounded communities is extremely complex.

I have recently traveled North America from Canada to Mexico. Looking at people and their everyday actions, I see little movement away from fossil-fueled complex technologies, including my own. It is not easy to envision how, especially in the dominant urban contexts, so unlike village Vermont with its town-meetings based community democracy, such a radical turn as is necessary can actually happen.

The necessary seems at first glance impossible, as we enter the New Great Transformation of humanity as well as planet Earth, searching for ways to control runaway change for our survival. Our path is uncertain and fraught with danger. I discuss what I term this “The Radical Turn,” in another post, written just the other day after I finished reading Radio Free Vermont.

When the necessary at first seems inconceivable, that is when we must get very creative, as Bill McKibben has in this radical turn in his writing. It will all turn on how much creativity we can muster, organize, and implement where we live, not in some giant high-tech lab drawing many amps from a fossil-fueled power plant in the next state over, and huge amounts of cash drained form the economy by the financial elite.

Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

Puerto Rican Jubilee

All basic infrastructure in Puerto Rico is down and remains nearly out. Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the U.S. colonial territory, whose people are American citizens, mas o menos. Maria obliterated Puerto Rica’s electrical grid, destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, and most facilities and supply lines of all kinds. The third record hurricane in the Caribbean this season, Maria had sustained winds at 155 miles per hour when it hit the island.

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Because of the sophisticated satellite imagery, data processing, and computer models of NASA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service, they could forecast its general path and power days ahead of its impact. Yet, U.S. government response was delayed, slow, and partial at best. It appears another Katrina failure is underway, with little or no leadership at the top. The president’s focus on the island’s debt to Wall Street creditors and exorbitant claims of success still accompany “foot-dragging” on mobilizing the assets a genuine response requires.

Yes, 3.5 million U.S. citizens live on the island of Puerto Rico. Well, they are sort of citizens… The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections and their representatives in Congress cannot vote on legislation. Puerto Ricans are by law, second-class citizens, a colonial legacy. They are, after all, mostly Hispanic people of color and former colonial subjects. They are also classic victims of disaster capital.

Modern empire is more subtle in its methods of domination and exploitation than were the colonial powers of the past. Vulture capitalists exercise oppression with financial weapons. One of the most important but largely unacknowledged powers of holding great wealth is the ability to use money to extract more money from others through the imposition of debt structures. In Puerto Rico, as elsewhere, we blame the victim for “decades of poor management.” However poorly managed, a debt trap is a debt trap.

The Empty Clown Suit who stole the presidency through voter suppression, demagoguery, and Russian interference, conveniently contrasts Puerto Rico with Florida and Texas, by implying that in some sense it was their own fault. He tweeted:

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..” (Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump 6:45 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

“…It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….” (6:50 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

“…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. #FEMA” (6:58 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

David Dayen in The Intercept, described Trump’s response as “…one of the most historically grotesque responses to a natural disaster, highlighting Puerto Rico’s debt difficulties.” It was not about human suffering or a federal mobilization to help. No, it was all about financial power. It was about doing as little as possible and making grandiose claims of “success.”

The bondholders who bought over 70 billion dollars in Puerto Rico’s indebtedness for pennies on the dollar, have offered new loans that would further indebt the island’s people to the Wall Street predators while contributing a paltry few million toward recovery from the devastation that itself caused over 70 billion dollars of damage. Instead, Puerto Rico ought to have a modern “jubilee” – the debt to vulture capitalists ought to be erased from the books.

Disaster Capital in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a textbook example of Naomi Klein’s concept of “the shock doctrine” applied by the corporate state to weaker countries around the world to gain or retain control over their economies and resources. Puerto Rico is a bit different in that it “is a part” of the U.S. But then, so is the town of Port Arthur, Texas, a “sacrifice zone” near Houston; whose citizens of color suffered toxic devastation by the petrochemical industry long before Hurricane Harvey. FEMA ignored it too while wealthier districts were tended to. Home mortgages are now secured by worthless toxic-chemical infused devastated lots piled with rubble. The impact of the debt hanging over Puerto Rico is little different, though owed by its government and much larger.

To rescue Puerto Rico requires that it we somehow liberate its people and public institutions from the predatory vulture capitalists of the hedge funds and banks on Wall Street, who have squeezed Puerto Rico to the brink of economic death because the corporate state enables their destructive behavior.

Jubilee for Puerto Rico

The answer, which those who would protect the criminals of Wall Street at all costs will immediately characterize as “impractical,” or “utopian,” is to declare a Puerto Rican Jubilee. Congress had already intervened several years ago in favor of Puerto Rico’s predatory creditors by establishing an outside “fiscal control board” that now governs Puerto Rico’s finances. Created by 2016 legislation called the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, it favors the Wall Street predators over Puerto Rican children’s health and education. Desperately needed normal operation of schools, hospitals, or other social services shrink to pay vulture capitalists. The island is bankrupt. Only relief from debt will allow a genuine recovery for Puerto Rico. It is time for the criminals of Wall Street to take a loss too.

Biblical references to “Jubilee” reflected formal, even legislative, return of land to its original owners, release of slaves, and cancelation of debts. Even the ancients recognized the ultimate dysfunction of excessive accumulation and concentration of wealth by the few and unbearable debt of the many, for the larger society. The combination of extreme wealth, computational technology, and political influence, has produced equally extreme inequities in the final phases of the industrial era. Puerto Rio’s plight epitomizes this process.

“Babylonian kings … occasionally issued decrees for the cancellation of debts and/or the return of the people to the lands they had sold. Such ‘clean slate’ decrees were intended to redress the tendency of debtors, in ancient societies, to become hopelessly in debt to their creditors, thus accumulating most of the arable land into the control of a wealthy few.” (See Wikipedia for a brief description of these ancient practices.) That is the exact position of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory today.

The oppressive debt structure that Puerto Rico endures, demonstrates that there are no bounds to the rapaciousness of the modern creditors of nations. Puerto Rica’s marginal status – not quite a nation, not quite a U.S. state – makes it even more vulnerable, especially with the congressional collusion with the powerful Wall Street financial interests that enrich themselves through the suffering of millions. The history of our debt-based economy is a sorted one. It has produced great wealth and great poverty.

Economies do not have to be debt-based, but the power of the super-rich has forced the model of debt-funded economic growth upon most of the world. It cannot last, for very physical reasons having to do with resource depletion as well as ecological and climate destabilization. Harvey, Irma, and Maria reflect both normal weather patterns and their intensification by warmer seas resulting from global warming, which jacks up the energy and destructiveness of storms. And, this is only the beginning.

A Puerto Rican Jubilee is the only chance for the people of the island to rebuild and live on. Otherwise, mass migration may ensue. A number of scientists have studied the emerging risks of chaos and conflict when mass migrations respond to intolerable environmental conditions. Armed conflicts (such as in Syria) become more likely. Many great changes are in store for us all.

The sooner we recognize the mess the fossil-fueled societies have caused, the sooner we can mitigate them and adapt to the damaging effects already “in the pipeline.” In that sense, Puerto Rico could be a test case, an opportunity to rebuild in an ecologically sound way that will not contribute to the worsening climate destabilization we now experience. A Puerto Rican Jubilee would have to be a first step in establishing a model for the ecological communities necessary for human survival. The more likely “business as usual” course portends even greater disasters, mass migrations, food insecurity, suffering, and armed conflict around the world.

Here’s How to Support Puerto Rico as It Recovers From Devastating Hurricane Maria

I am re-posting this article from readersupportednews.org here because it contains valuable information on how to contribute to saving lives of Puerto Ricans and help them recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The links to the sites listed below did not come through when I copied the article into this post. So, please go to the original article at readersupportednews.org to follow the links for donations and information.

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Rescue workers help people after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico. (photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

By Remezcla

26 September 17

Category 4 hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday. With winds of about 155 mph (nearly strong enough to be considered a Category 5), Hurricane Maria tore through the island before weakening to a Category 2 storm. (However, Hurricane Maria strengthened to a Category 3 storm as it made its way to the Dominican Republic.) The natural disaster brought torrential rain and flooding and knocked out power to the entire island.

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✔@AntonioParis

Starting To receive images from Puerto Rico. My sister just sent me this. It’s from Utuado my hometown. #HurricaneMaria

1:09 PM – Sep 20, 2017

Like many countries in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico was still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Irma, which hit the island about two weeks ago. Immediately after, Puerto Rico began delivering supplies to countries in need. It also welcomed thousands of refugees, whose homes were destroyed by Irma, from the US Virgin Islands. On September 13, about 2,000 from St. Martin and the Virgin Islands made their way to Puerto Rico, according to Reuters.

With the island expected to go without power for months, Puerto Rico now needs our help. The US territory is in the midst of a financial crisis and already struggling in many ways. It’s predicted this storm will have long lasting effects. “Puerto Rico isn’t going to be the same,” lawyer Migdalia Caratini told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s going to be before Maria and after Maria.”

The road to recovery will be long, and we need to stand by Puerto Rico during these trying times. Here are some places you can donate money and time to.

1.     ConPRmetidos
ConPRmetidos is a nonprofit organization committed to the people of Puerto Rico. The group will use the money it raises to help those affected by both Hurricane Maria and Irma. “We anticipate the funds will be used first for immediate needs of food, shelter, and water and then transition to long-term recovery efforts.”

Donate here.

2.     Puerto Rican Leadership Council
On Friday, September 22, the Puerto Rican Leadership Council in Miami will collect supplies, including bottled water, nonperishable food, diapers, and clothing, according to the Miami Herald.

Stop by Friday at one of these locations:

o   Mana Wynwood at 2217 N.W. Fifth Ave., Miami, Florida 3312

o   Isla Del Encanto Restaurant at 12850 S.W. 120th St., Miami, Florida 33186

o   Ana G. Méndez University at 15201 N.W. 79th Court, Miami Lakes, Florida 33016

Contact Luis De Rosa at ldr@puertoricanchamber.com for more information.

3.     Puerto Rican Leadership Council
On September 22, Washington DC Puerto Ricans will raise funds and collect supplies for the United for Puerto Rico fund.
Learn more here.

4.     Caritas Puerto Rico
Launched in 1969, Caritas helps those most in need. Sign up to become a volunteer here.

5.     Emergency Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fundraiser
The Puerto Rican Agenda and Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center are hosting a benefit event on Friday, September 22. There is a $25 entry donation, but the organizations are also accepting money through checks and PayPal.

Learn more here.

6.     New York Drop Off Locations
In New York, there are several places collecting supplies.

o   Casabe Senior Houses, 150 E. 121 St., Manhattan, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

o   El Maestro, Inc., 1300 Southern Blvd, Bronx, Monday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Also, firehouses across all five boroughs are accepting donations.

Manhattan

o   Engine 28/ Ladder 11: 242 E. 111th Street, New York, NY 11220 (East Harlem)

o   Engine 95/ Ladder 36: 29 Vermilyea Avenue, New York, NY 10033 (Inwood)

o   Engine 28/ Ladder 11: 222 E. 2nd Street, New York, NY 10009 (Lower East Side)

Bronx

o   EMS Station 26: 1264 Boston Road, Bronx NY 10456 (Morrisania)

o   EMS Station 55: 3134 Park Avenue, Bronx, NY 10451 (Melrose)

o   Engine 64/ Ladder 47: 1214 Castle Hill Avenue, Bronx, NY 10462 (Castle Hill)

o   Engine 83/ Ladder 29: 618 E. 138th Street, Bronx, NY 10454 (Mott Haven/South Bronx)

Queens

o   Engine 316: 27-12 Kearney Street, Queens, NY 11369 (East Elmhurst)

o   Engine 289/ Ladder 138: 97-28 43rd Avenue, Queens, NY 11368 (Corona)

o   Engine 307/ Ladder 154: 81-17 Northern Boulevard, Queens, NY 11372 (Jackson Heights)

Brooklyn

o   Engine 271/ Ladder 124: 392 Himrod Street, Brooklyn, NY 11237 (Bushwick)

o   Engine 277/ Ladder 112: 582 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11221 (Bushwick)

o   Engine 201/ Ladder 114: 5113 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220 ( Sunset Park)

o   Engine 228: 436 39th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11232 (Sunset Park)

o   Engine 218: 650 Hart Street, Brooklyn, NY 11221 (Bushwick)

Staten Island

o   Engine 153/ Ladder 77: 74 Broad Street, Staten Island, NY 10304 (Stapleton)

o   Engine 157/ Ladder 80: 1573 Castleton Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10302 (Port Richmond)

o   Ladder 79: 1189 Castleton Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10310 (Port Richmond)

7.     Hurricane Maria Children’s Relief Fund

Save the Children offers emergency assistance to children and families.

Donate here.

8.     Maria Fund
This fun, run by the Center for Popular Democracy, is raising money for local, grassroots organizations. “One hundred percent of monies raised will be used to support immediate relief, recovery, and equitable rebuilding in Puerto Rico for the communities hit hardest by the storm,” the site reads. Donate here.

9.     Blood Drive for Hurricane Victims
Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda (CASA) is hosting a blood drive in Orlando on September 23 and 24. Learn more here.

10.  Paz Para La Mujer
Paz Para La Mujer is taking both donations and supplies. Learn more here.

11.  Carmelo Anthony Puerto Rico Relief Fund
In a Player’s Tribune piece, Carmelo Anthony announced that he began a YouCaring page to raise $1 million. “Puerto Rico is very near and dear to my heart,” Anthony wrote. “Through my foundation, I have been actively working to bring hope and improve the lives of under-served communities on the island. Hurricane Maria has caused catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico and the residents will need our help and support to rebuild. Please join me in raising the necessary funds to get the much-needed supplies and assistance to the people of Puerto Rico. Your generous donations are tax deductible and greatly appreciated.”

Donate here.

12.  Save a Sato
As we work to help the victims of Hurricane Maria, we can’t forget about animals as well. Save a Sato needs food for animals. Send packages to Parcelas Falu #459 C, Call 35, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00924.

13.  Dogma Bakery

Those in the DMV area can donate items to Dogma Bakery, a gourmet dog bakery and boutique. The bakery is making a trip to Puerto Rico on Saturday. It’s collecting items for dogs but also cleaning supplies.

14.  Voices for Puerto Rico
Gina Rodriguez, Benicio del Toro, Rosie Perez, Luis Guzmán, and more are using their celebrity to draw attention to what’s happening in Puerto Rico. They have joined forces to launch Voices for Puerto Rico, an initiative to raise money for Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. The proceeds will go to several organizations, including Niños Nueva Esperanza, Taller Salud, Casa Pueblo, and other brigades.

Donate here.

 

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.

Plastic Turtle Trap_maxresdefault

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?

_____________

[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.

Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transformation

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.

mass_extinctions_Annenberg.Learner

Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.

REFERENCES

Alperovitz, Gar. 2013. What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Can Community Transcend Tyranny and Chaos?

Donald Trump

Flagging

When American democracy was Trumped and the new president was inaugurated, I was deep in Mexico, steeped in cognitive dissonance and disorientation as I apprehensively looked toward that imaginary wall. No, Mexico has never disoriented me, rather, the essential features of this small town of 20,000 ordinary people helps me put world events in a human context. Yet, each time I thought of the fact that a narcissistic reality-show host with delusions of self-obsessed grandeur was “running the country,” I sank into momentary despair. I always remember, though, action is a far better anti-depressant than any pharmaceutical.

Electoral Shock Therapy

hillary-testifying

Texting while Testifying

I never thought that Hillary Clinton, the widely hated pillar of the Washington establishment, was quite presidential the shoe-in that the pollsters, pundits and Party boosters proclaimed. Their intimate entanglement with the Washington elite diminishes any claim to objectivity – they hated Trump as much as they hated Bernie. However, Bernie had demonstrated the depth of resentment toward the system that has so miserably failed us, by mounting a major campaign from nothing but small donations and telling truth to power. If the DNC had not stolen the nomination from him, the race would have been between two ostensible outsiders – the demagogue and the ‘democratic socialist.’

I knew that the word “socialist” no longer carried the stigma that it had for the 1950s generation, who feared both communism and Joe McCarthy. And Bernie’s authentic lifelong progressive grandpa persona clearly inspired the underrated

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Just Bernie

millennials. Sure, I have some policy differences with Bernie, but they are trivial by comparison with the stakes that were at play in 2016. The ambivalence among democrats and independents toward Hillary’s Wall-Street backed neo-conservative interventionist pseudo-liberalism was palpable. Yet, the idea of electing the first woman to be president, as a ‘follow-up’ to electing the first Black president in history, had strong appeal among regular democrats.

Things would have been pretty bad if had we elected Hillary – oh, I guess we actually did elect her, by over 3 million popular votes, but the electoral college, just like the heavy Republican gerrymandering, is out of range. Of course, things could not have been this bad. We face now the iron fist of accelerated blatant tyranny rather than the velvet glove of the pseudo-democracy of the “deep state.”

I need not go through the litany of cruel executive orders and destructive presidential appointments that has everyone in federal agencies running for cover. It is not an oversimplification to say that each Trump nominee is dedicated to demolish the agency over which she or he will preside. And the Senate confirms the sociopathy. Science be damned – full speed ahead on a militarized fossil-fueled oligarchic economy! Plunder is the renewed preference. It cannot end well, but it will not hold for long either.

Okay, we know all that. The only question now is what are we to do for the next four years? We cannot wait for the final train wreck. Forget all the talk of impeachment; the Republicans are irrational cowards. Besides, do you really want Pence as president? Sure, it is possible that a reaction vote in the mid-term elections could change the majorities in the House and Senate. Look at what Trump has already done to unravel the modest work of the past 8 years. Really, do you still think we can find the answers to our urgent national and global dilemmas in the irrational optimism and piecemeal compromised performance of U.S. national electoral politics?

Something’s Happening

But something else is happening and they don’t know what it is, do they Mister Jones? The grand scale of the global surge of the Women’s March on Washington a few weeks ago surprised me. The sudden ground swell of protests at airports against the religious persecution of Muslims, banning them by presidential decree, startled my sense of futility. I had heard of the local incarnation of the Women’s March, which had already gone international, just in time to join in at the village of San Pancho on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Relatively out of touch in rural Mexico, I only heard of the airport protests via Internet news sources. It was clear, however, that something new was emerging from the grief of a profound political betrayal of the American Dream.

The book I’m writing, The Social Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation, suggests the need and new possibility of forming globally extensive networks of local social movements to stop the insanity and form viable ecological communities. There is already some evidence of this emergent trend and the “transcommunality” it implies (John Brown Childs’ important concept I will explain in an upcoming post), in diverse movements to stop the destruction of indigenous lands and water, along with general oppression, from Standing Rock to rural India.

I had heard of “Indivisible,” an ad hoc loose network of groups forming strategies to oppose the barbaric policies of the new administration. At the San Miguel Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago, I ran into Terrance NcNally, long-time progressive radio personality. I told him of my book and my effort to characterize accurately what seemed to me a nascent new form of global social mobilization for change. Terrence shared with me a long list of groups and sources related to that very kind of global uprising, happening right now. “Indivisible,” for example, involves diverse groups that are working on different particular issues, but who have become loosely affiliated in order to respond quickly to situations such as the Muslim ban. Terrence confirmed my belief that such networked groups around the world can quickly mobilize to respond to a particular threat of the new tyranny, with the support of Internet connections, of course.

Resistance, Replacement, Restoration, and Resilience

Now, here’s the big issue for me. While it remains vitally important to resist both the destructive actions of predatory capital and especially the new predatory political administration more urgently than ever, that is not enough. We have reached a point of such severe global ecological breakdown, as the global warming effects of former and current carbon emissions accelerate, that we must take action now to replace the neoliberal global economy with local ecological communities. Such action could both restrain the global economy and its destruction and build parallel social structures within local ecosystems, as viable replacements for entanglement in the carbon economy of the corporate state.

We are already deeply into the destabilization of climate and we will soon feel more devastating effects of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Virtually nothing is being done (except talk) at the national or international levels to slow or stop the carbon

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Hottest in 100,000 years.

economy. It appears that only local groups and communities can, and must, initiate grassroots action now. If we wait for the “authorities,” we will have passed the tipping point of catastrophic climate collapse. That will make the collapse of societies around the world inevitable. Locally initiated replacement of the corporate economy must begin immediately. That means forming new social relations and connections to local ecosystems. No easy task, but that does not make it any less necessary.

Extractive capital and consumer waste have seriously compromised many local ecosystems. Their restoration is necessary for the survival of local communities. The bonus is that they also constitute forms of mitigation of climate disruption, often by sequestering carbon, building water tables, rebuilding soils, and enriching local agriculture for local food production. We must restore living Earth systems to achieve a level of human resilience that can stave off the species extinction that the business-a-usual path threatens.

Transcommunality within the chaos of the New Great Transformation will be necessary, both among local groups and across globally networked social mobilizations, to resist, replace, and restore, to achieve a livable world.