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?

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

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

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

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

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.

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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

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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

Bernie_Slate.photo

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.

The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

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Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

Community: Some Fragments Remain

Little old airports near small towns have a story to tell. I have been flying since 1976. For most of that time, I flew mostly in the Southern California area, to and from small and medium sized airports surrounded near or in cities. In 2010, I flew from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the annual airshow and fly in put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association. It is one of the biggest air meets in the world. My wife and I had decided to camp right on the airfield, where airplane camping was available in designated areas.

I took the back seats out of the Glasair Sportsman II, which I had built in 2008, and loaded it with all our camping gear. We flew from Santa Fe to Oshkosh, Wisconsin – well, almost to Oshkosh – in two legs with a stopover in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As it turned out, many of the aircraft parking areas as well as the camping areas at Oshkosh were flooded. A year’s worth of rain fell in the four or five weeks before the air show. Only about fifty miles out, I picked up the information on the radio, that they had closed the camping areas. I diverted to the nearest small airport, Dodge County, where I found that many other small aircraft had landed, diverted from Oshkosh. There I learned that airplane camping was available at Fond du Lac airport, about twenty miles from Oshkosh. We took off immediately and landed at Fond du Lac, and got one of the last available camping spots at the edge of a taxiway. The air show organizers had arranged a shuttle bus to get campers to Oshkosh each day. That camping experience is a whole other story.

On the flights between New Mexico and Wisconsin, I did my flight planning in part based on my intention to stop at small airports for refueling. I was aware that fuel prices are lower at small rural airports where rents and other costs are cheaper. I had never flown an airplane in the Midwest. When I needed fuel, I landed at more remote airports. I knew that many such small airfields were scattered among the towns and fields of “the nation’s breadbasket.” The main users of these small airfields are farmers and crop-dusters. On the way home, a storm system chased me further southeast, over Missouri, so we stayed in Springfield the first night. On that trip across the rolling green fields of the Midwest at the end of July, I noticed some distinct differences from the urban and suburban airports where I had normally landed for thirty years in California.

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Major Samuel B Cornelius Field Airport, Spearman, Texas.

First, almost no security was evident at these little airports. Even when nobody was around, the little airport office would be open along with the restrooms. At small rural airports, a “courtesy car” is often available on the airport in case a pilot and passengers want to run into town for lunch or for any other reason. It doesn’t matter. The car key is hanging in an obvious spot in the office. An unwritten rule expects guests to top off the gas tank full for the next user. The key code for the gate is always a number that would be obvious to a pilot who had landed there.

Once, at a small airport at Spearman, Texas, to be exact, access to the fuel pumps required a local credit card unless the attendant was present. As I unsuccessfully attempted to use the pump, finally figuring out the problem, a man drove up in his pickup truck and offered the use of his card if the attendant did not return by the time we got back from our lunch in town. “Here’s my business card; just call me if you need it.” It was just the neighborly thing to do. He was a farm implements dealer.

Stepping out into the parking lot at the front door of the “Cowboy Grill,” we saw a massive black cloud formation, a virtual wall, moving in from the East. We did not want to have to stay at the only motel in town that night, a dingy cinder-block structure. So, we rushed back to the airport and took off in a very strong crosswind, heading west. We outran that storm and still had plenty of fuel to reach another town ahead.

We landed at the Dalhart, Texas airport. Dalhart is a larger farming community, and the airport has an FBO (fixed base operator) supplying fuel and aircraft services. Dusk was fast approaching, so we concluded that we had had enough flying for the day. A man came out of the office to greet us and offered us space in a hangar to shelter our aircraft from the approaching storm. We accepted. He then drove us and another couple of people to the motel he recommended in town, and picked us up the next morning when we said we’d be ready to take on the next leg of our flight. He owned the aviation service business on the airport, where we re-fueled for the final leg of our journey.

On our recent aborted camping trip to a small grass-and-gravel airstrip in the middle of the Gila National Forest, we diverted from our planned flight path near our remote destination because I was getting a wildly erratic fuel pressure reading. While I believed that the problem was due to a faulty sensor, we did not want to risk a fiery crash in the trees. We landed at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to try to resolve a fuel-pressure problem. “T or C”, as the locals refer to it, has one of those small airports where it is more about people and flying than about economics. When Steve, the gentleman in the airport office, learned of our problem, he offered us the use of the airport courtesy car. “Well, we don’t usually give it to people overnight, but since you’re stranded until you can get your plane fixed, go ahead, that’s what it’s for.”

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Truth or Consequences Airport, New Mexico.

We had the car free of charge, for five nights while we waited for a part to be delivered to the mechanic we had tracked down on the Friday of our arrival, another interesting character with his own story. Steve called me three days into our “inadvertent adventure” to see how we were doing. I expected him to demand the car back. He never mentioned it. I thanked him profusely for its use. He simply said, “that’s what it’s for,” without reference to when we might bring it back. We had to wait until Monday to order the fuel-pressure sensor, known as a “sender,” for overnight shipment.

Overnight took two days; we got to know the community, which had the same small-town America traits we appreciated in those rural airfields and towns in the Midwest. The loss of community is one of the important effects of the endless-growth corporate economy that is destroying all that is good (other than consumer goods, of course) in communities and ecologies around the world.

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

The Narcissistic Billionaire Sociopath vs. the Corrupt Corporate Crony

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

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

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

False Politics and the Corporate State

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Kinds of Political Deceit 

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

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

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

Popular Progressivism Disallowed

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

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

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

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