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.

The Insurance Scam

As the corporate dominated congress struggles to perpetrate the greatest insurance scam ever upon the American people, it might help to put the concept of insurance itself in perspective. The deliberations’ secrecy is a big clue. The attempt to eliminate health insurance coverage for some 23 million or more Americans and destroy Medicaid for the poor, to fund yet another big tax cut for the super-rich whose political power is far greater than that of the people ought to enrage every ordinary American. The one percent of the one percent are about to Trump American democracy once again with the greatest Insurance Scam of all times.

insurance.1Insurance is a concept fraught with contradictions in U.S. culture. For most of us, it is something we must pay for to protect ourselves from likely bankruptcy resulting from the costs of some major tragedy in our lives. If we crash our car, causing someone to be maimed or killed, most Americans do not have the resources to pay the massive costs for which we may become liable. The medical costs of a life-threatening disease or severe injury reach far beyond the pocket book of most Americans. That is why we pay insurance premiums. In theory, if everyone pays a small premium, the resulting large pool of money is available to pay the costs of whatever adversity befalls an insured person of family.

The Scam

However, it is much more complicated than that. Over time, the insurance business has become a “cash cow” for the corporations involved. We understand our insurance simply as an individual or family’s way of protecting itself from the risk of financial disaster or the risk of lack of access to medical treatment. After all, we live in an individualistic culture and it is up to us to take our own precautions or risk catastrophic consequences. But it was not always like that. Other options were available. Today, not so much.

In 2014, $1.274 Trillion was spent by Americans on insurance premiums.[1] Now, setting aside the administrative costs of managing an insurance program, the amount of money taken in by insurance companies today far exceeds the amount paid out in “benefits.” Insurance companies invest the difference, their large profits, in any number of ways. Often, they invest in large-scale projects such as big real estate developments. Today, most insurance companies are stock companies, that is, private corporations owned by their investors and managed in the interests of the company with the use of funds collected from customers in the form of premiums.

The Cooperative Approach

Mutual insurance companies are different; their members, who are also their customers, own them. Mutual companies are rare today; many converted to stock companies decades ago when management sought to operate for profit instead of for the “mutual assurance” of members. The underlying principle remains the same, pooling money from many customers to provide payment of benefits to those who “qualify.” Many “exclusions” restrict qualification. The added cost of corporate profit is the big difference for the “insured,” whose coverage may be less than expected.

Mutual insurance companies were more like cooperatives, such as credit unions. Because their owners are their members, cooperatives eliminate the cost of corporate profit, to the benefit of their member-owners.  I got my mortgage through my credit union simply because it offered the best interest rate of all financial institutions I compared. At the end of the year, I get a dividend based on any surplus revenue the credit union has generated, and the proportion of that revenue generated by my financial activity. In other words, the credit union equitably shares any surplus revenue is among its members. Cooperatives are simply more cost-effective for their member-customer-owners than stock companies whose interests require profits to outside owners and higher stock prices in quarterly reports.

Congress Amplifies the Scam

In the U.S., medical insurance business has evolved into a giant fraud, sanctioned by the federal government. By excluding as many categories of persons or conditions as they can, the insurance companies work hard to avoid any risk of insured individuals needing coverage. Every other nation in the industrial world has some form of universal health insurance in which the government pools the money through taxes and pays doctors, hospitals, etc., for their work. Citizens (members) use health professionals and facilities as needed. The costs are far lower because these systems eliminate both the profits of a business and the complex private insurance bureaucracies needed to restrict access to increase profits. Even more important, the health outcomes are superior to those in the U.S., since the focus is on health, not corporate profit. The Republican health care bill would make things far worse for Americans.

As one European doctor put it, “You Americans treat medicine as a business; we treat it as a profession.” Doctors in most industrialized nations do not think about insurance billing requirements or business profits; they work for respectable professional salaries. Most likely, they also feel less stressed. These differences result from a distinctly American cultural defect that inhibits cooperative behavior in service to the neo-liberal economics of the corporate state. That defect allows insurance to operate as a fraudulent institutional practice that drains the meager resources of the American people.

Breaking Good

As long as we continue to hold to the extreme illusions of individualism fostered by the corporate media and the corporate-controlled congress in support of corporate exploitation of the population, the grand insurance scam will continue. The elites that exploit government as well as the people perpetuate the lie that “private enterprise” is more efficient than government. It is very efficient at exploiting people and politics for corporate profit and the enrichment of corporate elites. But it is clearly less effective at providing health care to the people. The insurance scam continues. The people remain exploited and ill served by medical organizations and practices that serve the insurance companies and other profiteers, not the people. Where is the outrage?

[1] Federal Insurance Office (2014). Annual Report on the Insurance Industry (PDF). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury. p. 45. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurance_in_the_United_States

The Three R’s of Resilience and the New Great Transformation

We struggle to achieve meaningful responses to the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate, while fighting for social and climate justice. Remarkably, what appear to be the only remaining viable responses to the economic, ecological and climate crises also constitute the only viable means to achieve social and climate justice. We achieve both goals partly by overcoming the vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain in our thinking. We need a new paradigm for fighting the Trumpist resistance to community and human rights, adaptation to global warming, realization of food sovereignty, creation of green jobs, and the establishment of clean technology and transportation.

The New Great Transformation

We face another Great Transformation even more profound than that Karl Polanyi described in 1944. Polanyi explained the essence of the revolution of industrial capitalism as a systemic inversion of the former embeddedness of economic activity within the bounds of society’s culture. That inversion enabled the new economy to subordinate society and its culture to the requirements of industrial capital by enclosing land, exploiting labor, and commodifying money. The industrial era has run its course and now faces multiple environmental and internal limits, which are ushering in a new, poorly understood great transformation, not merely of society but of the entire global ecosystem as well. The human response must be as unprecedented as the transformation we face.

We are entering an unavoidable New Great Transformation in which human survival dictates not only a societal shift to renewable energy, clean technology, low-carbon transportation, and “green” products and jobs. We must make deep changes in how we live, where we live, to mitigate climate chaos while adapting to its growing destruction. We will find little success in resisting the resistance from the Trumping of American democracy by merely mounting a persuasive counter argument to rising fascist policies of plunder and injustice. Similarly, protests are necessary, especially of the scope and scale of the Women’s March and the demonstrations against the Muslim ban, but they are far from sufficient to achieve the social transformation we need.

The Three R’s of Resilience: Resist, Replace, Restore

The strongest and most viable Resistance will come from creating community Resilience built upon the Replacement of the fossil-fueled global industrial economy by forming ecological communities as we Restore local ecosystems. We must transform our communities, grounding them in both indigenous cultural roots and advanced appropriate technology.

Important networked social mobilizations such as “indivisible,” have already begun to resist directly the unconstitutional actions of the Trump administration, expanding traditional forms of protest. Yet, the best result of resistance alone is likely to be delay of outrageous political actions. Such resistance alone will not stop the escalation of Trump’s contemplated fossil-fueled resurgence of the corporate state. We must look to where we live to take direct climate action to replace the global fossil-fuel economy with located ecological communities. What are now in most cases mere residential enclaves highly

UrbanHarvest

Urban Harvest

dependent upon the global corporate economy must transform themselves into ecological communities by restoring at-risk local ecologies and building ecologically sustainable local economic productivity within the parameters of healthy local ecosystems. Such Replacement and Restoration are in themselves integral forms of Resistance, because they implicitly abandon corporate markets in favor of indigenous productivity. Together, they lead to the Resilience of located human groups.

We must abandon our (not always conscious) residual notions of establishing national and international “green” markets based on the utopian dreams of neoclassical economics. By what they do not do and how they misdirect us to high-tech grand illusions, “market solutions” of business-as-usual greenwashing become a societal death warrant. Sometimes markets get it right, as is the case of solar and wind gradually replacing coal and gas because they are more efficient and cheaper, and we must support such trends. However, time is of the extreme essence – we have so little left.

High technology and energy replacement within the existing neoclassical global corporate economy, such as “entrepreneurial Philanthropists” like Bill Gates propose, offer a monumentally inadequate response to the New Great Transformation of society and economy that is already underway. That path extends our spiraling down to climate chaos and societal crisis. Society must transform itself in unprecedented ways to avoid the extreme climate destabilization that would surely force societal collapse. People must take control where we live and make the New Great Transformation our own.

Transformation or Collapse

In the past, numerous instances of social mobilization and non-violent revolution have overthrown dictatorial regimes and changed societies, as documented so well by Peter Akerman and Jack DuVall in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict. Until the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, that did not seem to be the issue. Nevertheless, at a national level widespread protest actions will probably yield ruthless state violence, even more aggressive than so far seen at Standing Rock, Ferguson and elsewhere.

The most viable response to the national political chaos will be driven by widespread local self-transformation. Local communities must assert community rights and municipal sovereignty based in taking local control and, for example, passing ordinances recognizing and enforcing the rights of Nature. Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell describe such efforts in We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States.

Save.Garden.NYC

Unity via Mutual Aid

Networked social mobilizations across the nation and globe are growing, though not easy to track. To be effective, they must embody forms of “Transcommunality.” John Brown Childs’ book by that name found deeply rooted structures of unity through respectful autonomous interdependence in the Iroquois Confederacy and other indigenous societies as well as built into urban gang-peace movements in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and elsewhere. The needed grounds for such unity in autonomous interdependency may lie dormant in some but more fully expressed in other diverse community actions for change.

Diverse examples of the potential for an emergent Transcommunality include community actions Sarah van Gelden observed across the nation and reported in The Revolution Where You Live. Other examples include the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. From a progressive labor-movement perspective, Gar Alperovitz advocates a parallel vision of autonomous interdependency in cooperative ownership and worker control to realize community interests in economic production, in What Then Must We Do? Employee owned business, municipal power grids, public banks, etc., all seek community control of essential societal functions in the public interest. Ralph Nader describes in Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, how liberals and conservatives, when they set aside their ideological animosities, can protect their mutual community interests and resources against damage to their communities and ecosystems by the corporate state.

Many such trends are emerging from the ground up. We must be celebrate them, but they must also be recognized as elements of the incipient but necessary pattern of located human groups taking control back from oppressive global institutions (and their local surrogates). The globalized institutions of the corporate state have driven us to the brink of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, and societal collapse, and we must replace them with located ecological communities.

Despite some differences, both Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and Joseph A. Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) have shown that historical instances of societal collapse demonstrate the necessity of deep societal transformation for survival under conditions otherwise leading to collapse. If society fails to adjust its political economy and cultural practices to curtail destabilization of its ecosystem, collapse is inevitable. The difference this time is that the threat to society’s survival is global.

It is important in all this to recognize the enduring value of E. F. Schumacher’s inadequately appreciated concept of appropriate technology. Only by adapting forms of technology appropriate to local ecosystem parameters, can communities survive and thrive. In a post-industrial post-consumerist ecological society, we will have the advantage of a wealth of existing technological knowledge. But it must be revised, adapted, and used judicially in the context of local ecosystem conditions. To move to appropriate technology in support of community resilience, we must transform society where we live; in doing so, we may yet avoid societal collapse.

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.

old-bridge

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.

What is Wrong with Economic Growth?

I read a report in Forbes Magazine on the sluggish character of the current recovery from the 2008 financial crash, which lamented its exceptionally weak economic growth. Apparently, we continue slogging along in the weakest recovery since 1949. Since the Great Recession technically ended in 2009, average GDP growth has averaged only 2.1%. In the September 13, 2016 issue, Forbes staff writer Rich Kalgaard reports that the current “expansion” is more constrained than any similar period since 1949. Why is this, and what is the meaning and importance of such a slow recovery?

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Kalgaard offers “three clues” as to why post-recession expansions have steadily gone downhill, if erratically, for over a half century. He blames the fact that “the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.” He claims that the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, is part of the problem. Finally, he offers that routine corporate allegation that “the explosion in federal regulation” has stifled economic growth. He is wrong on all three counts.

Such claims by any writer attached to Forbes should not surprise us. Explanations for economic woes from corporate utopian dreamers will always blame the federal government for poor performance of the economy. They will also project causes of slow growth onto some outside force – certainly never to corporate malfeasance or distortions of the “free markets” they worship. Never will the internal flawed logic of extractive capital or the phantom financialization of the economy come into question.

The Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi exquisitely explained the origins and the utopian illusion of free market capitalism in his book The Great Transformation. That great transformation of human societies was what we call the industrial revolution. He also forecast the inevitable damage to society caused by the inherent flaws in the unregulated market system no longer embedded in society. The logic of its economic theory, which emerged as the intellectual justification for today’s global political economy, was deeply flawed.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, diverse societies have attempted to protect themselves from the damage done by market liberalism (the theory that if left to their own devices, markets will “self-regulate” and somehow produce the best result for society). The classical economists of the eighteenth century, such as Adam Smith, believed in two ideas that just never panned out in real economies.

First, they assumed that all human behavior is “rational.” That is, people will always act in economically rational ways, seeking their own best economic advantage in all their behavior. In fact, many exigencies and values in everyday life influence behavior. Economic advantage is just not the only important thing in life.

Second, the classical economists believed that markets would “regulate” themselves if allowed to do so, resulting in the best outcome for all. Adam Smith’s metaphor, the “invisible hand,” captured the essence of that belief.  Economic elites have both exploited and distorted it ever since. Due to the economic and political power of corporate and financial elites, the academic field of economics has retained those theories under the guise of pseudo-scientific analytics. All the while, “free-market” economies have failed to live up the theories of economists. Yet those theories continue to dominate economic thinking.

Utopian Dreams and Corporate Control

The theories that have controlled economics throughout the industrial era have held to these failed assumptions for centuries now, despite the overwhelming evidence against them. We now call such theories “neo-classical” economics, “neo-liberal” economics, or just plain “mainstream” economics. Despite their failings, the propaganda of the corporate media continues to glorify them as the scientific answer to all our economic problems. Corporations today routinely fight for regulations that favor their growing power, all the while claiming to seek less regulation of the markets they try to control. They never consider the social control of markets, for the benefit of society rather than for that of economic elites, as an option.

The consequences of the great transformation that subordinated society to its economic elites, as Polanyi predicted, continue to plague us today. Only this time the economic crisis converges with the climate crisis leading to global destabilization of access to resources, disrupted production and distribution of food, and escalating conflicts worldwide, all amplified by climate destabilization.

The utopian dream of endless economic growth may be the world’s greatest social illusion. However, it is also an imaginary vision that sustained itself in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, despite repeatedly failing the test of time. Never have “free markets” operated without causing serious social damage. In each case, society has tried to protect itself from the excesses and destruction of speculative capital, with varying success.

Overcoming Illusion

In cases such as the poor laws in industrializing England or the New Deal responding to the economic and social collapse of the Great Depression, political responses protected the people from the damage caused by unregulated markets. In cases such as the communist revolutions in Russia and China, the abolishment of free markets led to their replacement by cumbersome command economies that ultimately resulted in a state capitalism unable to respond to the damage caused by its bureaucratic control of markets.

Corporatist attempts to explain the flaws of the market system, like Kalgaard’s, implicitly assume the success of a failure. Their blaming of government and outside forces disrupts any attempt to protect society from the failures of a market system in desperate need of overhaul. Promoters of the corporate economic status quo like Kalgaard demonize as “wasteful spending” or simply “socialism,” any political attempt to require the economy to serve human society rather than only itself. They are mere corollaries to the failed neo-liberal economic utopianism promoted by global power elites for their own shortsighted gain. Some serious re-thinking is in order.