Diary of a Mad Jubilado: (first in a series)

Jubilado Jubilee

“So much to do, so little time.”  That cliché never meant much to me.  The “so little time” part had no meaning.  I was busy with my life and there was always tomorrow.  It seemed as if I had all the time in the world. Careers go fast if you are busy and engaged. University teaching, for example, is not as simple or easy as most imagine if you take it seriously. In my case, like many professors, I was constantly challenged by students who were either ill-prepared or thought they already knew everything there was to know.  Many felt they merely had to get through this class in order to get that “piece of paper.” Any class was just another obstacle to getting the college degree.

Many unprepared students lack not only information about the world and about diverse fields of study; they also lack the critical thinking skills needed to excel in any field. That seems to be no deterrent to the ability of humans to be certain about whatever they happen to believe. Many just do not reflect on how they came to believe what they believe. It is very difficult to teach adults or even post-adolescent college students how to think clearly when most of the forces affecting their lives push them to believe one thing or another regardless of the evidence. Too much education is about accepting knowledge because of the authority behind it, rather than the evidence for it. Yet, many of my students retained their underlying curiosity despite the appallingly poor elementary and high school education that failed to prepare them for “higher learning.”

So here I am, more than a decade into ‘retirement’ now, with so much to do and so little time, it seems, to do all the things I want to do.  The term “retiree” always struck me as an odd word with a rather ominous tone, like “Senior Citizen.”  In some cultures, for example in the few “Blue Zones” around the world, where an inordinate number of elders live beyond 100 years, the local language has no word for “retirement.”

I have always liked the sounds of Spanish.  “Jubilado” is the Spanish equivalent of “retiree” in English.  “Jubilación” is “retirement” in Spanish.  Interestingly, the biblical meaning of “Jubilee” is “a yearlong period observed by Jews once every 50 years, during which Jewish slaves were to be freed, alienated lands were to be restored to the original owner or an heir, the fields were to be left untilled, and all agricultural labors were to be suspended. Lev. 25.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jubilee?s=t).  It seems that the underlying theme was not unlike our notion of a “vacation,” a distinct break with the ordinary oppressiveness of everyday life. Yet, those long-living denizens of the Blue Zones don’t take vacations, they just live consistent happy lives uncomplicated by industrial modernity.

Jubilee can also refer to the cancellation of all debts by the sovereign in ancient times when the accumulation of debt had become too burdensome and the concentration of wealth to extreme for the economy to function well. Wait, does that sound familiar? We may very well need a jubilee today. (For a fascinating account of debt and money in history, read David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.)

It all seems a matter of how human groups have defined their relations to material objects in relation to one another. Most folks today look at money and debt as absolutes. They are not.

Nobody has cancelled my debts; thus, I remain the “Mad Jubilado.”

_______

NOTE: An earlier version of this post first appeared in http://www.aparallelworld.com, a site that brought environmentally conscious consumers together with like minded vendors in their area, until trolls and Russian bots took it down by so disrupting it that it could not continue on its small budget… a sign of the times…

Rotten Apples: Nature Overcomes Machine

Timing rules. Change waits for no machine. When I bought that apple coring machine, I expected to prepare and process our apple crop in record time. We had a somewhat smaller crop this year, but  preparing the apples for storage in freezer or “canning” them in Ball jars is both very labor-intensive and slow. The new hand-crank machine would speed up the process immensely. And, it was only about twenty-four bucks.

Apple.Mate.3

Old American Technology, manufactured in China.

The apple and pear corer/peeler/slicer I bought to make this season’s processing easier worked great on the apples that had not yet begun to rot. It was clearly an old design, but, of course, the new product was made in China. It does seem of generally good quality.

So much good information on the internet can draw us into the lazy acceptance of claims that might not be entirely true. Reality sets in when we try to put such claims into practice. When it comes to coring apples, the operational characteristics of the machine must be met by the right condition of the apples to which we apply the clever design of the machine.

We had stored most of the apples in our root cellar for a couple of months as we busied ourselves with other projects. According to the “experts,” they should last in a root cellar all winter. Then we realized that some of the apples exhibited signs of decay. Time to core, peel, and slice those apples before it is too late.

Well, for many of the apples, even some that looked quite good on the outside, it was in fact too late to enjoy the benefits of that old design in a new machine that is otherwise capable of saving us lots of time. I quickly discovered how to rapidly operate the machine to produce cored and peeled apple slices. But I also quickly discovered the limits of the “apple-machine interface.”

Some of our apples looked great, but had begun to rot at the core. Much of the apple was still good, but the core was not. That resulted in a failure of the machine to core, peel, and slice the apple as it was designed to do.

The three coordinated functions of the machine all depended upon its ability to hold the apple steady as the operator cranked the handle that drives all three functions simultaneously. The machine grips the apple by means of three prongs that are inserted into the apple core.

However, if the core has rotted in any significant degree, it becomes rather mushy. Under that condition, the prongs cannot hold the apple against the forces of the peeling and slicing blades. The prongs slip within the core and nothing much else happens.

Now, of course one could manually cut out the core with a knife and save maybe a quarter or even half the apple to be peeled and sliced by hand. But then the machine has no longer any value in the process.

Well, we used the machine on the apples that did not have rotten cores and salvaged about half the harvest. But we could not always tell if a clean looking apple had a rotten core. And we were not willing at that point to do all the manual labor required by our failure to core, peel, and slice with the aid of that clever devise. A large amount of waste went into the compost.

All machines are designed to perform a certain function under certain conditions. If we human operators cannot sustain those conditions, then the machine becomes quite useless. This applies to ALL technology. Our so-called “high tech” devises often fail on the basis of a similar disconnect between form, function, and conditions. But, unlike the apple-coring machine, we are often deceived about high-tech disconnects from reality.

What are we really trying to accomplish? Where do we really think we are going with technologies that in their abstract sophistication are increasingly detached from the real-world conditions of our lives? If we had been fully attuned to the apple-conditions required by our apple corer-peeler-slicer, the machine would have worked quite well.

No farmer in the nineteenth century would have made our modern mistake. S/he would have been far more attuned to the conditions of the crop and the requirements of the technology. Living in the real world required it no matter how sophisticated the technology. No technology has value unless effectively applied to a human purpose. Much high-tech stuff generates its own abstract purpose in the technosphere, not necessarily connected to the conditions of life in the biosphere.

Paradise for Plutocrats and the Crimes of Oligarchy

Here we go again. In the latest revelations, widespread tax cheating and secret offshore financial manipulations hide massive amounts of wealth, both ill-gotten and ordinary corporate profits. The International Association of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has released “The Paradise Papers,” millions of documents that provide new devastating evidence of the history and current efforts of the most powerful and wealthy individuals, criminals and corporations in the world to hide their wealth and avoid responsibilities.

Release of “The Panama Papers” did a similar service about a year before the release of the “Paradise Papers.” As the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists put it, “A giant leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposes a system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, hidden by secretive offshore companies.” The Panama Papers had exposed how criminals, politicians, wealthy individuals, and major corporations have hidden cash and other assets with the help of the legal maneuvering and loophole exploiting made possible by the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Panama police have since arrested the founders of Mossack Fonseca as part of money laundering investigations.

1108_Foreign_ParadisePapers_Enemies of the People

The Super-Rich steal from Everyone Else, making them Enemies of the People.

Given what we have learned from the Panama Papers, it seemed unlikely that Mossack Fonseca could be the only offshore law firm operating to facilitate international criminal financial dealings. Well, sure enough, The Paradise Papers, also released by the ICIJ, reveal another giant complex of operations, this time exposed by the release of 13.4 million records. The release was shared by the ICIJ with major news outlets, including the Guardian, the BBC, and the New York Times. The documents exposed “ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, the secret dealings of the chief fundraiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the offshore interests of the queen of England and more than 120 politicians around the world.” According to the ICIJ,

“The leaked documents, dubbed the Paradise Papers, show how deeply the offshore financial system is entangled with the overlapping worlds of political players, private wealth and corporate giants, including Apple, Nike, Uber and other global companies that avoid taxes through increasingly imaginative bookkeeping maneuvers.”

paradisepapers-740x419_Reveal

The Paradise Papers expose the Corrupt Practices of Global Oligarchs.

I was not surprised to learn that the Paradise Papers revealed ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a private equity tycoon. His shipping company (which he did not divest when taking office as promised) “has received more than $68 million in revenue since 2014 from a Russian energy company co-owned by the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Furthermore, the Paradise Papers implicate over a dozen of Trump’s cabinet members and major donors in the financial manipulations exposed by the documents.

So, what does it all mean? Is it merely a matter of the wealthy paying to have their money managed effectively by specialists? Well, it runs much deeper. Brooke Harrington, a certified wealth manager, Copenhagen Business School professor and author of Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, suggests otherwise. The ICIJ quotes Harrington as follows: “There is this small group of people who are not equally subject to the laws as the rest of us, and that’s on purpose,” They “live the dream” of enjoying “the benefits of society without being subject to any of its constraints.” And, of course, the benefits they enjoy so far surpass what the rest of us can even imagine, that the constraints they avoid deeply damage the public interest around the world.

That, of course, is what Trumpism is all about. Every cabinet appointment, every executive order, every tweet of this “empty clown suite” aims to suppress the modest protections of the people, the land and resources of the nation from the predatory behavior of the oligarchs he represents. The line between legal and criminal behavior of the worlds oligarchs, with whom Trump has been entangled for many years, is quite blurry. The power of using agents like offshore law firm, Appleby by drug traffickers, kleptocrats, and money launderers to hide criminally obtained money, draws the world’s biggest oligarchs, politicians, and criminals together in both their financial interests and their methods of seeking secrecy.

Only the amazing coordinated research by dozens of ICIJ members could have exposed the “Offshore Magic Circle,” an informal collection of the world’s biggest offshore law firms in the financial secrecy business, of which Bermuda based Appleby, exposed in the Paradise Papers, is only one member. Multiple unexplored offshore tax havens serve the special interests of greed, corruption, and criminality of the world’s oligarchs. We don’t know to what extent the current U.S. President is a player or merely a pretender to plutocratic power, but we do know that his key associates are engaged in the middle of the Paradise for Plutocrats.

Bait and Switch: Un-Healthcare Insurance and Impoverished Budgets

Think about all the struggles over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and all the “repeal and replace” negation and obscurantism. Think about Obama’s hopeless attempts to compromise with a racist Congress. Think about the many years during which all the Congress could do was to implement their racist policies of saying NO to anything the Black President proposed, even initiatives based on programs the Republicans themselves had earlier advocated. Think about the stark contrast between the U.S. healthcare system and the systems of almost every other industrial nation in the world, where costs are far lower and health outcomes are much better than for Americans. Think about the fine healthcare coverage that every member of Congress gets free.

Follow the Money!

The incompetent excesses of the Trumpist Congress in its efforts to trash limited healthcare insurance for Americans matches its self-serving intent to pave the way for a massive tax cut for the rich, especially for the giant corporations that regularly bribe its members. They would give away the nation’s commonwealth to the rich by using “savings” from reducing federal expenditures on anything they can, except military spending. For them, the government has only one function: to defend by force the oligarchic privileges of corporations and the wealthy.

donald-trump-mitch-mcconnell-split

“Just Say No” Mitch and Dirty Donald ~ Agents of Oligarchy ~ Photo: CNN.com

The proposed GOP budget, now pushing its way through the Congress in a big rush with no debate and the same secrecy as the attempts to “repeal and replace” the ACA. It has precisely the same function. Cut federal expenditures on anything that serves the public interest, so Congress can pass a massive tax cut for the corporate rich with minimal increase of the budget deficit, thereby minimizing objection to the inevitable increases to the national debt. Keep in mind that despite glowing proclamations regarding “creating jobs,” “helping small business,” and “tax cuts for the middle class,” such talk is pure propaganda directly contradicting the facts of the legislation they hope you will not read. The vast majority of the tax cuts accrue to the corporations, at the expense of the shrinking middle class.

The Oligarchs’ New Class Warfare

It would all be unnecessary if insurance industry interests and the Wall Street financial elite did not dominate national politics. However, the goals of the corporate elite rule Congress and feed its growing CLASS WARFARE against ordinary Americans. Agents of wealth and power in the institutions of the federal government, instigate increasingly open class warfare, veiled by pseudo-patriotic rhetoric. The neo-fascists in patriotic clothing who dominate the Congress and the White House today have one goal: reduce the role of government in protecting the people, land, and resources of the nation to minimize costs and maximize profits of corporations. In effect, increase the growing control corporations have over government. The ‘general welfare’ of the American people just does not fit into that equation.

Hunter-gatherer societies did not have healthcare insurance of any kind. They didn’t have a budget either. Their focus was survival. They had subsistence, leisure, and relatively short lifespans. Remarkably, the lifespans of Americans have begun to decline as overall health and wellbeing weaken. At various stages in history, people in differing environments had various levels of comfort, disease and struggle; they were subject to occasional plagues and other health and subsistence challenges. Medieval towns and cities in Europe, for example, suffered great waves of sickness unto death for the majority of their populations stricken by the Black Plague. They could do little about these onslaughts to health, since they had no scientific understanding of the sources of their suffering. Sometimes the aristocracy confiscated so much from the peasantry to fight its wars that starvation resulted for some or many.

Pre-industrial folk were not totally dependent on a complex multinational industrial system for their survival as we are. No, that is an entirely modern phenomenon. Our livelihoods, our health, and our lives have depended for a long time on the increasingly complex industrial system that has allowed human populations grow beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. The corporate state increasingly finds the population and the environment inconvenient obstacles.

Politicians avoid facing that dilemma and the complex requirements for overcoming our “post-industrial” problem of finding ways to transform human society to harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we all depend. Instead, our “political leaders” would forge ahead toward their utopian dreams of fully installing the power of the corporate state in direct conflict with the needs of the people. These days, we have a lot to think about.

 

The Apple Core: Machine Meets Fruit

I just bought an apple corer- peeler-slicer, a mechanical devise you attach to a counter top to core and peel apples or pears in preparation for canning or cooking. It is an interesting technology. It has multiple moving parts, and it is all hand-powered. It has no digital controls and it is constructed it entirely from metals. Only the pad at the end of the screw that holds it to the kitchen counter top and the crank handle are plastic.

Apple.Mate.3

It cores! It peals! It slices!   Photo: R. Christie

I suspect someone designed and patented it in the late nineteenth century and that the patent has long run out. I found no patent notice in the paperwork, or on the box, or machine itself. Oh, there is the “Made in China” label! Could I be less surprised? All that international shipping and it is still only twenty-eight bucks. I bought it at a local upscale cookery store.

You will probably not find such devises at big-box stores, which are only interested in mass-appeal items. Who now processes their own fruit? Besides, mass consumer culture demands that all appliances by digitally controlled and electrically powered. Some might consider my new gadget an archaic throwback. Surely, one could have designed an automated electricity-driven device to perform the same function without my hand cranking it.

But why?

Apple.Harvest

Our apple Harvest, 2017.   Photo: R. Christie

We have only a couple of fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Several years after planting them, they finally have begun to bear fruit, beyond the one or two seen in recent years until last year and this. Suddenly, in mid-summer we now face baskets full of ripe apples and pears. We have a wine and root cellar, so we can store the fruit for a while as we prepare to can and cook with what we didn’t give away to our friends. Last year, we peeled and cored by hand all the fruit we canned, using kitchen knives for the work. That proved immensely “labor-intensive” and time consuming, so we decided to mechanize the process this year, mostly to save time.

Innovation in technology has played a central role in driving industrial development and economic growth for the past two centuries. The invention of complex mechanical tools and devices allowed craftsmen to make many products efficiently by hand, without steam or fossil-fuel power in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then came the steady onslaught of increasingly automated machinery driven by fossil-fueled engines or fossil-fuel driven electrical motors.

The latest innovations have achieved remarkable success in microelectronics and the miniaturization and acceleration of the speed of electronic technology in processing information. Computer Aided Design (CAD) feeds Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), now implemented abroad, where the remaining needed human labor is cheapest. We see it everywhere. Automated information processing drives much of industrial production. Industry needs less labor and more intellect to produce more and more consumer products. Those products, in turn, involve more and more abstract engagement of the user with images and symbols built into the product. Products themselves are increasingly detached from the material world, although some involve more and more control at a distance, as in the case of drones.

We know deep down that this cannot last. We are rapidly reaching the material, ecological, and climate limits of fossil-fueled economic growth. Economic growth itself is near terminal. The road ahead requires massive downsizing of energy production, use, and waste. Those who adapt to the use of new as well as clever old technologies driven by human power for human use are far more likely to survive in relatively comfortable and interesting engagement with the real world than those who insist on living in an automated bubble of shrinking life expectancy.

Puerto Rican Jubilee

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

170921-maria-gif-8pm-article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disaster Capital in Puerto Rico

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

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

Jubilee for Puerto Rico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic Graduation: We are All in it Now

When Dustin Hoffman starred in “The Graduate,” I could relate to the situation in which his character found himself.  “Benjamin Braddock” had just graduated from college and sought some meaningful path in life. Even though I was nearly half way through a PhD program, I was still not entirely clear on where my path may lead. I had explored several majors as an undergraduate, before settling on a degree in Sociology.

Even as a PhD student, I took courses outside my field. Why I took a course in pre-revolutionary Russian literature, I will never know. Yet, even today, the understanding of the Russian culture it gave me informs my interpretation of the bizarre Putin-Trump political orbit. That statistics course in math department provided a very different angle on probability than I got in the statistical research classes in sociology. And that Latin American history class provided a wealth of information that served as context for my exploration of the role of U.S. efforts at empire and economic development in the region.

None of that diminished the cultural ambiguity I felt then. Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, captured an essential angst of the time. Fresh out of college in the turbulent 1960s, Benjamin wondered what his place might be in a world riddled with hypocrisy and change. At a party given by his upper middle-class parents to celebrate his graduation, Ben wonders about his future. Mr. McGuire takes him aside.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics. [1]

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

When Mike Nichols directed “The Graduate,” glass bottles still contained all drinks. Today, plastics have proliferated in the bottling and packaging of just about everything. Despite the inundation of the oceans, lakes, rivers and land with plastic waste, their use in all kinds of consumer products and processes continues to accelerate. The narrow economics of consumer marketing even forces a plastic “clamshell” over a head of lettuce. The ubiquity of single-use plastic grocery bags is constrained only by a few cities banning them and charging ten cents for a single-use paper bag to encourage the use of multi-use bags and “save the trees”

Surfing junk_ocean-plastic-pollution_Monterrey Bay Aquarium

Surfing Plastic Waste

In 2015, the world produced 448 million tons of plastics, according to a new study reported in Science Advances,[2] a magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meant for wider public audience. The AAAS also produces the prestigious technical science journal, Science.

This first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured, estimated that “…8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” By 2050, about 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste “will be in landfills or in the natural environment.” It is disturbing to note that less than ten percent of plastic is recycled, despite the proliferation of recycling programs.

Plastic Turtle Trap_maxresdefault

Tortoise Trapped in Plastic

This vast quantity of plastic waste is fundamentally incompatible with and severely damages the ecosystems it enters. First, it is not “bio-degradable,” and is particularly damaging to marine life. The “Great Pacific garbage patch,” also known as the “Pacific trash vortex,” discovered in the late 1980s, circulates in North Pacific. It contains “exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic[3] plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.”[4] Furthermore, plastic waste damages wildlife, wildlife habitats, and humans, causing disruption of endocrine levels and biological functions.

Plastics may be the icon for the core dilemma of industrial modernity. The scientific evidence is clear. This ubiquitous product of industrial production/consumption threatens most ecosystems, just as the “byproduct” carbon dioxide already disrupts the climate stability upon which human life has depended since long before the industrial revolution. The cheap convenience of plastic products and packaging threatens the very ecosystems that sustain the lives of humans and the countless species whose extinction now occurs every year at accelerating rates.

Can humanity reign in the self-destructive project of plastic production, consumption, and pollution? We find very few signs of progress so far. The Trumping of climate action as well as national democratic process and international agreement on climate action is a major setback. It is now up to human communities everywhere to self-organize, assert their sovereignty over the conditions that threaten life itself, restore ecosystems, and abandon the life of plastic over-consumption. Can we graduate from the school of plastic waste?

_____________

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

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

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

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