Tax the Markets!

Today, the world faces multiple interacting crises, most of which now approach catastrophic proportions. With every new research report on climate disruption, species extinction, ecological destruction, or various population, economic, or political disturbances, it becomes clear that many are at or approaching a tipping point toward chaos.

Political authorities remain unable even to formulate, no less take effective countermeasures. Idealistic if inadequate targets set for pleasant outcomes become meaningless gestures. Meanwhile, kleptocratic oligarchy grows stronger.

Economic pundits – who mostly follow the lead of the financial elites that profit from driving the endless-growth economy toward the brink of collapse – offer feverish pitches to “stay the course.” The super-rich force their lackeys in Congress to pass extreme tax cuts for themselves, which benefit the millionaire/billionaire senators too. The national debt soars as a result and it appears that “nothing can be done” to stave off national, no less global disaster.

stock market chartBut wait, there’s more, so much more. As the plutocrats drive the nation toward bankruptcy, chaos, and collapse, giant corporations remain awash in both cash, much held overseas, and cheap debt as they exploit low-interest rates to finance their operations and excessive executive pay.

At the same time, “Recent research suggests that “60%–90% of daily equity trading is now performed by algorithmic trading, up from 25% in 2004.” These trades skim profits from slight moves in equity pricing over nanoseconds. They drive market moves more than human trading while making their rich institutional executives even richer. Is that what a stock market is for? Well, yes, if you are a rich institutional trader.

Markets are Not Magic

All markets are social phenomena, the complex sum of many transactions. They emerge and develop in the interaction of humans who seek to gain from their trading. Well, that’s fine and dandy. Modern developments, however, make it clear that no “invisible hand” guides trading algorithms to produce the best of all possible financial worlds for all, or even for many.

The promoters of free markets have always insisted that they are necessary to achieve the best economic outcome for all in society. How has that been working out for you? Markets are, in fact, social creations, designed to serve the interests of their members, not the rest of us. Today, oligarchy is replacing democracy as wealth concentrates and drives politics.

Now, here is where we get in trouble with the devotees of Ayn Rand who run the country as well as the markets. Rand’s pseudo-philosophy of “objectivism” assumes that government has no legitimate role in serving the general welfare of the citizenry of the nation states. Well, I beg to differ. Members of the financial elite use the “market forces” they control to line their own pockets at our expense. It’s the biggest scam ever.

Governing in the Public Interest

A major role of government should be precisely to protect the public from the excesses of capital markets and the speculative extractive projects it finances around the world. The federal government is supposed to regulate elements of the economy as needed in the public interest. Absent such supervision, the consequences of the “creative destruction” of the most powerful institutions of the industrial era have now reached catastrophic proportion. The people must now act in our own defense.

Consider the fact that if Congress were to impose a transaction tax of just a few pennies on each trade on the financial markets, the effect on profits would be negligible. Yet, due to the volume of transactions, a seriously large stream of revenue would flow to the U.S. Treasury. So, yes, we can afford to take definitive action to mitigate climate catastrophe, achieve social, economic, and climate justice, and, well, maybe even survive as a species. That will happen only when the U.S. federal government breaks free of its plutocratic overlords and begins to serve the Public Interest.

On the Rails Again: Euro Trains are No Amtrak

Another in the series of occasional rants by the Mad Jubilado.

Over two hundred kilometers per hour? That’s more than 124 mph! Well, we seemed to be going pretty fast.  It was no Shinkansen (the Japanese “Bullet Train”) rocketing the 330 miles from Tocho-Mai Station in Tokyo to Kyoto between 150 and 200 mph. In the U.S., the contrast is striking.  Amtrak passenger trains dare not go over about 65 mph, and with good reason. The European trains are quiet, fast, and comfortable.


Dutch Tulips

In Tokyo, trains routinely pull up to the platform and stop exactly as scheduled, to the second, after their high-speed runs. Departure times are equally precise. In Europe, they are very close. In the U.S., well, things are different. Here, passenger trains have been relegated to a second-class status, behind the more profitable freight trains. They are not particularly comfortable, fast, or on time. Moving all that coal, oil, and Chinese manufactured consumer goods imported by U.S. corporations, gets first billing. Gotta sell that junk to Americans who have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs and now work as Walmart greeters or fast food cashiers. That is the priority, not public transportation.

Like so much here, public transportation systems have been ‘privatized,’ leaving the public interest behind. The railroads were created to help stimulate western expansion. The federal government gave wide swaths of land to railroad companies to encourage their development. Huge profits were made not only on the rails themselves but in the many land deals that followed. Private corporate exploitation of the commonwealth continues apace, with little challenge.

Now, the railroad companies act like it is their God-given right to exploit those properties in their own interest, the public be damned. Contrary to the corporate “free market” ideology, most of the magnificent technological developments of the industrial era were subsidized by the public purse. The prime beneficiaries have been the private corporations that took advantage of government largess. Any public benefit was secondary, though there have been many. Unlike Europe, where public infrastructure is valued and maintained, here it is all about the next subsidy or tax break for the corporations and super-rich, to be paid for by squeezing public infrastructure and services ever more tightly as the national debt grows.


On the Rails to Haarlem

The speed, smooth ride, and quiet on the electric European rail lines got my attention. I don’t remember a more comfortable train ride anywhere else. Then I saw the flat panel display on the forward bulkhead in the rather new passenger car. It displayed the speed in kilometers per hour and the time of arrival at the next station. We were on the TGV, the Euro Rail line, heading from Lyon, France to Haarlem, Netherlands.

The French countryside is a beautiful green in springtime. The tulips are in bloom all across the flat lowlands of Holland. What color! The mix of architecture in passing towns and cities, ranging from medieval to modern, is a bit dissonant in its charm. It is all so lovely to watch through the large windows of our passing train. It is almost as if nothing has changed in the world…but it has.

If there is to be a solution to the converging crises of climate chaos, poverty, resource wars, failed agriculture, mass starvation and forced migrations, it must include transforming public infrastructure to create low-carbon forms of transportation, powered by solar and wind-generated electricity and human energy. Trains, trams, and bicycles must become an essential element of a new life strategy, if we let it. The U.S. is so far behind. We wallow in political fights over false narratives while the planet burns. Making significant progress on issues like public transportation will require a political revolution.

Economic Growth or Societal Development: a Matter of Survival

For most “moderns” the role of economic growth in assuring human progress appears necessary, whatever problems it may cause. Yet, the evidence has grown to such undeniable levels that continued economic growth, at least as we practice it now, is simply unsustainable on this small planet. Climate scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, and Earth system scientists have accumulated and analyzed a steady stream of data that clearly point to the accelerating destabilization of the entire Earth system.

Emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, produced by a globalized techno-industrial growth economy. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs, corrupt politicians, pundits of denial, and dreamers of wealth and fame fight over who gets more of the pie that is already burning, still in an overheated oven. Nobody is willing to turn down the heat.

No Time for Illusions

Even more important, time is running out. For too long, most of those who even noticed have treated climate change as some future problem to deal with later. It is certainly not something I should have to do anything about now. The ordinary citizen is in no position personally to do anything significant about a global problem that international negotiations struggle to come to terms with.


Industrial Pollution in Ukraine

As I have said in other posts, every report from the IPCC has shown that predictions of previous reports seriously underestimated the changes they analyzed. The IPCC is an inherently conservative international body. All the governments that support it must approve the content of its reports. Until now, IPCC reports on current understandings of climate change have made certain optimistic assumptions about potential technological developments, such as geo-engineering, which are simply not justified. Things are not as bad as the IPCC would have us believe; they are far worse.

So far, political and business elites have constrained all international, as well as national, discussions of climate action within the assumption that responses can effectively reduce carbon emissions within the context of continued economic growth. So-called leaders have assumed that “technology will save us.” We have plenty of history to look back upon where new technology solved many problems of industry and commerce. That has usually allowed continued economic growth, creating new jobs while destroying old ones. Henry Ford hired many workers to build his cars while the makers of buggy whips went out of business. But that old logic no longer applies.

Cautious Science Reaches Critical Mass

A new special report by the IPCC has begun to face the hard facts of Earth system disruption and necessary human response. An Oct. 7, 2018, New York Times article By Coral Davenport summarized the situation by saying: “The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.”


Simulated Sea Rise in Miami

Now, even that was an understatement. They might have said, more accurately, “if we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases enough to keep global average temperature to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2040, sea rise inundating coastlines, intensifying droughts and superstorms disrupting agriculture and causing poverty worldwide, may be slowed enough to allow human survival.” The IPCC is, after all, a conservative organization.

Nevertheless, the IPCC took a major step in recognizing the social implications of significantly reducing global carbon emissions. From its Summary for Policy Makers, it is clear that industrial nations need to achieve almost unimaginable economic contraction to minimize the most serious damage and irreversible trends toward complete climate chaos. Industrial nations would have to transform the world economy drastically in the next few years. What national leaders are talking about that?

Politicians Prevent Progress

Of course, U.S. President Trump has mocked climate science and vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreements to reduce carbon emissions. He wants to increase coal production and use. Extreme right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, the likely winner in the Brazilian presidential election, has also said he would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. The IPCC report concludes that what is necessary to mitigate climate chaos appears politically impossible.

To quote the Times article again, in summary: “To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.” The facts require extreme economic contraction and therefore societal transformation, which political demagogues and economic plutocrats proactively deny.

Conventional notions of progress as economic growth are no longer physically viable, yet they persist politically worldwide. Discussions of how to mitigate climate chaos and the devastation, poverty, and death it will surely bring within the next couple of decades, must now shift to focus on societal development by shrinking the technosphere and reallocating resources to human needs rather than capital accumulation by financial elites. That seems impossible within the current political context. But the necessity for survival will soon motivate large numbers of people to mobilize to form a very different kind of society in order to survive.

Our Grand Illusions vs. Survival

I was an undergraduate student in anthropology when I saw a remarkable documentary film depicting the lives of the !Kung people. Also known as the San, they lived in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, still undisturbed by outside forces in 1952-3 when some Harvard ethnographers shot the film. The social structure of the small band met the requirements of that harsh environment in intricate ways. The San people worked very hard to survive yet had plenty of leisure time and seemed quite happy. Later incursions of Europeans seeking diamonds changed all that.

In stark contrast, the victims of America’s “sacrifice zones” such as Camden, New Jersey, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, live very hard lives in environments devoid of ecosystem resources from which to build a life. They are dependent upon the larger industrial-consumer economy from which they are structurally isolated. The rest of us live in consumer bubbles, where we are equally dependent but allowed to participate. In both cases, people have no direct connection to the land where they live; all relations are indirect, mediated by large national or international institutions over which we have no control.

The Cultural Problem of the Illusions Complex

Having long since abandoned any sacred or direct relations with the order of Nature, industrial-consumer economies have briefly enriched some, excluded many, but at great peril to all. Their elites have constructed a story of unending progress through industrial expansion. But that story of unnatural ambitions is no longer valid on this finite planet. The foundations of our grand illusions crumble as we seek to build more on top of them. The Great Transformation that launched the industrial age began by “enclosing” traditional communities in England and Scotland to accelerate industrialization and never looked back.

I was fortunate to have grown up experiencing much of nature through involvement with the Boy Scouts, despite living in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. We learned so much about the natural world beyond the suburban bubble that was a small part of the “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fueled economic expansion of the late 1940s and 1950s. I will never forget those adventuresome days. I understood later experiences of people whose lives were entirely urban partly in those terms. Their lives and beliefs develop entirely within the culture of industrial consumerism, devoid of any sense of the natural world.

Devolution of Education

The education system has not helped much. In college, I believed that education could be the source of solving most of the world’s problems. However, educational institutions, like science itself, developed as part of the modern world built on the foundations of rational humanism that viewed “Man” apart from and meant to dominate Nature.

The Earth seemed an unending source of materials to be plundered at will. The emerging industrial system became the vehicle for exploiting the natural world. Education became a means to prepare workers for obedient contributions to the growth of that system, not a method for cultivating the skills of thinking citizens. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the American education system expanded with the rest of the economy. That growth allowed some slack for faculty to explore learning in diverse ways, partially fulfilling the goals of developing thinking citizens.

From the very beginning of my university career in 1970, for thirty-five years I watched the quality of education in the U.S. decline as corporate economic interests pressured for the university to produce trained workers. Elimination of the progressive income tax system severely constrained public budgets, putting additional pressure on education to operate like a profit-making business instead of a public service.

Education became a commodity delivered like a sack of potatoes. Now we have the sister of the head of the private Blackwater mercenary army heading the U.S. Department of Education, attempting to “privatize” all education for corporate profit. Education today sidelines intellectual development, critical thinking, literature and the arts in favor of training new workers for technical performance in corporate environments. From George Bush’s “no child left behind,” to the privatization of educational institutions, the decline of education in America serves the corporate state, not the people, and sets the stage for the rise of fascism.

The broader attack on the public sector through “privatization,” whether schools or prisons, parallels a range of policy choices favoring corporate control of both politics and the economy that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Trained workers, whether on the factory floor or in corporate offices become technical functionaries with little sense of citizenship other than by adherence to the group- think of the “righteous mind,” cultivated by corporate propaganda and economic insecurity.

Dumbing Down the Culture, Anti-Intellectualism, and Social Chao

Culture is the collection of our beliefs. In our marketed consumer culture, efforts to exploit personal anxieties and collective resentments work directly in opposition to “thinking for ourselves.” Fads grow out of people trying to “be different.” Branding manipulates the desire to express our “individuality.” Persuasion works best on imagery and emotion, not on rational thought. The dumbing down of education aids the dumbing down of the culture, leaving more and more people susceptible to commercial advertising and political propaganda. Demagogues express distinctly anti-intellectual beliefs that exploit anxiety and fear while inciting hatred of any group not part of one’s own.

A shrinking job market and diminished incomes deplete the middle class formerly dominated by white male workers who resent the “browning of America.” Techno-toys provide distractions from dwindling prospects for a life with any intellectual content or personal meaning. Hate speech distracts attention from one’s own problems, allowing their projection onto feared groups of others deemed outside the pale. People form their beliefs in groups of like-minded people, not in contemplation of facts or evidence.

Confirmation bias allows “peace of mind” by acknowledging only beliefs consistent with one’s group perspective. Well-documented facts disappear before emotional imagery supported by group identity. When realities are too hard to face, such as loss of status and opportunity, people become more vulnerable to political manipulation. It all blurs together as opportunists tout scapegoats such as minorities, immigrants, Muslims and uppity women as the source of personal losses.

Two hundred years have passed since industrial culture reduced the person o an artificial commodity known as labor and economic individualism severely constrained the viability of communities for increasingly detached individual workers. Individual freedom became the veil hiding alienation and limiting severely the apprehension of reality.

Defending Society from Its Grand Illusions

Numerous attempts to protect society from the damage caused by free-market economies have occurred throughout the industrial era, with mixed but discouraging results.

The English poor laws and the American New Deal offered temporary palliatives without addressing the underlying problem. The revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba replaced the tyranny of capital with political totalitarianism. Western “democracies” substituted growth and the “McDonaldization” of consumerism for the resolution of social problems.

The grand illusions of multinational dominance over societies have gone global, right when the impacts on the entire Earth System approach tipping points toward collapse. The crises of ecosystem and climate, caused by pushing the limits of economic growth, continue to deepen. The limits to growth are physical, not ideological. Yet, corporate controlled media and political institutions perpetuate ideological illusions that threaten our very survival. Nevertheless, growing numbers of people realize that something is very wrong.

Creative Destruction of Our Grand Illusions for Survival

Here’s the thing. A New Great Transformation of humanity’s relations with planet Earth upon us. If we continue to ignore the deep changes humans have triggered, leading us into the unknowns of the Anthropocene, we will lose all control of our fate. Our grand illusions support a headlong rush to planetary chaos and potentially human extinction. Survival – never mind the “good life” – will depend on whether humans are up to the revolutionary task of paying the debt we have incurred to the planet and finding new ways to live in harmony with the Earth System we have already changed so radically.

China’s New Colonialism in Malaysia: A Harbinger?

Many consider China to be the leader in responding to global warming because of its shift in energy production from coal to solar. It sells more solar panels in the U.S. than American companies do. It appears to be seriously responding to the devastating smog levels in Beijing and taking other measures to curtail carbon emissions from the fastest growing giant economy in the world. Nevertheless, China continues its relentless project of industrialization.

As a result, a new class of middle class, wealthy executives, and a super-rich entrepreneurial class has emerged in China, not unlike those in the U.S. China is clearly on a path to becoming a major world economic power. Economic dominance usually leads to the growth of military institutions. If the history of European colonialism and that of U.S. imperialism are any measure, the next step is military aggression to secure newly won economic dominance. It would seem that China is well on the way to emulating imperial strategies of the recent past.

Economic Imperialism Then and Now

Amanda Erikson has reported in the Washington Post a striking example of growing Chinese economic expansion in Asia. A Chinese real estate development company is developing “Forest City,” a huge complex of “residential skyscrapers, malls, parks, and a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course.” The aging Mahathir Mohamad, leader of the current Malaysian government, has vowed to review the project, fearing excessive Chinese influence in his nation as well as potential huge debt. Sound familiar?

A Model of Forest City, Malaysia

A Model of “Forest City,” Malaysia

The U.S. has engaged in some extremely aggressive clandestine strategies to achieve economic dominance of not-so-industrialized nations, reducing them to political dependents. Do you remember John Perkins’ 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man? It was a personal memoir of his career as an economic hit man for the U.S. government and corporate interests. His goal was to rope leaders of nations such as Philippines, Columbia, etc., into huge development projects that provided U.S. corporations with great profits while indebting the “client nation” to the U.S. That strategy enabled the U.S. to subordinate those governments through debt and virtually dictate their foreign policy. If the subject nation’s leader refused such deals, he was likely to die in a mysterious plane crash or other “mishap” at the hands of men Perkins described as the “Jackals.”

Economic Injustice Causes Climate Chaos

Well, I know of no Chinese “Jackals,” but the rest of the Chinese economic expansionism seems much the same as twentieth-century U.S. imperial strategy. What is most disturbing to me in all this is that the Chinese, like every other industrial nation today, is behaving as if there were no climate crisis, as if there were no threat to the entire Earth system on which we all depend for sustenance and survival.

Whatever the specifics of the relations between nation-states and corporate economic expansionism – such as the U.S. corporate state or the Chinese state-capitalism, or any other variant of institutionalized compulsive economic growth – the outcome is the same. Greater concentration of wealth and more investment in capital-intensive economic development projects serve the interests of the wealthy and exploit the labor of the poor and working populations. In the process, they accelerate climate chaos and ecological devastation.

Growing practices and policies of economic injustice by cooperating corporate and government institutions directly causes the growing destruction of local and regional living Earth systems. That, in turn, subjects the entire Earth system to further destabilization as it enters the new geologic era, the Anthropocene. Worldwide, the most powerful institutions, both public and private, equivocate, deny, and sustain utopian illusions of never-ending economic growth and political power. This cannot end well.

Beyond Resistance

Resistance seems necessary, though clearly, it is not sufficient. What will resistance get us, really?

A slower unraveling of American Democracy? Maybe, but not much slower. Democracies die not so much by military coup but by slow erosion of crucial institutions such as the courts and the press. The anti-democratic forces of the corporate state have gathered unprecedented power and the awareness of the people remains dominated by the ideology of industrial-consumerism, reinforced by the rise of extreme demagoguery. We are in the perfect anti-democratic storm.

Perhaps one or two less weather weirdings next year? Probably not. Any slowing of climate chaos is a long-term project requiring massive action now. That is just not happening. The stronger the scientific evidence – even accelerated intensified draughts and epic rainfall, tropical storms, arctic ice-melt, and rising sea level happening now – the greater the political denial. Prior modest U.S. governmental efforts to reduce carbon emissions rapidly wind down as I write.

So Much to Resist, So Few Tools

Maybe resistance can ease the splitting of our society into the extremely rich and the rest of us? Perhaps, but again, such a project faces centrally organized power, massive institutional momentum, and highly leveraged financial control. The concentration of wealth and the plunder of the planet continue unabated. Street protests are mostly catharsis, yet bring on escalated military police arrests and violence.

Maybe resistance could achieve a slight improvement in the deteriorating health of our people due to abridged access to healthcare by the Corporate State. Well, that is not likely in the short run, since it will take a lot more than empty rhetoric by Corporate Democrats if they regain control of Congress. The Dem’s are still beholden to the Wall Street financial elites who want to keep their free ride while the people suffer. What incentive do the Dem’s have to overthrow the monopoly of medical insurance corporations and Big Pharma that feed their campaign coffers? Wall Street and K Street keep them flush, after all.

Well, at least we might hope for a concerted effort to accelerate climate action, right? But again, Mr. Big Corp is likely to be running more hi-tech R&D programs, chasing illusions of “geo-engineering,” possibly the greatest hubris of all. The corporate elite is not likely to accelerate deployment of ready-to-go no-patent-monopoly distributed power generation and energy conservation strategies. Climate-appropriate technologies and policies do not offer monopoly power or vast corporate profits. Those would involve some degree of community control replacing endless corporate-state intermediation assuring further central control and human suffering.

Something Very Different

No, we need something very different now. “But you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?” That is exactly the point today. Humanity has entered uncharted waters and we don’t even know our ship that well. Furthermore, our ship was not rigged for these waters. We are in the Anthropocene and few have even heard the term. Most do not grasp the fact that things really are different now. No political authority has even come close to acknowledging this reality.

Well, I can tell you one thing. What we need even more than resistance is replacement of the industrial-consumer economy and rapid restoration of local and regional ecosystems worldwide. Only then can we create the human resilience that we cannot achieve quickly through national politics or street protests before full-on climate collapse accelerates hyper-weird weather, large scale crop failures, forced migrations, escalated violence and imminent societal collapse.

So, resistance must transform itself if it is to extend its meaning and value beyond mere protest, even massive political protest in the streets. Momentary disruptions of the authoritarian illusions of the political-economic elites (whose denial of reality serves their short term interests) will not measurably improve our chances of re-stabilizing the Earth System as we enter the Anthropocene.

Resistance to the environmental and human destruction of the global industrial-consumer economy can only succeed by transforming itself. Resistance must take the form of positive concrete actions to restore local ecosystems, and by extension the whole Earth system. We must resist by creating viable zero-emissions community economies. In doing so, we will naturally withdraw participation in the giant technosphere that now deeply intermediates all human action in the material world, damaging all life on the planet.

We must take direct community actions to re-establish harmonious relations with our local and regional ecosystems. For example, viable farm-to-table food systems, by their very establishment, resist and diminish giant corporate systems of global intermediation and centralized control of localities. We must eliminate the complex institutional intermediation of every aspect of our lives. Creativity and innovation within communities may become the greatest form of resistance.

Recycling Redux: Can we Recycle Profligate Consumerism?

I have been recycling for a long time. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Some will remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, mid-twentieth century. When I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties, “recycling” had not yet entered the public lexicon. I remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk. The dairy reused them many times.


1940s Milkman Reuses Glass Bottles

Of course, this Mad Jubilado sometimes remembers little details about the post-WWII era better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity” driven by the high-tech fossil-fueled industrial culture of perpetual economic growth. We can do much more now to capture the waste of the industrial-consumer economy, but how and to what extent does it really matter?

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife planned to make. Despite my disdain for its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products available there from around the world. Whole Foods is the one of the few places in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan salmon. However, that is feasible only if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle-class income. Meanwhile, wild salmon season shortens, the fish get smaller, and plastic trash proliferates in the seas.

plastic clamshell lettuce

Plastic Containers of Lettuce and Prepared Fruit

A huge cold case displays many plastic-encased varieties of prepared salad ingredients along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” Romaine hearts, etc., each individually packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

The Recycling Diversion

Recycling is a growing industry. Finally, the recycling of plastic in Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and other barely identifiable materials used in ever-extended packaging seems to accelerate. However, we must ask the question, is such plastic proliferation sustainable, even if we rigorously recycle? The answer is no.

Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling. Widespread consumer compliance with the recycling ethic seems unattainable. Even if achieved, recycling itself is a big energy consuming industry. In addition to the proliferation of complex packaging as well as of plastics themselves, I have noticed that many forms of plastic packaging such as those holding diverse parts from picture hangers to light bulbs at the hardware store, have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Controlling such plastic proliferation into the environment seems impossible, short of banning it altogether.

Does it even matter, since such a small percentage of plastic packaging, from produce bags to clamshells and water bottles, actually reaches the recycling center? Is the half-hearted ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by slightly reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

The Necessity that Should Not Be

In the present context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, only temporarily holding back just one segment of the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. If we could recycle everything – and we cannot – it would not even slow global warming noticeably before it reaches the point of no return from climate catastrophe to societal chaos. Don’t get me wrong. To whatever extent we produce consumer waste, recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Dairy farms re-used those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties and fifties many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets in which the milkman carried them in during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction, shipping, manufacture, use, and waste. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. The funds should be used to convert energy production and industry to the simplest forms, with near-zero emissions technologies now available.  And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed heavily at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the environment – the factory. The purpose of such taxation should be to make profligate plastic packaging economically too costly to continue. What is most important about consumer waste is that we can reduce it only by constraining its production. If all the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. The consumer has little choice and too many choices. The energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.