On the Urgency of Abandoning Lifestyle

I never liked the term, “lifestyle.” It reflects an extreme version of the American obsession with personal individualistic consumerism, which ultimately is at odds with the hard facts of life on planet Earth. The unattainable “lifestyles of the rich and famous” promoted and enthusiastically accepted in the industrial era are built on illusion and propel humanity toward the abyss of climate collapse and social chaos.

The denizens of industrial-consumer societies sustain their illusions of achieving high-status “lifestyles” at the cost of terminating social and ecological stability, contrary to the public good. But words often have a life of their own and will even transform their own meaning with continued use. The choices we make in life are not so much a matter of “style,” even when driven by stylistic considerations. Instead, above all they reflect a species’ survival strategy or its failure even to have no less execute a survival strategy.

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Shopping mall ~ Mallorca

So, on the one hand, “lifestyle” implies no strategy at all, just some form of “personal expression” of consumer values oblivious to the requirements of survival on planet Earth. In its denial of nature, the consumer lifestyle sustains a cultural bubble that excludes consciousness of the place of humanity in nature. That cannot end well.

On the other hand, “lifestyle” is completely inadequate to express the essence of a life of conscious choice to align personal living decisions, political action, and economic behavior, with an effort to save humanity from extinction. The trajectory of industrial-consumer society, with its illusions of perpetual technological control over nature and endless economic growth on a finite planet, drives us all in exactly that direction.

I do hesitate to bring up the idea of extinction – it seems so extreme that its possibility appears implausible. As the politicians always say in a crisis, “We don’t want to alarm the public.” Yet, today public alarm is exactly what is needed. If we look at the history of biological systems on this planet, extinction has been an integral part of their evolution. At the same time, the history of industrialized humanity has generated a certain false sense of security and permanence. Chris Hedges pops that bubble in his recent Truthdig article.

The myth of perpetual economic growth and material abundance on a finite planet persists in the face of imminent climate catastrophe as well as resource depletion. A “big picture” perspective, such as that of astrophysicist Adam Frank easily exposes the naïve hubris of the human illusion of perpetual progress.

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Arundhati Roy contemplates the worst flooding ever in Kerala, India. Photo: Onmanorama

Well, that was a mouthful…but the science is clear. Climate destabilization is accelerating. Every IPCC report since the ill-fated Kyoto accords has underestimated the rates of change. The climate models still have not fully taken into account emerging feedback loops that are accelerating the greenhouse effects. Urgency is the right word; complacency is the political norm. The Defiant Earth will not be broken by self-indulgent ecomodernists.

Living a life of planetary consciousness is not the complete answer; it cannot stop climate chaos alone. But it can help directly by contributing to a broad “climate of opinion” that must exist in order to force the political and economic elites to act in the human interest rather than in the unsustainable and deadly interest in “business as usual.” A rough road lies ahead.

What To Do Now

Another Entry in the Mad Jubilado series

It is the always-present never-ending question of life. Sure, we have good intentions and sometimes they work out – as planned or not. Yet each moment is contingent. The future never arrives; it’s always out there because we are always here, in the present. We have our To-Do lists; we have our schedules. And we have our big plans. They all represent the near- and long-term future. We even have our spontaneous impulses, if we have held on to our creativity. But what to do now?

The Mad Jubilado has said many times, mostly to himself, “you could be run over by a truck tomorrow, so what are you going to do now?” It is just a reminder that life – and its length as well – is quite unpredictable and can end at any time, without notice, despite our attempts at stability through habits. So, what really is important?

Will contemplating such a core existential dilemma affect what we do now? Maybe, maybe not. What difference does the certainty of indeterminate termination make? We all know that we will not live forever, but at a certain level we push that realization out into the future far enough that it doesn’t bother us so much. That is easy enough when you are young, which is why so many die young due to feeling invincible.

Risk aversion grows with age, more or less. So grows the awareness of the certainty of death in the much nearer future for this seventy-eight year old Mad Jubilado than for the twenty-eight year old brazen base-jumper. To live well may not require taking high risks, but some risks will arise on their own whatever we do. I was about twenty-two when I barely avoided a head-on crash with a truck on a narrow bridge in central Mexico, with what seemed no more than a couple of centimeters between us as we simultaneously crossed that narrow bridge in opposite directions.

That got my attention. I realized that luck as much as skill allowed me to continue to Guadalajara and beyond to the rest of my life. Of course, I attributed survival to my own skill in “threading the needle” between the on-coming truck and the bridge abutment. Yet it shattered part of my youthful sense of being fully in control. We must play the hand we are dealt. Yet, our play may or may not be enough.

Anyone who has lived as long as this Mad Jubilado has seen others of her/his generation die; s/he usually takes notice. That has happened to me several times in recent years. Since about the time I retired, three of my university colleagues in California have died of pancreatic cancer. What is it about LA?

Then, now already three years ago, one of the most joyful life-loving women I have ever met, the wife of a close friend in Santa Fe, died too young after a shared struggle both of them endured for four years. Throughout that battle with cancer, they both lived life as fully as possible – more so than many do living in comfortable risk-averse habituated routine.

Habits can enhance stability, but they contribute little to “the hero’s journey.” It is always an honor to know people who live their lives creatively and fully. Adventure is the essence of the hero’s journey; it always involves struggle and the resulting unbounded joy in living, which should be a lesson for us all. No matter what happens, there is only one thing to do now: live!

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.

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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.

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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.

Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

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Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.

TREASON ! Or, Blatant Business as Usual?

Donald Trump’s Helsinki behavior – his grotesque pandering to Vladimir Putin — drew international outrage from across the political spectrum, including U.S. Republicans and even “Fox and Friends.” He had already repeatedly demonstrated his admiration for “strong-man” dictators, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Putin himself. Trump dodged the detailed briefings of U.S. intelligence professionals documenting Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election. He made the feeble claim that Putin had strongly assured him that Russia did not meddle.

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Putin and Trump in Helsinki ~ AP photo

Trump seemed hell-bent to ingratiate himself publicly before the ruthless former KGB officer, in front of the international media. Then, the New York Times exposed the fact that key U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump even before his inauguration, on the details of how Russian military intelligence officers attempted to interfere with the elections. Who could argue with Brennan’s assessment?

Political Peculiarities

Democrats had already complained of Trump’s failures to carry on the U.S. aggressive foreign policies that have centered on traditional alliances with the Europeans. The U.S. routinely led the NATO nations in putting military pressure on the Soviet Union, and after its demise, on Russia. Trump’s rude and dismissive behavior toward allies at the NATO summit exemplified his frequent abusiveness to traditional allies. Suddenly, the Democrats seemed to stand to the right of Republicans on foreign policy.

Republicans, on the other hand, the traditional enablers of aggression around the world with U.S. leadership of NATO as a key element in the actions of empire, found themselves cornered. They were desperate to retain their positions on foreign policy. Yet they felt compelled to support their increasingly unstable president, even as he violated all the norms of taking a tough stand against “The Russian Threat.”

The political heat generated by Trump’s public dissembling, with Putin standing beside him, became unbearable. He wound back his statement that he “did not see why Russia would have interfered with U.S. elections, claiming he had misspoke the word “wouldn’t” by saying “would.” Yet, the tone of his remarks said otherwise; and he could not resist adding the diversionary claim that “others” may have been involved.

Personal Perversity of a President

Trump contradicted himself on Russian interference at least four times since Helsinki. Something drives Trump to hold to his avoidance of saying or doing anything that might upset Vladimir Putin –directly contradicting the hard evidence that CIA, et al, showed him. What makes Trump so afraid to cross Putin? Is it the mystery “golden showers” video? Why did he try to take back his statements while still affirming them? Is it that Trump’s Helsinki behavior — pandering to Vladimir Putin — drew such international outrage from across the political spectrum? Did he have to respond to that pressure while bowing to Russian pressure as well? It would seem so.

Trump had repeatedly demonstrated his perverse personal admiration for “strong-man” dictators, including North Korea’s ruthless Kim Jong-un and Putin himself. Dismissing the fact-filled briefings of U.S. intelligence professionals in favor of accepting Putin’s “strong assurance” that Russia did not meddle in the U.S. 2016 presidential election would be laughable if not so serious. Trump seemed hell-bent to ingratiate himself before the callous former KGB officer, no matter what. Was it merely his narcissistic sociopathy at work? Or, does Putin really have something on him? Most likely, both.

Treasonous Business as Usual

Former CIA Director John Brennan characterized Trump’s acquiescence to Putin’s claims as treasonous. Who could argue with that assessment? But what drives it? Is Trump’s financial indebtedness to Russian oligarchs close to Putin at play? Nobody knows, except perhaps Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators. I expect that it will all come out in further indictments. Meanwhile Trump’s enterprises profit immensely from his presidency.

Trump delights in fomenting confusion among those around him. His outlandish behavior violates all patriotic protocols of civil international diplomacy, national pride, and the basic precepts of national security. Yet, when the diatribes and dissembling are set aside, what is left? I would argue that in the foreign policy arena anyway, his actual policies as exercised follow conventional practices rather closely. Clearly, he operates closer to the edge and without understanding or caring about the real issues between nations, except where they affect his financial interests and personal pride. Therein lies the danger.

Yes, Trump blusters, dissembles, lies, and consistently contradicts himself. His domestic and climate policies grossly circumvent federal law to allow polluters free reign while the planet burns. But we sometimes focus too much on words and not enough on deeds. As Glen Greenwald of The Intercept has argued, Trump’s foreign policies, disastrous as they are, do not veer very far from those of Obama. More clandestine troops, more killer drones, are just more and more of the same. Certainly, Obama would not have committed his callous abuse of the children of people legitimately seeking asylum from the violence that U.S. foreign policy has enabled in Central America. Racist sociopaths, on the other hand, have no capacity for empathy or compassion, even for children, especially brown ones.

Fake President_image, Northern SunDonald J. Trump exercises business as usual with an ugly face. In doing so, he is looking out for number one without regard to the national interest, nor the interests of humanity itself. But, then, neither have the smooth talkers of the political establishment that he claims to decry while playing their very own game with the added barbarity of being Mister Nasty.

So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

Education: Societal Asset or Personal Debt

Americans have a strange attitude toward education. On the one hand, we all know that a college degree can significantly increase one’s life chances for achieving, until recently, a middleclass income and a comfortable “lifestyle.” On the other hand, college has become very expensive, as well as intimidating for anyone who has experienced a typical rag-tag urban or rural school-district high school education. Therein lies the personal dilemma.

A societal dilemma may be equally important. But pretense and illusion prevent its discussion in polite company. Education in the U.S.A. has gradually become a second-class institution. Politicians are unwilling to foot the bill for maintaining public higher education at the world-class level that characterized our colleges and universities in the 1950s. Growing costs and dwindling public support forced universities to raise tuition and seek research contracts from corporations and government. The nation’s seats of knowledge and discovery became businesses purveying information to whatever special interest paid the price.

Halcyon Days of Higher Education

Construction.Worker

In the 1950s, we didn’t have hard hats.

In the early 1960s, I was able to gain a degree from the University of California because I had worked each high-school summer as a construction laborer (at union scale of $3.50 per hour at the time when my friends got 90₵ at the local gas station). I felt pretty flush. In those days, simple manual labor at a union wage allowed a worker to rent an apartment or very small house in Los Angeles and live comfortably without most non-essential “consumer products.”

In the 1950s in Southern California, a (white) high-school graduate could get an entry-level job at an aerospace company, rent a small apartment, buy a car, and party. As a high-school student living at home in 1955, I was able to save enough to buy a scruffy ’51 Ford in my sophomore year, and transform it into a respectable “hot rod” by my senior year. At the same time, I saved money for college. Well, those were the “good old days.”

Rather than accepting the middle management job my father encouraged me to apply for on graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, I went off to graduate school, following my curiosity. I worked as a research assistant, then received a National Science Foundation fellowship, partly because the U.S. realized that the Soviets were moving into space full speed ahead with their “Sputnik” satellite while we had failed to support science education.

In 1970, PhD in hand, I began a  career as a professor, then for 35-years I watched from the inide as the California higher education system slide from globally top tier to mid-level mediocrity. Politicians excused the decline in the name of anti-pubic-sector cost cutting and resentment over the moral rebellion of university students of the 1960s.

Conversion of a Societal Asset into Personal Debt

Today, elites and their media mouthpieces treat education as no more than a means to an end. Little or no interest remains in developing the individual and her/his intellectual and moral capacities as a citizen. Higher education became so costly because of the privatization of its finance. Politicians promote the twisted view that its only value was to “train” skilled workers as functionaries in the industrial-consumer economy, even as jobs were automated and outsourced.

Students are “sold” degrees on credit. Privatized student debt has become, just like the private prison business, a huge profit-center for the nation’s financial elite. What should have become an asset for the educated citizen is an extended burden of personal debt constraining civic participation. The neoliberal economy of growth has fully subsumed society and human values beneath its quest for profit.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that the elites who control most institutions along with the economy no longer see the education of the person as an asset to society. Frankly, they don’t give a hoot about the society or its people. Rather, they much prefer to treat education as a commodity for sale and encouraging debt as another profit center. The result is a massive collective student debt that now burdens what might have been our future middleclass. As broad citizen education falters, the backbone of democracy is lost.