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.

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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.”

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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.

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.

Donald Trump,Vladimir Putin

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.

Trapped by Finance Capital: Business as Usual While Planet Burns. Part II: Chaos

The role of Exxon in delaying climate action over the past three decades since its executives were made aware of the consequences of global warming by its own engineers was huge. But it was made possible by the great power that the largest fossil-fuel corporation has had on the society because of its integration with finance capital. Also, the corporate state is totally dependent on fossil-fuel energy for its ability to pursue its projects of social control. The consolidation of power in the central elites of finance, corporate, and political institutions has continued as long as the resources it requires have been exploitable. But we have reached a tipping point. It is more and more difficult for it to continue as resource depletion draws near.[1] The result is also growing economic, social and ecological chaos.

CO2 in Atmosphere, 1985-2015

CO2 in Atmosphere, 1985-2015

The confluence of societal control by finance capital, multinational manufacturing and trade, and corporate propaganda has given these giant institutions the ability to continue to extract huge financial profits. But it cannot last much longer. With no serious counter-force, these institutions will drive the world into a state of unprecedented economic, social, and ecological chaos.[2] Finance capital will not be exempt from the turmoil, but more-profit-now is a stronger motive for the executives who deploy it today; their incentives are all short-term. With a few minor exceptions, they will pursue the business of finance as usual – for them it is all about the next quarterly report.

Many signs of impending economic chaos are already apparent. The Great Recession of 2008 has yet to be resolved. Massive government bailouts of the Too Big financial institutions suspended their otherwise inevitable Failure. The risks of failure were thereby handed off to government in the form of massive new public debt. Result: the institutions of Finance Capital grow ever bigger and more dangerous. But the next collapse will not be salvaged by government bailouts. These same institutions have pressured Congress to structure the latest faint efforts to manage national finance capital in such a way that again the people will be left holding the bag. But any efforts by the Fed to stem the chaos next time will not be enough. The real economy and the people are still reeling from the last hit. The financial markets will not accept the next level of extreme debt. The monetary system will likely collapse and economic chaos will follow.

At the same time world financial stability falters, diverse climate disruptions are accelerating in frequency and intensity. The economic consequences of the next few super storms, droughts and floods will be that much more chaotic and of magnitudes beyond societal ability to manage or adapt to the destruction. The confluence of these destabilizing trends will lead to economic, social, and ecological chaos. To be effective, the societal response to this prospect must come from humanity itself; it will not come from the institutions that have caused and continue to cause the catastrophic convergence of destabilizing trends. And, it will not come from the political elites they control. Only we can resist these destructive institutional trends, replace the financial mega-institutions with local and regional public banking, and achieve a level of resilience capable of countering the level of chaos that is already inevitable.

Part III of this 3-part series will deal with the necessity of creating a massive social transformation to counter the destructive force of finance capital on people and planet, inevitably involving a new form of “creative destruction.”
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[1] Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Picador, 2013) enumerates the key resources, from oil and gas to rare earths and other critical minerals, to agricultural lands, that are fast depleting and subject to shortages, leading to armed conflicts around the world.
[2] As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Christian Parenti gives us a detailed glimpse into the emerging chaos in various ‘at-risk’ nations around the world as extreme weather events, aggravated armed conflicts, and crises of poverty and political-military instability converge, leading to catastrophic conditions for human populations, in his book, Tropic of chaos: climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. (New York: Nation Books, 2011).

Trapped by Finance Capital: Business as Usual While Planet Burns. Part I: Control

Despite the absurd antics of a few fossil-shills in the U.S. Congress, most Americans now recognize the urgency of taking strong actions to mitigate the rapidly growing climate crisis. Mitigation has to mean stopping the flow of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans so that the damage to ecosystems that is well underway can be slowed. It means bringing earth systems back into balance and relative stability. That is a tall order, which is unfortunately still treated by politicians as just another policy choice. The real choice is between mitigating climate chaos and the extinction of Homo sapiens.[1]

Without huge reductions in total carbon emissions (to near zero), human populations around the world will not be able to adapt to destabilized climate conditions. Growing climate disruptions are already threatening food production and diverse human habitats. Even the World Bank, ordinarily a promoter of fossil-fuel driven international development, has recognized the imminent dangers of continued global warming. But finance capital (the money investment banks and corporations use to finance capital extraction/production projects), whether on Wall Street, in Geneva, or even in Beijing, marches to its own drummer – business as usual.

Whatever rhetoric politicians may deploy trumpeting “personal freedom,” or “free markets,” or “free enterprise,” the locus of control of national and international economies is found in the central banks, large investment banks, and hedge funds around the world. For a very long time, the ideologists of “free market” economics have been able to successfully conflate “democracy” with the control of markets by Finance Capital. When these propagandists demand no public control over finance capital, they usually invoke “personal freedom” or “innovation” by “small business” – and investment needed by the “job creators.”

Political decisions are routinely made in the interests of the largest financial institutions in the world. Because of the creation and flow of money and debt is largely controlled by these powerful institutions, both corporate investment planning and government fiscal planning are almost always consistent with the interests of finance capital. We tend to think of the Federal Reserve as a government institution. It is certainly federally chartered. But it was given the power to create money and allocate government debt in the interests of its member banks – which own it.

Say what you will about the ideals of “democracy” or a “representative government,” it is the giant financial institutions that control the economy, not presidents, not Congress. Interests of finance capital and the fossil fuel corporations are closely aligned. Their actions confirm that. Corporate consolidation in various economic sectors facilitates implicit coordination and control. You do not need a back-room conspiracy when the interests and affiliations of large institutions are integrated.

The economic interests of General Electric, for example, control a large segment of the mass media communications sector. Owning Comcast cable, NBC, Universal Pictures, and Focus Features, helps frame the public consciousness. Content control helps align public beliefs and biases with corporate and financial interests, instilling fear about terror, a putative necessity for perpetual war, and the “threat” of immigration. All these contribute to its bottom line. GE is but one example. Need I mention Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp properties, such as the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the New York Post? Or the media content controlled by Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, and CBS? GE also manages a large segment of government military and “security” spending, along with a few other “defense” contractors. A mere six media giants control about ninety percent of what we watch, listen to, and read about the world. Most media content is highly consistent with the interests of finance capital.

This institutional structure keeps finance capital in a very comfortable political position. Making big-money-now is the core goal of finance capital. That does not leave much, if any, room for public responsibility. Business as usual for finance capital is to invest in more and more fossil-fuel driven economic growth. It is quite amazing when one thinks about men who manage the world’s largest financial institutions just not getting the threat to human existence that their continued climate-destabilizing practices ensure.

Or do they? Recent revelations about Exxon’s executive “leadership” knowing a great deal about the dangers of global warming posed by continued carbon emissions in the late 1970s reveal a human capability for evil on a planetary scale. With that knowledge, Exxon [2] promoted the lies of “climate denial” contributing to decades of delay on serious climate action. The scale of the ensuing chaos is so great that it is hard to fathom.

Part II of this 3-part series will deal with the planetary chaos that results from the distortions of the role of finance capital in controlling the economy today.
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[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances. 19 Jun 2015: Vol. 1, no. 5, e1400253. Accessed at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253
[2] See also investigative reports in the Los Angeles Times, “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic,” by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust (Oct. 9, 2015). Accessed at http://graphics.latimes.com/exxon-arctic/ . See also, Inside Climate News, “Exxon: The Road Not Taken.” Accessed at: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/22102015/Exxon-Sowed-Doubt-about-Climate-Science-for-Decades-by-Stressing-Uncertainty

Can We Get There from Here? Stalling on the Path to Species Survival…or Not

You can find just about any message you’d like to hear about climate change. The gloomiest of fatalists: “It’s too late; we’re doomed; party on.” The science denier: “It’s the greatest hoax ever to deceive the American public; those scientists are just making these claims to get grants.” The suburban consumer: “It’s not my problem; is the mall down that one-way street? I need a new engine for my power boat.” The corporate ‘environmentalist’: “Buy more solar panels now!” Or the agri-business CEO, “corn-based ethanol is the renewable fuel we need, and it’s Roundup-Ready.” And on, and on…

So, what’s your message? Or, more to the point, what message do you believe and what are you willing to do about it? How about: “Global climate disruption is moving much faster than we expected. We must act decisively and quickly. We must demand that our so-called leaders initiate major national and international programs for climate-disruption mitigation and adaptation, now. But we must also realize how difficult that will be, since Congress is owned by the corporate, financial, and military elites who profit from the dying fossil fuel economy.

Facing Facts

In any case we need to take every action we can now in our local communities, since it is at least possible to influence local decisions. Otherwise, enough simply cannot be done before real climate catastrophes occur around the world. Many such regional climate disruptions will lead to societal collapse, mass starvation, climate-driven migrations, resource wars, and general chaos. “I’d really like a new swimming pool in my backyard like my neighbor’s, but maybe I ought to put in new weather stripping around those leaky doors and insulate the walls and ceilings in this old house. I could contact that local 350.org group and help them persuade the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuel investments.”  Or?

Many such actions can be taken. The “I can’t make a difference; I’m only one person,” excuse doesn’t cut it. Anyone with a basic understanding of what is happening is morally bound to act in whatever way they can. Without major human intervention into the degrading environmental conditions that humans have caused, we will soon experience the most devastating breakdowns of living earth systems not yet quite imaginable. To think otherwise is sheer folly – utopian delusions that only serve to further enrich the elites before the whole system collapses. As James Gustave Speth put it, “Soon it will be abundantly clear that it is business as usual that is utopian, whereas creating something very new and different is a practical necessity.”*

Replacing Business as Usual

Well, “business as usual” happens to be extractive corporate capitalism thinly disguised as Adam Smith’s small community freeholder individual entrepreneur capitalism that briefly existed at the dawn of the Industrial Age. “The Capitalism We Have” is a massive leviathan of environmental destruction and human exploitation. It is a politically subsidized corporate system for dominating the world economy. It’s goal is to concentrate wealth in the hands of the financial and corporate elites at the expense of the people and the planet. It extracts everything it can from the earth and produces as much waste as it can get away with. Via the corporate owned mass media it promotes its ideology of neo-liberal (laisse faire) economics of plunder and exploitation without restraint. Its political power prevents any serious reform, such as was modestly attempted in response to the Great Depression of the 1930’s with modest success before being cut off by political actions of the financial elite. Popular access to the national political process is virtually cut off. Most people know that something is very wrong but are largely cut off from real answers because of corporate control of most media.

The ideological debate was never won. Neither the socialism that was nor the capitalism we have reflects much about the ideological imaginaries of that debate. I have to conclude that the debate itself was entirely irrelevant as an exercise in seeking truth; it is pointless to pursue. It was only a weapon in struggles for power between private corporatism and state collectivism. What matters now is the real system that operates most of the world economy today. That system is trans-national corporate capitalism, which skillfully exploits the ideologies of individual freedom and entrepreneurial innovation and “small business” to cement ever more centralized corporate control of the politics and economics of most societies today.

The Path to Survival

Interestingly, despite all that corporate power over the economy, politics, and culture, more and more people realize that the system is not working for us or for the planet. Sure, many see no personal path to help right the system. But many in various sectors are taking actions in their own local interests and that is a good start. One of the most important steps now is to coalesce the range of movements for social and environmental change into a coherent worldwide movement working for a new Great Transformation that can save the living earth systems upon which we all depend.  That transformation will evolve as we struggle to fix the damage we have done and prevent as much further damage as possible.  The result, if we are lucky, will be a far more humane world.
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* James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Caravan Books, 2008.