To Live and Die in the Anthropocene

The debate over whether or not it is too late to “save the planet” from the human industrial-consumer juggernaut misunderstands the issue of the role of humanity and our future into the Anthropocene. An important flaw in the thinking of traditional “environmentalists” is that they partake in the errors of the culture they seek to reform.

Many would apply technological fixes like “geoengineering” to the symptoms of the system they cannot give up. They hold to the mostly unconscious image of humans separate from a thing called “our environment.” They fail to think in terms of the actual complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire Earth System, of which we are all a part. We are not “in” the environment; we are active agents within the Earth System.

Death is more Certain than Taxes

Regardless of the odds of human species survival in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, the human predicament remains the same. Will we live and die with some semblance of dignity as one of the many species engaged in the dance of life? Or will we go down in a spiral of denial and resistance to the very forces that give us life, insisting on human, even American, “exceptionalism” to the end?

To avoid the latter path of self and system destruction, a major transformation in consciousness and practice must sweep across humanity and lead us toward ecological harmony. Yes, that does seem unlikely, especially in the short time we have to stave off at least some of the worst consequences of our former and current destructive practices.

Can we live and die well, as individuals, communities, and societies? Can we find ways to live well in the context of approaching societal collapse? Can we live well in the face of extinction? Only with courage and realism can we shape our lives well in the face of death.

Living Well instead of Denying Death

What, after all, constitutes living well in a deadly post-affluenza world? Moderns define living well by their consumption and by the accumulation of wealth, as a means of denying death. The post-modern predicament of impending collective death reminds me of the prophetic words of the old Plains Indian chief, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” just before a big battle,

“Today is a good day to die!”

It is not that one intends to die now. Some say we begin to die right after birth. Yet, the inevitable outcome is always a matter of timing. The advocates of “deep adaptation” recognize the grave prospects for human survival into the Anthropocene. They would have us accept our species extinction now in order to mourn properly our collective passing as new swings of Earth System instability make life increasingly intolerable. However, even the strong possibility is not a certainty. We must live until we die.

I am also reminded of Chris Hedges statement, “I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists!” The will to go on in the face of likely defeat or death has formed an important human value for centuries. Samurai warriors took it to the extreme, glorifying self-inflicted death itself as a respectable way to protect their honor.

Roy Scranton draws on his experience facing death on a daily basis deployed in Iraq and finds hope in living as if already dead, expressed in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton reflects on how we might live best in facing the grim realities of impending societal collapse as climate chaos increases the likelihood of human extinction.

I fight for the survival of human and other species not because I will succeed; I fight because I am still alive.

Liberal? Conservative? Really?

Most of us, it seems, define our political orientation as liberal or conservative, often with a “moderate” caveat. But what do we mean by that, really? I am afraid that these labels have taken a real beating in recent decades, with the result that they have lost most of their meaning, if not all.

Wither Liberalism?

Let’s start with “liberal.” For a good while now, the word “liberal” has taken on the aura of an almost dirty word.  Do you listen to talk radio or Fox News (which I prefer to call “Fixed News,” or “Fake News,” since it so heavily indulges not just in a particular political bias but also in falsehoods, innuendo, and ignoring facts, just like the president who follows it so closely)? There you will hear “liberal” used only scornfully. But, who are liberals, really?

proudliberalChris Hedges, in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, argues forcefully that the liberal class has abandoned its traditional political values, retaining only the name and rhetoric. The Democratic Party was once the bastion of liberal policies. However, through the latter half of the 20th Century, business interests controlled more and more of electoral politics as well as legislation itself.

Corporate interests and money-have long since taken control of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians continued to spout liberal slogans. But they actually represented the corporate and investor classes as measured by most of their voting in both the House and Senate. Actual liberal citizens repeatedly came away frustrated by the party’s failure to implement liberal values touted in electoral campaigns. Thus, it is not surprising that while the views of a majority of Americans are generally liberal, the voting turnout in the U.S. is among the lowest of the industrialized nations.

Wither Conservatism?

So, similarly, what do we mean by the term, “conservative”? Well, here we have a different conundrum. “Conservative” has not taken on the negative connotations of “liberal.” However, the force of corporatized politics in the U.S. has similarly damaged it.

conservative.republican

Proud Conservative

Most of us have some conservative values and some liberal values as well. We value stability and responsibility in our fellow citizens and try to represent them in our own behavior. We don’t always succeed, but we try. The political buzzword, “law and order” has exploited our conservative character by instilling the fear that criminals and others of questionable repute threaten the stability and security of our lives.

You might think that the conservative and liberal labels reflect directions of political, economic, and social policy favored by citizens who identify with those labels. You might also think that politicians who identify themselves by those labels attempt to implement policies that reflect those values. But, you would be wrong. Labels are often cover stories used by politicians to justify their actions, which may have entirely other sources.

The politicians gain their campaign contributions and other largess from mostly corporate lobbyists. Of course, the lobbyists advocate for political interests that benefit from the policy choices they persuade (bribe) senators and representatives to make. And, where do liberal or conservative values fit into this picture? Well, they don’t, really.

Rise of the Corporate State

In an extremely important, though not widely known study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that over many years, legislation favored the interests of corporate and business groups that lobbied politicians. The expressed interests of ordinary citizens and citizen groups representing the public interest rarely found expression in legislation. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (September 2014):564-581, provides strong empirical evidence that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In this context, it is difficult to surmise that the conservative and liberal ideas have any role in politics other than as cover stories to curry the favor of voters who identify with those labels. They certainly do not predict more than superficially the voting behavior of most politicians who use them.

Economics of Happiness vs. Corporate Globalization

I just watched the condensed version of the award winning film, “The Economics of Happiness.” It is available on the Local Futures website. It confirms just about all the research findings on climate change, globalization, poverty, pollution, violence, and a host of other issues I have followed for the past decade while writing my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation.

The book is in the last stages of editing before submission for publication. So, given the complexities of the publishing industry it is not likely to be released until the end of the year — assuming everything goes well. Meanwhile, I will be renovating this website and include some excerpts from the book in a new section of pages.

Part of the research I’ve been engaged in while writing the book involves trying to understand the idea of progress as it has evolved in the industrial age and how that relates to actual human happiness. As it turns out, genuine happines — as compared with the momentary exhiliration that might result from buying some new product — is found most consistently among people who live in just a few places in the world. Those places,  called “Blue Zones,” those few places in the world where the special circumstances just seem to produce contentment, and where most of the world’s centenarians live. They have completely avoided globalization…so far.

In contrast, most of us live in cities and suburbs where we are increasingly isolated from real face-to-face relationships that are not mediated by complex institutional requirements imposed upon our time and our minds. Our relations are increasingly mediated by complex economic and institutional requirements that leave little room for direct human relationships with other persons — as themselves.

Our emotional, personal, interpersonal, and thereby cultural lives become entangled with a process of “intermediation” by layers of social complexity. This is embodied by corporate state taken as a whole, the essence of what Chris Hedges calls “The Empire of Illusion.” The globalized economic-growth leviathon is the “technosphere” that Dmitry Orlov argues we must shrink to improve the declining odds for human survival.

Sheldon Wolin refers to the larger political-economic structure of the corporate state in which we live as the “inverted totalitarianism” of Democracy, Incorporated. An essential element of complex civilizations is the “intermediation” of endless layers of social complexity between people who would otherwise simply exchange one valued good or service for another — or just socialize face to face.

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, attributes the collapse of complex societies throughout history to such complexities. John Michael Greer predicts a Dark Age America resulting from the convergence of climate change, economic crises and cultural collapse, the beginnings of which we already experience. He predicts a process of “disintermediation” of economic activity over the coming several hundred years, accompanied by major population decline, leading to a new feudal period.

I think ecological, climate, and societal collapse will unfold much faster than Greer expects, unless drastic climate action and radical societal re-organization can be initiated very soon. Many others, of course, comfortably assume that economic growth and technological innovation can get us out of any fix. They are dead wrong.

Michael.E.Mann

Michael E. Mann

Jon Foley, in a conversation with Michael Mann on the occasion of Mann’s receipt of the seventh annual Stephen Schneider Award, said that in contrast to such blind optimism, “Hope is where you role up your sleeves and get to work.” That is the kind of Hopeful Realism I like to hear.

 

To Vote or Not to Vote: Is That Really the Question?

No, it’s another false dilemma. In the U.S., we are obsessed with two beliefs. One is the idea that the world can be changed and/or everything can be made right again if we only vote in the right politician as president. This contributes to the corporate-media driven “horse race” mentality that buries the issues under the personalities and blunders of the candidates. Well, Obama proved many such idealists (optimists) wrong. The second idea that many have come to believe is that to vote is to accede to a rigged system that oppresses us and only pretends to give us a choice. These pessimists find the political process entirely futile. Optimists and pessimists are both fatalists – they assume that our fate is sealed. Partial truths coexist with outright illusions. The illusions tend to dominate.

Let’s take the current example of the Bernie-Hillary dilemma and the brace of buffoons in the Republican Clown Car. One position I’ve heard expressed on social media recently goes something like this: Don’t vote at all; it’s a betrayal of your independence and freedom since they are all liars and crooks and none of them will act in our interests; anyway, the system is rigged. Well, even that extreme statement is a partial truth. But is it something we should act on, or refuse to act on? Absolutes are always illusions.

Socialism, Centrism, and the Clown Car Entering the Arena from the Far Right

Of course, politicians usually frame their messages to avoid offending as many constituents as possible and play to voters’ hopes and fears to curry our favor. They also try to steer clear of any statement that would offend their large contributors. They even sometimes give weak criticisms of, for example, Wall Street financial manipulators. However, they know that the Wall Street money in their campaign coffers is secured by private commitments of support. But that is also a matter of degree. Messages change over time, for either good or bad reasons. A genuine change of heart is to be commended for its honesty, if that is what has actually happened. The label, “flip-flop” has been applied ruthlessly, sometimes with a strong basis – think Mitt – and sometimes without justification. But it is not always easy to measure.

Hillary has changed her messages quite a lot over time. Is that a case of genuine evolution or merely a history of pandering to political fashion? The debate over that continues. Hillary supporters affirm the former; Bernie supporters suspect the latter. Tea Partiers “know in their hearts” the absolute truth, evidence be damned, literally. Parenthetically, Republican attacks on the pseudo-issues of Benghazi and her email server are pure smokescreen and demagogic attempts to smear her – one has even admitted so publicly. But Hillary’s coming to her currently – and equivocally – more “progressive” positions on several issues was so slow and tentative that it makes one wonder. How much of it was her “feeling the Bern” on her left?

Bernie, on the other hand, has been an eminently consistent politician for decades. His independence is characteristically Vermonter. That alone, of course, is an important factor in drawing the crowds despite a virtual mass-media blackout. (And, like them or not, he actually advocates specific programs meant to directly address massive growing inequality and the takeover of politics by the super rich, whose corporations own the media.) After all, we Americans love an underdog and we are so tired of the slick consultant primed-and-scripted candidacies. This alone makes Bernie refreshing. We get the clear impression that the Bernie you see is the Bernie you will get. Yet, nobody is without flaws. Progressives wonder about his seeming ambiguity over gun control – Vermont hunting interests – and his seeming ambiguity over Israel-Palestine – American Israel lobby. Well, two out of dozens is not so bad.

Messaging and Performance

The performance of Barack Obama, like that of so many others who gain office on high sounding promises, has not achieved much of the “change we can believe in.” Of course, he was ultimately stifled by the racist Republican Congress, leaving us to wonder what he might have accomplished. Like so many, I was initially taken by his eloquent oratory. But early on in his candidacy I saw figures showing where his big-money donations were coming from. That’s when I began to worry that he would be too beholden to the financial elites to act fully in the Nation’s economic interest. Sure enough, he appointed all the usual suspects from the financial elite, which had dominated the Clinton and Bush incumbencies. These were the guys serving the interests of Goldman Sacks and the other elite financial institutions that have been hell-bent on ruling the nation with their casino capitalism. It was their policy recommendations Bill Clinton had enacted, leading eventually, with Bush-Cheney help, to the collapse of the Wall Street casino in 2008. So, Hillary’s close corporate ties and the people she hires to run her campaign give one pause. Her “Third-Way” international interventionist tendencies demonstrated while Secretary of State, are a great concern too. So, who is one to vote for in an imperfect world? Or, should we bother?

Changing messaging to first gain the radical right and the Republican nomination then trying to appeal to the general electorate may have been the major factor that did in Mitt Romney. His father was not terribly inspiring, but he was believable more or less. The Donald’s “charm,” strange as it is, stems from his blatant exposure of the brash fact of “who he is” while demonstrating total lack of self-reflection. His aggressive denial of any fact he wants to hide about his questionable business practices is accepted out of public ignorance. Along with Carly Fiorina, he might be termed a “successful” failure. It would be pointless to go through the RCC (Republican Clown Car) to elucidate the paucity of serious intellect or realism on the campaign trail – it is sort of obvious. So, it is understandable that some would be so disgusted by the whole charade that usually makes the outcome of elections pretty much the same no matter who is elected. Style aside, that’s pretty much what happened in the Bush-Obama sequence, at least in the areas of endless war and endless subsidizing and covering for the financial elites.

Take What You Can Get and Demand More

So, this is where hopeful realism ‘trumps’ optimism and pessimism. Our reality is truly grave. Yet, while still breathing we can have some glimmer of hope. However, hope is delusional without action. So, I must vote (among other things), if only to write in Ralph Nader, who would do more to clean up the mess than anyone, if not assassinated first. As Chris Hedges has put it, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.”

No president will be able to do much, no less all, of what is needed absent a massive transformation of congress. Real change must rise up from the people in a mass peaceful social movement for rescuing the planet and defending the greatest victims of the tyranny of wealth and the corporate state. But no small opportunity for any bit of progress should be dismissed. I will vote for the imperfect over the straight-up total disaster, in hopes that some benefit will accrue to the people and planet, rather than give up or knuckle under to the two-party party of plutocracy.

Political Pathology Trumps Political Democracy, or not?

Granted, the media frenzy over “The Donald,” as if he were some sort of political “outsider” riding in on a white horse to save the American people from all those “politicians” running for president, is rather astounding. Crass is in with the mass media. It is hard to find any genuine political process in all the hoopla or in the sniping among the vast array of Republican candidates for the nomination. The Democratic National Committee’s attempt to anoint Hillary as their candidate while snubbing the only candidate of either party – Bernie Sanders – who presents himself as representing actual policy positions is certainly quieter. But it is no less anti-democratic, if less blatantly demagogic, than the likes of a Ted Cruz or a Jeb Bush, or any other member of the GOP Clown Car.

Most fascinating to anyone interested in the process by which the corporate and financial elites control the political processes in the U.S.A., is the relative media attention allocated to Sanders versus Trump. The best the media can do in that regard is to compare the two as “outsiders” appealing to the vast frustration of voters with “establishment politics.” While it is said that Trump is widely despised in New York, it is hard for me to visualize the self-proclaimed billionaire real estate developer as an “outsider.”

Broken Democracy, or Is That Oligarchy Behind the Curtain?

It is also widely acknowledged that “Washington is broken.” Yet, is it really? To be “broken” implies that something was supposed to work in a certain way but due to some problem it does not work properly and needs to be “fixed.” I would suggest that the national political system is not broken; it is working exactly as it is intended by its elites. That is the problem.

Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader of the Community Rights movement, argues that our nation “more and more resembles a corporate oligarchy.”[1] Sheldon Wolin characterizes our illusory democracy as actually being an “inverted totalitarian” system that maintains the formal trappings of democracy while a corporate-state elite controls the economy and political process.[2] Chris Hedges proclaimed the Death of the Liberal Class, saying that while liberalism once provided the controls over the excesses of corporate capitalism, only the rhetoric remains.[3] Kim Phillips-Fein documents the decades long crusade by business against the New Deal that ultimately destroyed any serious political mitigation of the social damage caused by laissez faire capitalism.[4] These authors have each identified key elements of the pseudo-democracy that has in fact become a plutocracy.

Business won the struggle Phillips-Fein describes; liberalism had provided partial management of capitalism in the public interest, but it was destroyed. Only the rhetorical claims of liberalism serving the public interest remain, as Hedges points out, mostly in the abstractions of the platform and pontifications of Democratic Party politicians. The rest is finance capital managing politics and the economy in its own interests. Legal restrictions on speculation of investment bankers using depositors’ money had restrained finance capital until the elimination of all post-Great-Depression protections. Those restrictions are gone now.

The final blow was begun by Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, and completed by the rest of the Goldman Sachs crowd, rotating through the Executive Branch revolving door from Wall Street to the president’s cabinet and back to Wall Street. Every regime since Clinton has allowed the economy to be directed by Wall Street executives such as George Schultz and Timothy Geithner in the sole interests of the Big Banks and investment houses.  That, of course, resulted in the financial crash of 2008. And now the Democratic National Committee wants to hand us Clinton II?

Avoiding Catastrophic Destabilization

The deeper problem is that these political-economic developments have accelerated the most destructive tendencies of extractive predatory capital. The planet and its peoples have been plundered at accelerated rates for over two hundred years, but especially over the last half-century. The result is climate destabilization, accompanied by accelerated species extinctions that are synergistically destabilizing local and regional ecosystems around the world. The warming of the planet already results in extreme weather conditions, but will soon also entail consequent massive food-crop failures, mass regional starvation, mass migration, water and other resource wars, and the likely collapse of the global economy. Meanwhile, the charade of political democracy shields the corporate path to human extinction.

Paul Cienfuegos argues that the national complex of legal and regulatory systems is rigged in favor of allowing the corporate destruction of the planet to continue. He suggests that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate destabilization is for local communities to resist. They must pass and enforce local laws that prohibit corporate destructive practices in their towns and counties, even though such laws may violate presumptive state or federal jurisdiction. The democratic rights of communities to protect the health and safety of their citizens must be asserted. That just might be the only way that the affirmation of political democracy can trump political pathology and protect the planet.
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[1] Paul Cienfuegos, “Local Governance,” talk given in Minneapolis, MN, 23 Feb 2015. Transcript from Alternative Radio. http://www.alternativeradio.org/
[2] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Spector of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
[3]Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation Books, 2010.
[4] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. New York: Norton, 2009.