Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity

Over 20,000 scientists from 184 countries have now signed on to the second warning by scientists to humanity to dial down its profligate destruction of the ecosystems and environments upon which we all depend. In a short paper, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice, the writers of the second warning (the first was in 1992 and had little effect) initially garnered nearly 15,000 signatures of scientists endorsing the paper. Soon, the total number of scientists signed on exceeded 20,000. So, What’s the big deal?

Scientists and Politics

Most scientists prefer to stay in their labs or out in the field collecting data for the purpose of better understanding some facet of the domain in which their research specializes. Typically, they are not all that political. But things have gotten so far out of kilter in the relationship between science and public policy that the dangers of governments continuing to do next to nothing about the converging crises of our time spurred some scientists into action. Now, their warning is getting a great deal more attention than most publications of scientific origin.

Altmetric tracks the mentioning of scientific reports in diverse media. The paper was published in 2017 in the journal BioScience, not exactly a top favorite of social media. However, Altmetric reports that ‘the warning’ ranked within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric

Scientists Second Notice Graphic coverThe “altmetric attention score” is a measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. The score for the warning paper is 7382, which is in the 99th percentile of over 10 million research outputs Altmetric has tracked. It is the number 6 top paper published since global Altmetric records began, first of similar age. Most papers in the top 100 score below 600. In other words, people are paying attention, as well they might.

The warning paper is subtitled “A Second Notice,” because a first such warning was issued by scientists in 1992. The new Warning is short and to the point. As I mentioned above, the first notice was widely ignored. Things just kept getting worse as governments and some corporations gave obligatory lip service to “going green” in their business-as-usual operations, while dodging any serious policy questions.

Social psychologists have struggled with the difficult issues of how it is that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, so many people avoid or deny the reality of increasing climate instabilities. Of course, confirmation bias plays a big role for the individual who is part of a social group whose ideology or world view conflicts with the facts of climate science. However, the power of corporate media, which dominate most public channels of communication, from talk radio and cable TV ‘news’ to social media, steers how the little public discussion of the topic is framed and circumscribed. The corporate state frames the issue as “controversial,” as does the propaganda of the fossil fuel industries and their political allies and agents in Congress and the White House.

Messengers of scientific fact are generally sidelined; they do not get a seat on the Sunday talk shows. Discussion of the most urgent confluence of crises humanity has ever faced is stifled. Perhaps the exposure of this powerful document via online channels may be able to draw the attention it deserves.

Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

co2_Ice-core.and.Manaloa_to.403ppm_Scripts.Inst.800k_zoom-768x461

CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.

Renewables Transition: It’s Happening, But How, and is it Enough?

The report of the latest “Bloomberg New Energy Finance” (BNEF) annual summit in New York proclaimed on April 14, 2015 that fossil fuels had already lost the race against renewables. “The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.” The report by Tom Randall, published on the Bloomberg Web site, hedged no bets. It touted “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuel. The trends and forecasts clearly indicate a slow death for the buildout of new oil, gas, and coal fired energy capacity as “clean energy” capacity surges ahead over the next fifteen years. End of story? Well, not quite.

Not surprisingly, the Bloomberg forecast includes nuclear power in the clean energy category. Nuclear power advocates never do count the high environmental costs of uranium extraction, equipment manufacturing, or facility construction involved in nuclear installations. Not to mention the fact that the risks of nuclear power generation make such installations uninsurable unless the insurance is subsidized and guaranteed by the federal government. That is precisely because of the catastrophic proportions of a reactor meltdown and other risks. Nor do they consider maintenance and repair costs or the massive expenses associated with decommissioning worn out facilities.  Issues of storing the growing backlog of nuclear waste and its risks remain chronically unresolved. What’s clean about that?

At least the Bloomberg report implicitly acknowledges the complexities and time involved in building out nuclear energy capacity. It shows future nuclear buildout as rather small compared to that of new solar and wind capacity. However, we should also be concerned about the Bloomberg forecast for new gas-fired energy capacity. From 2015 to 2030 it is forecast to slow only slightly. Most new gas production results from fracking, with the result that total carbon emission is at least as bad as that for coal. The methane leaks alone should make it an unacceptable technology. So should the demonstrated damage to critical aquafers.  What’s clean about that? But wait, there is so much more.

New Economics of Energy Production

As we all know by now, the prices of wind and solar power continue to plummet, making them economically competitive with fossil-fuel sources. But the political economy is never that simple. Unfortunately, our future is not just about making rational decisions based on the evidence at hand. The myth of renewable energy sources being uncompetitive continues to be promoted, even by Bill Gates, who should know better. Entrenched corporate interests of investor owned utilities as well as the fossil fuel industry constitute a major drag on progress in converting energy production to low-emissions technologies.

Big investor-owned utilities continue to resist conversion to solar and wind sources of energy; their policy and planning criteria do not include the public interest.  Distributed solar photo-voltaic generation by residential and business customers is a threat to their monopoly power. They resist any loss of financial control of the energy markets over which, unfortunately for the public, they have been given legal monopoly power. The euphemism, “public utility” becomes absurd. They operate to maximize the guaranteed monopoly profits from expanded investments. The larger the investment, regardless of public need, the larger the profit. Nevada and New Mexico present particularly nefarious cases of obstructionism by investor-owned utility companies. Public utility “regulation,” agencies have failed to serve the public interest. They are embarrassingly compliant with the demands of the utilities they are supposed to oversee in the public interest. Energy is in its nature part of the nation’s commonwealth, but it is treated by “regulatory” agencies primarily as a legitimate source of private corporate profit.

In Nevada, NV Energy Inc., controlled by Warren Buffet’s giant holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, was successful in its heavily funded political campaign to dismantle the state’s net metering policy. Forty-two states have offered some form of net metering for residents who install solar panels to produce most of the electricity they use and “reverse meter” any surplus back into the grid. Many are now under attack.  Nevada’s elimination of its renewable energy credits resulted in 17,000 residents losing the economic benefits of having invested in renewable energy. The move has also cost the state some 8,000 solar jobs.

In New Mexico, Public Services of New Mexico (PNM) has been engaged in a public foot dragging exercise with regard to transitioning to renewables. It has received implicit and sometimes explicit support of most of commissioners on the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC). PNM operates coal fired energy generating plants in the four corners area, where lung diseases and cancer – along with poverty – run rampant among Navajo residents. The Four Corners methane plume has been observed by orbiting satellites. Federal emissions requirements have led PNM to propose closing one of the obsolete coal-fired generators. But for their own financial reasons, PNM would keep the other operating, then “review” its continuation a few years down the line. Even if it were decommissioned after that review, the process would probably take a few more years before its environmental damage could be stopped.

The PNM plan also includes new long-term coal and nuclear commitments. Thus, the state of New Mexico and its people would be bound to continued high levels of carbon emissions and potentially huge legal liabilities resulting from PNM’s nuclear deal. A trivial gesture of adding little solar and wind capacity is also included in the plan. All but one of the commissioners either have engaged in behavior that any ethicist would call, at minimum, an “appearance of impropriety,” or have publicly indicated their political support for PNM prior to reviewing the case. The commission voted to approve the plan. Only one environmental group, New Energy Economy, has made serious attempts to stop the regressive proposal from being realized. The rest were coopted in secret negotiations with PNM and some state officials.

Renewable Energy Is Not Enough

The Bloomberg report rightly concludes that it “is no longer a matter of if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long will it take.” Therein lies the rub. Finance is a very big problem, and it is acknowledged by the BNEF report. Hundreds of billions of dollars are needed each year to finance just the amount of new renewable energy capacity sufficient to theoretically hold global warming to the demonstrably inadequate benchmark of 2 degrees Celsius.  Each year from 2008 to 2014, a decreasing proportion of the increasing billions in needed capital has been applied to new renewable energy buildout. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts a decline in new capacity from 2014 to 2020, or a paltry increase under an optimistic “accelerated case” scenario. Meanwhile, we find out that methane emissions, 90 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, have been undercounted for a long time. The Environmental Protection Agency has drastically increased its estimates of methane emissions in its draft 2016 Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

In all this, we find almost no public discussion of conserving energy and reducing waste. New scientific reports of accelerating climate-disruptive effects of global warming keep surfacing. For example, a new report from the University of Cambridge concludes that 78% of remaining wetlands will be wiped out by sea level rise this century. Many of the world’s great cities are on coastlines. Like island nations and delta populations such as those in Bangladesh, they too are at direct risk from rising seas. The result will be mass migrations forced by flooding. Yet, climate action rhetoric continues to be not only inadequate but is also in direct conflict with government economic policies of most nations. The continued promotion by all governments of economic growth of the only kind we have known is a sure path to defeat of any climate action. Only by curtailing growth, combined with energy conservation and suppressed consumerism, will we have a chance to restrain global warming enough to avoid catastrophic climate collapse. Then renewable energy can be part of a real solution. Yet the denial implicit in the omission of conservation and growth reduction from national and international policy discussions continues.

The Great Transformation or Collapse

The public policy priority of almost every nation remains on finding ways to stimulate economic growth, without any reference to the climate consequences. Some important non-conventional economists and others have pointed to the ultimate futility of a never-ending-growth economy: it will end. The accelerated warming of the earth is repeatedly documented in data released by NASA and other scientific sources. Despite the increasingly urgent situation, establishment politicians and economists are not listening. Even so, public awareness that the growth economy must be replaced by an ecological economy – on a planetary scale – is expanding. But nobody knows how to make the transition to zero-carbon/zero-growth ecological economics. Economies must now be developed ecologically, not grown further in the mode of conventional economics. That may be the most complex difficult challenge ever faced by humanity; nothing like it has ever been tried before – its scope is planetary and its urgency is absolute.

Such a complete transformation of national economies and indeed the global economy is an entirely unprecedented prospect. Most unfortunately, this transition must be made very quickly to avoid the gravest consequences of continued industrial civilization as we have it. The focus of every nation’s politicians, economists, and sociologists must be shifted one hundred and eighty degrees to developing strategies to radically transform the global economy. The prospects for widespread chaos are very high, even under conditions of maximum international cooperation and planning. Failing to achieve such a great transformation, we will join the sixth great mass extinction.

It is necessary to face the fact that the transition to an ecological economy will only be achieved by a radical transformation of society itself. The transition to renewable energy production technologies, important as it is, will be only a small part of the necessary New Great Transformation of the global political economy. Far less energy production than the industrial leviathan requires must support a far more constrained consumer economy than we have known.

We face a very hard choice: Best case is a massive social and economic transformation of society that may reduce emissions enough to avoid cataclysmic climate collapse. The ‘alternative’ case is the more likely modest conversion to renewable energy production with the industrial growth machine essentially in place – that would produce full-on climate chaos and societal collapse. Many who recognize the dangers of global warming still cannot wrap their minds around this reality. An ecological society cannot be a mass consumer society; it must hone in on the most essential and meaningful relationship to the natural world and shape social relations and economic behavior to fit that relationship. That will be far more comprehensive than Bernie’s political revolution. It will be a social revolution.

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

The Ideology of Predatory Capital: Social Illusions and Planetary Reality

With the fall of the Soviet Union and various other communist states, the victory of capitalism seemed assured. Ronald Reagan took on a God-like aura, anointed by Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” affirmed that there was no such thing as “society,” and there was no alternative to unfettered growth of neo-liberal capitalism. All was well in the West, or so it was said.

Now, all sorts of things were possible with the “peace dividend.” The triumph of American Individualism over Soviet totalitarianism was expected to yield huge savings resulting from the end of the arms race that had been required by the “cold war.” Yet, somewhere on the way to peace and prosperity, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us against, just kept growing bigger and bigger. We were warned against potential new forms of conflict for which we must be prepared.

That growth relentlessly consumed more and more of the federal budget. The pursuit of military goals to assure the continued supply of energy from the Middle East left little money for “domestic programs” throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The pursuit of endless wars of choice into the twenty-first century created widespread international resentments. “Freedom fighters” in their own minds, growing numbers of “terrorists” and “insurgents” defended against indiscriminant U.S. invasions and occupations. Such groups grew much more rapidly than they ever had before nine-eleven. The costs of these military adventures have been mostly off-budget, yet have continued to bloat the national debt, their funding appropriated from nowhere. Meanwhile the congress continues to focus on cutting corporate taxes and domestic programs and subsidizing fossil-fuel extractive industry. Small government for the people, big government for the Empire.

The Ideology of Economic and Military Predation

In tandem with aggressive U.S. foreign policy, the growing dominance of neo-liberal economics – formerly called “Laisse Faire” – meant increasing control of the U.S. economy by international corporations. So called “free markets” and “free trade” operated as ideological cover for ever-increasing corporate domination of both domestic and international economies. The story was always, let individual entrepreneurs and small businessmen – the mythical “job creators” – be freed of government regulation and Adam Smith’s “indivisible hand” will assure the best outcome for all. But the hard economic reality has been quite different.

Capitalist economies work best for their people when markets are regulated to control the worst excesses of the power of capital itself. The free-market ideologists carefully neglect to admit to the power of power to accrue more power. The question, “free for whom?” is neither asked nor answered. That is exactly how the mega-corporations have ideologically controlled polity, economy, and society. The corporatists, whether pundits on CNBC or the politicians bought and paid for by the corporate and financial elites, have clear expectations and intentions. Only by reducing taxation on corporate profits and eliminating “onerous regulations” needed for public health, workplace safety, and the environment, as well as those evil “entitlements,” can the capitalist economy work best – well, best in fact for the corporations and worst for the people.

Of course, corporate taxes are at all-time lows and deregulation of financial markets has been fully achieved by the Republi-crat one-party corporate state. The result is the starving of federal and state budgets and destruction of middle-class employment. Deregulation of financial markets, aided by the power of electronic computing, has allowed corporate malfeasance on a scale never before imagined. This has driven both U.S. and international economies to financial crises on a scale not seen since the great depression of the 1930s.

Deregulation of production and labor markets has released large corporations from any responsibility for environmental damage, abuses of labor, increased health risks to citizens, or unfair competition. Their domination of politics, economics, and society was thereby assured. Their control of politics and the mass media have kept at bay any serious discussion or action to counter the climate crisis that fossil-fuel driven extractive capital has created. The corporate state propels us toward the sixth great extinction while its elites grab their short-term profits.

Illusions of Separation and Dominion

All this is sustained by massive social illusions about the nature of human society and the nature of nature itself, all promoted by the power elites’ propaganda. The social illusion that the capitalism we have is what we need is promoted and sustained by the financial, corporate, and military elites who benefit economically from its unrestrained damage to people and planet. The problem, of course, is that almost all political discussion, deeply grounded in illusions and propaganda imposed through the media they control, flatly excludes reality. The power of mass media control is the power to ignore.

It is not only interesting but very important to note that the illusions fostered by the power elite about society are the same illusions promoted about nature. The perspective is atomistic and reductionist. But contrary to the pseudo-science of economics, the natural world is the world in which we live, and it is a complex living system, not a simple mechanistic causal chain. It and we are complex interdependent living systems. Despite any illusions we hold about our dominion over nature, we are inescapably part of it.

To think clearly about humanity and its place among the other complex living systems on earth, we must purge the old ideological schism over capitalism vs. socialism. (It is all internal to society anyway and the ideological debate ignores nature while assuming human domination over the earth.) Roosevelt tried to save the capitalism of the early twentieth century by modifying its destructive tendencies – it worked for awhile. Later, communism collapsed from its own dead weight. Neither was much cognizant of the natural world – that would have been anti-industrial and thereby unacceptable.

Despite the limitations imposed on him, Roosevelt did a pretty good job – the “New Deal” reforms kept U.S. Capitalism alive for almost a century. The former extreme boom-bust cycle was dampened by the regulations he imposed on banking – separating speculative investment banking from commercial depository banking. The result was “the business cycle” where relatively mild recessions between periods of growth replaced the severe crashes previously experienced. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and later programs dampened socioeconomic instabilities. But in the post Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation, we have regressed to extreme risk of financial collapse and social chaos resulting from the abolition of those reforms. Our situation is not unlike the past, but amplified by the electronic speed of today’s financial transactions and the much greater size and power of today’s corporations.

If we continue on this path of self-delusion about economic and planetary realities, the next financial collapse will be far more severe and will reverberate throughout the world in the form of social chaos. If we continue with the self-delusions of the extractive predatory capitalism we have, not only will the world economy collapse, but the unmitigated climate disruptions produced by the delusional endless-growth economic system will put the planet over the brink, ultimately – and soon – leading to full-on climate collapse, extreme crop failures, mass starvation and uncontrollable migrations, widespread armed violence, and untold human suffering.

Interdependent Reality

The underlying reality of both human society and living earth systems resides in the fact of interdependence. Some elements of the idea of personal independence and freedom are important and true and lead to cultural creativity in a variety of ways, within a context of inherent societal and ecological interdependence.

Yet the ideology of American independence, unfettered capital markets, and “free” trade, as promoted by the power elites, is rapidly becoming deadly in its consequences for both human society and large numbers of living species, as well as the living earth systems of which we are a part.

Ecological Reality and Political Illusions

So, Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” or, in the European term, a “social democrat.” From the perspective of the ideology of the U.S. power elites, that is a political horror of horrors. That is why the mass media try to ignore Sanders. Besides, the unreality of “The Donald” is so “entertaining.” After all, the social programs Bernie Sanders advocates would disrupt their near total power over the economy. But from the perspective of a desire to secure the future against the ravages of unfettered predatory extractive capital hell-bent to destroy the living earth in favor of the next quarterly report, Bernie is a rather mild-mannered moderate. He would institute many of the same sorts of programs that Roosevelt did to save capitalism from itself. But today there is a big difference.

It is no longer a matter of fixing our socially and environmentally dysfunctional version of capitalism; now it is a matter of replacing the disaster capitalism we have with a new ecological economy never before seen on the planet, except in miniature among indigenous peoples. We must create local indigenous economies at planetary scale. That is a daunting but necessary task that must be accomplished in very short order if we are to avoid much more severe social and ecological chaos in the wake of economic collapse as well as climate collapse. The system we have is destabilizing all sorts of natural systems that have been in relative balance for a very long time. Oscillations in disturbed systems tend to amplify toward system collapse. This is why tipping points are so important. The economic and climate oscillations are accelerating.

It is not just poverty, racism, unemployment, or the extreme accumulation of phantom wealth in the delusional financial markets that are at stake – as if they were not enough. Now it is a matter of social and ecological survival. The living interdependence of multiple species in multiple ecologies around the world is being disrupted on a massive scale. We are only partly aware of the complex ways humans depend on these even more complex ecological inter-relationships. Many such interdependencies are being exposed as we careen toward mass extinction. Scientists know this; politicians are not listening. We are all at extreme risk. Only massive cooperation among people, neither corporate competition nor the corporate state, will make the difference between a forming a new ecological society and our present path to an accelerated extinction of many more species, including our own.

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.