The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

Colorado Rocky Mountains_google.images

Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.

 

The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.

Debate on “Modern Monetary Theory” Misses the Mark

Artificial wealth comprises the things which of themselves satisfy no natural need, for example money, which is a human contrivance.

~  St. Thomas Aquinas

Buzzwords seem to rule public discussion of just about everything. Money is no exception. Now it’s “Modern Monetary Theory.” What’s that? Well, it depends on who you ask. In modern times, debates usually center on public debt and the government’s fiscal and monetary policies.

An article in Boomberg News argued that the supporters of The Green New Deal favor Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Critics argue that the costs of universal health care, publicly funded higher education, infrastructure buildout, and conversion to 100% renewable energy production would require unsustainable public debt. MMT supposedly sets no limits on public debt. That is apparently not quite true, but within the U.S. monetary system and corporate political squeeze on public spending, the costs of the Green New Deal, if financed by public debt, would be quite high.

Of course, if we calculate the infrastructure damage of climate chaos even if we met the limits of the Paris Accords – never mind the costs in terms of human lives – the comparative costs of implementing the Green New Deal would be trivial. In that sense, costs are relative. The underlying question is: What does society want to achieve and is it willing to pay for achieving it?

The Debt Illusion

Money is a social construction. It exists by social convention, by consensual definition. Throughout history, money has taken diverse forms, as long as the forms taken could provide the security needed for money to be money. That is why gold worked so well as currency until the global economy grew so large that the supply of gold could not keep up with the need for more currency.

Scholars have written some very large books on the nature of money and debt. How money evolved is quite fascinating. David Graeber’s book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, is quite enlightening, particularly regarding the diverse forms money has taken in history.

Public debt is not necessary; instead, it is a convention devised by bankers to control the economy of nation states. In that, the banks have succeeded.

If a sovereign nation controlled its central bank, it would not need to borrow the currency it issues since it is the sole source of authority to create money. The creation of the U.S. Federal Reserve as a banking cartel in 1913 made that impossible.

The expanding Roman Empire paid its soldiers using gold and silver coins it minted from metals mined mostly in Spain and Portugal. It did not borrow its money from anyone. Among the many causes of the fall of the Empire, was the fact that when the mines played out, the Empire could no longer satisfy its need for more coins to pay an expanding army. The operations of the Empire were stifled because it could not pay its soldiers.

Money need not be based on public debt, but in the industrial economies of the modern era, it is. That political choice enriches the banks and the corporations they fund, and it impoverishes nations. Neither supporters nor critics of Modern Monetary Theory seem to get this.

Implementing a national project or sustaining an institution is not a matter of how much debt we can tolerate. Rather, it is a matter of political will. The lavish support for the military that sustains the global modern industrial-consumer economy demonstrates that.

Fearful Fantasies and Fiat Money

To work effectively, money has to be made of a material and in a form that has some unique irreplaceable quality that makes it impossible to replicate by just anybody. That is why rare metals worked so well until economies grew so large in the modern era that the money supply could not expand enough using gold and silver.

When paper money replaced gold, the idea of “fiat money” implied that paper money was not really “real money” like gold. Nevertheless, it worked because it is hard to counterfeit, making it unreproducible by anyone other than the sovereign (for the most part).

Unnecessary debt combined with the failure to tax corporate profits creates annual deficits, which add to the national debt. The central bank creates fiat money through the sleight of hand of issuing government debt in the form of bonds as the basis of “loaning” money created out of nothing, to the government. If the sovereign issued money without the mechanism of “borrowing” from the central bank (in the U.S., the Federal Reserve) it would not create debt by issuing money.

It’s crazy. But the banks that in practical terms own the Federal Reserve love it.

If a sovereign issued money solely on the basis of needing to fund worthy projects, to hire the workers and buy the materials to complete the projects, the money would, as a result, circulate among the population of the nation, providing the ‘buying power’ needed to generate the goods and services people need.

National debt is unnecessary. In stark contrast, something very much like the Green New Deal is as necessary as anything can be. It is a matter of survival.

The Democratic Party Dilemma: Is it Real?

As Republicans try to drive a wedge between “centrist” and progressive Democrats, the Democrats might not need any help to achieve failure. They are well on the way to falling flat in front of the unique challenges they face in a bizarre couple of years running up to the 2020 presidential election.

Party Palliatives

DNC operatives and their favorites, the candidates who spout conventionally “liberal” slogans yet act like Reagan Republicans still control the Democratic Party. They take large corporate donations and “dark money” that tie them to the neoliberal economic thrust that takes us closer to full-blown climate chaos each day. Well, actually, the crisis is here and it is now.

In the run-up to the 2016 debacle, I remember seeing a survey posted online by Senator Keith Ellison asking Democrats to respond with their three top priorities for the Democratic Party Platform. The list provided did not include any mention of climate action, the overwhelmingly denied and ignored yet most critical issue of our time. Here is the list:

  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Civil rights
  • Making college more affordable
  • Protecting women’s health care choices
  • Immigration reform
  • Protecting and expanding Social Security
  • Overturning Citizens United
  • Reducing economic inequality
  • Wall Street accountability and consumer protection
  • Common-sense gun reform
  • Affordable housing
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other

Okay, these are all issues that call for political action to achieve a livable society – in the abstract. Each is general enough that a politician could proclaim allegiance to taking action on it without actually having to do anything. The climate silence was deafening. The current listing of issues in the 2016 Party Platform on the party website does mention “Combat Climate Change,” briefly in the middle of the list. Once Bernie from contention, the greatest existential threat to humanity ever, Hillary mostly ignored it through the campaign. However, fear of a Trumpist future caused the 2018 midterm elections to blow a fresh new breeze into the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here Come the New Progressives

AOCAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) rapidly emerged as the face of the new progressive Democrats elected to the House in the midterms. Her unexpected trouncing of an old-line centrist incumbent in the primary quickly became the icon of new progressive thinking among the new representatives, who are mostly women of color.

A good measure of their impact and importance for possibly bringing the Democratic Party into the twenty-first century is the outrage and disdain expressed by Republicans at AOC’s very presence. Her highly articulate and charming outspoken expression of progressive values and her specific legislative proposals took the media’s attention away from the old party hacks.

The new progressives have already proposed a Green New Deal and helped shape HR-1, the bill that would take back control of politics from Big Money and give it to the people through electoral reform and other measures to protect democracy from the corporate state. Mitch McConnell predictably called it a “power grab,” yes, they replied, a power grab for the people.

The Struggle is On

The Corporate Democrats are not about to give up. They have already joined Republicans Ilhan Omar_400x400in attacking Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) for her calling out knee-jerk American political support for Israeli oppression and war crimes against the Palestinians. Omar had tried to distinguish between anti-semitism – of which anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is accused – and reasoned and principled foreign policy by the U.S. But the women of color who expressed their solidarity at the State of the Union address by wearing white in honor of the original suffragettes, are strong and they are not about sit down and shut up as subservient freshmen representatives.

The Green New Deal may be only a policy preference piece, pointing in the direction of the extreme decarbonizing actions required to avert the most extreme threats to human survival inherent in the accelerating climate chaos we have already begun to experience. In one of the most honest assessments of the extreme crisis we now experience, David Wallace-Wells article in the New York Times is aptly titled, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.” It seems that the only politicians to get it and openly discuss it are the new progressive representatives.

The American people are wising up. They see the catastrophic climate changes already accelerating around the world. They can no longer imagine the U.S. as a sanctuary for the industrial-consumer “lifestyle” in a world of growing chaos. The Democrats would do very well to acknowledge the extreme existential threat we face and make it the centerpiece of their platform. But the new progressives must take control of the party if it is to represent the interests of the American people.

The Best (only viable)Adaptation is Mitigation

A policy of adaptation to climate change as the primary response to climate change would not only be self-defeating. It would tax all human and material capital on the planet in pursuit of an impossible dream. It is fundamentally failure-bound because climate chaos would easily overwhelm it. That is why the Green New Deal is such an important cultural turning point for the American people.

That is also why the failure of politicians to adapt to the new conditions recognized by a citizenry that is awakening to the extremity of the emerging climate reality is so offensive. The politicians are not prepared to face actual constituents who know what is going on and expect them to do something about it. Frankly, they serve the short-term financial interests of the big fossil-fueled corporations that continue to disrupt the Earth System at its very core as if there were no tomorrow. There will be no captain once the ship sinks.

Well, as time goes by, tomorrow becomes today, but the time for major climate action was yesterday. To anyone not bought off or just ignorantly out of the loop, only the most extreme climate action now has a chance to limit climate chaos from spiraling entirely out of control. The Green New Deal is a conceptual starting place. Even it is not enough if implemented, because so much more is involved in transforming a society from fossil-fuel addiction to ecosystem restoration. Yes, recycling more and buying a Prius while going about your industrial-consumerist “lifestyle” just won’t cut it.

Feinstein’s Folly

And that is why the old guard in Congress is so upset with smart political upstarts such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth of the Sunrise Movement. They refuse to mince sunrise.movementwords about the dangers ahead or accept platitudes in place of action. Politicians either dodge them completely by leaving their office by the back door or dismiss them out of hand. They patronize intelligent committed youth, most of whom know far more about the science of climate chaos than Senator Diane Feinstein, for example. She was so offensive when the Sunrise kids went to her seeking climate leadership instead of the same old BS. Well, they got the same old BS.

13-Dianne-Feinstein-2.w700.h700“I’ve been doing this for thirty years…[blah, blah, blah]…” Yes, and that is exactly the problem. For thirty years, the establishment politicians have kicked the can down the treacherous road to climate catastrophe. And now that we are at the brink, they want the rest of us to sit down and shut up because, in Feinstein’s words, “I know what I’m doing.” No, WE know what you are doing and it is too close to zero and too late to tolerate.

The Urgency of Now

Unless humans initiate major interventions now, toward reversing the trajectory of global warming, no amount of adaptation to the catastrophic consequences of global warming will be enough. Although it is hard to determine precisely, the tipping point toward full climate chaos is very close at hand. So many self-amplifying processes produce accelerating ecological destruction and may lead to human extinction unless humans act now to radically restrict our carbon emissions.

As Earth’s climate spirals toward a Jupiter-like atmosphere, intolerable conditions will extinguish most life on planet Earth. No human adaptation would be adequate unless it is a response to the conditions that we have already made less severe by taking extreme climate actions to mitigate the carbon emissions we continue to cause. And they are shocked because they think that the Green New Deal is a radical proposal that we somehow cannot afford. It is not nearly enough, but it points in the only direction we can afford. We must get reasonable politicians who can follow facts to begin leading a mobilization that made the transformation of American society to fight World War II seem like a spring picnic.

Tax the Markets!

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

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

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

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

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

Markets are Not Magic

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

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

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

Governing in the Public Interest

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

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

China’s New Colonialism in Malaysia: A Harbinger?

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

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

Economic Imperialism Then and Now

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

A Model of Forest City, Malaysia

A Model of “Forest City,” Malaysia

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

Economic Injustice Causes Climate Chaos

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

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

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

Beyond Resistance

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

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

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

So Much to Resist, So Few Tools

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

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

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

Something Very Different

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

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

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

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

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