Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

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Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

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Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

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Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.

What is Wrong with Economic Growth?

I read a report in Forbes Magazine on the sluggish character of the current recovery from the 2008 financial crash, which lamented its exceptionally weak economic growth. Apparently, we continue slogging along in the weakest recovery since 1949. Since the Great Recession technically ended in 2009, average GDP growth has averaged only 2.1%. In the September 13, 2016 issue, Forbes staff writer Rich Kalgaard reports that the current “expansion” is more constrained than any similar period since 1949. Why is this, and what is the meaning and importance of such a slow recovery?

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Kalgaard offers “three clues” as to why post-recession expansions have steadily gone downhill, if erratically, for over a half century. He blames the fact that “the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.” He claims that the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, is part of the problem. Finally, he offers that routine corporate allegation that “the explosion in federal regulation” has stifled economic growth. He is wrong on all three counts.

Such claims by any writer attached to Forbes should not surprise us. Explanations for economic woes from corporate utopian dreamers will always blame the federal government for poor performance of the economy. They will also project causes of slow growth onto some outside force – certainly never to corporate malfeasance or distortions of the “free markets” they worship. Never will the internal flawed logic of extractive capital or the phantom financialization of the economy come into question.

The Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi exquisitely explained the origins and the utopian illusion of free market capitalism in his book The Great Transformation. That great transformation of human societies was what we call the industrial revolution. He also forecast the inevitable damage to society caused by the inherent flaws in the unregulated market system no longer embedded in society. The logic of its economic theory, which emerged as the intellectual justification for today’s global political economy, was deeply flawed.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, diverse societies have attempted to protect themselves from the damage done by market liberalism (the theory that if left to their own devices, markets will “self-regulate” and somehow produce the best result for society). The classical economists of the eighteenth century, such as Adam Smith, believed in two ideas that just never panned out in real economies.

First, they assumed that all human behavior is “rational.” That is, people will always act in economically rational ways, seeking their own best economic advantage in all their behavior. In fact, many exigencies and values in everyday life influence behavior. Economic advantage is just not the only important thing in life.

Second, the classical economists believed that markets would “regulate” themselves if allowed to do so, resulting in the best outcome for all. Adam Smith’s metaphor, the “invisible hand,” captured the essence of that belief.  Economic elites have both exploited and distorted it ever since. Due to the economic and political power of corporate and financial elites, the academic field of economics has retained those theories under the guise of pseudo-scientific analytics. All the while, “free-market” economies have failed to live up the theories of economists. Yet those theories continue to dominate economic thinking.

Utopian Dreams and Corporate Control

The theories that have controlled economics throughout the industrial era have held to these failed assumptions for centuries now, despite the overwhelming evidence against them. We now call such theories “neo-classical” economics, “neo-liberal” economics, or just plain “mainstream” economics. Despite their failings, the propaganda of the corporate media continues to glorify them as the scientific answer to all our economic problems. Corporations today routinely fight for regulations that favor their growing power, all the while claiming to seek less regulation of the markets they try to control. They never consider the social control of markets, for the benefit of society rather than for that of economic elites, as an option.

The consequences of the great transformation that subordinated society to its economic elites, as Polanyi predicted, continue to plague us today. Only this time the economic crisis converges with the climate crisis leading to global destabilization of access to resources, disrupted production and distribution of food, and escalating conflicts worldwide, all amplified by climate destabilization.

The utopian dream of endless economic growth may be the world’s greatest social illusion. However, it is also an imaginary vision that sustained itself in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, despite repeatedly failing the test of time. Never have “free markets” operated without causing serious social damage. In each case, society has tried to protect itself from the excesses and destruction of speculative capital, with varying success.

Overcoming Illusion

In cases such as the poor laws in industrializing England or the New Deal responding to the economic and social collapse of the Great Depression, political responses protected the people from the damage caused by unregulated markets. In cases such as the communist revolutions in Russia and China, the abolishment of free markets led to their replacement by cumbersome command economies that ultimately resulted in a state capitalism unable to respond to the damage caused by its bureaucratic control of markets.

Corporatist attempts to explain the flaws of the market system, like Kalgaard’s, implicitly assume the success of a failure. Their blaming of government and outside forces disrupts any attempt to protect society from the failures of a market system in desperate need of overhaul. Promoters of the corporate economic status quo like Kalgaard demonize as “wasteful spending” or simply “socialism,” any political attempt to require the economy to serve human society rather than only itself. They are mere corollaries to the failed neo-liberal economic utopianism promoted by global power elites for their own shortsighted gain. Some serious re-thinking is in order.

The Charlatan, the Huckster, and the Fate of the Planet

The Narcissistic Billionaire Sociopath vs. the Corrupt Corporate Crony

I once believed in the idea of progress. I did not think of progress as an inevitable march of humanity toward a better life; it was not the illusion of happiness through chemistry and consumerism, as the corporate elite would have us believe. I thought that with greater knowledge, people could act more rationally.

At the onset of my career as a college professor, I thought, we could surely do better if everyone were just more educated and understood the nature of the physical and social worlds. Then people would vote for the candidates who had the best ideas to create progress through enlightened policies. I held to that belief for quite a while, as I watched the U.S. education system deteriorate for thirty-five years. I retired no longer an optimist, but as a stubbornly hopeful realist. Back then, I was sure I would have died of old age before any major devastation from global warming would affect many people.

That was then and this is now. The world has changed so much yet remained the same. The immediate effects of climate destabilization are upon us, yet ignorance prevails. Trump’s Tropes play directly to the most ignorant forms of fear and resentment. The last half century of corporate-cash driven social policies carried out by the corporate state has deeply dumbed down and impoverished much of the population.

False Politics and the Corporate State

I have a feeling that Hillary Clinton harbors a genuine set of humanistic concerns for people and families everywhere. But I doubt that such sympathies will overcome her financial obligations to the giant institutions of the corporate state. Her claims of liberal policies and empathy for the victims of the corporate state she supports ring hollow. The liberal political class is dead in all but name and muted slogans.

The so-called conservative political class is in disarray. Its corporatist elites have played the racist scapegoating card to the ignorant resentments of the declining white middle and working classes to the limit. The Republicans have pandered to Tea Party racists and xenophobes for so long that they have lost control to a megalomaniacal narcissistic neo-fascist sociopath. The prospect for an American fascist state is no longer speculation; it is just as real as the likelihood that the neo-liberal (free-market) economic policies that favor corporations over people will continue.

The corporate elite, which funds most “liberal” and “conservative” candidates, seeks stability and predictability. Neither of these political styles veers far from the established political-economic orthodoxy. The continued hegemony of the financial, military, and industrial power elites depends on the continued subservience of the political class to its corporate benefactors.

The power elites support conventional liberalism and conservatism because both are good cover stories for maintaining control over the public and private institutions of the corporate state. That is why both Republicans and Democrats in congress agree to vote for legislation such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and similar so-called free trade deals. They have no problem giving away national sovereignty to multinational corporations as long as they get to feed at the lobbyist’s trough.

Meanwhile, the charade of national political elections pits political personalities against one another in mock combat of ideas that carefully avoid addressing the great global crises of our time. No candidate other than Bernie Sanders even mentions the emerging catastrophic climate collapse. Bernie, however, does not detail the crisis or offer specific actions commensurate with the urgency of the crisis. Well, Hillary vaguely alludes to it, but no more. Climate denial is, of course, one of Trump’s Tropes.

This 2016 election cycle, however, is a little different. We must question Chris Hedges’ contention that it really does not matter whether the Charlatan or the Huckster wins the presidency, because of the apparent extreme danger of a man who has no center. Narcissists and sociopaths do not have policies; they merely seek social power and personal recognition. They are inherently dangerous because they have no human empathy. Yet, the counter argument that the Huckster will continue to serve the short-term corporate financial interests at the expense of the public interest in avoiding climate collapse, also has merit.

Two Kinds of Political Deceit 

The Charlatan plays to the ignorance fostered by climate-denial, birther, and racist propaganda, while the Huckster gives faint lip service to liberal environmental and social justice concerns while serving the financial and corporate elites. Both exhibit war-mongering tendencies. Neither represents the public interest in seeking peace, community, or climate stability.

The problem with the Obama state department was not that Hillary caused the Benghazi disaster; rather, it was that they both fostered repeated militarist interventions seeking “regime change” without a scintilla of sensibility for what might come after. They use the resulting chaos, such as the rise of ISIS, to excuse further interventions. Who benefits from all this? The arms manufacturers and dealers do, as well as the fossil-fuel industry, and their congressional cronies.

The Charlatan-billionaire’s ignorance of international affairs matches his racist scapegoating and political bullying. But what does that matter if a sociopath has the codes enabling a nuclear strike anywhere in the world? We are living through as very messy time, so far. Part of the reason for that is the rigged electoral system, which normally allows only candidates from the two-party corporatist political establishment to run for office. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in very different ways, disrupted that “normal” political process.

Popular Progressivism Disallowed

For decades, Bernie caucused with the Democrats; a life-long Vermont independent from Brooklyn, he was one of them in all but name and moral stature. His liberalism was true and consistent, unlike the establishment Democrats whose consistent corporatist voting records belied their public protestations of concern for the people. Bernie was able to mount a near successful primary campaign by directly expressing and appealing to the real concerns of the people. His populist social-democratic programs were explicit, essentially the kind of FDR progressivism that has always been popular because of its focus on the well-being of the people. That is why he was able to draw millions of small donations via social media. His honest unpolished “Grampa Bernie” persona became his unconstructed charisma.

The contrast between the corporate media patronizing of sensationalistic Trump Tropes and his racist xenophobia, and their treatment, or should I say avoidance, of Bernie Sanders, was profound. The corporate media gave the billionaire bully billions of dollars in free television exposure, while carefully excluding the “democratic socialist” from coverage. It was an uphill battle for Bernie all the way. The Democratic National Committee had to let Bernie run in the primaries because he had worked with Democrats in the congress for decades. But the DNC had its own corporate candidate and did whatever it could to defeat him while claiming neutrality. It is remarkable that against all those odds, he came so close to victory.

Held back severely at the beginning of the race and torpedoed throughout, Sanders came closer to winning than anyone expected. In a fair race, without the DNC dirty tricks and media blackout, he surely would have won the nomination. But what is fair about normal politics in the U.S.A.?

The tragedy of the charlatan and the Huckster is not that the Democratic Party establishment unfairly defeated Bernie Sanders. Nor is it that a narcissistic sociopath was able to take over the Republican Party to the shock and dismay of both corporatists and extreme fundamentalists.  It is that the American people and the population of the planet are now put at grave risk by the inverted totalitarian of the corporate state, whether Charlatan or Huckster resides in the White House. The “choice” is now between short-term financial interests of the corporate state and the pure demagoguery of a neofascist would-be dictator. The contrast of each with the social mobilization necessary to save the people and the planet from complete climate collapse will differ, but in either case is gravely profound.

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.