Apocalypse Maybe? Risks of Chaos and Violence

As I watched Richard Engel’s “On Assignment” program last night, which focused on the unmitigated ruthlessness in the rise and fall of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond, once again the human capacity for violence and even the creation of a cult of death collided with my sense of how good and brave people can be. Despite the growing immediacy of the climate emergency, we also see the growth of movements proclaiming various forms of violent racist xenophobia, from the death cult of ISIS to the cult of hatred and violence spewed by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.

I had just read an article by Michael Mann, a friendly critique of Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Of course, these two stellar public intellectuals come at the existential threat of climate chaos from very different backgrounds.

Michael.E.MannMichael E. Mann is one of the top climate scientists in the world, famous for his graphic rendition of exponential growth in the heating of the planet forced by the workings of the global corporate growth economy – the “hockey stick” of exponential growth. Mann envisions mounting broad institutional action to stem the tide of climate chaos.

Naomi KleinNaomi Klein became a famous journalist by producing a series of books articulating the the essence of accelerating political-economic changes we experience today. In particular, her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how “disaster capitalism” dominates and exploits vulnerable nations. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, stands as the go-to source for understanding the global political economy that continues to accelerate the climate crisis.

The Difference

Mann’s problem with On Fire is that he worries that too great an emphasis on collective political protest that links the climate crisis with demands for economic and social justice risks, will alienate independents and moderate conservatives. These folks may be pivotal in mounting serious national climate action. But they may not be so progressive as to support the entire agenda of the Green New Deal. Besides, the Trumpists are sure to yell, “Socialism!” Well, they will do that anyway. However, I am not sure that trope has much traction these days.

Naomi Klein seems to take her argument a step further in On Fire. She pins her hopes on growing collective protest against inaction by the reactionary corporate state. She rejects “market mechanisms” such as cap and trade, which serve mostly to allow big polluters to dodge their culpability. Michael Mann is not so sure we should let such options go. He wants to “decouple” the climate action movement from the progressive social agenda. He also voices a couple of minor inaccuracies in Klein’s essays, but lauds her overall effort.

To Agree and Disagree

Well, I agree and disagree with both these important figures in the public discussion of how to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the carbon emissions that are central to the global industrial-consumer economy. On the one hand, we should not reject any tactic that might contribute to climate action. On the other hand, some techniques may be more viable and quick to implement than others.

However, in neither case can we accomplish such a radical reduction in carbon emissions without a so far largely unanticipated radical reorganization of society around a very different energy-use regime. Merely rolling out renewable energy production to feed a continuing industrial-consumer culture will be far from enough change. If we look seriously at exactly how to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade, we cannot do so without dismantling the corporate state, as we know it.

We have to face the fact that our corporate economy functions on absolute loyalty to the illusion of endless economic growth driven by fossil fuels, which is anathema to any meaningful climate action. It is also inherently inequitable, since, as Peter Kalmus so eloquently explains, the structural flaw in corporate capitalism is that “…money exhibits a gravitational attraction whereby wealth accrues more wealth.” The debt-based fossil-fueled corporate economy feeds a “black hole of wealth” for the few and growing poverty for the rest. A New Great Transformation of society, therefore, would necessarily entail reduction of social and economic injustices along with reduced carbon emissions, overproduction, and waste.

Violence or Community

Whatever path we take, a great deal of chaos and violence is likely to occur. That is where my reaction to Richard Engel’s reporting comes in. Humans are capable of not only vast creativity and kindness; they are also capable of unfathomable violence toward each other and the world around them. What climate-action path can we choose that will also minimize the violence and destruction likely under conditions of growing chaos? I cannot escape the conclusion that re-forming viable communities at the local ecological level may serve us best. Only when humans unite in groups of a size and mandate capable of engendering great cooperation, can we avoid the worst of the violence to come.

A Failure to Communicate…or Lead

The majority of Americans understand that global warming is real and that it is mostly human-caused. They understand that most scientists think that global warming is happening, but only about one in six are aware that the consensus is very strong among climate scientists. Nevertheless, about six in ten are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, while nearly four in ten have personally experienced its effects in some way and think that it is harming Americans “right now.”

Yet, among several other results in the recently released report, Climate Change in the American Mind (April 2019) researchers found in their nationally representative survey that over six in ten Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends. Less than four in ten do so occasionally or often. That tells me something about the distorted “political climate” surrounding the climate debate, such as it is.

Climate Communication

The findings of this study by Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues under the aegis of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication[i] and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication seem at odds with the content of the recent debates of the twenty “top” candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election.

Election 2020 Debate

The First Night’s Debate Lineup

I noticed that on the first debate night, only a few minutes were devoted to the topic, so I timed the segment when the question finally came up on the second night. It took all of nine minutes out of the two-hour debate and just like the first debate. However, a good deal of that time drifted off-topic as befuddled debaters fell back on their preferred talking points, diverting attention from their hesitancy to take any firm policy stance on specific climate actions. Of course, most claimed concern but had little else to say on the matter.

The contrast between the growing interest and concern over the climate crisis among the American people versus the stilted talk of most Democratic Party primary hopefuls is stark. But what does it reflect or portend? Well, it is clear that the facts and their own experiences have gotten the attention of the American people. Meanwhile, the DNC leadership resists the demands of groups like the Sunrise Movement to have a full debate on the climate emergency.

Climate Censorship

Decades of corporate propaganda and lobbied political denial and diversion has caused long delays in the climate crisis coming to the attention of the public and becoming a genuine political issue. Nevertheless, overwhelming facts and experience have finally entered the public consciousness. So, what is wrong with the consciousness and speech of the politicians?

Aside from the obvious self-interest of the plundering politicians and extreme elements that now dominate the Republican Party, one might think that the Dem’s would be all over this crisis as a central issue with which to distinguish themselves from the “know-nothing” Republicans. If anything, they ought to make an effort to help educate the electorate as to the seriousness of the climate emergency.

Will the Real Leader Please Stand Up

The Trump regime seems an easy target as it persists in its full-blown climate denial and strong-arm attempts to unravel the modest environmental protection accomplishments that accrued from Nixon to Obama. Trump’s agents assigned to administer these departments now have a track record of directly suppressing important scientific findings of government researchers in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. They prohibit Researchers from presenting their findings at scientific conferences or disseminating their reports.

Yet the Dem’s cannot even take aggressive action beyond voicing complaints when the regime commits crimes against humanity at our southern border. Nevertheless, they want to be leaders. Amusing, but so sad, even Trump, warned by his advisors that the American people know that the climate crisis is upon us, made some typically false statements about how his administration is making America’s water and air the cleanest in the world. Sure, he has no clue, but it is disconcerting that he sounds so much like the wishy-washy Dem’s, except for the lies about accomplishments.

One might think that such a plethora of corruption and actions in direct opposition to the interests of the American people would offer an especially easy target for attack by the opposition. Many Americans have already experienced the devastating effects of climate chaos. Yet, if the debates are any measure, here is where Mahatma Gandhi’s oft-quoted comment on leadership surely applies to the Democrats who hope to lead the nation:

“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

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[i] Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2019). Climate change in the American mind: April 2019. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/CJ2NS