Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

Dumbing Down America Degrades the Nation and More

An article in Psychology Today, posted by Ray Williams on July 7, 2014, delineated a long list of indicators of the decline and fall of culture and education in the U.S. in recent decades. Diverse measures of that decline led the author to conclude that, as I would rather put it, “American Exceptionalism” is in fact a particularly degraded concept describing the downwardly spiraling status of our culture.

The loss of respect for education, teachers, science, and intellect, contrasts sharply with the cultures of Japan and Europe, for just two examples, where these cultural features are highly valued. Ridicule of intellectual accomplishment is quite popular. This has led to the fall of the U.S. in its ranking on various measures of competence in science and the humanities. Even more important, the anti-intellectualism and anti-science mentality that accompanies the insecurities of ignorance, can have a disastrous effect on our chances for survival as a species. No small problem.

Training for Exclusion

For many decades now, the education of Americans has been transformed into the training of potential workers for the degrading dull jobs with little creativity that remain available. At the same time, the outsourcing of well paid jobs to poor nations with extremely low wages, has forced many middle class workers into the ranks of the poor. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity and anger, especially among the formerly privileged class of white male workers.

A few bright software engineers and developers create products with increasingly meaningless connection to actual life in the modern world. It is all about distraction and disorientation to life with any intellectual content. The young are taught to respond impulsively to images and emotions in the online game culture and social media. Who now reads books and contemplates their meaning?

Among the many implications of the turn away from intellect and toward impulsive response to images and associated emotions, the reality of politics has detached itself from the reality of life in the nation and on the planet. Shocking percentages of the population hold beliefs that contravene massive evidence that they either fail on the facts or simply have no particular connection to reality. This cultural situation is ripe for demagogic exploitation.

Political Degradation

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False Front

Despite the flaws of Hillary Clinton, the attraction to the demagoguery of the certifiable megalomaniacal sociopathic business cheat that is Donald Trump boggles the imagination of any modestly informed citizen. The man maintains a vast store of ignorance of most matters related to national security and domestic government, with the possible exception of how to work the income tax system. His international entanglements and personal nature of his business and political connections with disreputable characters in Russia and elsewhere, make the concept of putting his financial interests in a blind trust (administered by Ivanka!) something less than laughable.

It is difficult to grasp the extent of ignorance out there. Nor is it easy to understand the widespread indifference to information in favor of impulse and emontion. No point in going on about all that; either you are paying attention to basic verifiable facts or you are a victim of confirmation bias — the common defense mechanism where any evidence that contradicts prior beliefs is simply ignored in preference to self-delusion consistent with beliefs held closely.

Ignorance or Survival

More importantly, the fate of the nation, and possibly the planet, hinges on the necessity of immediate and comprehensive actions to stave off the very worst impacts of climate destabilization. Things are so bad that not even the feigned climate-action promises of Hillary Clinton could make a significant difference in responding to this global crisis.

Species Extinction and Human Population_USGS_1451324_650954518277931_1616731734_nWhich ever U.S. presidential candidate “wins” the election in November, little hope for the kind of change we must have seems to be in the offing. The probability of adequate societal response to the emerging crises of global financial collapse and global climate collapse is very low indeed. Something very different from conventional politics or its current deranged deviations must arise in some form of broad social mobilization demanding the actions not even conceivable by our distorted, corrupt, “politics as usual.”

Is California BERNing?

California could be the turning point. Or not… Growing numbers of Americans seek to live a parallel life by limiting their consumption as much as they can to low and no emissions products. But so much more is needed. California has led the nation in some of the steps it has taken against global warming, but giant steps lie ahead.

Californians are caught in an exceptionally severe drought. Water tables continue dropping. Its great cities depend on water from declining snowmelt and the oversubscribed Colorado River. At the same time, agriculture uses the vast majority of the state’s water, much in the wasteful manner it always has. The once fertile San Juaquin valley is polluted and under severe strain from over-use by industrial agriculture.

If any state epitomizes both the potential and the dangers we all face, it is California. Many trends of industrial consumerism begin and are fully realized in California, perhaps most notably the car culture. Much of the digital revolution, which has led to vast consumption of electricity by Internet “cloud” services, began and continues there.

As the urgency of achieving ecological sustainability grows, politics just gets crazier. The pundits babble over Trump’s brash buffoonery, including his pandering to climate deniers, as well as his peculiar popularity. Talking-heads question Hillary’s character as she waffles on various issues, including the climate, as she feigns a false populism and holds exclusive fundraisers for super-rich donors. They all try to ignore the exploding popularity of Bernie Sanders.  Yet we “feel the Bern.”

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a website that brings environmentally conscious consumers together with vendors of minimal carbon-emissions products and services. It has avoided involvement in political conflicts or campaigns. But APW has now endorsed Bernie Sanders, the only candidate who publicly calls for major climate action. APW members are typically “sustainability voters” who want politicians to make urgently needed climate policy. Fear of the consequences of global warming has grown among all voters as climate facts have overcome climate denial propaganda.

Bernie_Slate.photoDespite media denial, the surge of public support for Bernie reflects an even broader public concern about global warming as well as social and economic justice. Bernie’s consistent record on diverse social justice issues has resonated with a growing number of voters. As the only candidate who refuses corporate contributions has become more widely known, so has his popularity.

Yet, because of the strange party politics of primaries, especially the DNC “super delegates,” pre-committed to Clinton, the increasingly clear preference of voters may not be realized. That is why the California primary is so important, with the large number of delegates at stake. The “political revolution” Bernie calls for must be achieved to move the nation anywhere near the halt to global temperature rise necessary for climate stabilization.

California at the Crux

Bernie supports local organic farming, which uses less water and does not use dangerous petroleum-based chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Industrial agriculture has so damaged California’s Central Valley – the bread basket of the nation – that only a revolution in farming practices can save it. Under the extreme growing conditions of severe drought, California agriculture is at great and growing risk; its productivity has already started to fall.

Californians have a very big stake in achieving the political revolution that Bernie Sanders calls for. California agriculture uses far more water than the cities or suburbs. Far deeper change than not-watering-your-lawns is needed to avoid the food production failures that agriculture-as-usual will allow to happen. The changes needed to seek a “future we can believe in” where the food chain is sustainable, require a political revolution.

The most important prospect right now to stabilize the climate and achieve economic sustainability is to realize Bernie Sanders’ political revolution. That, as Bernie regularly points out, is not just about Bernie becoming president. It is about mobilizing a broad public movement for change. If Bernie does not get the nomination, that will be much more difficult to achieve. That is why the California primary is so important.

Getting the nation to “feel the BERN” has been a long up-hill battle. Starting with very low name recognition, Bernie’s straight-forward message has resonated with voters as more people listen. If his views and policies had been as well-known at the beginning, he would probably have enough delegates now to clinch the nomination.

Overwhelming victories in the remaining states, especially in California with its large number of delegates, will place Bernie in a very strong position at the convention. Democrats know that in poll after poll, Bernie beats Trump be wide margins. At the same time, Hillary’s marginal lead over Trump has narrowed to a statistical draw.

With all her ethical and policy vulnerabilities, Clinton could very possibly lose to Trump. He is vulnerable too. Do we really want a president whose key business strategy is to file bankruptcy to avoid paying investors? With every appearance of being a narcissistic sociopath, the dangers of Trump’s unpredictability surpass even HRC’s risky neo-conservative interventionism and subservience to her Wall Street donors. Neither of them is capable of leading the kind of political revolution that is necessary to mobilize the people to make the fundamental changes required to mitigate climate disruption.

BERN, California, BERN

As Bernie has often said, this is not about Bernie Sanders; it is about all of us. The fight will go on, yet be so much harder if Bernie is not nominated. But go on it must, and it will not be easy in any case. Much of the work that needs to be done will involve the reestablishment of local and regional sovereignty over all matters of public health and welfare, including fracking, mining, and electricity generation.

At some point, early on, national-level policy transformation must be put in place to radically reduce carbon emissions nationally. No president can make Congress move on that, given the influence of corporate lobbyists, without a mobilized public consensus demanding action. The massive climate action that must be launched immediately, will not happen without a prescient president with a mass social movement to back him up.

There is just no way around it. The population will have to be mobilized to take the actions necessary to stabilize global temperatures. We must also undo much of the damage already done to the earth’s living systems upon which we all depend. But with Bernie Sanders in the White House, having trounced Trump, the political revolution to achieve national sustainability will be at hand. That is why we must hope that California is BERNing.

To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the Ivory Tower

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

[Please note: This article is republished with permission from the site, ensia.com. It was accessed at: http://ensia.com/voices/to-build-a-sustainable-world-academics-need-to-tear-down-the-ivory-tower.]

Anthony D. Barnosky
@tonybarnosky Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth A. Hadly
@LizHadly Stanford professor and global change scientist

Paul R. Ehrlich President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature.

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster. View Ensia homepage

Comment:

Robert M. Christie  Mar. 19th, 2016
This is the most precise and concise delineation of the elements of the contemporary human-planetary predicament I have yet heard. If allowed, I will republish it on my little blog, TheHopefulRealist.com. My only qualification is that the ultimate obstacle to the solution is the global political economy and its power over culture and consequently public and political awareness. We are confronted with the necessity of performing the next, and perhaps final, Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship to the earth systems upon which it depends and which it is destroying. All that is said here is true, but moot if a path to the transformation of the extractive system of industrial growth to a truly ecological economy is not found and rapidly pursued.

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

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Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

False Hopes and Disingenuous Agreements: COP21 and Climate Catastrophe

The corporate mass media were briefly all agog about the agreement reached in Paris for the world’s nations to reduce green house gas emissions and save the planet.[1] COP21 was widely declared a success, then quickly ignored. But really, what was accomplished? A very slick propaganda pitch by the world’s political elites, that’s what. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the unanimous agreement among the leaders of all nations at the conference was impressive in itself.

After several decades of consistent scientific consensus confirmed by massive planetary evidence, the politicians were forced to admit the obvious. That was a major step toward serious climate action. Yet it was embarrassingly similar to a bunch of alcoholics admitting their addiction at their first 12-step meeting. Unfortunately, it is far too little and it also may be too late. Global warming is a threat to humanity now and the addiction of corporations, governments, and people to fossil-fueled global economy remains fundamentally unchanged. In covert denial, major media reports buried the facts of failure deep in their glowing descriptions.

Indigenous earth advocates and leaders of island nations – as well as major climate organizations such as 350.org and Friends of Earth – objected that the “agreements” have no teeth. The agreed goals of the negotiating nations fall far short of targets demonstrated by the scientific evidence to be necessary to avoid planetary climate catastrophe. The science-based targets must be reached very soon. In contrast, the carbon-emissions cuts the politicians pledged to make do not add up to a total that is sufficient to keep global warming to even the insufficient goal of an increase of no more than 2º C.

Denial as Affirmation

Working toward the 1.5º C. the climate science consensus deemed necessary to avoid climate catastrophe is presented in the Paris accords as a vague wish. On the positive side, the agreement is a universal political acknowledgement that there is indeed a climate crisis. The nations present agreed that something must be done. That’s all – hardly a plan of action. COP21 produced an agreement of concern; none of its targets for governmental action are enforceable or adequate. Most importantly, virtually nothing is said about how nations can achieve the agreed goals. Yet the praise pours forth.

In the U.S., the mass shooting at a community center in San Bernardino, California, interrupted any scant coverage of the UN conference. Every last detail of the terrorist shooters’ lives was covered over and over by CNN, MSNBC, and other cable outlets. Given the apparent inspiration given them by ISIS and the immigration security failure in the case, the attention given it is certainly understandable. Yet over the two-week span of the conference, the U.S. corporate media gave coverage to COP21 at a level implying its relative unimportance to Americans. One might wish that it had been given the level of coverage of Donald Trump’s latest offensive utterance, and with greater honesty. However, the mass media are deeply implicated in the fossil-fuel addiction of the corporations that control it.

Perhaps the scant news coverage has to do with the fact that the U.S. is unique in its political stance toward global warming. Everyone knows that the climate-crisis denying Republican-controlled Congress will never ratify any climate-action agreement with its present membership. First, nothing President Obama attempts to accomplish will be accepted by this racist radicalized Tea-Party dominated gang of corporatist obstructionists. Obama’s efforts to shape the agreement so that it does not require congressional ratification will not significantly change U.S. political stagnation over the issue. Second, the blatantly racist hostility to Obama in Congress is merely amplified by the climate-denial fossil-fuel industry funding of so many legislators. It is a lose-lose situation for climate action in the U.S., and it is a disaster for the planet.

Major national news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting at the end of the conference, have at least implicitly proclaimed victory for the environment. Despite the failures of content and commitment evidenced by the document itself, it is widely praised for the hope it brings to the deepening climate crisis. Agreement in principle, however, is entirely different from any commitment to specific climate actions. What can we realistically hope will be accomplished as a result of the COP21 accord?

Affirmation Diverting Attention to Wrong Policies

A compilation of actions taken and not taken by the various nations that have contributed in extremely different degrees to climate destabilization would be book-length. The global fossil-fuel industry and its connections to governments and corporations is highly complex and differentiated. In the U.S., federal efforts to constrain emissions from coal-fired power plants remain ambiguous at best. The Environmental Protection Agency attempts to impose stricter emissions standards on power plants. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management continues to virtually give away coal mining leases in the Powder River Basin without competitive bidding. The price of coal is thereby held down in a “giant subsidy” to the coal industry.[2] The social costs of burning coal – pollution driven health damage and the climate destabilization – remain unaddressed. The coal problem is only one of many contradictions in government action in relation to emissions reduction. Most are driven by the demands of industry upon the state. The culture of unrestrained fossil-fuel driven economic growth remains unscathed.

The corporate agenda of industrial growth not only continues unabated, but has permeated talk of how to limit carbon emissions. Research and development of exotic new technologies for energy production dominate governments in the industrially developed Western nations. The Bill Gates’ coalition of billionaire “venture philanthropists” has convinced governments to spend on new high-tech energy production. Even if the research and development efforts for such exotic strategies as Bill Gates’ new technology for nuclear power generation could be guaranteed viable, they are misdirected.

Right Action Threatens Corporatism, and Must

Instead, public authorities should be investing in more difficult to organize but absolutely necessary immediate actions to conserve energy and cut carbon emissions directly. Existing means for energy conservation and near zero emissions production – solar and wind – are immediately available. Their immediate deployment should be maximized. But that would seem to require structural changes in the economy of global extractive capital. Actually, their gradual deployment is already forcing change in energy investments, as is the divestment movement. If sufficient investment shifts to renewable energy, the fossil-fuel industry cannot continue to drive governments of the “advanced” industrial nations to continue down the path of destruction.

Those who have contributed most to the problem have contributed least to its solution. The corporatist model of new industrial technology for reducing carbon emissions merely serves to take us further down the path of wrong action. Those who can instigate real change away from the corporatist model of over-production and over-consumption toward an ecological economy, must take action now. Given the intransigence of federal policies subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, the contradictions between abstract federal climate policy and the continued support for extractive capital will become more obvious.

Local and regional efforts to protect aquifers, farms, local drinking water, and indigenous lands from their destructive effects are making extractive investments more difficult. Communities, municipalities, and regions must reassert their innate rights to self-preservation by direct actions replacing fossil-fuel based energy production, instituting comprehensive energy conservation programs, and restricting the carbon emissions allowed. The false hopes of abstract international agreements must be replaced by the realistic hopes of direct actions by people where they live.

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[1] Prime examples include: Chris Moody, “Paris climate deal: 5 big issues,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/paris-climate-deal-5-big-issues/2015/12/12/2bb2ba8c-a107-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html?wpisrc=nl_pwrainbow and Coral Davenport, “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris,” New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/world/europe/climate-change-accord-paris.html.

[2] James Surowiecki, “The Financial Page: Money to Burn,” The New Yorker, December 7, 2015, p. 28.

Global Warming, Climate Change, Climate Disruption, Climate Crisis, or Catastrophic Climate Destabilization: What Shall We Call It and Why?

What’s in a word? Or phrase? Well, a lot sometimes. In the case of anthropogenic alteration of the complex ecological and climate systems, it all started with “global warming.” It was a simple and accurate term. The emissions of primarily carbon dioxide by the steady increases in burning of fossil fuels throughout the industrial era have warmed the atmosphere. “Greenhouse gases” have caused the retention of heat; it is that simple. But the earth systems and the effects of warming on them are extremely complex. No word or phrase, it seems, is adequate to convey the full complexity of the problem or point to a clear path to a solution.

Denial

The “climate deniers” early on attacked the concept of global warming, claiming various forms of “evidence” to the contrary. Many such claims were absurdly irrelevant. Nevertheless, “Global warming” was an easy target. It was so general that specific instances of unusually cold weather in particular places were argued to refute the idea. For the uninformed, that made sense, although the obvious variability of weather from year to year and place to place meant that the claim didn’t pass logical muster. But demagoguery is not bounded by logic. As long as one didn’t get into the specifics of how the planet is warming and the variability of conditions the added heat produced, then the concept was an easy propaganda target.

Then environmentalists and the media shifted to using “climate change” as the generic term to refer to the complex changes that are disrupting previously relatively stable weather patterns around the globe. The new term had two contradictory effects. First, it was even more general, failing to indicate anything in particular, especially temperature change. It was probably meant by some to disarm critics (deniers) by not mentioning warming and thereby avoiding non-heating contrary specifics. I think it was also meant to be “not so alarmist.” Such watering down of an idea is akin to the big failure of the big environmental groups when they wasted decades of environmental action by trying to “work within the system” by aligning themselves with big polluters and achieving small symbolic changes in exchange for big donations. They were effectively co-opted.

Disruption

I began using the term “climate disruption” in conversations and in working with various environmental groups locally a few years ago. I remember once an official of the Sierra Club asked me where I got that term. I simply said that I thought it more accurate and pointed to the nature of the problem. He reported that the Sierra Club had recently begun using that term for much the same reason. I also have used the term “climate crisis” because it conveys the urgency of the rapidly growing risks of not taking major actions to counter the disruptive effects of global warming such as extreme floods, heat waves, and droughts.

The idea of climate destabilization is very close to climate disruption in meaning and effect. But it conveys another important element in our consciousness of the problem (or the lack thereof). We humans (especially in the U.S.) seem to have very short historical memories. We have had many decades of essentially very stable climatic conditions, punctuated by the occasional 100-year storm, hurricane, or tsunami. We have come to expect stability. Not only that, but we have come to depend on stable climates for our vastly expanded industrial agriculture as well as diverse other industrial activities. Climate destabilization is changing all that.

Destabilization

However, the crisis of climate change, aside from the many complexities that no single phrase can capture, has become so acute that none of these terms seems adequate. I have read some authors who refer to catastrophic changes that are beginning to appear around the planet. One important example is Christian Parenti’s book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Parenti talks of the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change.” He reviews examples of the growing chaos that results from the convergence of these factors that is well underway in places like Northwest Kenya, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, as well as the slums and deserts of Brazil and Mexico. The point to be remembered, of course, is that these catastrophic effects of climate disruption will not be limited to the more geographically vulnerable regions where they began. As the disruptions intensify, their effects will encompass the entire planet. The only chance we have, Parenti points out, is to entirely transform the energy economy to heal capitalism’s “metabolic rift” with nature.

Catastrophy or Creativity

Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader in the Community Rights movement, prefers to call the problem, “catastrophic climate destabilization.” That describes our likely prospects. We must recognize the catastrophic consequences of climate destabilization and their inevitable spread, as Parenti describes. Then we might be able to muster the collective will to launch the massive social reorganization necessary to at least have a chance to exclude ourselves from the “sixth mass extinction.” Cienfuegos advocates “local governance,” achieved by municipalities and other local entities. The strategy is to pass ordinances to stop environmentally destructive actions ordinarily condoned by regulatory agencies that are largely controlled by corporate polluters.

Rapid growth of national and international movements to divest from fossil-fuel related corporations, protect indigenous environments, and reassert native and local sovereignty will be essential. The weakest links in the chain of actions necessary to avoid full-on catastrophic climate destabilization are corporations and governments. Powerful social movements must force them to change. Otherwise, prevarication and avoidance of action by national governments and international corporate and financial powers will lead to humans joining the sixth mass extinction.