Choices and Freedom, Decisions and Destiny

Choices multiply with time, or maybe not. Potential decisions proliferate as knowledge grows, but we may not necessarily make them as obligations set in. With good health, the Jubilado [retiree, en español], if modestly financed with a decent pension, has many choices, not all costly. Unfortunately, many Jubilados either never had a pension or it was stolen by the corporation that was supposed to manage it in trust for its workers.

Never trust a corporation. It has no soul, and no, it is not a person. Some say that disproportionate numbers of corporate executives and politicians are psychopaths or sociopaths, two terms for the same affliction. The sociopath’s amoral drive to power can often lead to economic or political success. Either way, sociopaths have no empathy, though they learn to fake it. That is why they are not averse to doing whatever they can get away with to attain that next level of power.

Theft is in the eye of the victim if not of the corrupt official. As with the bribery from which politicians benefit, we rarely observe the punishment of corporate criminality. With the decline of labor’s power versus that of capital, pensions have become rare; many of the few remaining fall victim to management plunder. The politicians have “borrowed” most of the Social Security Trust Fund, then argued it is going broke. They claim that we can’t afford such “entitlement” programs, even though Social Security is funded by workers ourselves, through the payroll tax.

With a modest retirement income, this Mad Jubilado sees many choices. Too many ‘retirees’ sit stupefied and disengaged from the world while staring at the flat-panel screen of a degraded culture. Their time is now their own if they know it, an unusual if somewhat theoretical circumstance. We are, after all, trained in school not to think but to remember ‘facts’ that are unimportant to us, and to do what we are told. Choice becomes an echo of obedience. That way we are more likely to become unthinking obedient workers, tolerating a dull routine, rather than citizens engaged in critical thinking about the world around us, ready to decide.

Engaging in the world is not a spectator sport. Look around. There is so much to see and so much to do. There are endless ways to satisfy your curiosity, if your career left you with any. That is part of what makes the thinking Jubilado Mad.

Engaging with the world can range from terrifying to transcendent, sometimes both simultaneously. The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” seems fully realized today. We do live in the most interesting times imaginable. If you think about it, how could our times be more interesting? Well, maybe soon…

The more I research climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, and the political-economic dysfunction behind them, the more interesting – and terrifying – they become. It is about the survival of the world as we know it. Politicians do so little about it because of the simple power of short-term corporate interests corrupting public policy. They call corporate bribery “campaign contributions.” Politicians easily suffer paralysis when confronted by an overwhelming challenge, especially if the price is right. Besides, the challenge of figuring out what to do about such a monumental planetary problem is nothing short of daunting.

I used to tell my students to “follow your bliss.” Huh? [The phrase depicts a bit of wisdom borrowed from Joseph Campbell] It was all too common for students to come for academic advising with some notion in their head about choosing a major that was simply wrong for them. I didn’t even have to know much about them to tell that they had grabbed an idea from somewhere that superficially sounded good. But that good thing they thought they perceived at the moment of their choice, was momentarily “hot” and jobs in that field had good starting pay. So what?

Is that how to choose one’s life work? I told them that they should find out what really interests them, because by the time they graduated some other field would be the “hot” one and they would spend an entire career doing something they really did not like. Some got it; others did not. But I’ll bet the ones who did get it will have lots of choices in retirement.

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

Trump.Huff.Post

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.”

Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

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

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

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

CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

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

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Where are the Social Sciences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irony of Crisis and Opportunity

Sometimes irony offers a vision of opportunity. If we are aware of the tragic outcome of a contradiction between the intention and the effects of an action, we may escape tragedy. That awareness may provide a chance for something far better than the original intent. Ignoring such contradictions, we risk disaster and may never notice the opportunity they bring.

Dramatic irony can be traced back to the Greek classics. That is because the ancient Greeks had such a good grasp of the human condition. Human folly often results from continuing down a path our mistaken ideas dictate despite overwhelming evidence that it will lead to tragic consequences.

Today, we rush headlong into multiple converging crises. Power elites have institutionalized and marketed as “normal” the ironies of modern and post-modern life. Individual tragic outcomes of poor choices continue to unfold. However, the very culture of industrial society has embedded a deeper irony in the dominant institutions that shape our thought and control our lives.

We take the imaginary elements of mass consumerism as elemental, natural, and real. The propaganda that drives consumer “lifestyles” has succeeded. The irony of chasing an image of “individualism” by falling victim to mass advertising escapes most consumers. The opportunities to escape the treadmill of lower wages, consumerism, and debt, usually pass by unnoticed. They are not part of the culture, so we do not recognize them.

The Crises of Illusion

A key premise of the industrial economy that drives mass culture is that the answer to every economic problem is more economic growth. To get a sense of the general understanding of its role, I set up a “Google Alert” on “economic growth.” As a result, I get several “alerts” every day, each reporting dozens of media stories whose topic is economic growth. It is a popular topic in the mass media everywhere. I received far fewer alerts on the topic of “climate crisis.”

The almost universally central issue in such stories involves how economic growth can be stimulated, maintained, or increased. Stories about economic growth from all around the world, each assume that economic growth is the engine of human progress. I have yet to find a story via Google Alerts that poses economic growth as a problem for the future of humanity. Of course, I can find such stories by going to climate change websites or a growing number of books on the end of economic growth on a finite planet. Does anyone read books?

Therein lies the irony. The financial structure industrial economies of the world require continued growth in order to service growing debt and return profit on capital. Where there has been “room to grow,” that has worked out pretty well. However, some serious contradictions in that system and their irony are visible to those willing to look. Growth on a finite planet must have a finite limit.

The earth has limits and we are reaching them. Yet, economists such as Julian Simon claimed for decades that technical innovations, resource substitution, and free markets could overcome any such limits.They were believed, and many still hold to such magical thinking.

Growth did not happen so much from internal innovations in technology and economy as it did from exploitation of others. Technology did assist Western exploration and domination of the rest of the world through colonialism, then imperialism. Both provided the material and human resources to foster Western growth. Gunpowder, sailing ships, and the sextant helped get things started. The oppression of native peoples around the world continued for centuries under the guise of assisting in their development. In fact, the Western colonial and imperial nations were extracting their natural resources and exploiting their labor. That continues today, to the exhaustion of both.

Finally, present day regimes of neo-liberal international finance foist “structural adjustment” nations it has forced into debt, to assure their continued financial subordination and exploitation. The whole history of the economically “advanced” nations involves extraction of resources and domination of populations for expansion of economic control of the world. The economic growth of the West, touted for its cultural superiority, succeeded only by oppressing people in other parts of the world. Smug neoclassical economic ideologues bury such facts behind their pseudo-scientific theories that do not stand up to empirical observation.

The global consequences of the system and illusions of economic growth are emerging as a “catastrophic convergence” of multiple global crises.  Growing problems of poverty, resource depletion, financial collapse, resource wars, refugee migration, and of course, climate destabilization all result from the juggernaut of extractive capital and the industrial growth it feeds. The contradictions of the global system of extractive capital are far more complex than Karl Marx could have imagined, but they do contain the seeds of its destruction. We must find ways to make that destruction creative.

Irony and Opportunity

Of course, everlasting economic growth is as much an illusion as a “perpetual motion machine.” Most people recognize the absurdity of a frictionless machine that can run forever without external inputs of energy. However, the ideology of endless economic growth as the source of human progress is a deeply entrenched imaginary in our economic culture. The corporate controlled mass media reinforce the image of “growth is good” daily and hourly.

Nevertheless, the earth is a relatively closed system with one external energy input – the sun. It is also a highly complex array of living earth systems we call ecologies and their living subsystems. Each is interdependent with the others. We humans are a once-small but dangerously overgrown part of that complex. We increasingly disrupt the stability of all the relations between complex ecological systems we barely understand yet need for our own survival.

The deepest irony of human experience resides in the effects of economic growth on the very systems it relies on for its energy and material resources – inputs that keep it going. We live on a small planet and we are not going anywhere, despite fantasies of escaping earth’s problems by space travel. Our problems and their solutions must be faced right here.

The profound irony of our hugely successful trajectory of economic growth is that its failure results from its temporary success. We have achieved, by application of fossil-fuel based energy to technological innovation in production, massive global economic growth. However, that growth in energy/materials extraction consumption, and waste, is disrupting the very earth systems that have sustained it.

Yet, the very same crises forced upon us by our perpetual extractive growth economy, now offer several windows of opportunity. We can solve those crises and save humanity by transforming our relationship to the living earth systems upon which our survival depends. However, that will require abandoning the very perpetual-growth system we convinced ourselves is necessary and inevitable – the endless-growth machine of extractive capital.

Another level of irony is involved. The global crises we created by trying to control our environment can only be averted by “creative destruction” of the system we accept as inevitable. A New Great Transformation of the human systems of economy and technology will happen. However, for human survival, both economy and technology must align with the natural requirements of our environment.

The irony of that opportunity presents a path to a new viable and sustainable relationship to the world we inhabit. To avoid our own species extinction as global climate and ecologies destabilize we must rapidly integrate human activity with the requirements for sustaining our living environment. Only then, living earth systems may re-stabilize. Otherwise, the New Great Transformation will be one of our extinction.

Ironically, the ever-increasing efficiency of industrial production has excluded many from participating in the rewards of the growth economy. Yet the sustainable system we need would do just the opposite. Our understanding of “rewards” must change as we face our condition. Only a vastly more equitable distribution of wealth can be made compatible with the stability of living earth systems.

In The New Great Transformation, we must rely on energy inputs other than fossil fuel, nuclear power, and so-called “bio-fuels.” Conversion to a new ecological economy will inevitably involve much more human energy inputs (work) than are found in the dying growth economy powered by energy stored in the earth. It will also draw upon capturing the boundless ongoing energy inputs of the sun. That new configuration will provide the valuable jobs that the stagnating automated production processes of the economic growth machine have taken away.

The opportunities we face lay in uncharted waters. Yet, take them we must. If not taken, these opportunities will surely disappear, leading humanity to join so many other species in the sixth great extinction now underway. Our crisis is our opportunity. Our greatest challenge offers the greatest opportunity ever for humanity. We must take it or die.

The New Great Transformation of humanity will be one of either complete disaster or a development unprecedented in all of human history. If we act correctly and quickly, we may be able to achieve a new ecological society, even among the ruins of the dying industrial leviathan. We have the knowledge, but can we organize it in effective collective action? We must take this opportunity even though, as is now inevitable, we must go through a period of immense chaos and pain. If we do not, we simply will not survive. Out of chaos can come great creativity. That is what we need now.

International Trade Emissions: Shipping and Aviation Overreach

International transport emissions_ship-plane_Flickr.Phil.Norton

International Trade and Travel, Warming the World

The climate crisis will not wait for anyone. Unfortunately, the widely praised Cop 21 UN Climate Conference agreements this past winter failed to take committed action of adequate urgency. Instead, it accomplished what many thought impossible: it gained agreements from most nations to standards for voluntary actions to reduce carbon emissions by the 2%.

That standard scientists had already agree will be insufficient to avoid major climate disruption. Neither the inadequate 2% nor the aspirational 1.5% will possibly be achieved under the regime of uncommitted voluntarism. If you add up the voluntary actions, assuming they will be achieved, the result is around 3% of pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon. The climate consequences of that much warming will be catastrophic. We are beginning an international death dance as already accumulated greenhouse emissions continue to disrupt the climate. There is more to come and no relief in sight.

The most recent UN Climate Agreements failed to address carbon emissions from shipping and aviation at all. Each comes under the jurisdiction of separate international regulatory bodies. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulates international commercial aviation. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulates international shipping. Neither of these organizations is particularly focused on reducing carbon emissions.

The IMO has a committee assessing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The ICAO has a committee looking into market mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes. In neither aviation nor shipping are meaningful steps being taken now to actually reduce carbon emissions by these industries. Both facilitate the growth in international trade, which as a centerpiece of the globalized growth economy is a major factor in accelerating carbon emissions and climate chaos.

Aviation and Shipping Emissions: Global Inefficiency

The global growth economy relies heavily on transporting goods and materials in giant cargo ships, driven by huge diesel engines. The airlines increasingly transport goods as well as people to meet the pressures of just-in-time parcel delivery, tourism, and business travel. The “flying public” continues to grow, largely oblivious to its carbon footprint.[1] The airline industry alone accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions. That may not sound like much, but it is. International shipping accounts for more than another 2% of global human-made emissions as of 2012, according to the IMO. Emissions from aviation and shipping are likely to grow with the global economy, barring another international financial collapse. No serious regulatory constraint appears on the horizon.

A common misconception about shipping is that because goods made in China and shipped to the U.S. cost less than those made here, they are also more energy efficient. Not so. Economic distortions based on the international flow of capital to exploit lower labor costs do not make for energy efficiency. They just lower costs of manufacture. Much fossil fuel is burned because of international shipping of goods that could otherwise be manufactured in the country of consumption. The “global economy” is a huge contributor to carbon emissions overshoot. Financial “efficiencies” of distorted capital and labor markets do not produce energy efficiency; they produce waste and pollution, along with labor injustice.

Economic globalization has accelerated both oceanic shipping and aviation. Significant growth in both are projected for the coming decades. At the same time, no viable constraints on resultant carbon emissions are likely. The UN Commission on shipping is mired in accumulating data on fuel consumption. Airlines are mostly developing optimistic projections of becoming “green” via unrealistic plans for adopting new fuels and unproven technologies. Most of it is little more than propaganda. It is all predicated upon unsustainable growth. It is another example of the sham of the “greening” of business as usual. The consequences will be catastrophic.

Mother Nature Makes No Exceptions

“Text urging countries to pursue ‘concrete measures’ through the IMO and ICAO was dropped in the second week of Paris talks,” reports Megan Darby in an article in www.climatechangenews.com. These industries are transnational; they are not located in any one nation. Left to their own devises, these sectors will act like other industries and promote false images of climate action as they seek the least-cost options they are allowed. Because shipping and aviation are not mentioned in the Paris agreements, neither have any formal obligation to meet any particular emissions-reduction target. Acting in the public interest is not a viable option for any one company when not required of all its competitors.

Some airlines are promoting their “green” programs in spite of their marginal efforts to improve energy efficiency, even projecting responsibility onto their customers. Admonishing passengers to travel lighter is a trivial factor as jumbo-jet travel grows. KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, on which I flew recently, is a case in point. I was quite impressed by the service, efficiency, and friendliness of all the KLM employees with whom I had contact. Their professionalism was superior to any other airline I have experienced in the last decade. The Dutch seem so well organized and happy.

IMG_1602

About to board KLM “heavy”

But KLM operates on the same emissions illusions as other airlines. On the long flight back from Amsterdam, I surveyed the options on the video screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Under the heading “About KLM,” I found a statement on the environmental policy of the airline. It made the usual claims about the company’s efforts to reduce emissions by various minor efficiencies and plans for future improved technologies. It was a slick piece of marketing copy with virtually no substance.

Commercial aviation, like global shipping, is rife with waste. The relatively low prices for flights to various countries support travel that far exceeds genuine need. Airline prices do not reflect the true costs of aviation for the planet and all of us who reside upon it. What would the price of a ticket from Los Angeles to New York, or New York to Paris cost, I wonder, if the cost of the attendant carbon emissions to the planet were built into the ticket price? If prices reflected those externalized costs, I would likely stay home. If the costs to the planet are considered, both airline travel and shipping will be severely curtailed very soon.

Transportation and communication are core sectors of the endless-growth global economy. Neither can be sustained in their present configurations if we intend to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Emissions resulting from the use of information technology – smartphones, the Internet, and cloud computing – account for another 2.5% of all carbon emissions – another sector that largely ignores its own carbon footprint. Every element of the current globalized economy will have to be completely transformed rapidly to avoid total climate catastrophe. Yet, little of this has even entered the public discourse. Calling this a “global crisis” is a vast understatement.

[1] An interesting article by Peter Kalmus in Yes magazine, reflects on the carbon footprint of commercial aviation by analyzing his own professional travel. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has chosen to not fly because of the calculations he did to estimate the CO2 emissions per mile from flying. His 50,000 miles of flying in 2010, he calculated to have produced most of his total carbon emissions. But the mono-nitrogen oxides that form jet contrails and seed cirrus clouds, add to atmospheric warming as well. A round trip, Los Angeles to Paris and back, emits 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – that’s 10 times the annual emissions of the average Kenyan. The article is posted at http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-02-16/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying.

The Democratic Party Needs Only One Platform Priority

Recently, I listened to Cynthia Sharf, the United Nations Secretary-General’s climate expert, summarize the dire situation indicated by the latest scientific findings on a range of

The Burning Planet Calls for Political Revolution Now.

measures of global warming and its extant and rapidly growing disastrous effects. Then I saw posted on the AParallelWorld.com website, Senator Keith Ellison’s Survey seeking priorities from Bernie supporters to aid Ellison’s work on the Democratic Presidential Platform Committee. The struggle within the Democratic Party for how the platform will set policy priorities is no small matter. The Sanders supporters are expected to work hard for inclusion of the key policies Bernie has promoted throughout his campaign, and many hope, beyond his run for the presidential nomination. Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” is about changing the political process itself and redirecting the nation to respond to the converging catastrophic crises of our time. Sanders’ proposals are directed to addressing those crises, the most urgent — because it is global and local and affects the entire human population as well as all living earth systems — the Climate Crisis.

Despite the fact that as a sociologist I have conducted many surveys and sometimes don’t want to ever see one again, I was both curious and concerned. Bernie’s primary influence on the presidential race and on U.S. policy if HRC is elected, may be initially felt through his supporters on the platform committee. Of course, party platforms don’t necessarily dictate actions, but they at least reflect putative intentions. We must all push HRC as hard as possible to move much further toward a sustainable political position, particularly regarding the CLIMATE CRISIS. Yes, it is a crisis now and we dare not ignore its immediacy any more.

Here are the “topics” Senator Ellison offered as choices to rank 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, as priorities for the Democratic Presidential Party Platform:

Raising the minimum wage

Civil rights

Making college more affordable

Protecting women’s health care choices

Immigration reform

Protecting and expanding Social Security

Overturning Citizens United

Reducing economic inequality

Wall Street accountability and consumer protection

Common-sense gun reform

Affordable housing

Criminal justice reform

Other

 

Here are the questions and my responses to the survey:

1st Priority (select topic):   OTHER

Tell us more about your 1st priority below:

It is shocking that the ACTION on the CLIMATE CRISIS is not listed among the above priorities for the Democratic Party Platform. Achieving a stable ecologically balanced relationship to our environment is the MOST CRITICAL human, therefore political, priority going forward. Most of the above topics either 1) can contribute to reducing the human carbon footprint [environmental, social, political, and economic justice all imply transforming the extremely unjust system that is concentrating wealth among the richest and the giant corporations, while squeezing everyone else] by leading to an ecologically balanced low-energy-waste society; or 2) cannot be achieved without also transforming the extractive plunder-capital system to stave off climate destabilization [before it is too late] and avoid the catastrophic convergence of extreme drought and flooding, crop loss, starvation, armed violence, mass migration that makes the current problem look like a picnic, and widespread social destabilization and accelerated ecological disintegration, all leading to massive loss of life.

2nd Priority (select topic):   OTHER

Tell us more about your 1st priority below:

See Priority 1.

Action on all the listed “priorities” must be undertaken in such manner to drastically reduce carbon emissions, now. I cannot emphasize “now” enough. According to the latest scientific findings, as summarized two days ago by Cynthia Scharf, Senior Climate Officer for UN secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, we barely have five years to make radical changes to reduce carbon emissions to near zero or we will have passed the point of no return to climate stability. All measures of climate destabilization are accelerating far faster than predicted. Each IPCC report has underestimated the changes documented in the next report. All political priorities must be framed in this context — we must NOT mistake them for separate competing issues.

3rd Priority (select topic):   OTHER

Tell us more about your 3rd priority below:

See Priority 2.

The climate crisis is NOW. The lag between emissions and climate destabilizing effects deceives us into thinking the crisis is somehow a future event. It is not. In this context it is pointless to rank the important goals you list. They must all be integrated into a policy of extreme carbon-emissions reduction that simultaneously strives for justice implied in those goals while striving to save humanity from joining the Sixth Mass Extinction already underway.  When the bear is chasing you, it is good to be paranoid.

If your top priorities were not listed, or if you’d like to tell us more, please use the space below (optional):

My priority is clear from the above comments. My greatest concern is the luke-warm genuflection of HRC to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. It is most important that Bernie’s POLITICAL REVOLUTION is taken to every corner of this nation, within and outside of government policy. Only if masses of citizens continue to be mobilized to demand and achieve it, will the U.S. be able to set the gold standard for global climate action. After all, we are the greatest cumulative carbon polluter nation.

Politics being what they are, the greatest chance for significant immediate action is to mobilize people in their own communities to take personal, family, and organized community action to immediately achieve local sustainable life. That means major reductions in corporatist consumption and shifting all purchasing choices to ecologically sustainable products and services. This is what AParallelWorld.com is attempting to do by helping green consumers connect with sustainable vendors of all kinds in their local area.

Local communities around the world are organizing to resist the destruction of extractive capital, replace moribund political hierarchies dominated by corporate industrial and financial interests, and become resilient by taking steps to mitigate their own contributions to carbon emissions and to adapt to the increasingly unstable conditions we will experience, even if we achieve the unlikely but necessary limits to global warming proclaimed by the nations that met in Paris last winter.

~ ~ ~

A slightly shorter version of this article was posted on my “Diary of a Mad Jubilado” at http://www.aparallelworld.com.

Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.