The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

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Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

Can We Get There from Here? Stalling on the Path to Species Survival…or Not

You can find just about any message you’d like to hear about climate change. The gloomiest of fatalists: “It’s too late; we’re doomed; party on.” The science denier: “It’s the greatest hoax ever to deceive the American public; those scientists are just making these claims to get grants.” The suburban consumer: “It’s not my problem; is the mall down that one-way street? I need a new engine for my power boat.” The corporate ‘environmentalist’: “Buy more solar panels now!” Or the agri-business CEO, “corn-based ethanol is the renewable fuel we need, and it’s Roundup-Ready.” And on, and on…

So, what’s your message? Or, more to the point, what message do you believe and what are you willing to do about it? How about: “Global climate disruption is moving much faster than we expected. We must act decisively and quickly. We must demand that our so-called leaders initiate major national and international programs for climate-disruption mitigation and adaptation, now. But we must also realize how difficult that will be, since Congress is owned by the corporate, financial, and military elites who profit from the dying fossil fuel economy.

Facing Facts

In any case we need to take every action we can now in our local communities, since it is at least possible to influence local decisions. Otherwise, enough simply cannot be done before real climate catastrophes occur around the world. Many such regional climate disruptions will lead to societal collapse, mass starvation, climate-driven migrations, resource wars, and general chaos. “I’d really like a new swimming pool in my backyard like my neighbor’s, but maybe I ought to put in new weather stripping around those leaky doors and insulate the walls and ceilings in this old house. I could contact that local 350.org group and help them persuade the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuel investments.”  Or?

Many such actions can be taken. The “I can’t make a difference; I’m only one person,” excuse doesn’t cut it. Anyone with a basic understanding of what is happening is morally bound to act in whatever way they can. Without major human intervention into the degrading environmental conditions that humans have caused, we will soon experience the most devastating breakdowns of living earth systems not yet quite imaginable. To think otherwise is sheer folly – utopian delusions that only serve to further enrich the elites before the whole system collapses. As James Gustave Speth put it, “Soon it will be abundantly clear that it is business as usual that is utopian, whereas creating something very new and different is a practical necessity.”*

Replacing Business as Usual

Well, “business as usual” happens to be extractive corporate capitalism thinly disguised as Adam Smith’s small community freeholder individual entrepreneur capitalism that briefly existed at the dawn of the Industrial Age. “The Capitalism We Have” is a massive leviathan of environmental destruction and human exploitation. It is a politically subsidized corporate system for dominating the world economy. It’s goal is to concentrate wealth in the hands of the financial and corporate elites at the expense of the people and the planet. It extracts everything it can from the earth and produces as much waste as it can get away with. Via the corporate owned mass media it promotes its ideology of neo-liberal (laisse faire) economics of plunder and exploitation without restraint. Its political power prevents any serious reform, such as was modestly attempted in response to the Great Depression of the 1930’s with modest success before being cut off by political actions of the financial elite. Popular access to the national political process is virtually cut off. Most people know that something is very wrong but are largely cut off from real answers because of corporate control of most media.

The ideological debate was never won. Neither the socialism that was nor the capitalism we have reflects much about the ideological imaginaries of that debate. I have to conclude that the debate itself was entirely irrelevant as an exercise in seeking truth; it is pointless to pursue. It was only a weapon in struggles for power between private corporatism and state collectivism. What matters now is the real system that operates most of the world economy today. That system is trans-national corporate capitalism, which skillfully exploits the ideologies of individual freedom and entrepreneurial innovation and “small business” to cement ever more centralized corporate control of the politics and economics of most societies today.

The Path to Survival

Interestingly, despite all that corporate power over the economy, politics, and culture, more and more people realize that the system is not working for us or for the planet. Sure, many see no personal path to help right the system. But many in various sectors are taking actions in their own local interests and that is a good start. One of the most important steps now is to coalesce the range of movements for social and environmental change into a coherent worldwide movement working for a new Great Transformation that can save the living earth systems upon which we all depend.  That transformation will evolve as we struggle to fix the damage we have done and prevent as much further damage as possible.  The result, if we are lucky, will be a far more humane world.
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* James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Caravan Books, 2008.

Sunshine in Ketchikan: The Trouble Ahead

I’d wanted to go to Alaska for a long time. Finally we arranged for a small-craft inner coastal waterway trip on the “Wilderness Adventurer,” from Juneau to Ketchikan for 6 days, to be followed by a road trip from Anchorage to Homer to Denali and return. After 5 days of beautiful weather, kayaking and hiking amid eagles and bears along shorelines and adjacent rain forests of the inner passages, I began to wonder when the more typical rainy weather of the South East Alaskan fjords might commence. Everyone expected overcast skies and spring showers. Rain, wind, and heavy seas were repeatedly forecast but never materialized.

With about 60 educated middle class ‘adventurists’, quite ecologically aware it would seem, there was virtually no conversation about climate change. Surprisingly, one of the guides, in a talk about the micro-climates, flora and fauna of the area, proclaimed that it was company policy to simply describe the patterns observed in the area and that we “are all adults here and you can draw whatever conclusions you want from what you observe.” But it was clear that was not her personal attitude. Wow! Corporate censorship on questions of climate change even from the outfitters of an ecological adventure cruise! The Koch Brothers’ propaganda is feared even in the wilds of Alaska! Economic fear trumps scientific findings once again.

All five days so far have been sunny and in the mid 60s. Highly improbable under “normal” spring weather conditions in the coastal passages of South East Alaska. Look at a map. It’s a prime example of a temperate rain forest, a marine environment with many islands, channels, fjords, glaciers, and rivers, and the wildlife that thrives in such places. First bald eagle(s) I’ve ever seen in the wild, ubiquitous ravens, huge sea stars at low tide observed while kayaking along shorelines. Tropical rain forests have the greatest bio-diversity, but temperate rain forests such as those in South East Alaska have the greatest total bio-mass according to the eco-guides on board. That is due to the typical rainy weather and cold temperatures at this high latitude, unlike the pleasant warm sunny days we’re having here this week.

Everyone on board is so grateful for the weather we’re having, and seem to not connect it to the climate chaos it portends. Dinner conversations reflect quite liberal notions, including those generally related to climate change. Yet, I’ve heard no mention of a possible connection of our momentary personal good fortune to the more catastrophic changes in weather events the world is already experiencing. If this highly educated group can so easily isolate its understanding of climate disruption from everyday experience, then the idea that rational analysis of the now obvious wealth of data and models of accelerating climate disruption past the tipping point can be applied effectively to political decisions seems really far fetched. But we humans so often segment our realms of experience and knowledge.

Of course, we are cut off from Internet and cell phone services because we are far from any towns or cities until we reach Ketchikan in a couple more days. We did picked up wireless access briefly when we stopped at the fishing village of Wrangell for a couple of hours of shore time. But the whole point of the trip was to experience the wilderness in its isolated natural state, from the security of a 145 foot ship capable of navigating the smaller fjords right up to the glacier faces where the big cruise ships with their built-in casinos and gastronomic binges can’t go as they transit from one tourist port to the next. Juneau, where we began our voyage, is overrun by these giant floating hotels that look a little like prison blocks; the town’s streets, of course, are riddled with ‘diamond shops’ and other ‘tourist traps.’

So, maybe we should just enjoy the wilderness while we can. But it does disturb me that a company that conducts ‘eco-tours’ is afraid to even mention the idea of climate change and instructs its guides to be silent on the topic. That seems emblematic of the entire ‘cultural’ problem of the politics of climate change in the industrial nations, right when the most open and honest discussion of the greatest transformation of human behavior we can imagine, is desperately needed.

Postscript: Over the next two weeks, traveling from the Kanai peninsula to Denali, we experienced only two days of light rain. All the locals I asked remarked how unusual it was, and mentioned how exceptionally warm this spring had been. This little anecdote does not prove anything. It is merely consistent with the overwhelming evidence – accumulated by hundreds of scientific studies worldwide over the past two decades – which confirm the certainty of the accelerating increase of climate disruption events toward a catastrophic tipping point beyond which the grave consequences of political stupidity and corporate greed can neither be mitigated nor adapted to. NOAA forecasts rain for Wrangell this weekend.