What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

How to Arrest a Bank

Seems like an absurd question, “How do you arrest a bank?” Well, it is absurd. Someone said, “If corporations are persons, then why doesn’t Texas execute some of them?” That is another seemingly absurd, though valid, question. The answer, of course, is simple. Corporations – including banks – are not persons, nor could they be. Jails are physical structures meant to house criminal persons – living organisms of the species Homo sapiens who have violated laws.

Corporations are not living organisms; they are legal sets of formal relations between (replaceable) humans, specific relations that are sanctioned by the state chartering process. You can’t jail a relationship. If Texas wanted to execute a corporation, it could only do so by rescinding its charter and disbanding it – then it would be “dead,” i.e., it would no longer exist. Without a valid legal charter, its state-approved legal incorporation papers, a corporation does not exist. Persons are not chartered; they simply exist in nature and have some natural lifespan. Corporations, including banks, exist indefinitely until they either fail on their own or their charter is revoked. But they cannot be jailed because they are not living persons.

Managing Banksterism, or Not

In the real world, persons and corporations are clearly very different phenomena, no matter what twisted logic a jurist may come up with. The foolishness over this pseudo-issue is at the root of the deep institutional corruption that has infected our political economy. We have all but forgotten that corporations are legally chartered by state or federal authority and – theoretically – can be as easily disbanded. When some (usually small regional) banks have gotten into trouble, they have been allowed to fail. Bank assets have been seized, insured depositors paid. They may be either reorganized with infusions of cash and may be taken over by a solvent bank. The other option is to “resolve” the bank by liquidating its assets – that is, the bank is disbanded, or in Texas terms, it is executed. But some mega-banks have become so powerful that they are deemed “too big to fail.” That kind of power encourages further corruption.

You can’t physically arrest a bank, but if you are the government banking authority you can institutionally arrest its corrupt practices or, if willing, “execute” it. But the financial elite today is so powerful that it seems to “regulate its regulators.” Also, a “shadow banking” system has arisen in the form of “non-banking financial intermediaries,” that is, speculative financial institutions that fall outside the normal banking regulatory structure. These “shadow banks,” along with the giant investment banks, caused the 2008 financial crisis by their misdeeds. The greatest threat to banking and monetary systems today is the imaginary “too big to fail” status of mega-banks and shadow banks. “Too big to fail” assures that failed gigantic financial speculation will be “bailed out” by the government to avoid institutional failure. These shadow banks and mega-banks have been allowed by political authorities to rule economies. They directly threaten the viability of those same economies by their corrupt behavior.

Corrupting the Economy

Corruption used to be a personal thing. So-and-so embezzled a half-million dollars from his employer. A cop demanded tribute to ‘protect’ shop keepers from ‘the mob.’ Etc. Today, however, something much more vast and sinister is happening. Financial power elites are high-jacking entire economies, both here and abroad, by manipulating stock markets and currencies. “We the people” are paying the financial elites for “protection” from the collapse of our economy that will result from their corruption. But we get no real protection. The mega-banks and shadow banks and their executives continue to be protected from the losses their risky behavior causes. Fines and penalties to these institutions are not real punishments; they are merely passed on to shareholders. That will inevitably result in the public eventually paying for Banksterism with government bailouts.

The mega-banks, shadow banks, and the other corporations they control are so big and powerful that actions they take can yield obscene profits by secretly fixing interest rate spreads and other financial factors. Like the Ponzi schemes of sub-prime mortgage derivatives, the continued and various forms of banking corruption tolerated by government will cause the next financial crisis. When the risks of their speculation and manipulations come home to roost, it will be the society at large who will pony up the costs of keeping the economy from complete collapse. Meanwhile, the jackals of Wall Street award themselves bonuses and take vast infusions of dollars from the Federal Reserve to cover their losses. The bailouts will, just like last time, be backed by new federal debt – our debt.

Arrested Development of Justice for Banking Crime

JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland recently “pleaded guilty”* to several financial crimes involving manipulating currency markets around the world. The players even called themselves “The Cartel,” and communicated via a private chat room. Brazen young “Masters of the Universe” secretly colluded to control currency prices to trade them for huge profits. Most of the employees who committed these crimes were fired by the executives that had enabled a climate in which such behavior was condoned. The executives suffer only slight embarrassment. If it were not so insane, the biggest banks in the world “pleading guilty” would be as absurdly amusing as putting a bank in jail.

Less than a month after her Senate confirmation, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced her intention to “prosecute financial crimes.” Yet in secret negotiations, the banks were allowed “waivers” to continue doing “business as usual.” Further, the Justice Department did not indict any of the persons who carried out these schemes or the executives who encouraged them. Instead, it imposed “penalties” on the banks to “pay” for the crimes of their employees. The combined penalties, around $5.6 billion, constitute a loss for shareholders, but mean nothing to the bonus-bloated executives and are a drop in the bucket compared to their multi-billion dollar schemes.

How do you arrest a bank? It’s really a simple matter of justice. Indict and prosecute the actual criminals, including the responsible executives, and “resolve” the corporation – in effect, execute it, terminate it. Distribute its assets to more deserving institutions such as local and regional banks that serve the financial needs of the nation. Assign the losses to the perpetrators, not the public. “If a bank is ‘too big to fail,’ says Bernie Sanders it is too big to exist.” Of course, none of this is likely to happen under current political conditions. But the banking crisis is one element in the converging crises of our time, which together are preventing us from responding to the very processes that are leading to societal as well as climate collapse.
* Michael Corkery and Ben Protess, “Rate rigging makes felons of top banks; 4 fined $5B.” The New York Times. [reprinted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, May 21, 2015, p. A-1]

Magical Thinking: It’s Everywhere and Getting More Dangerous

We all labor under certain illusions, some modest and minor, others enormously majestic. Social illusions have always been with us. We tend to think of the myths of “primitive” peoples as illusions and our own beliefs as facts. But that may be the biggest illusion of all. Some of what at first appear to be outlandish illusions turn out to be, on further investigation, valid and useful. Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein come to mind. Their scientific theories were at first dismissed as blasphemous or absurd.

Illusions, Then and Now
For millennia, human groups have labored on the basis of illusions, myths, or stories. Such stories gave them a conceptual framework for making decisions about their lives in the places they inhabited. What seems to confuse us moderns is that the stories on which ancients and “primitives” depended for guidance in their lives seem so fanciful and unreal. Yet they worked. As anthropology eventually figured out, the myths of ancient and indigenous peoples worked for them in their time and place. That is because they were consistent with the conditions of life for those groups in their environments. However little sense they make for us, their structure and content led to useful behavior for the tribe, or group, in the lived environment. However unreal the myths of others may seem in our modern and post modern context, they worked in their time and place.
Today, the stakes are much higher at a vastly larger scale. Many of the myths and stories we believe are increasingly unrelated to the conditions of modern life. The social and environmental conditions of the modern world have changed radically in the last two hundred years. The illusions of any era seem perfectly reasonable to those who believe them. In more stable times, those illusions were relatively stable over time and were consistent with the conditions under which people lived. When they were not, the group that held them in spite of changing conditions died off because their myths failed to lead to the decisions needed for survival.
That’s pretty much where we find ourselves today, except that the scope and depth of changing conditions are worldwide and “mission critical” for human survival. The scary part is that we may very well be wandering down the same path to collapse as the societies of the past that failed to respond to changed conditions because they insisted on holding to the beliefs they had always felt comfortable with.

Science and Magical Thinking
We are very proud of our science, technology, and exploitation of fossil fuel energy, which have produced the conditions and conveniences of modern life. The exploitation of fossil-fuel energy has allowed an overabundance of new and entertaining products the world has never before known. We pride ourselves on our reasoning, our “rationality.” But in many ways such pride rests on illusions that can kill us.
Then there are the utterly foolish notions of those anti-scientists such as Senator James Inhofe.  In the face of mountains of evidence from all over the world for human caused global warming, Inhofe declared it all “the greatest hoax.” Inhofe’s magical thinking is, of course, closely tied to the oil and gas interests that support him.
The very science and technology that has for a very short historical period allowed us to live in relative luxury, have produced conditions that are disrupting the earth systems upon which we rely. But our industrial culture has failed to inform us of the dangerous environmental and social trends that have resulted from our extractive massive-waste producing economy.
Instead, the most important element of science itself, skepticism, has been suppressed by the culture of consumerism brought on by the economic domination of society by the corporate state. It is relatively easy to manipulate a population that is mostly unable to engage in critical thinking by encouraging and directing magical thinking. One of the key components of magical thinking is the ignoring of evidence – the Inhofe syndrome. In contrast, critical thinking is attuned to the many forms of illusions that marketers use to convince us to buy buy buy – both products and politics. Reasoning on the basis of evidence overcomes the untruths of magical thinking.

The Growing Danger of Magical Thinking
Magical thinking results from the capacity to ignore evidence in determining one’s beliefs. It is able to override both facts and logic in order to arrive at a comfortable belief that relieves the believer of the responsibility to critically judge all claims to knowledge. Magical thinking overrides facts and ignores logic in order to retain the comfort of believing that, for example, dire circumstances that may require us to make difficult decisions simply do not exist. We don’t want global warming to disrupt climate, damage crops, raise the sea level, and cause long term droughts, or produce resource wars, etc., etc. It is easy to ignore ominous facts if you allow magical thinking to shape your beliefs. The relief from responsibility is a powerful unconscious motivator.
The short term economic interests of some giant corporations are for people to not believe the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption. Exxon-Mobil paid the same marketing and public relations propagandists that had helped the tobacco industry deny the harm done by cigarettes, to plant all sorts of “climate denial” disinformation in the mass media. Continued magical thinking resulting in “climate denial” puts us all at grave risk.

Two Kinds of Development

When we think of “development,” it is usually about economic development of the so-called “developing nations,” that is, nations whose economies have not caught up with the “advanced” industrial nations of North America and Europe. Without question, the most advanced technology and its application to the full range of industrial processes, from extraction to product delivery is “Western” in that sense. Of course, some Asian nations are right up there in technology if not in its deployment into their own economies. Then there are the rest of the nations, trying to “catch up.” But if you look at the world with those Western rose-colored glasses removed, another picture emerges.

  • First, the assumptions of progress through economic growth are failing. Only the most complex, most powerful, biggest, and “nano” technologies are considered “advanced.” Simpler “appropriate technologies,” though increasingly necessary, are not even considered by the endless-growth model of development.
  • Second, the ‘view from the West’ is shaped by a Euro-centric perspective, the latest iteration of the racism of colonial and imperial times. Any people whose culture does not value the most complex technologies of growth economies and most powerful large-scale organizations is considered “backward.”
  • Third, the conventional framework of thinking about ‘development’ turns out to be unsustainable in context of what we now know about the relationship of humanity to the changing planet. Sure, the less industrially advanced nations are more and more caught up in the same mindset, but that will not make it viable any longer than if only westerners thought in these ways.
  • At the same time, growing elements of civil society around the world are recognizing that the onslaught of Western industrialization may very well not be the best solution for shaping their future, especially, for example, where the invasion of GMO seed and industrial fertilizer products not only destroy native seed stocks, but bankrupt indigenous farmers. The many other examples of destructive development could fill a book.

The kind of development of a nation’s economy driven by industrial capital rather than social need or necessity, was once envisioned as the wave of a bright future for mankind, but it cannot survive much longer. It will implode as it destroys its host. Yet, a core strategy used by international industrial capital to capture markets is to draw developing nations into relations of financial and trade dependency which require continued resource extraction/export and importing the products and “services” of the industrial nations.

The development of new forms of social-economic organization for civil society is as necessary as it is desirable for the future of humans on the planet. Creative indigenous ecologically sound development must replace destructive corporate development. To move along a path of creative self-determination requires first escaping from the traps set by the Monsantos of this world. It also requires recognition that following the old path of Western development has already become unworkable. India comes to mind as a major victim of this dilemma. Some of the most politically powerful corporations there are driving indigenous farmers off the land (with the military’s help) to establish giant industrial and extractive projects that cannot sustain the population but will make those corporations very rich in the short term of their ecological destruction.

Systems in place tend to stay in place until conditions or trends force them to change. Western efforts to “develop” the non-western nations have extracted great value for corporate predators, leaving death and destruction of indigenous peoples and ecologies in their wake. Scientific knowledge of the unsustainable future of such “development” has grown quite certain in recent years, but the forces of conventional development for the sake of economic system growth for corporate profit, not social development, are quite committed to their path.

Today, both changing environmental conditions and rapidly emerging requirements for human survival demand the kinds of change in the social order that have barely even been imagined until now. Many possibilities must be discussed that have yet to be tried at any significant scale.

The future survival of peoples around the world will more and more depend upon their ability to wean themselves off imperial dependencies and develop social and economic relations internally that reflect a viable bond to their local environments. Ironically, if they make such a break, their success will become a model for the peoples of the fading industrial nations. That is what human survival in the coming decades will be about.

Collapse: Converging Crises and the American Oligarchs

Two new studies now being reported converge in frightening ways with the most recent data on climate disruption. Their results reflect the growing likelihood that the converging crises of economy, social justice, and ecology will lead to the collapse of civilization and even the sixth mass extinction. (Kolbert, 2014)

First, Gillens and Page (2014) studied empirical records in the period from 1981 through 2010, and showed that the outcomes of national policy debates have had almost no relationship to the preferences of the general population, but are highly correlated with the interests of economic elites; the obvious inference is that we live in an oligarchy with the trappings of formal democracy – not exactly news. But previous research results were mixed and did not settle which model of political process is valid. The researchers found that the opinions of citizens of median income and lower have had no bearing on social policy outcomes. But the interests of economic elites (who happen to fund most of politics) are clearly reflected in law and policy. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, oligarchs rule, and like the Russian oligarchs, many are ruthless.

Second, a new study of the dynamics between human activity and nature, using mathematical models based on historical examples, predicts the collapse of civilizations when economic stratification or ecological strain surpass carrying capacity. Either economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse. Together, well… But collapse can be avoided if a sustainable rate of resource use is achieved and if resources are distributed equitably, so that carrying capacity is not exceeded. (Motesharrei, et al, 2014) Industrial societies today, especially the U.S., have fundamentally failed to even work seriously to find a path to either economic equity or ecological sustainability as climate chaos fast approaches. (Politically motivated public gestures of little substance don’t really count.)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports gently urge an accelerated response to climate disruption because the indicators continue to accelerate. But with lags before effects of emissions are observed and felt, and positive feedback loops accelerate – dark arctic seas absorb much more solar radiation than reflective ice sheets – we are surely approaching a tipping point where mitigation efforts will not be enough and adaptation sufficient for survival will be nearly impossible. Like all previous reports, current assessments underestimate the urgency of accelerating climate disruption.

We are in a multi-faceted trap. The oligarchs continue to grab all they can, ignoring the signs of the end of the wealth they so desperately want to control. The corporate media continue to ignore the obvious, slowing public awareness of the immediacy of the human existential crises. And as the politicians are locked into their self-aggrandizing roles as the agents of the oligarchs, the people have no say over political decisions that affect human survival.

The economic-growth machine and its ideology grind on with full political support from the agents of oligarchy (congress and president) as if the old normal still applies. Interestingly, when we look at historical examples of the collapse of civilizations, such as the Maya and the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond, it is clear that collapse was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from the failure of elites to adapt social behavior to changing conditions of climate and/or ecology as they continued down their paths of self-glorification. The difference today is that it is no longer some small ecological niche that is disrupted; it is the entire planet.

Only massive public mobilization and rapid reorganization leading to ecologically viable and equitable economics has a chance of staving off the collapse of civilization. It is hard to imagine how such massive change could be accomplished. The American social and economic mobilization at the outset of World War II, comes to mind, but the elites and the people were united and the transformation required was much smaller, as were the stakes. We live in perilous times. We must act, together, now.
Diamond, Jared, (2005) Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Gillens, Martin and Bejamin I. Page, (April 9, 2014, unpublished paper) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Forthcoming, Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Motesharrei, Safa, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” Ecological Economics 101 (2014) 90-102.