Transparency, Transgressions, Bots, Trolls and Hackers

Today, we live in a world of illusion more than ever before. We cannot be certain where much of the ‘information’ we are exposed to comes from or how accurate it may be. The lie is the new normal. Deception has grown as politicians and corporate CEOs ignore calls for transparency. We must do our own research, but most do not have the resources, skills, or time.

As is clearer by the day, some yet unknown level of influence by Russian bots, trolls, and hacks of U.S. electoral computing networks and political email may have tipped the electoral balance in 2016. “Fake news,” political opinion, and facts are routinely conflated in attempts to control the public perceptions of the increasingly difficult problems we face. Deception dominates discussion. Discerning thoughts do not.

It is easy to become paranoid under the conditions we now face. The role of a “free press” is to question authority as well as any other claims to truth. News operations should challenge opinion with facts to lead where they may. More often broadcasters merely report conflicting opinions as if facts do not matter. Only a few good investigative reporters remain and judges threaten them with jail if they do not reveal their sources of evidence of official transgressions or institutional corruption. Whistle blowers have no protection in the new security state.

Reality Show Trumps Reality

The president attacks all major media, from CNN to the New York Times, as “fake news,” never bothering to substantiate his claims with any evidence whatsoever. His fawning ‘supporters’ simply believe whatever he says. That is relatively easy for those unable to engage in critical thinking. Too many naively believe in the empty loftiness of “Make America Great Again,” as an easy rhetorical remedy for their very real pain. Trumpist spin-doctors conflate political leaks of administrative transgressions with national security threats.

Nostalgia for an imaginary past that never was nor ever will be is no basis for public policy. Neither should empty rhetoric that frames the propagation of delusions in flag-waving sleight of hand, claiming to produce jobs while stealing the commonwealth for the oligarchs. Taking deregulation to the extreme while pushing for vast tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting deeply into healthcare on the backs of under- and unemployed Americans reflects the accelerating trend toward complete oligarchy.

Tilting Toward Collapse

There will be no job-growth in a nation that has collapsed under the weight of rising sea levels, extreme draught, flash floods, failed crops, resource exhaustion, and superstorms – not to mention top-down corruption. Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer was longtime chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air Program. He was also an early force in the U.N. efforts to track climate change caused by global warming. Oppenheimer recently estimated that our chances for staying under the maximum two degrees of global warming called for in the Paris Climate Accords, are now less than 10 Percent. Many agree that the maximum to avoid catastrophic climate change is 1.5 degrees.

Our shrinking probability of success in meeting minimal emissions reductions to avoid climate chaos has resulted primarily from the imposition of intellectual dishonesty upon the public discourse. On top of that, various efforts to take collective action contrary to the interests of the fossil-fuel industry have faced attacks on all fronts. Massive funding of front groups and state legislation opposing climate action by the Koch brothers, the use of bots and trolls to influence elections, and the avoidance of transparency in corporate and governmental actions, all contribute to an atmosphere of fear and illusion, stifling rational action.

A website set up to help consumers choose low-emissions based products within their zip codes to reduce their carbon footprint and save money was attacked by what appeared to be Russian bots and trolls, severely damaging communications with its users and prospects. Expensive security upgrades became necessary. Its efforts to recover the losses and expand its services, the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign of A Parallel World were stifled, apparently by trolls working in the interests of fossil energy.

More and more, a Trumpist federal administration and the propagandists it enables have taken control of the public discourse. They make every effort to stifle dissent and thwart efforts to counter the destruction of the fossil-fueled industrial economy.

Eminent Reasoning

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular articulate astrophysicist with a growing media presence, offers an extremely important four-minute video on “Science in America”

Neil.deGrasse.Tyson_Brainpickings

Neil deGrasse Tyson  ~ Source: Brainpickings.org

containing, in his words, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” It is all about finding truth in the face of emotional, ideological, and delusional denial of facts in order to avoid the difficult political decisions that are necessary to solve the monumental problems we face today. His clear common-sense approach to explaining the role science has played, demonstrates how it more than ever needs to play a central role in salvaging progress for American civilization. Please watch it and tell me what you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overarching Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Breakthroughs 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment:

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

False Hopes and Disingenuous Agreements: COP21 and Climate Catastrophe

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

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

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

Denial as Affirmation

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

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

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

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

Affirmation Diverting Attention to Wrong Policies

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

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

Right Action Threatens Corporatism, and Must

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

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

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

_________

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

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

The Ideology of Predatory Capital: Social Illusions and Planetary Reality

With the fall of the Soviet Union and various other communist states, the victory of capitalism seemed assured. Ronald Reagan took on a God-like aura, anointed by Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” affirmed that there was no such thing as “society,” and there was no alternative to unfettered growth of neo-liberal capitalism. All was well in the West, or so it was said.

Now, all sorts of things were possible with the “peace dividend.” The triumph of American Individualism over Soviet totalitarianism was expected to yield huge savings resulting from the end of the arms race that had been required by the “cold war.” Yet, somewhere on the way to peace and prosperity, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us against, just kept growing bigger and bigger. We were warned against potential new forms of conflict for which we must be prepared.

That growth relentlessly consumed more and more of the federal budget. The pursuit of military goals to assure the continued supply of energy from the Middle East left little money for “domestic programs” throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The pursuit of endless wars of choice into the twenty-first century created widespread international resentments. “Freedom fighters” in their own minds, growing numbers of “terrorists” and “insurgents” defended against indiscriminant U.S. invasions and occupations. Such groups grew much more rapidly than they ever had before nine-eleven. The costs of these military adventures have been mostly off-budget, yet have continued to bloat the national debt, their funding appropriated from nowhere. Meanwhile the congress continues to focus on cutting corporate taxes and domestic programs and subsidizing fossil-fuel extractive industry. Small government for the people, big government for the Empire.

The Ideology of Economic and Military Predation

In tandem with aggressive U.S. foreign policy, the growing dominance of neo-liberal economics – formerly called “Laisse Faire” – meant increasing control of the U.S. economy by international corporations. So called “free markets” and “free trade” operated as ideological cover for ever-increasing corporate domination of both domestic and international economies. The story was always, let individual entrepreneurs and small businessmen – the mythical “job creators” – be freed of government regulation and Adam Smith’s “indivisible hand” will assure the best outcome for all. But the hard economic reality has been quite different.

Capitalist economies work best for their people when markets are regulated to control the worst excesses of the power of capital itself. The free-market ideologists carefully neglect to admit to the power of power to accrue more power. The question, “free for whom?” is neither asked nor answered. That is exactly how the mega-corporations have ideologically controlled polity, economy, and society. The corporatists, whether pundits on CNBC or the politicians bought and paid for by the corporate and financial elites, have clear expectations and intentions. Only by reducing taxation on corporate profits and eliminating “onerous regulations” needed for public health, workplace safety, and the environment, as well as those evil “entitlements,” can the capitalist economy work best – well, best in fact for the corporations and worst for the people.

Of course, corporate taxes are at all-time lows and deregulation of financial markets has been fully achieved by the Republi-crat one-party corporate state. The result is the starving of federal and state budgets and destruction of middle-class employment. Deregulation of financial markets, aided by the power of electronic computing, has allowed corporate malfeasance on a scale never before imagined. This has driven both U.S. and international economies to financial crises on a scale not seen since the great depression of the 1930s.

Deregulation of production and labor markets has released large corporations from any responsibility for environmental damage, abuses of labor, increased health risks to citizens, or unfair competition. Their domination of politics, economics, and society was thereby assured. Their control of politics and the mass media have kept at bay any serious discussion or action to counter the climate crisis that fossil-fuel driven extractive capital has created. The corporate state propels us toward the sixth great extinction while its elites grab their short-term profits.

Illusions of Separation and Dominion

All this is sustained by massive social illusions about the nature of human society and the nature of nature itself, all promoted by the power elites’ propaganda. The social illusion that the capitalism we have is what we need is promoted and sustained by the financial, corporate, and military elites who benefit economically from its unrestrained damage to people and planet. The problem, of course, is that almost all political discussion, deeply grounded in illusions and propaganda imposed through the media they control, flatly excludes reality. The power of mass media control is the power to ignore.

It is not only interesting but very important to note that the illusions fostered by the power elite about society are the same illusions promoted about nature. The perspective is atomistic and reductionist. But contrary to the pseudo-science of economics, the natural world is the world in which we live, and it is a complex living system, not a simple mechanistic causal chain. It and we are complex interdependent living systems. Despite any illusions we hold about our dominion over nature, we are inescapably part of it.

To think clearly about humanity and its place among the other complex living systems on earth, we must purge the old ideological schism over capitalism vs. socialism. (It is all internal to society anyway and the ideological debate ignores nature while assuming human domination over the earth.) Roosevelt tried to save the capitalism of the early twentieth century by modifying its destructive tendencies – it worked for awhile. Later, communism collapsed from its own dead weight. Neither was much cognizant of the natural world – that would have been anti-industrial and thereby unacceptable.

Despite the limitations imposed on him, Roosevelt did a pretty good job – the “New Deal” reforms kept U.S. Capitalism alive for almost a century. The former extreme boom-bust cycle was dampened by the regulations he imposed on banking – separating speculative investment banking from commercial depository banking. The result was “the business cycle” where relatively mild recessions between periods of growth replaced the severe crashes previously experienced. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and later programs dampened socioeconomic instabilities. But in the post Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation, we have regressed to extreme risk of financial collapse and social chaos resulting from the abolition of those reforms. Our situation is not unlike the past, but amplified by the electronic speed of today’s financial transactions and the much greater size and power of today’s corporations.

If we continue on this path of self-delusion about economic and planetary realities, the next financial collapse will be far more severe and will reverberate throughout the world in the form of social chaos. If we continue with the self-delusions of the extractive predatory capitalism we have, not only will the world economy collapse, but the unmitigated climate disruptions produced by the delusional endless-growth economic system will put the planet over the brink, ultimately – and soon – leading to full-on climate collapse, extreme crop failures, mass starvation and uncontrollable migrations, widespread armed violence, and untold human suffering.

Interdependent Reality

The underlying reality of both human society and living earth systems resides in the fact of interdependence. Some elements of the idea of personal independence and freedom are important and true and lead to cultural creativity in a variety of ways, within a context of inherent societal and ecological interdependence.

Yet the ideology of American independence, unfettered capital markets, and “free” trade, as promoted by the power elites, is rapidly becoming deadly in its consequences for both human society and large numbers of living species, as well as the living earth systems of which we are a part.

Ecological Reality and Political Illusions

So, Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” or, in the European term, a “social democrat.” From the perspective of the ideology of the U.S. power elites, that is a political horror of horrors. That is why the mass media try to ignore Sanders. Besides, the unreality of “The Donald” is so “entertaining.” After all, the social programs Bernie Sanders advocates would disrupt their near total power over the economy. But from the perspective of a desire to secure the future against the ravages of unfettered predatory extractive capital hell-bent to destroy the living earth in favor of the next quarterly report, Bernie is a rather mild-mannered moderate. He would institute many of the same sorts of programs that Roosevelt did to save capitalism from itself. But today there is a big difference.

It is no longer a matter of fixing our socially and environmentally dysfunctional version of capitalism; now it is a matter of replacing the disaster capitalism we have with a new ecological economy never before seen on the planet, except in miniature among indigenous peoples. We must create local indigenous economies at planetary scale. That is a daunting but necessary task that must be accomplished in very short order if we are to avoid much more severe social and ecological chaos in the wake of economic collapse as well as climate collapse. The system we have is destabilizing all sorts of natural systems that have been in relative balance for a very long time. Oscillations in disturbed systems tend to amplify toward system collapse. This is why tipping points are so important. The economic and climate oscillations are accelerating.

It is not just poverty, racism, unemployment, or the extreme accumulation of phantom wealth in the delusional financial markets that are at stake – as if they were not enough. Now it is a matter of social and ecological survival. The living interdependence of multiple species in multiple ecologies around the world is being disrupted on a massive scale. We are only partly aware of the complex ways humans depend on these even more complex ecological inter-relationships. Many such interdependencies are being exposed as we careen toward mass extinction. Scientists know this; politicians are not listening. We are all at extreme risk. Only massive cooperation among people, neither corporate competition nor the corporate state, will make the difference between a forming a new ecological society and our present path to an accelerated extinction of many more species, including our own.

The Big Climate Blunder and Its Antidote: Risking Everything for What?

The Industrial Era has provided prosperity for many in the nations that industrialized first. In many ways it has also involved the plunder and pollution of both Body and Planet for over 200 years. After beginning to improve material existence for industrialized nations, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, the broadening participation in prosperity began to fade. The widely praised success of the industrialized nations of the North was achieved on the backs and at the expense of the non-industrialized peoples of the South.

Colonialism and later imperialism were essentially a massive transfer of materials for industrial production just as slavery was a forced transfer of human labor for agricultural production. The result was prosperity in Europe and North America and poverty nearly everywhere else. At first, environmental degradation was mostly in the South except in Northern factory towns; now it is everywhere. The culmination of the Industrial Era is climate disruption and its converging catastrophes of social disintegration, poverty, starvation, and war – unless drastic actions are taken now.

The Worst of the Best
But prosperity had its costs for the people in the industrial North. It has increasingly distorted human life by marketing more and more meaningless products while wages decline and jobs are lost. Capital is mobile; labor is not. NFTA, TPP, and other international trade agreements betray citizens and national sovereignty in favor of unfettered international capital movement. The worst of prosperity for the growing numbers who are excluded is that the poverty and pollution caused by extractive industry and international trade fall disproportionately on them. The worst of pollution is that the politics of extractive industrial technology have allowed increasingly toxic materials invade living systems everywhere.

Any real democracy would have put on controls to protect the public interest. Our false democracy serves the corporate interest in immediate profit at the expense of the public interest in health and happiness. Exposure of the smallest microorganisms and the largest ecological earth systems to the myriad of chemicals in the waste of prosperity wreaks havoc on living systems. The diverse and ubiquitous forms of industrial and consumer waste never existed over millennia as living systems evolved. So they never had a chance to develop resistance to the toxic effects of unnatural waste. Biological evolution occurs at a pace vastly slower than the speed with which the industrial revolution has polluted the planet. Today’s unprecedented rate of species extinction is accelerating with no end in sight.[1] Humanity depends on the complex web of life for its survival. But our power elites are locked into a death dance of short-term and very short-sighted self-enrichment. [2]

Larger earth systems, mainly climate and the oceans, are key determinants of the stability and survival of species in local ecologies. In addition to widespread exposure to toxins, climate disruption has also caused major damage to local ecosystems as well as larger earth systems. The damage is seen in key components of these systems, such as acidification of the oceans and increasingly erratic storm patterns. These large earth systems play major complex roles in local ecological conditions over time, and have major impact on their stability. What recently appeared to some as a hiatus in global warming, measured as average atmospheric temperatures, was actually an artifact of the oceans absorbing much more carbon dioxide and heat than had been expected. This has caused unprecedented acidification of ocean waters, massively disrupting the food chain by causing many species of crustaceans to be unable to form their shells. Coral reefs are dying; clam and other populations are plummeting. Changes in ocean temperatures are having major effects on weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina, which in turn cause more extreme weather in various locations.

Prisoners of Greed
The extreme danger of doing nothing or doing a little about global warming is increasingly obvious to most thinking humans who have access to basic climate-change information. But one factor in policy decisions that is rarely mentioned is the relative comparison of risk and reward for different lines of climate action and for different political interests. Power elites are ‘in the game’ but play out their personal (high salaries and obscene bonuses) and corporate (stock prices) short-term interests, without reference to the public interest or the interests of humanity.

“The Prisoners Dilemma,” is an exercise used by game theorists and behavioral researchers to better understand how human decisions are made in conditions of variable risks and imperfect information. It is a simple game. Each player has two choices. If player A chooses the potentially high-reward option, s/he can win all, but only if Player B chooses the moderate reward option. If both players choose the potentially high-reward option, both lose. However, if both players choose the moderate reward option, both players win moderate rewards. Ultimately, it is about greed and aggression vs. cooperation and moderation. In such simulations, the players usually learn over several iterations of the game that the moderate-reward win-win scenario works best for all. But learning takes time.

In the real world where situations are much more complex, the risks and rewards can vary widely. But despite claims of free-market fundamentalists, cooperation often performs far better for all involved than does greed. Our economy of ever-growing extractive capital and industrial and consumer waste has in recent years performed very well for those power elites who have chosen the potential high-reward option of greed. (The rest of us seem to have chosen the moderate reward option, and we are losing.) But just as in the Prisoners Dilemma, the continuation of the plunder capital model of success is ultimately unsustainable. Because these “corporate robots” are captives of the magical thinking of the Sacred Money and Markets” ideology, they are slow learners when it comes to cooperation and protecting the commons.

Games are abstract forms; they can be repeated endlessly by simply starting over regardless of the outcome. But the real world is not a game; it has real boundaries of time and environment. When we destroy earth systems, there is no do-over. Extinctions are forever. We cannot restart destroyed ecosystems; we can only try to save them before it is entirely too late. We cannot rewind the growth economy, nor can it go on much longer. All we can do is create a new economy that does not destroy the earth systems upon which we depend for survival. The old failing growth economy will die of its own failures or we will transform it into a living economy that supports both humans and the rest of life on this planet. We must choose quickly.

Choosing Life
Ever more concentrated wealth in the hands of the power elites ultimately will destroy their dominance. It is an open question whether their downfall will come at the hands of climate catastrophe or social rebellion, or both. The timing and success of cooperation overcoming greed will determine the degree of chaos avoided. We also wonder whether the necessary Great Transformation of the economy and society can happen before climate disruption leads to increased food insecurity, poverty, mass migration, water wars, and related catastrophes.[3] We must say yes, turn away from the international corporate growth economy, and shape resilient local community economies in harmony with the living Earth. No small task.

Life, of course, is much more complicated than the “Prisoners Dilemma” game. Yet, games can help us learn more about human behavior and decision making. Other social psychological patterns are also informative, such as the “free rider syndrome.” I liken the Wall Street financial elite, the President, and the Congress to a gang of subway riders who jump over the turnstile to get free rides at everyone else’s expense – only the consequences of their ‘free ride’ are far worse. They take vastly more and cost the rest of us vastly more, both on an immensely grander scale: that of the global economy. They destroy the system in order to continue plundering it.

These elite players routinely take the high-risk option in seeking the high reward – but they have already rigged the game. They ‘socialize’ the high risk (pass off the losses to the rest of society). They ‘privatize’ the high rewards (capture for themselves the phantom wealth generated by their financial and economic manipulations). They do all this through personal and corporate control of “the game” – but they don’t seem to understand that it is not a game; it is a life and death struggle for humanity. Just a few of their methods include:

• legislating tax reductions for the rich;
• preventing climate action, which would cut into their pollution-producing profits;
• eliminating legal controls on financial speculation, cutting government programs that are in the public’s and planet’s interest;
• keeping wars of choice going for huge arms industry and banking profits;
• reducing government control over international financial transactions, trade, and money laundering; and
• forcing through Congress international trade deals – such as NAFTA and TPP – that legalize corporate sovereignty over governments, preventing health, labor, and environmental regulations that might interfere with their profits.

In the short run, that high risk is borne by everyone else and the high rewards are theirs. We have to understand, many of the most powerful are clever sociopaths; that is how they got where they are. Others are merely highly paid skilled functionaries, supporting the system that rewards them and punishes deviance from corporate “values.” They can retire to their high-security estates and revel in their clever success, though many are unable to quit their quest for ever more power. But their greed is ultimately self-destructive in spite of their denial and their political power. They may even survive a little longer in their gated compounds than some less privileged. But nobody will escape a dying planet. We may all lose everything if their gamble fails, and it will. It is only the rest of us who can make a difference, if we will.[4]

The most important question is whether we will be able to do something about the coming collapse in time to avoid it. That is why to do anything less than take extreme actions to constrain climate chaos is suicidal. That is also why our situation is so difficult. To wait for the President, the Congress, or the financial and corporate elites to take drastic actions to transform the growth-at-any-cost economy to a sustainable living economy is both futile and suicidal too. Only by massive social mobilization can the power elites be brought under control and the economy transformed to align with the requirements of living on the Earth. Perhaps Pope Francis’ encyclical and his invitation to Naomi Klein to the Vatican conference on climate change portend a major shift toward the Sacred Life and Living Earth story. Yes, there are signs everywhere that the Great Transformation has begun. But we must hasten it.
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[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” Science Advances. Vol. 1 no. 5 (19 June 2015). http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
[2] David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015) makes an important point: Because of the predominance of the culture of “Sacred Money and Markets” the power elites are not so much in control of the corporations (“money seeking robots”) that rule the economy. Rather, they are mere cogs in the leviathan of corporate plunder of the Earth’s living wealth. Control rests with the Story, which, as he argues, must be changed.
[3] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011) takes us on a tour of numerous locations around the world where the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate disruption” is already fueling migrations, wars, and starvation amidst the devolution of failed states and collapsing economies unable to sustain growing populations whose “carbon footprints” are vastly smaller than those of the industrialized nations that have caused most of anthropomorphic global warming.
[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) chronicles both extractive capitalism’s disruption of the climate and the political failure of mainstream environmental organizations to institute effective climate action policy. Klein concludes that only a mass movement from below that transforms the social order can save the planet. David Korten (2015) offers a transformative framework for replacing the “Sacred Money and Markets” narrative that dominates the planet today, with a “Sacred Life and Living Earth” narrative capable of producing and sustaining a moral economy in the interests of humanity and the planet.

Apocalypse When? Revealing the World, If We can See It

The Next Great Transformation is inevitable. We live in a world that is changing, and that change is accelerating and increasingly undeniable, despite the efforts of the fossil-fuel and related industrial, financial and media elites to cover up the hard facts of climate science and economic failure in a shroud of denial. The direction of that change is not entirely clear, but it does not look good. Yet humans may be able to play a role in salvaging civilization from planetary disaster, if we can see what confronts us.

The nature and direction of the Next Great Transformation is not inevitable, though the evidence is increasingly troubling. But it may reach a tragic tipping point if humanity does not change the collective direction of its own behavior and do so rapidly. It is difficult to imagine such massive reorganization of humanity. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the way we live is a matter of survival. It may only be possible if we quickly revise our collective way of thinking and act upon what is thereby revealed.

Robert Jensen has presented an unusual assessment of apocalyptic thinking, entirely unlike the vision of the magical thinkers who see themselves as the “chosen” ones and expect a cataclysmic “apocalypse” any time now, in which all non-believers will be destroyed and the chosen few – which somehow always include these magical thinkers – will be saved and ushered into a new miraculous reality as the world crashes in upon the rest of us. These conclusions typically come out of revelatory imaginations and twisted readings of biblical scripture. Such fantasies are entirely at odds with Jensen’s understanding of apocalypse.

An apocalypse in the original Greek and Latin meanings of both terms, apocalypse and revelation, is an uncovering of hidden reality, a new understanding revealed, allowing hope through knowledge. The realities of climate disruption will be, without any scientific doubt, revealed to us all in the severity of the damage they cause, including the disruption of economic, political, and social systems which have been so dependent on fossil-fuel energy consumption. It is now only a matter of how extreme and rapid the catastrophic change will be and whether humans will be able to do anything about it. As a result of the elite’s cover up of this burgeoning reality, the whole culture has been corrupted by an imposed inability to acknowledge that, as Jensen puts it, “a large scale human presence on the planet at this level of consumption is impossible.”[1]

The falsifications of the fossil-fuel economic ideology will be uncovered as the economy breaks down from the consequences of its own dreamlike assumptions. Such revelations are inevitable as the old economic, political, and social systems collapse under the ecological stresses they have produced. The kind of apocalyptic thinking that Robert Jensen advocates would allow us to focus on uncovering the realities the elites do so much to deny. That would accelerate public awareness of the otherwise inevitable acceleration of global warming, so that humans could attempt to undo some of the anthropogenic climate disruption we continue to unwittingly cause.  Because of the lag between cause and effect, we will experience the damage due to global warming we have already caused; the big question is whether we will take it to the point of no return, to the collapse of civilization.

Whether Jensen’s kind of apocalyptic thinking can take hold and sufficiently reveal the urgency of his call to action soon enough for widespread human action to mitigate – not just adapt to – anthropogenic climate disruption is uncertain. But the only hope is to do everything possible to have sufficient impact to constrain the accelerating feedback loops that are rushing us to the wrong tipping point. What is most urgent now is to achieve a cultural tipping point resulting from a new awareness that will require us to mobilize humanity to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable.

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[1]  Robert Jensen, “A Call to Action.”  Transcript of speech in Austin, Texas:  Alternative Radio (24 February 2013).

Tipping points need Paradigm Shifts: Paradigm Shifts are Tipping Points

If you are familiar with the history of science you have probably heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Thomas Kuhn describes how science progresses not by gradual evolution but by revolutionary transitions or “paradigm shifts” between “normal science” and new models of reality.  Normal science chips away at small areas of ignorance around the fringes to build out the basic accepted framework of knowledge. The new model or paradigm, on the other hand, incorporates all the information explained by the previous framework, but also explains incongruities in the old “normal” or accepted view, as well as incorporating new observations and problematic evidence that the previous paradigm could not explain.  A classic example would be the shift from Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory.

We very well may be at a point today where economics is undergoing a paradigm shift from the classical paradigm based on the assumption of perpetual growth, to a new ecological economics that takes into account the finite resource base, the ecological basis of human societies, and the planetary population limits that classical economic theory ignores entirely.

French mathematician René Thom developed catastrophe theory in the 1960’s to describe sudden transformations in natural systems.  Under certain conditions, a system will sudden transition into new very different kinds of behavior. This bifurcation value of the parameter is sometimes also called the “tipping point.”  The concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his immensely popular book by that name, in which he describes situations in everyday life in which such sudden fundamental transformations occur.

Today, we appear to be at or very near a “tipping point,” in our relationship to the earth system of which we are a part.  Much evidence now supports the idea that if we do not experience a cultural tipping point immediately, we will shortly find ourselves at a catastrophic ecological tipping point – beyond human control – that will lead to a fairly rapid slide into conditions that will force species extinction in a matter of a few decades.

What will it take to turn the corner from the “business as usual” approach which attempts to apply old imaginary entities such as “free markets” and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” in attempting to respond to the economic implications of climate disruption, which is fundamentally outside the old economic paradigm?  That is the question of our time.  Only by a rapid cultural paradigm shift in political economy will humanity be able to respond adequately to the catastrophic consequences of the old model on the biosphere.

As markets developed in corporate industrial economies, and as corporations and cartels extended their domination over economies, the concept of free markets became irrelevant of to actual economic systems controlled by a few corporations.  Yet, the “science” of economics, as well as the practice of corporate business held onto the concept as a useful ideological tool to maintain political power. But both the ideology and the practice of market economics are increasingly detrimental to any scientific understanding of the relationship of economic behavior and systems to the biosphere on which we all depend.

Tipping points and paradigm shifts are like chickens and eggs.  Tipping points in human systems are constituted by cultural paradigm shifts.  The evidence of the failure of classical economics to operate as an “invisible hand,” guiding an ideal distribution of income and wealth without political intervention is now overwhelming, despite the political and economic power of corporate and academic “free market” ideologues.  The evidence of the severe damage of corporate-industrial economies to the planet is now irrefutable.

Yet the existing institutional interests fight hard to retain their cultural and political control.  The consequent inability of the political economy to respond to the ecological crises it has generated is now so obvious as to be undeniable [except, of course, by Senator Inhofe and a few other corrupt science deniers].  Not only is the paradigm no longer defensible as a framework for economics, but its ecological consequences are no longer tolerable from the perspective of human survival.

It is increasingly clear that a massive reduction in resource extraction and a re-allocation of existing resources by means of a comprehensive reorganization of society to effectively change the ways in which we live – in order to drastically reduce carbon emissions –  is necessary in the near term.  Otherwise, global warming will continue to the point where human action becomes futile and human survival is no longer possible.