Apocalypse Maybe? Risks of Chaos and Violence

As I watched Richard Engel’s “On Assignment” program last night, which focused on the unmitigated ruthlessness in the rise and fall of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond, once again the human capacity for violence and even the creation of a cult of death collided with my sense of how good and brave people can be. Despite the growing immediacy of the climate emergency, we also see the growth of movements proclaiming various forms of violent racist xenophobia, from the death cult of ISIS to the cult of hatred and violence spewed by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.

I had just read an article by Michael Mann, a friendly critique of Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Of course, these two stellar public intellectuals come at the existential threat of climate chaos from very different backgrounds.

Michael.E.MannMichael E. Mann is one of the top climate scientists in the world, famous for his graphic rendition of exponential growth in the heating of the planet forced by the workings of the global corporate growth economy – the “hockey stick” of exponential growth. Mann envisions mounting broad institutional action to stem the tide of climate chaos.

Naomi KleinNaomi Klein became a famous journalist by producing a series of books articulating the the essence of accelerating political-economic changes we experience today. In particular, her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how “disaster capitalism” dominates and exploits vulnerable nations. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, stands as the go-to source for understanding the global political economy that continues to accelerate the climate crisis.

The Difference

Mann’s problem with On Fire is that he worries that too great an emphasis on collective political protest that links the climate crisis with demands for economic and social justice risks, will alienate independents and moderate conservatives. These folks may be pivotal in mounting serious national climate action. But they may not be so progressive as to support the entire agenda of the Green New Deal. Besides, the Trumpists are sure to yell, “Socialism!” Well, they will do that anyway. However, I am not sure that trope has much traction these days.

Naomi Klein seems to take her argument a step further in On Fire. She pins her hopes on growing collective protest against inaction by the reactionary corporate state. She rejects “market mechanisms” such as cap and trade, which serve mostly to allow big polluters to dodge their culpability. Michael Mann is not so sure we should let such options go. He wants to “decouple” the climate action movement from the progressive social agenda. He also voices a couple of minor inaccuracies in Klein’s essays, but lauds her overall effort.

To Agree and Disagree

Well, I agree and disagree with both these important figures in the public discussion of how to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the carbon emissions that are central to the global industrial-consumer economy. On the one hand, we should not reject any tactic that might contribute to climate action. On the other hand, some techniques may be more viable and quick to implement than others.

However, in neither case can we accomplish such a radical reduction in carbon emissions without a so far largely unanticipated radical reorganization of society around a very different energy-use regime. Merely rolling out renewable energy production to feed a continuing industrial-consumer culture will be far from enough change. If we look seriously at exactly how to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade, we cannot do so without dismantling the corporate state, as we know it.

We have to face the fact that our corporate economy functions on absolute loyalty to the illusion of endless economic growth driven by fossil fuels, which is anathema to any meaningful climate action. It is also inherently inequitable, since, as Peter Kalmus so eloquently explains, the structural flaw in corporate capitalism is that “…money exhibits a gravitational attraction whereby wealth accrues more wealth.” The debt-based fossil-fueled corporate economy feeds a “black hole of wealth” for the few and growing poverty for the rest. A New Great Transformation of society, therefore, would necessarily entail reduction of social and economic injustices along with reduced carbon emissions, overproduction, and waste.

Violence or Community

Whatever path we take, a great deal of chaos and violence is likely to occur. That is where my reaction to Richard Engel’s reporting comes in. Humans are capable of not only vast creativity and kindness; they are also capable of unfathomable violence toward each other and the world around them. What climate-action path can we choose that will also minimize the violence and destruction likely under conditions of growing chaos? I cannot escape the conclusion that re-forming viable communities at the local ecological level may serve us best. Only when humans unite in groups of a size and mandate capable of engendering great cooperation, can we avoid the worst of the violence to come.

Puerto Rican Jubilee

All basic infrastructure in Puerto Rico is down and remains nearly out. Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the U.S. colonial territory, whose people are American citizens, mas o menos. Maria obliterated Puerto Rica’s electrical grid, destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, and most facilities and supply lines of all kinds. The third record hurricane in the Caribbean this season, Maria had sustained winds at 155 miles per hour when it hit the island.

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Because of the sophisticated satellite imagery, data processing, and computer models of NASA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service, they could forecast its general path and power days ahead of its impact. Yet, U.S. government response was delayed, slow, and partial at best. It appears another Katrina failure is underway, with little or no leadership at the top. The president’s focus on the island’s debt to Wall Street creditors and exorbitant claims of success still accompany “foot-dragging” on mobilizing the assets a genuine response requires.

Yes, 3.5 million U.S. citizens live on the island of Puerto Rico. Well, they are sort of citizens… The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections and their representatives in Congress cannot vote on legislation. Puerto Ricans are by law, second-class citizens, a colonial legacy. They are, after all, mostly Hispanic people of color and former colonial subjects. They are also classic victims of disaster capital.

Modern empire is more subtle in its methods of domination and exploitation than were the colonial powers of the past. Vulture capitalists exercise oppression with financial weapons. One of the most important but largely unacknowledged powers of holding great wealth is the ability to use money to extract more money from others through the imposition of debt structures. In Puerto Rico, as elsewhere, we blame the victim for “decades of poor management.” However poorly managed, a debt trap is a debt trap.

The Empty Clown Suit who stole the presidency through voter suppression, demagoguery, and Russian interference, conveniently contrasts Puerto Rico with Florida and Texas, by implying that in some sense it was their own fault. He tweeted:

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..” (Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump 6:45 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

“…It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….” (6:50 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

“…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. #FEMA” (6:58 PM – Sep 25, 2017)

David Dayen in The Intercept, described Trump’s response as “…one of the most historically grotesque responses to a natural disaster, highlighting Puerto Rico’s debt difficulties.” It was not about human suffering or a federal mobilization to help. No, it was all about financial power. It was about doing as little as possible and making grandiose claims of “success.”

The bondholders who bought over 70 billion dollars in Puerto Rico’s indebtedness for pennies on the dollar, have offered new loans that would further indebt the island’s people to the Wall Street predators while contributing a paltry few million toward recovery from the devastation that itself caused over 70 billion dollars of damage. Instead, Puerto Rico ought to have a modern “jubilee” – the debt to vulture capitalists ought to be erased from the books.

Disaster Capital in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a textbook example of Naomi Klein’s concept of “the shock doctrine” applied by the corporate state to weaker countries around the world to gain or retain control over their economies and resources. Puerto Rico is a bit different in that it “is a part” of the U.S. But then, so is the town of Port Arthur, Texas, a “sacrifice zone” near Houston; whose citizens of color suffered toxic devastation by the petrochemical industry long before Hurricane Harvey. FEMA ignored it too while wealthier districts were tended to. Home mortgages are now secured by worthless toxic-chemical infused devastated lots piled with rubble. The impact of the debt hanging over Puerto Rico is little different, though owed by its government and much larger.

To rescue Puerto Rico requires that it we somehow liberate its people and public institutions from the predatory vulture capitalists of the hedge funds and banks on Wall Street, who have squeezed Puerto Rico to the brink of economic death because the corporate state enables their destructive behavior.

Jubilee for Puerto Rico

The answer, which those who would protect the criminals of Wall Street at all costs will immediately characterize as “impractical,” or “utopian,” is to declare a Puerto Rican Jubilee. Congress had already intervened several years ago in favor of Puerto Rico’s predatory creditors by establishing an outside “fiscal control board” that now governs Puerto Rico’s finances. Created by 2016 legislation called the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, it favors the Wall Street predators over Puerto Rican children’s health and education. Desperately needed normal operation of schools, hospitals, or other social services shrink to pay vulture capitalists. The island is bankrupt. Only relief from debt will allow a genuine recovery for Puerto Rico. It is time for the criminals of Wall Street to take a loss too.

Biblical references to “Jubilee” reflected formal, even legislative, return of land to its original owners, release of slaves, and cancelation of debts. Even the ancients recognized the ultimate dysfunction of excessive accumulation and concentration of wealth by the few and unbearable debt of the many, for the larger society. The combination of extreme wealth, computational technology, and political influence, has produced equally extreme inequities in the final phases of the industrial era. Puerto Rio’s plight epitomizes this process.

“Babylonian kings … occasionally issued decrees for the cancellation of debts and/or the return of the people to the lands they had sold. Such ‘clean slate’ decrees were intended to redress the tendency of debtors, in ancient societies, to become hopelessly in debt to their creditors, thus accumulating most of the arable land into the control of a wealthy few.” (See Wikipedia for a brief description of these ancient practices.) That is the exact position of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory today.

The oppressive debt structure that Puerto Rico endures, demonstrates that there are no bounds to the rapaciousness of the modern creditors of nations. Puerto Rica’s marginal status – not quite a nation, not quite a U.S. state – makes it even more vulnerable, especially with the congressional collusion with the powerful Wall Street financial interests that enrich themselves through the suffering of millions. The history of our debt-based economy is a sorted one. It has produced great wealth and great poverty.

Economies do not have to be debt-based, but the power of the super-rich has forced the model of debt-funded economic growth upon most of the world. It cannot last, for very physical reasons having to do with resource depletion as well as ecological and climate destabilization. Harvey, Irma, and Maria reflect both normal weather patterns and their intensification by warmer seas resulting from global warming, which jacks up the energy and destructiveness of storms. And, this is only the beginning.

A Puerto Rican Jubilee is the only chance for the people of the island to rebuild and live on. Otherwise, mass migration may ensue. A number of scientists have studied the emerging risks of chaos and conflict when mass migrations respond to intolerable environmental conditions. Armed conflicts (such as in Syria) become more likely. Many great changes are in store for us all.

The sooner we recognize the mess the fossil-fueled societies have caused, the sooner we can mitigate them and adapt to the damaging effects already “in the pipeline.” In that sense, Puerto Rico could be a test case, an opportunity to rebuild in an ecologically sound way that will not contribute to the worsening climate destabilization we now experience. A Puerto Rican Jubilee would have to be a first step in establishing a model for the ecological communities necessary for human survival. The more likely “business as usual” course portends even greater disasters, mass migrations, food insecurity, suffering, and armed conflict around the world.