China’s New Colonialism in Malaysia: A Harbinger?

Many consider China to be the leader in responding to global warming because of its shift in energy production from coal to solar. It sells more solar panels in the U.S. than American companies do. It appears to be seriously responding to the devastating smog levels in Beijing and taking other measures to curtail carbon emissions from the fastest growing giant economy in the world. Nevertheless, China continues its relentless project of industrialization.

As a result, a new class of middle class, wealthy executives, and a super-rich entrepreneurial class has emerged in China, not unlike those in the U.S. China is clearly on a path to becoming a major world economic power. Economic dominance usually leads to the growth of military institutions. If the history of European colonialism and that of U.S. imperialism are any measure, the next step is military aggression to secure newly won economic dominance. It would seem that China is well on the way to emulating imperial strategies of the recent past.

Economic Imperialism Then and Now

Amanda Erikson has reported in the Washington Post a striking example of growing Chinese economic expansion in Asia. A Chinese real estate development company is developing “Forest City,” a huge complex of “residential skyscrapers, malls, parks, and a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course.” The aging Mahathir Mohamad, leader of the current Malaysian government, has vowed to review the project, fearing excessive Chinese influence in his nation as well as potential huge debt. Sound familiar?

A Model of Forest City, Malaysia

A Model of “Forest City,” Malaysia

The U.S. has engaged in some extremely aggressive clandestine strategies to achieve economic dominance of not-so-industrialized nations, reducing them to political dependents. Do you remember John Perkins’ 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man? It was a personal memoir of his career as an economic hit man for the U.S. government and corporate interests. His goal was to rope leaders of nations such as Philippines, Columbia, etc., into huge development projects that provided U.S. corporations with great profits while indebting the “client nation” to the U.S. That strategy enabled the U.S. to subordinate those governments through debt and virtually dictate their foreign policy. If the subject nation’s leader refused such deals, he was likely to die in a mysterious plane crash or other “mishap” at the hands of men Perkins described as the “Jackals.”

Economic Injustice Causes Climate Chaos

Well, I know of no Chinese “Jackals,” but the rest of the Chinese economic expansionism seems much the same as twentieth-century U.S. imperial strategy. What is most disturbing to me in all this is that the Chinese, like every other industrial nation today, is behaving as if there were no climate crisis, as if there were no threat to the entire Earth system on which we all depend for sustenance and survival.

Whatever the specifics of the relations between nation-states and corporate economic expansionism – such as the U.S. corporate state or the Chinese state-capitalism, or any other variant of institutionalized compulsive economic growth – the outcome is the same. Greater concentration of wealth and more investment in capital-intensive economic development projects serve the interests of the wealthy and exploit the labor of the poor and working populations. In the process, they accelerate climate chaos and ecological devastation.

Growing practices and policies of economic injustice by cooperating corporate and government institutions directly causes the growing destruction of local and regional living Earth systems. That, in turn, subjects the entire Earth system to further destabilization as it enters the new geologic era, the Anthropocene. Worldwide, the most powerful institutions, both public and private, equivocate, deny, and sustain utopian illusions of never-ending economic growth and political power. This cannot end well.

Recycling Redux: Can we Recycle Profligate Consumerism?

I have been recycling for a long time. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Some will remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, mid-twentieth century. When I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties, “recycling” had not yet entered the public lexicon. I remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk. The dairy reused them many times.

Milkman.delivers

1940s Milkman Reuses Glass Bottles

Of course, this Mad Jubilado sometimes remembers little details about the post-WWII era better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity” driven by the high-tech fossil-fueled industrial culture of perpetual economic growth. We can do much more now to capture the waste of the industrial-consumer economy, but how and to what extent does it really matter?

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife planned to make. Despite my disdain for its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products available there from around the world. Whole Foods is the one of the few places in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan salmon. However, that is feasible only if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle-class income. Meanwhile, wild salmon season shortens, the fish get smaller, and plastic trash proliferates in the seas.

plastic clamshell lettuce

Plastic Containers of Lettuce and Prepared Fruit

A huge cold case displays many plastic-encased varieties of prepared salad ingredients along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” Romaine hearts, etc., each individually packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

The Recycling Diversion

Recycling is a growing industry. Finally, the recycling of plastic in Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and other barely identifiable materials used in ever-extended packaging seems to accelerate. However, we must ask the question, is such plastic proliferation sustainable, even if we rigorously recycle? The answer is no.

Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling. Widespread consumer compliance with the recycling ethic seems unattainable. Even if achieved, recycling itself is a big energy consuming industry. In addition to the proliferation of complex packaging as well as of plastics themselves, I have noticed that many forms of plastic packaging such as those holding diverse parts from picture hangers to light bulbs at the hardware store, have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Controlling such plastic proliferation into the environment seems impossible, short of banning it altogether.

Does it even matter, since such a small percentage of plastic packaging, from produce bags to clamshells and water bottles, actually reaches the recycling center? Is the half-hearted ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by slightly reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

The Necessity that Should Not Be

In the present context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, only temporarily holding back just one segment of the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. If we could recycle everything – and we cannot – it would not even slow global warming noticeably before it reaches the point of no return from climate catastrophe to societal chaos. Don’t get me wrong. To whatever extent we produce consumer waste, recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Dairy farms re-used those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties and fifties many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets in which the milkman carried them in during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction, shipping, manufacture, use, and waste. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. The funds should be used to convert energy production and industry to the simplest forms, with near-zero emissions technologies now available.  And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed heavily at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the environment – the factory. The purpose of such taxation should be to make profligate plastic packaging economically too costly to continue. What is most important about consumer waste is that we can reduce it only by constraining its production. If all the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. The consumer has little choice and too many choices. The energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.

 

How to Evolve

Someone quoted Jeff Bezos as saying that the biggest mistake is not to evolve. But what exactly does it mean to evolve? In the case of Amazon.com, it has always meant to grow Amazon by growing sales above all else, including profit. Well, the entire history of the industrial era has focused on growth as well. What distinguishes Bezos is that he was able to grow Amazon more powerfully than just about any other company on earth.

But really, is that all that evolving means? Of course, amazon developed many techniques of marketing more and more product lines, which enabled unprecedented corporate growth. One might argue that independent bookstores failed Bezos’ test of evolution by not following his business model as it evolved. But could they? Besides, we can hardly call copying someone else’s business model, evolving. Even more important, why should they?

evolution.of.Man-2305142__340

Evolution Gone Awry

The assumption that economic expansion is the only viable model for human progress has played a central role in the industrial-consumer economy. A growth-as-necessary-and-inevitable model of business success and of societal progress still drives the U.S.-led final stages of the industrial era. It also produced the converging crises of economic injustice, ecological destruction, and climate chaos that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity.

The idea of evolving has always carried with it an underlying assumption that improvement is the ultimate goal of evolutionary change. Well, there’s the rub. Improvement implies change measured against some particular value. In human affairs, that has meant the cultural value of achieving a better life for more and more people. But we must be careful in how we define better. Is life really better if we can buy more junk cheaper at Wal-Mart than fewer products of higher quality with greater and longer use-value at a small locally owned store? Moreover, widespread access to affluence more closely appears as a fiction every day.

Quality and quantity have often conflicted in our ideas of progress. Quantity, often disguised as quality, has increasingly dominated the industrial-consumer culture as pressure for endless economic growth continues. Are more and more people living better lives today than they might otherwise? That remains a focus of political debate.

Then we have the other entrepreneurial standout, Elon Musk. Now, there we find another mixed bag of ingenious innovation of significant social value and pie-in-the-sky inventions of little use to anyone other than to entertain the super-rich. Low carbon-emissions transportation, home, and business energy storage now have immense societal evolutionary value. The potential for transportation to evolve toward carbon neutrality demonstrated by innovative Tesla vehicles, with their advanced designs, is remarkable. But the sci-fi fantasy of commercial space travel, given our current human evolutionary crisis, is nothing but counter-productive.

To evolve in the most positive sense is to make changes that take into account the context that those changes will affect. At this stage of human evolution, we have reached a crossroads. More than 200 years of our economic “progress” has caused increasingly widespread destruction to the living Earth systems that our species (and all others) depend upon to survive. Humanity has lost its resilience by destroying the conditions that make our lives viable.

We have run out of wiggle room. Now, we can only afford to (and must) evolve in ways that: 1) counteract the damage we have already done, and 2) radically innovate our economic activity in ways that help regenerate the severely damaged ecosystems upon which we all depend to survive.

Creative Destruction Transformed

The concept goes way back in the intellectual history of the West, also the East.  Simply put, “creative destruction” suggests that in the creation of the new, something of the old is destroyed.  Innovation often makes “the old ways” of doing things obsolete.  Not surprising.  Examples abound in the history of the growth economies of the industrial era.  An obvious case: The American family farm virtually disappeared with the mechanization of agriculture driven by fossil fuel energy mostly in the twentieth century.

What is Creative Destruction?

Like so many fundamental concepts, creative destruction has a history of ideological dispute, at least in the West.  The Hindu god, Shiva, on the other hand, has offered a consistent vision of change.  Shiva, “the transformer,” is the god of creation and destruction in the world of the Hindu — he creates and he destroys.  Thus, he is seen as both the fearsome and beneficent agent of all change in the world.

In the West, however, the idea of creative destruction has been shaped by a history of philosophical debates about the politics of the economy.  The Hindu idea was brought into German philosophy by Herder, then used by Hegel in his dialectic of history.  Then Marx turned it on its head as his own dialectical principle of material (economic) change.  Later, for Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter the idea was used  to explain how innovation transforms an economy from within.

Today, the Austrians, especially Friedrich Hayek, are the philosophical darlings of the quasi-libertarian anti-government neo-liberal economists.  These are the economic ideologists whose ideas about innovation are used to justify corporate actions that may have destructive consequences for society.  For Example, they use “free markets” to argue that the destructive consequences of unlimited financial “innovation” — manipulation of financial markets — are necessary and good for promoting economic progress.

That creative destruction is so easily adopted by both left and right economists should raise some questions.  Does it explain everything and thus nothing?  No.  But it is important to understand why its application is so broad, and with such different political implications.

For the capitalist, the importance of creative destruction is found in the effect of innovation on markets.  When capital is invested in new technologies, the result is said to be “disruptive,” and often is.  That is defined as good and healthy for economic progress.  In fact, it may wipe out existing industries and jobs.  But new and better ones are expected to result.  While people can be put out of work and factories shut down, the ultimate outcome is said to be good because of the growth and new products and profits that often result from such disruption.  “That’s progress.”  And, of course, it is all based on the idea that growth is always necessary for a healthy economy with full employment.  The argument is all internal to economics, as if it were a closed system.  But it is not.

Karl Marx admired the creative destruction he saw in capitalism resulting from the innovations it stimulates, but he saw within the capitalist system inherent “seeds of its own destruction.”  Without external constraints, it was never clear when Marx’s internal contradictions might actually produce the revolutionary end of capitalism as he had predicted.  Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were largely agrarian in origin and did not really fit Marx’s model, although they adopted his terminology as their ideology.

The historical realization of Marx’s image of industrial revolution never quite materialized.  But the vision of Werner Sombart — that capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to periodic crises — has been repeatedly confirmed by historical events.  The biggest and most obvious U.S. example was the Great Depression.  The New Deal was capitalism’s relatively effective response to that crisis — it worked for several decades.  The Great Recession of 2008 is another — it was caused in part by elimination of the New Deal financial reforms.  But in this case the responses were denial and bailouts, which are pushing the crisis down the road without real economic adjustments.  Be that as it may, Marx made the same mistake that today’s corporate economists make — they all treat the economy as if it were a closed system.  Internal contradictions aside, they all assume that the economy is unaffected by any environmental constraints such as resource limits or ecological destruction.

The Destruction of Creation

Neo-liberal economists attempt to justify the concept of creative destruction as inherent in innovation, the driving force in developing the economy.  It is required for capital growth and investment in new technologies, which have new resource-extraction and waste production requirements.  But their vision of economic growth has no direction or meaning, except that of an irrational faith that whatever innovation occurs and whatever the destruction, the result will be good.  After all, the illusion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is still at play in their minds.

Economic theory is often not very empirical.  Of course, money is the easy measure of all undifferentiated economic activity.  But it says nothing of the value of an investment, an innovation, or a business decision or practice for humanity.  It’s about that darn externalization of costs, which is always ignored in the investment of capital.  What are all the consequences of an economic decision?  Well, consequences external to the unit in which capital is invested are routinely ignored.  The creation of phantom wealth by destroying the environment it attempts to dominate can be clearly seen as destroying creation.

Ending Destructive Capital, Creating a New Economy

One of the most important — and destructive — innovations in the use of capital today is the corporate application of micro-electronic computing power to the processes of capital investment, or, I should say, “programmed trading,” in the stock markets.  “High-speed institutional traders” — computer programs — can “capture” minute differences in price from one nano-second to another and issue buy/sell orders that intercede into an ordinary trade and in effect steal pennies that the ordinary trader would have received in a trade while the price information is being transmitted to the trader.  At super high rates of programmed trading, this results in millions of dollars skimmed off the market in any given week.  Yet the SEC does nothing.  This is only one of the many corrupt practices that are tolerated in a culture that deems whatever you can get away with as the highest value.

Only by setting human and ecological values as the primary criteria for allowing or banning economic system “features” can a new ecological economy be shaped in the public interest.  The highest public interest in the economy is to foster practices that support the health and well-being of people and the planet.  Any economic practice or institution that conflicts with that value must be destroyed.  New practices and institutions that serve the interests of life on the planet must be created.  Creative destruction is an economic process with limited justification.  Only if an innovation supports life and the practices and institutions it destroys are damaging to human life and the biosphere that supports us, can it be justified.