The Poverty of Environmentalism: II

A while ago, I read a post by Richard Heinberg on resilience.com titled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” after the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Resilience.com is an excellent source for all sorts of analyses and opinion on the climate crisis, sustainability, and strategies for global-warming mitigation and adaptation.

Heinberg is an economist who has written a strong argument for The End of Economic Growth in his book of that name (New Society Publishers, 2011). He is one of a small group of economists who recognize the fatal flaws of neoclassical economics.

These “deviant” economists have criticized the dominant economic ideology of our time: endless economic growth (the Empire of Globalization) as the engine of human progress. Heinberg’s point in the resilience.com article is twofold.

First, most people know that something is terribly wrong with the economy, the climate, and our national and international political processes. Second, most who are aware, including most environmentalists, implicitly deny the depth and urgency of the problem.

Calif.Wildfires_Stuart_Palley-20140216_06

Unprecedented California Wildfires  ~  Wired.com

As we move toward a New Great Transformation of society forced by global economic growth, rife with unknowns, it is more difficult to “handle the truth,” than to figure out what the truth is. David Wallace-Wells’ article, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us,” in the New York Times, got it right. The crisis is now and we have much to fear.

The Decline and Fall of Electoral Politics

The preference for “none of the above” was widespread in the 2016 electoral season. I characterized it as a fight between “The Charlatan and the Huckster.” Clinton was widely perceived as dishonest, not trustworthy, and beholden to Wall Street. While it is hard to imagine that she does not understand it, her interest in the climate crisis seemed weak and obligatory.

Clinton’s attitude exuded disinterest born of corporate affiliation. An interventionist Democrat, insufficiently interested in consequences of political or military action, she too often looked for clues as to “Who Should we invade next?” Her State Department was too quick to support the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zolaya of Honduras. But her greatest weakness was the portrait the extreme right painted of her as dishonest.

Trump, the certified narcissistic sociopath who deployed his demagoguery very effectively, played on the fears and resentment of many Americans in a time when many had lost ground in seeking the American Dream. Michael Moore predicted he would win because Moore knew the attitudes of the American working class. Trump’s Tropes pandered to white working-class resentment of economic and social power-loss by focusing on hate, bombast, Hillary bating, and climate denial.

You Can’t Build a Wall to Keep Out Climate Chaos

The narcissistic sociopath continues his demagogic climate denial while he diverts attention from ubiquitous corruption in his administration by fear mongering demands to “build the wall” on our southern border. His “M.O.” is to double down on whatever inanity he last spoke. At least with Hillary, we would have had a relatively stable (in the very short run) period of business as usual as the climate crisis built.

Now, after two years, corruption prevails and Trump’s henchmen continue dismantling any federal program that either protects the environment in some small ways or protects the people from damage by the corporate state and its empire of globalization. The crisis deepens from the failure of national and international action to counter the destructive forces of deregulation, extreme inequality, and climate chaos. What’s a citizen to do?

As Bruno Latour puts it in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Polity Press, 2018), we desperately need to rethink the role of humans on planet Earth and learn new ways to inhabit the Earth. The alternative is societal collapse.

Climate Science or Social Science?

The mass media continue to present the issue of climate change as if it were an unsettled scientific topic for political debate. Of course, the mass media are owned by the very corporations that have externalized the real costs of their pollution of the environment. If the real costs to people and the planet were fully grasped by the public, many of the largest corporations would be recognized for their criminal destruction of the very basis for life on the planet. Any reading of the research makes it clear that is no real scientific debate over whether global warming is real or whether the climate disruption we now experience is mostly anthropogenic. The data simply overwhelm any honest doubt; the rest is the politics of greed.

Many of the details of the deadly trajectory down which we are plummeting are still being clarified. That is always the case in scientific research. But it is entirely feasible to calculate the extent that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, etc., must be reduced in order to stave off an environmental death spiral. Aside from how to carry out the reductions, the biggest question is whether or not it is too late to stop the accelerating increase of the earth’s temperature. Each new report indicates that prior modeling of climate change underestimated change and effects. But the science is improving as the prospects continue to look more bleak. Yet recognizing the urgency is strongly resisted.

Total Social Mobilization
Seeking certainty is irrelevant to an effective response to climate disruption, and at this point it is self-destructive. Calculations of the probabilities of the catastrophic consequences of continuing on the present path can and are being made. But it is already clear that drastic changes in energy consumption must be made immediately. It is nothing more than prudent to make the best calculations possible now and take every action necessary to stave off catastrophic climate disruption and societal collapse. Most climate scientists know that, but they are in no position to initiate drastic societal actions more massive than the greatest mobilizations of humanity ever attempted. Climate science describes our condition, but it cannot give us answers about how to mobilize humanity to save itself and the planet.

The present situation is an interesting contrast with the U.S. mobilization as the nation entered World War II. Automotive factories were converted to production of military tanks in a matter of weeks. New fighter aircraft were designed and put into production in a couple of months. Most importantly, the society and virtually the entire population put itself on a “war footing” almost immediately. Today, the difference is that this time the scale of mobilization necessary is just as comprehensive but many orders of magnitude greater in scale than that impressive social transformation. The same level of mobilization must occur in different ways in most other nations too, based on their differing patterns of fossil fuel consumption.

The Political Impasse
The impasse is rather obvious. Because of the central control of information and culture by the corporate state, the urgency of the situation is not recognized by most of the population. That is fine for the plutocrats attempting to squeeze those final profits from the dying growth economy, but it cannot last for long. If, as at the beginning of World War II, the entire population were able to recognize that total social mobilization is required for the survival of the nation, and if we had political leadership dedicated to facing the new reality, it could happen.

But we are in a very different place. Extreme economic individualism promoted by the corporate culture has weakened the social bonds that would support concerted action. Mass media “dysinfotainment” distracts the majority from facing the accelerating crisis. Self-indulgent politicians continue to collect their corporate largesse and look the other way while pandering to “climate deniers.” Presidents do what the corporate state requires – corporate aggrandizement is the priority, not societal survival. Total social mobilization is needed to make the massive economic and technical changes that are required to curtail the destruction that will otherwise befall humanity. Yet, the most important factors run counter to these changes. Even most environmental activists don’t talk about the huge scale of mobilization needed.

The Great Transformation
So, the most serious scientific questions remaining as to the future of humanity and the biosphere that must be addressed are really questions for the social sciences, not climate science. That is not a comfortable prospect for several reasons.

First, I have always called the social sciences the “hard sciences,” because the subject matter is so difficult. Most people call the physical sciences the hard sciences, but they have a different meaning. “Hard” data are the realm of physics and chemistry. Measurement and prediction of human behavior, let alone changing it, are much more difficult to do because of the fluidity of human behavior and social processes. Fluid dynamics is quite explicit because fluids behave in highly predictable ways. Not so humans. Mobilizing human behavior is far more complex.

Second, society today is tightly organized around the demands of an elitist growth economy that is in direct conflict with the needs for human survival. Politics and policy are driven by the economic elites. The only serious climate leadership is at the grass-roots level where the uphill battle is for the attention of a population. Most people must struggle daily to put food on the table. Not a pretty sight. The only hope lies in the fact that the public is not so stupid as the elites think. Growing numbers are recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis, which is now the greatest human emergency ever. Perhaps a tipping point can be reached in time.

Runaway Capital and the Necessity of SLOW

Slow Food; Slow Money; Slow Life. Such concepts are anathema to the frenzied culture of the dying industrial age. But these ideas are becoming popular among a small but growing class of folks who are simply tired of ‘the rat race.’ “Slow” is closely aligned with the simplicity movement. What do they mean, why should we want to achieve them, and what’s the point?

To fully recognize the fatal flaw of the current economic path and the need for a new direction, one really must understand acceleration. Or, grasping the power of compound interest would do. With regular savings and compound interest over a working career, a worker with a modest salary could retire a millionaire. But how many do?

For that to work, the saver must also avoid debt – especially consumer debt. That is increasingly less likely as wages are squeezed for ordinary workers who are pressured to consume more with “easy” credit. Of course, “credit” is the availability of money for borrowing. Consumer debt is a burden that more than neutralizes any savings program. The debt-based economy is a complex trap.

Runaway Capital
The debt-based economy must continually expand. How else can interest be paid but by adding more money to the system? Banks are allowed to loan a lot more money than they keep in “reserve.” That new money is created as debt in the accounts of borrowers. Economic expansion is based on expanding debt. Government debt and private debt are the basis for the profit that interest rates generate as growth.

Since the 2008 collapse, the Federal Reserve loans the Big Banks money at near zero rates. It has bought the bad debt that should have pushed the Big Banks into bankruptcy. But infused with new cheap capital, banks are nevertheless afraid to lend to businesses since so little demand remains in the economy. The result is that with institutional rates so low, banks buy each other instead of lending to business.

Corporations are afraid to invest in production since demand is so low. They use their trillions horded in cash to buy back shares and drive up share prices, making themselves appear more valuable. This allows executives to ‘justify’ larger bonuses, instead of investing in meaningful production – which would expand employment, if only in Asia.

In a finite world, at some point the acceleration of growth – via compound interest on growing debt– becomes an unsustainable Ponzi scheme. It is no longer the real economy that is growing. The expanding “financialized” economy of accelerated growth of phantom wealth through complex derivative instruments keeps expanding. It is allowed because no real restraints have been imposed on the banksters who caused the crash. The fatal flaw has been covered over in imaginary cash.

This false creation of money has no substantive basis for capital creation in real life. These financial manipulations generating phantom wealth produce no real value. The consequences for the currency will be dire. The basis for the value of the dollar cannot be sustained in debt alone. That is why the Chinese are quietly unloading dollar debt instruments – treasury notes and bonds – in favor of gold and currencies with more long-term security.

Slow Capital, Real Investment
The most important problem with “Fast Capital” is that it drives financialized economic growth at the expense of the real economies of communities. “The economy” no longer fits the real circumstances of the world we live in. It was a tenuous fit to begin with. By the 20th century so little of the world was left to conquer that it had scant room to grow. Now the growth model is being tested against environment limits. But financial growth, being abstract, is only limited by debt structures.

Today the real-growth economy is restrained by a finite supply of depleting resources and its own accelerating ecological destruction. Unfortunately, most attempts to provide an alternative world based on ‘renewable’ energy and resources are framed in the failing economic-growth model. Most advocates of renewable energy and resources do not argue for a no-growth economy. Growth is a deep political value in the economic culture. Growth is seen as an inevitable requirement for prosperity – everyone is for it. It is both the essential element and fundamental flaw in the conventional model of the economy.

A new economy that is based on slow capital is now necessary. Certainly, the transition from the economy of indiscriminant expansion to a carbon neutral economy of stability will involve selected areas of real growth – and others of major contraction. In this new context, capital investment must apply technological innovation to “the old ways” of producing needed goods in creative ways. The technologies of “labor saving” overproduction cannot work. Slow production with higher quality responding to real needs will support more jobs requiring more skill and education. Slow education is labor intensive and would require little capital – it will require social commitment of slow capital.

Creating an abundant new ecological economy requires innovative thinking and experimentation, not automated extractive industry to supply overproduced useless objects. Slow capital must be invested in new technologies for effective use of more skilled labor to convert the economy to more carbon-neutral activity serving human needs, not fast capital serving financial growth for elite phantom wealth.

It is still hard for us to visualize. Our thinking is so influenced by the growth-economy culture. But the ecological economy will be slow and both intellectually and artistically rewarding. It will focus on human interaction to realize the cultural goals of achieving basic sustenance, artistic expression, intellectual exploration, and civic engagement. None of these require fast capital, or false wants for overproduced meaningless objects of momentary attraction. All those suburban storage units will not be needed. What is most required is a societal commitment to an economy driven by core human needs.

The Real Cause of Unemployment: Automated and Outsourced Over-Production

In a growth economy, new jobs are created on a regular basis because new production expands the employment base. In a shrinking economy, just the opposite happens. The U.S. and most of the industrial world have enjoyed the benefits of expanded production and employment for many decades, minus the occasional downswings of the “business cycle,” along with some deep depressions. That is the ‘conventional wisdom,’ and within a narrow framework it has worked until now.

However, in addition to sending jobs to low-wage nations, ‘improvements’ in the processes of design, production, and optimizing the supply chain – all of which involve reducing the labor needed for these processes – capital invested in advanced production technology requires less and less labor. That is the key contradiction in the growth economy. Once labor costs are reduced beyond a certain point, buying power can no longer keep up with production. The addition of capital mobility amplifies this problem.

Capital is mobile; labor, not so much. Sure, Mexicans come across the U.S. border seeking work because highly automated production of corn in the U.S. – with the help of government subsidies and NAFTA – allows U.S. agribusiness corporations to undercut Mexican corn prices, flood their grain market, and drive traditional Mexican farmers off their land. Then the same corporations buy up or lease Mexican farmland to produce crops for export to the U.S. – especially those requiring hand picking. Desperate farmers who lost their livelihood can be hired at below poverty wages; some of the remainder head for the U.S. with nothing but hope.

A win-win situation for the corporations and their capital is a lose-lose proposition for both Mexican and American workers and the price of their labor. But when capital moves from the declining cities where American manufacturing once thrived, to the centers of large Asian populations in dire poverty, the immobility of labor is clear. Neither American nor Asian workers without highly specialized technical skills, can follow the movement of investment capital to obtain jobs. That is the real face behind the mask of “free trade.”

Those corporate elites who the pundits of CNBC and Fox News tout as the “job creators,” are, in fact, American-job destroyers. The claim is routinely made that these wealthy CEOs create jobs through investment of their wealth. Well, they do create poverty jobs in Asia to replace middle-class jobs in the U.S. In the process they destroy American jobs. And now we have the TPP, the “Trans-Pacific Partnership,” or “NAFTA on steroids,” formed in secret and intended to wipe out national standards for labor and environmental protection, even further extending corporate rule and economic control over nations.

Through most of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of economic production, investment of capital has been directed toward labor saving technologies of production as well as the invention of new products. The first coal-fired steam-driven textile factories in England and Scotland required many workers to maintain the machinery which did absorb some of the farmers driven off their land by the “enclosures” which were part of the first stage of industrialized agriculture. Most of the rest were encouraged to emigrate to Australia, the U.S., or Canada, where expansion into native lands provided new opportunities for workers displaced by the new industrial technology.

The industrial age has been characterized by continued economic growth. That growth absorbed most of the labor lost to automation of industrial processes. We are now at the end of that phase of the growth economy. Despite denials from the industrial and financial elites, the age of economic growth is ending. Converging crises of finance, resource depletion, accelerated climate disruption with increasingly costly expansion of fossil-fuel production, under-funded over-consumption sustained only by increased debt, and even greater over-production, make it inevitable.

Classical economics, the propaganda tool of industrial capital, sustains the illusion of endless growth. But it fails to recognize environmental reality. A new economics that faces ecological limits must assume curtailed fossil-fueled production and reliance on human labor for two reasons. First, no economy works without circulating its money. Wages are necessary for workers to purchase goods and services produced by other workers. Second, an adequately rapid withdrawal from fossil-fuel addiction will require converting many processes from capital-intensive to labor-intensive production. Some might yell “Luddite!” But existing science and technical knowledge will allow invention of many new labor-based methods and modification of old ones, avoiding the back-breaking pre-industrial forms of work. They just will not use so much fossil-fuel energy. Vast opportunities arise to invent new technologies that rely on human energy. Don’t forget the venerable bicycle. It remains the most energy-efficient mode of transportation yet devised.

Techno-Fix: Triumph or Tragedy?

So called “modern man” has basked in the illusion that something like “American Ingenuity” can find a solution to any problem by inventing a new technology that will do what needs to be done, whether to replace a no-longer viable technology – such as developing a new fuel that is somehow carbon-neutral – or to solve a new problem resulting from existing technology – such as finding a new material to replace one nearing depletion.

After all, just look at the steady growth of technology throughout the industrial era of the past two hundred years. Invention has continued, sometimes at a seemingly breathtaking pace. Manufacturing, transportation, and communication have all benefited from the combination of new inventions and new forms of energy, from the first coal and steam driven factories to the latest nanotechnologies in micro devices with diverse applications from medicine to surveillance. Why can’t this triumph of technological progress just continue indefinitely?

Endless progress of technology has not been an entirely unreasonable assumption given the modern history of science and technology and the seemingly endless development of products to do all sorts of things, from washing our dishes to space travel to the moon and maybe soon to Mars. Yet the pantheon of technical progress has been intimately connected to and dependant upon the unlimited availability of cheap readily available fossil-fuel energy, both for development of technologies and for their deployment. The fossil fuel energy era has allowed continued development of advanced highly complex technologies.

But wait! What if we look closely at the context of all this and what conditions allowed such bounty? Well, we then find that most of the products we idolize arose in the context of an expansive materials science and the ready availability of more and more exotic minerals extracted from locations around the world and cheap energy to process them. Many of these materials are far from plentiful, yet are required for the new technologies to work.

Lithium, a key material in the manufacture the new lithium-ion batteries, which are gaining such widespread use in everything from hand tools to electric cars, is only found in a few places in the world. Various rare earth metals used in electronics are increasingly difficult and costly to extract as demand accelerates. Extraction, processing, and manufacture with these new materials all require fossil fuel energy – they cannot be made available without very large energy inputs. Furthermore, extracting and processing fossil fuels needed for these processes takes more energy and cash. As sources of fossil fuel are depleted, new more remote ones yield lower quality material. Net Energy Gain (NEG) declines and costs accelerate with deep water wells and “fracking” for onshore low-quality deposits. No new technology can change that.

A strong cultural belief in our inevitable salvation by technological innovation is evident in claims for particular technological imaginaries. One such claim is that all we have to do is send privately funded rockets (more efficient than NASA) to the moon to mine abundant minerals, and we will have plenty to fuel continuous economic growth through advanced technologies. Another imaginary ‘techno-fix’ is the strange resurgence of “cold fusion” a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction proposed by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann in 1989. Under a new name, “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR)” – or other assumed names used to disassociate it from the scandal that resulted from early misrepresentations of results and failures to present data to support the first claims of evidence for this unlikely process – some still believe in the concept, but without scientific evidence to support it.

In the case of moon-mining, the fantasy simply does not address the underlying problem of continuing on the path to full climate chaos; rather its claim is to enhance extravagant extraction and consumption. In the case of ‘LENR,’ there have been no verified experiments demonstrating a process for which there is also no viable theoretical construct consistent with nuclear science and no experimental evidence that would confirm the claims that it even exists no less produces vast quantities of usable energy from low-energy inputs. It is a long story of “pathological science,” where claims were taken to the press but never substantiated by the scientific processes of replication and verification. This led to funding for more research but not to viable scientific results, yet the idea still garners some support from ‘true believers’ who just don’t want to give up on the fantasy and do not understand the scientific method. A brief summary of that history can be found at Wikipedia under “cold fusion.”

Because of the short history of technological successes in the fossil-fueled industrial age, the culture of consumerism includes a solid belief in the wondrous human ability to create solutions to any problem with new technology, thus allowing us to imagine that we can ignore the (inevitable) prospect of having to dramatically curtail the consumerism that increasingly defines our personal and social identities as it destroys the planet. We have projected our belief into a limitless future of technologically enabled endless consumption, just when the material and ecological limits to economic and technological growth are upon us. The convergence of the ecological, financial, industrial, energy, and climate crises we are now experiencing is not amenable to any technological fix, including “geo-engineering,” the final hubris. These crises are endemic to the relationship we have cultivated between our debt-driven growth-dependent economy and the biosphere upon which our lives depend. It is we who must change, and our technology must be reinvented to adapt to that change.

The Great Jobs Myth and the Transformation of the Growth Economy, Part II

The pervasive acceptance of conventional economic theory as a “natural science” that gives us guidance for dealing with our economic lives is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding and making rational choices about the converging crises of our time.  Simply put, the fundamental flaw in conventional economics is that the economic system it promotes as a natural system operates in an ecological vacuum.  In the real world, however, economic policy confronts actual obstacles to its illusion of endless economic growth that it cannot overcome.  That is why the choices ahead are so difficult and will require massive social change.

The economics profession initially struggled to be recognized as a science, just like physics.  That recognition eventually came, but was not entirely justified.  Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef[1] have powerfully demonstrated how the scientific limits of economics were overcome by clever conceptual illusions and political alignment with the forces of wealth and power in society.  That has gone so far that, for example, the Koch brothers now control the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University, having cut a deal that allows them veto power over faculty hiring in exchange for monetary support for the department.  So much for independent intellectual exploration in that academic setting.  The economics departments of high ranking universities around the nation are more subtly influenced by expectations tied to financial support from major corporations.  No wonder fields like ecological economics, which examines economic systems in relation to the ecological systems in which they operate, are so commonly excluded from such programs.

A few forward looking economists such as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill,[2] and Richard Heinberg,[3] have begun to unmask the myths of the orthodoxy of the Economics of Endless Growth and the false assumptions at its base.  As we reach the planetary limits to economic growth, the new ecological economics is an emerging attempt to build a basis for a steady state economy consistent with the carrying capacity of the biosphere.  Much remains to be done on figuring out how to respond to and manage the Great Transformation to the new economic reality.  The economists mentioned here have outlined some of the changes needed, but little has been said of how to accomplish them.  Gar Alperovitz[4] has extended that discussion, focusing on nascent democratizing economic organizations forming at the grass roots level.  That will be increasingly important, but strategy and tactics for getting there from here are the key factor which is both most important and least elucidated.

It is quite clear that electoral politics are so dominated by the corporate forces that sustain conventional growth-at-any-cost economics in their own short-term interests [quarterly profits and stock prices as well as obscene executive pay and bonuses] that getting reasonable independent people elected in the near term is highly unlikely.  The only other option is the building of a social movement from the bottom up.  The American people are not nearly as stupid as the plutocracy imagines.  People know something is very wrong, even when they don’t connect it to their own economic behavior.  Extant climate disruption has already overcome the corporate propaganda of climate-denial, but what’s a concerned citizen to do?

The news that a coalition of seventeen of the world’s biggest private foundations has announced that they are divesting their holdings of nearly $1.8 billion from fossil fuels corporations[5] indicates one thing.  Consciousness can change and change can become exponential; that is how emerging non-violent social movements are realized.  350.org was initially ridiculed for its plan to pressure educational institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.  But it is happening.  A much broader movement is needed, however.

Integral to modernity is the decline of the solidarity of natural social groupings (family, village, clan, etc.).   The discontent resulting from economic individualism could be countered by engagement in the very kinds of social movement that are needed to confront the otherwise overpowering force of corporatocracy.  Out of participation will come change in self-awareness.  If [when] Obama’s absurd “all of the above” [ultimately anti-ecological] energy policy results in approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new surge of activism will facilitate the larger social movement – and solidarity – necessary for change when conventional politics are locked out by corporate financial control.  What most middle-class “progressives” don’t quite understand, yet, is that the necessary massive reductions in CO2 and methane emissions will radically alter their consumer “lifestyle.”  That shock, sobering as it will be, must lead to massive collective action by new social groupings grounded in the human interest – not individual selfish short-term interests –  so that the broken fossil-fuel economy can be transformed into a new ecological economy never before seen.


[1] Philip B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011.

[2] Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill, Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2011.

[4] Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013