Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

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Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

Magical Thinking: It’s Everywhere and Getting More Dangerous

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

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

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

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

So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!