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.

Ambitious Goals are Not Enough

I keep hearing about what an ambitious plan the Green New Deal is, how bold and grand its goals and the programs it points to are, implying that “in the real world” it is “impractical.” Granted, the Green New Deal was a giant step forward when you consider where the Congress, the media pundits have been on the issue – exactly nowhere.

Of course, in a society where the only sacred thing is “the economy,” anything that might disturb the corporate vision of “economic growth” talking heads deem evil, “socialist,” or just plain stupid.

Policy Dissembling

Even the supposedly progressive (yet corporately constrained) MSNBC commentators have little to say beyond vague political generalities about “climate change.” The Democratic presidential candidates have said little of any substance on the gravest existential threat to humanity ever – until the Green New Deal gained increasing national attention. In the first two rounds of the debates, the average time spent on climate crisis was under ten minutes in a three-hour event. The greatest existential threat to humanity was sidelined amid regressive jockeying around Republican talking points.

Just as with the gun control issue, genuine proposals specifying how to constrain carbon emissions from the global industrial-consumer economy have not seen serious public discussion, despite the unequivocal scientific evidence of imminent existential danger. Such talk is so far away from the public discourse that is is almost entirely out of sight. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction.

Aspirations or Action

AOC and Markey unveil Green New Deal

@AOC & Senator Markey unveil the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is, after all, an aspirational resolution in the Congress proposed by its most progressive Democrats. The attempt to get a genuine public political conversation going about mounting a national response to the climate emergency faltered amid claims that it would be too expensive or that it is a socialist plot to take away our (consumerist) freedoms. However, emergent social movements like the Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, along with outspoken new progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have gained significant public attention with their blunt talk on the climate crisis.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was the only presidential candidate to base his run for the nomination explicitly on responding to the climate crisis. Inslee posted on his website serious detailed proposals that extend beyond the other candidates’ lip service proclamations. He dropped out of the race because he just could not get enough traction amid the myriad candidates and sound bites on the stage. The debate moderators had presented the climate issue as somehow just another topic for a brief question. 

The Challenge

Jay.Inslee

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee and the vocal supporters of the Green New Deal have certainly brought the climate emergency to a public that is increasingly aware of the reality of damage already done by climate disruption. Elisabeth Warren offered a climate plan that Mother Jones Magazine gave a grade of C-Bernie Sanders has released a far more detailed extensive plan. Yet, in the short history of climate science, the fossil-fueled propaganda supporting climate denial has set us decades behind when we should have taken rational action. So, we can understand why some view the mere statement of the major actions necessary now, as “ambitious,” bold, or even “unaffordable.”

Yet, ambitious goals are not anywhere near enough. Only massive concrete societal actions will give us a chance to avoid total climate and ecological chaos leading to societal collapse. To curtail carbon emissions to slow global warming and ecosystem destruction enough to salvage some livable degree of climate stability, we need to take drastic actions that will necessarily transform the way we live, as well as the way we relate to each other and to the entire Earth System on which we depend for survival. “Ambitious” as used seems to imply unreasonable or unachievable. Yet, how ambitious is the goal of human survival, as conditions into the Anthropocene turn increasingly unlivable?

Earth Manifesto, any time soon?

The idea of an Earth Manifesto reaches way beyond “normal politics.”

The pressures that diverse interest groups place on democratic institutions drive politics. Right? Well, that is what the power elites that dominate political institutions have claimed for a long time.

Nevertheless, politicians feel the power of great wealth and giant corporations every day. The public discourse is constrained through bias in the mass media. These are the forces that actually drive politics today. Continue reading

The Sustainability Conundrum

Sustainable This, Sustainable That; Green This, Green That. What exactly is the point? The “sustainability” meme seems to have gone culturally viral. Promoters use it to give any action or proposal at all a sheen of environmental respectability. But what does it actually mean?

I am afraid that “sustainability” has come to mean nothing at all, other than functioning to evoke a politically correct gloss over whatever the speaker (or advertisement) is promoting. It has gone the way of “green” as an emotionally evocative signal that everything will be just fine, as long as you do not look behind the curtain, behind which you may find the shocking truth. (One notable exception is “The Green New Deal.”)

Talk is cheap

Most “sustainability” talk is constrained by assumptions it deeply embeds in the very same extractive industrial consumer culture and practices that can no longer be sustained. “Sustainable” usually implies that a practice can continue indefinitely because it relies on renewable resources, energy and/or “responsible” methods of extraction, harvest, or production.

Open Pit Mining-in-Tazania1

Open Pit Mining ~ Tanzania

However, industrial-consumer economies cannot sustain current levels of extraction, production, and consumption without forcing extreme levels of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and resource depletion. The industrial-consumer economy will no longer be able to sustain the overgrown populations that depend on it. The limits of growth have arrived; economic growth itself is no longer sustainable.

Words and Deeds

The global industrial-consumer economy can sustain some practices for a long time, yet contribute significantly to climate chaos, ecological destruction, and eventually societal collapse. More broadly, the “technosphere” itself (the techno-industrial complex that sustains and is driven by the endless growth economy) is not sustainable simply because it is destroying the core living Earth systems upon which we all rely for survival.

Physics is not negotiable. Faith in technological innovation and economic growth as the drivers of human progress is no longer a viable belief system. Physical Earth System parameters constitute impassible boundaries to reckless techno-industrial economics. Those who live in the ephemeral world of such utopian dreams hold to their untenable beliefs, but cannot persuade the Earth System to passively accept the plunder and pollution we have put upon it. We have set in motion self-amplifying processes that we have little if any remaining ability to control.

Deadly Decisions

Continuing on our present path of impossible endless economic growth will force the collapse of society itself following both the destabilization of the complex dynamic living Earth systems on which it all depends. Also, the internal major sub-system breakdowns we have already experienced, such as in the 2008 global financial meltdown, all indicate growing system instability leading to an accelerated collapse.

A New Great Transformation, vastly more complex than the industrial revolution that started the now-dying industrial era, is upon us. Yet, we have done little to mitigate or adapt to the catastrophic disruptions of economy, ecology, and climate that it has caused.

The dominant concept of “sustainability” fails to consider the limits of extraction-production-consumption and waste on our finite. The globalized corporate economy has overshot the Earth System’s capacity to carry the ecological load of a

ecological-community-18

population of industrial consumers. What is actually sustainable is so different from the pseudo-sustainable industrial-consumer practices still promoted, that it is hard for most to imagine. Survival of the human species will depend on our ability to shape new local/regional ecological communities that embed their economies within and harmonize with the ecosystems they inhabit.

Asking how to assure “sustainable development,” or worse, “sustainable growth,” is a way of denying the fact that the current trajectory of political economy is itself unsustainable.

Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

The Climate Does Not Compromise, Mr. Biden

The other day, Reuters reported that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has developed a “middle-ground” plan for Climate Action. Well, Joe, the Climate does not compromise with corporate favorites: fracked natural gas, futuristic hopes for carbon capture technology, or nuclear power. When it comes to climate chaos, the middle ground is where total societal collapse will start.

Climate chaos due to global warming, widespread species extinction, and the collapse of ecosystems around the world together constitute an immediate global emergency unaffected by political compromise. In fact, at this point, political compromise on climate is an immediate existential threat to humanity.

Out with the “Old School” Politics

biden.joe_The.Hill

Joe Biden. Photo credit: The Hill

Biden is an old-time Democrat who does not seem to understand the planetary transformation that confronts humanity today. His focus seems, as always, fixated on gaining the support of the most powerful institutions and elites in the nation while trying to charm the American voters with that toothy smile, as if the existential threat to humanity were just another campaign issue among many.

The whole point of the Green New Deal is that there is no “middle ground” when it comes to the global chaos now emerging. Profligate carbon emissions and ecosystem destabilization from the global industrial-consumer economy have already gone too far. Climate inaction has pushed us close to some critical tipping points leading to climate, ecosystem, and therefore societal collapse. Simply put, we cannot survive the collapse of the living Earth systems in which we live.

No Green New Joe

Of course, the forces of the status quo objected to the Green New Deal. To take on emerging climate chaos fully requires that we denizens of the global industrial-consumer economic bubble must change the way we live. The young members of the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion movement know this. They do not feel constrained by the old political deal-making that kept all those representatives and senators so well healed over so many decades.

Biden is an old-fashioned “business as usual” politician. His early lead in the run-up to the Democratic primary rests primarily on name recognition and on the disproportionate attention the corporate media give him. However, Biden does carry a lot of negative political baggage. Trying to unload some at the political last minute will not work. Ask Anita Hill. His glib generalities belie a stubborn refusal to acknowledge past patriarchal practices.

Wrong Side of History

All that suggests to me that he is still the same guy – an old corporate Dem who is more concerned with cementing relations with the same old corporate and financial elites that have controlled national politics for far too long. He was on the wrong side of civil rights, mass incarceration, and the Iraq war. What more might we want to avoid? Well, his key supporters (lobbyists and big donors) have apparently formed a $60 million “dark money” group; we know that kind of fundraising does not focus on small individual donations or the interests of the American people.

If Biden’s brand of business-as-usual politics prevails and the “Ecomodernsts” control climate action, the likelihood of societal collapse and human depopulation, amidst an increasingly unrecognizable and unlivable changing planet will rapidly approach certainty. Some argue it already has.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Climate Reality vs Industrial Culture

Green.New.Deal_AOC.MarkleyThe Green New Deal (GND) may or may not have much chance as a framework for drafting realistic climate legislation. Not only does a slavishly Trumpist Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, defy Senate tradition and democratic principles to fight any proposal the president does not like. He and his Republican cohorts block anything the Democrats propose, just as they embodied the Congress of No in racist opposition to anything President Obama proposed, even ideas formerly floated by Republicans.

Deep Denial

But an even deeper problem underlies the probable fate of the Green New Deal, even if, perchance, the 2020 elections were to install a Jay Inslee as President and capture the Senate for the Democrats. On the one hand, over 600 organizations, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org have signed a letter supporting the framework of the Green New Deal. However, in what may ultimately constitute a greater barrier to rational and necessarily extreme societal action to stave off the most severe consequences of climate chaos, including societal collapse, some of the largest environmental groups have refused to sign the letter supporting the Green New Deal.

Among the refusers, according to The New Republic magazine, were “the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society. Two green groups founded by deep-pocketed Democratic celebrities are also absent: Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America.”

Techno-Industrial Culture

Why the resistance from the biggest environmental organizations? In part, these groups object to the exclusion of still unproven carbon-capture technologies from the GND plan. GND exclusion of “market mechanisms” that where tried profited polluting corporations able to manipulate carbon trading but failed to make a dent in carbon emissions, was also a factor. The Sierra Club expressed the need for a more “inclusive process.” Resistance by the non-signers seems to center around what the Green New Deal excludes, such as nuclear power, geoengineering, and market-based mechanisms for trying to limit or sequester carbon emissions.

Here’s the thing. For a long time now, the biggest environmental organizations have depended on the biggest corporations for much of their revenue. These organizations saw financial success by extracting small concessions for big donations. In effect, they were paid off to demand only changes that the corporations considered minor “costs of doing business.” Now they want technologies favoring big corporate interests, included in the GND. The biggest environmental organizations remain captives of the techno-industrial culture.

Most institutions in the U.S. remain captured by the culture of neoliberal economic theory, that is, the ideology of the mainstream economy, which asserts that all good things come from free corporate markets. The climate-denialist and techno-industrial ideologies have infiltrated even philanthropy, to the extent of biasing research funding toward a milder take on the dangers of climate change than demonstrated by hard scientific data.

Resistance to the GND results in part from the fact that the public discourse remains under the control of an ideology that frames the “climate problem” as “fixable” by conventional technologies and market mechanisms that the corporate and financial elites control. That is the stance of the so-called “environmental modernists,” who cling to the dying ideology of technological innovation and free corporate markets as the essence of human progress.

Societal Collapse

There is nothing comfortable about the most precise scientific predictions of climate chaos leading to societal collapse. Nevertheless, with a high degree of certainty, the data show that the self-amplifying processes of system breakdown built into existing and forecasted planetary effects of global warming brought on by the overconsumption inherent in the industrial era. These processes will force the collapse of financial, political, economic, and ecological systems, and finally of society itself, all of which humans depend on for survival and comfort. If we try to hold onto our unsustainable comfort, we will lose the battle for survival.

Collapse is simply outside of the lexicon of big environmental organizations, no less most of the members of Congress or the American population. Nevertheless, the facts of destabilizing changes in climate, global finance, and politics, all foretell an extremely uncomfortable near future approaching human extinction, unless we undertake radical uncompromising climate action now.