Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

co2_Ice-core.and.Manaloa_to.403ppm_Scripts.Inst.800k_zoom-768x461

CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.

The Politics of Disinfotainment: Anything But Real Issues

The 1960s and 1970s were the peak years for a small magazine called “The Realist,” published and edited by Paul Krassner. It was filled with hilariously funny satire on the absurdities of American politics, economics, and culture. Along with Krassner, contributors included the likes of Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey, Woody Allen, and Mort Sahl, among other respected writers. Cutting-edge comedy was merged with the most caustic of satirical social criticism. The one thing that stuck with me more than anything else Krassner wrote was his construction of the neologism, “disinfotainment.” That term always comes to mind, of course, when I think of contemporary politics. “Distract, misinform, and entertain the people, so we won’t have to talk about the real issues that matter to them and are a threat to us,” think the politicians who serve the plutocrats. Oh, so here we go again, now for the 2016 electoral season…

Candidates or Issues, Policy or Entertainment

If we are going to talk about actual ISSUES, we might have to deal with Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most of the issues Bernie raises are those he has fought for over the decades he has been in politics. To the dismay of the Corporate-Democrat politicians and the party’s national committee, Bernie’s issues poll exceptionally well with the majority of the American people. Break up the Big Banks. Make the corporations pay their fair share of taxes on their income, including on the revenue they hide overseas. Establish free university tuition in all state institutions. Expand social security instead of pretending it is in trouble and has to be reduced. Move from Obama Care to real universal health care. Vote down those international trade agreements that give up national sovereignty over labor, health, and environmental protections. Etc.

But the corporate media, being the disinformation ministry of the corporatocracy, does not want to directly deal with these issues. It is so easy to promote disinformation through entertainment – disinfotainment. So, they mock Bernie Sanders and characterize him as “out of the mainstream,” and as unable to win the nomination or the election, and therefore irrelevant. Never mind that Bernie’s issues pole so well with the majority of Americans. Instead, the media focus on Hillary, her Bengazi and email troubles – trumped up by the Republican Right as they are – and take seriously her vague and ambiguous “policy” statements that dance around the issues about which Bernie talks so directly.

But, of course, for the corporate media politics is supposed to be all about personalities and the “horse race” between “mainstream” (corporate approved) candidates. For the corporate mass media, something or someone is “politically impossible” if he/she/it reaches outside the corporate-approved idea box. For the network and cable news and Sunday talk shows, the focus is whether The Donald’s trash-talk is as trashy as his hair, whether the billionaire is an “outsider,” and who might be able to challenge his captivation of some disgruntled Americans. I almost gagged when I watched Chuck Todd pander to Trump on his private jet, as he asked Trump about his draconian Walled-America Hispanic-exodus racist immigration “policy.” If we want to know something about a candidate’s actual policy plans –what s/he might actually do – we may have to step back, put our thinking caps on and also demand answers to real policy questions. If the people make it clear enough that someone who really does talk about the critical issues of our time IS RELEVANT, how will that play out in the “mainstream” corporate media’s political coverage?

The Cult of Personality and the Avoidance of Issues

It’s time to get over the cult of personality in American politics. Look what happened with Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s perpetual war. Sure, the racist congress kept the Black President from doing some moderately ‘liberal’ things, by denying his legitimacy in office and just saying no to everything. But Obama did perpetuate the neo-con model of world domination and the Wall Street model of plutocracy. FOLLOW THE MONEY!!! That’s where it is taking Hillary too.

No, Bernie is not our savior. But at least he has been consistently a fighter for the rights of citizens rather than the privileges of the corporations and their wealthy elites. Nor can he make the change we need, alone. If the Senate and House are not turned around, he probably could not get much more done in the public interest than Obama has, but at least he will have tried. Ultimately, it is not about any of these political “personalities,” it is about the issues that nobody but Bernie among the “candidates” of either party has consistently faced. It is indeed a ramshackle world we live in. Without breaking the corporate monopoly on politics in the form of the Repugnicrat two-part party monolith, change we can benefit from will not happen. But change we cannot live with will happen. That change will be climate chaos making economic and social chaos inevitable as it becomes impossible for large numbers of people around the world to survive where they now live, here as well as elsewhere. Mother Nature does not negotiate with special interests.

New Reality and Urgent Necessity

At minimum, Bernie is providing a great service. His candidacy embodies a wake-up call for the people to recognize that the “lesser evil” will neither get us a fair society or a livable planet. Politics as usual — and Hillary is just that as agent for her super-rich backers — has become the road to ruin. Special-interest politics will never lead to taking the steps necessary to avoid climate chaos and societal collapse. Even someone like Bernie Sanders being elected president would not assure climate security. Massive international cooperation of a kind hard to imagine in today’s political climate is necessary, but unlikely. The U.S. must be not only a key player in such a worldwide effort; it must be a primary contributor of technology and implementation resources for massive climate action.

Nobody can say for sure who “cannot” win the presidential nomination, though the pundits pretend to; Bernie Sanders can, and he might or might not. Grave and urgent planetary and national circumstances constitute a new reality not recognized by business-as-usual establishment politics. But if Bernie does win the nomination, the rockier road will be the Repugnicrats’ attempts to destroy him with the kinds of disinfotainment they are so good at. It is not about the personalities, it’s about survival. The American people are already beginning to recognize that fact well before the two wings of the political elite are willing to acknowledge it.

Can We Get There from Here? Stalling on the Path to Species Survival…or Not

You can find just about any message you’d like to hear about climate change. The gloomiest of fatalists: “It’s too late; we’re doomed; party on.” The science denier: “It’s the greatest hoax ever to deceive the American public; those scientists are just making these claims to get grants.” The suburban consumer: “It’s not my problem; is the mall down that one-way street? I need a new engine for my power boat.” The corporate ‘environmentalist’: “Buy more solar panels now!” Or the agri-business CEO, “corn-based ethanol is the renewable fuel we need, and it’s Roundup-Ready.” And on, and on…

So, what’s your message? Or, more to the point, what message do you believe and what are you willing to do about it? How about: “Global climate disruption is moving much faster than we expected. We must act decisively and quickly. We must demand that our so-called leaders initiate major national and international programs for climate-disruption mitigation and adaptation, now. But we must also realize how difficult that will be, since Congress is owned by the corporate, financial, and military elites who profit from the dying fossil fuel economy.

Facing Facts

In any case we need to take every action we can now in our local communities, since it is at least possible to influence local decisions. Otherwise, enough simply cannot be done before real climate catastrophes occur around the world. Many such regional climate disruptions will lead to societal collapse, mass starvation, climate-driven migrations, resource wars, and general chaos. “I’d really like a new swimming pool in my backyard like my neighbor’s, but maybe I ought to put in new weather stripping around those leaky doors and insulate the walls and ceilings in this old house. I could contact that local 350.org group and help them persuade the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuel investments.”  Or?

Many such actions can be taken. The “I can’t make a difference; I’m only one person,” excuse doesn’t cut it. Anyone with a basic understanding of what is happening is morally bound to act in whatever way they can. Without major human intervention into the degrading environmental conditions that humans have caused, we will soon experience the most devastating breakdowns of living earth systems not yet quite imaginable. To think otherwise is sheer folly – utopian delusions that only serve to further enrich the elites before the whole system collapses. As James Gustave Speth put it, “Soon it will be abundantly clear that it is business as usual that is utopian, whereas creating something very new and different is a practical necessity.”*

Replacing Business as Usual

Well, “business as usual” happens to be extractive corporate capitalism thinly disguised as Adam Smith’s small community freeholder individual entrepreneur capitalism that briefly existed at the dawn of the Industrial Age. “The Capitalism We Have” is a massive leviathan of environmental destruction and human exploitation. It is a politically subsidized corporate system for dominating the world economy. It’s goal is to concentrate wealth in the hands of the financial and corporate elites at the expense of the people and the planet. It extracts everything it can from the earth and produces as much waste as it can get away with. Via the corporate owned mass media it promotes its ideology of neo-liberal (laisse faire) economics of plunder and exploitation without restraint. Its political power prevents any serious reform, such as was modestly attempted in response to the Great Depression of the 1930’s with modest success before being cut off by political actions of the financial elite. Popular access to the national political process is virtually cut off. Most people know that something is very wrong but are largely cut off from real answers because of corporate control of most media.

The ideological debate was never won. Neither the socialism that was nor the capitalism we have reflects much about the ideological imaginaries of that debate. I have to conclude that the debate itself was entirely irrelevant as an exercise in seeking truth; it is pointless to pursue. It was only a weapon in struggles for power between private corporatism and state collectivism. What matters now is the real system that operates most of the world economy today. That system is trans-national corporate capitalism, which skillfully exploits the ideologies of individual freedom and entrepreneurial innovation and “small business” to cement ever more centralized corporate control of the politics and economics of most societies today.

The Path to Survival

Interestingly, despite all that corporate power over the economy, politics, and culture, more and more people realize that the system is not working for us or for the planet. Sure, many see no personal path to help right the system. But many in various sectors are taking actions in their own local interests and that is a good start. One of the most important steps now is to coalesce the range of movements for social and environmental change into a coherent worldwide movement working for a new Great Transformation that can save the living earth systems upon which we all depend.  That transformation will evolve as we struggle to fix the damage we have done and prevent as much further damage as possible.  The result, if we are lucky, will be a far more humane world.
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* James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Caravan Books, 2008.

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.

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.

Two Kinds of Development

When we think of “development,” it is usually about economic development of the so-called “developing nations,” that is, nations whose economies have not caught up with the “advanced” industrial nations of North America and Europe. Without question, the most advanced technology and its application to the full range of industrial processes, from extraction to product delivery is “Western” in that sense. Of course, some Asian nations are right up there in technology if not in its deployment into their own economies. Then there are the rest of the nations, trying to “catch up.” But if you look at the world with those Western rose-colored glasses removed, another picture emerges.

  • First, the assumptions of progress through economic growth are failing. Only the most complex, most powerful, biggest, and “nano” technologies are considered “advanced.” Simpler “appropriate technologies,” though increasingly necessary, are not even considered by the endless-growth model of development.
  • Second, the ‘view from the West’ is shaped by a Euro-centric perspective, the latest iteration of the racism of colonial and imperial times. Any people whose culture does not value the most complex technologies of growth economies and most powerful large-scale organizations is considered “backward.”
  • Third, the conventional framework of thinking about ‘development’ turns out to be unsustainable in context of what we now know about the relationship of humanity to the changing planet. Sure, the less industrially advanced nations are more and more caught up in the same mindset, but that will not make it viable any longer than if only westerners thought in these ways.
  • At the same time, growing elements of civil society around the world are recognizing that the onslaught of Western industrialization may very well not be the best solution for shaping their future, especially, for example, where the invasion of GMO seed and industrial fertilizer products not only destroy native seed stocks, but bankrupt indigenous farmers. The many other examples of destructive development could fill a book.

The kind of development of a nation’s economy driven by industrial capital rather than social need or necessity, was once envisioned as the wave of a bright future for mankind, but it cannot survive much longer. It will implode as it destroys its host. Yet, a core strategy used by international industrial capital to capture markets is to draw developing nations into relations of financial and trade dependency which require continued resource extraction/export and importing the products and “services” of the industrial nations.

The development of new forms of social-economic organization for civil society is as necessary as it is desirable for the future of humans on the planet. Creative indigenous ecologically sound development must replace destructive corporate development. To move along a path of creative self-determination requires first escaping from the traps set by the Monsantos of this world. It also requires recognition that following the old path of Western development has already become unworkable. India comes to mind as a major victim of this dilemma. Some of the most politically powerful corporations there are driving indigenous farmers off the land (with the military’s help) to establish giant industrial and extractive projects that cannot sustain the population but will make those corporations very rich in the short term of their ecological destruction.

Systems in place tend to stay in place until conditions or trends force them to change. Western efforts to “develop” the non-western nations have extracted great value for corporate predators, leaving death and destruction of indigenous peoples and ecologies in their wake. Scientific knowledge of the unsustainable future of such “development” has grown quite certain in recent years, but the forces of conventional development for the sake of economic system growth for corporate profit, not social development, are quite committed to their path.

Today, both changing environmental conditions and rapidly emerging requirements for human survival demand the kinds of change in the social order that have barely even been imagined until now. Many possibilities must be discussed that have yet to be tried at any significant scale.

The future survival of peoples around the world will more and more depend upon their ability to wean themselves off imperial dependencies and develop social and economic relations internally that reflect a viable bond to their local environments. Ironically, if they make such a break, their success will become a model for the peoples of the fading industrial nations. That is what human survival in the coming decades will be about.

Putin, Obama, and Carbon: Denial and Decline

As I watched the Ukraine/Crimea crisis unfold, the corporate media rendition of the scenario emerged as if pulled from an old cold-war script. Of course, Putin, the Soviet KGB-style dictator, is an obvious “bad guy.” And Obama is following the neo-conservative script of his “advisers,” or is it handlers? But the struggle over Ukraine is really about which “great power” will control Eurasian energy corridors as fossil fuels become scarcer, as well as about the rivalry of empires. Fear arises from the fact that war is money. Russia supplies over half of Ukraine’s and about 30% of Europe’s natural gas. Much of Europe’s demand for natural gas depends on Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, reducing carbon emissions has no place in these continuing strategic maneuvers.

Even in the ‘alternative press,’ few have mentioned U.S. interference in Ukraine politics (including influencing the Ukraine’s previous ‘regime change’) to get it to ally itself with NATO, ignoring the entire history of the region and Ukraine’s delicate relationship with Russia. East and West leaning factions within Ukraine had been struggling over how to align that nation. Make a deal to enter the European Union or a deal for closer relations with Moscow? Heaven forbid Ukraine should have independently taken the best from both worlds – both have their consequences. The energy-stakes are too high for both East and West – powers, not people. If people were valued by either side, negotiations leading toward carbon neutrality would begin.

The American media remain in broad denial of the intense efforts by U.S. funded proxies like the “National Endowment for Democracy” to pressure Kiev to turn toward a European alliance and military association with NATO. Imagining that was not a direct threat to Russian borders, the U.S. corporate media, even its ‘liberal’ branches such as MSNBC, parrot the narrative of Russian (Soviet) aggression in a strategic vacuum, after the elected Ukraine government indicated its preference for closer relations with its historical roots in Russia.

It is important to understand that the drama we watch is between two imperial powers vying for control of both energy resources and a ‘border state’ of one. Neither is the least bit interested in anyone’s “self-determination” or democracy. Both claims are, as nearly always, imperial cover stories. Let’s see now, did we put up with Khrushchev’s  attempted military move into Cuba, our ‘border state’ right off the Florida Keys? Is Putin really “protecting” Russian speakers in Crimea with his occupying troops and forced referendum? Ukraine’s gas fields are mostly in its eastern half, closest to the Russian border. Hypocrisy reigns in all quarters. It’s an old fashion power struggle, exactly the kind the world cannot afford.

A large proportion of industrial production goes to military might worldwide, but the U.S. spends nearly as much as the next 10 nations combined. I don’t even know where Russia falls in that ranking – the data are available. But far more important is the abject failure of so-called ‘world leaders’ to break out of their archaic petro-paradigms of power and address the real threat to the security of all nations today: massively climate-destabilizing carbon emissions. And one of the biggest emitters, collectively, is the world military industrial complex, with the U.S. the leading arms producer and dealer on the planet.

One of the things that struck me about this latest international confrontation is its distinctive Kabuki Theater character – the overly stylized drama of its overly ‘made up’ actors dressed up in their cold war personas, seems out of another era. The datedness of the whole affair is partly a reflection of the fact that we have far bigger problems to address than these old rivalries – both within Ukraine and between East and West – namely, the imminent failure of nations to face the fact that their whole industrial structure, including their militaries, will have to be dismantled or otherwise made carbon neutral, in order to stave off climate catastrophes around the world in the next decade and beyond. They arrange chairs in a theater of the absurd.

The most important question today is not whether to immediately embark on a venture in national and world industrial transformation to slow down the heating of the biosphere before it reaches the point of no return. No, the real question is whether we have already reached that tipping point, and if so whether we can find a way to survive. Meanwhile, American-international oil/gas companies are eying Ukraine as another target for their extractive destruction, oblivious to the crisis of civilization.

For purposes of real-world decision making however, such a question is easy to answer: If the risk is human extinction, and you can’t be sure whether steps to avoid it are already too late, you take those steps anyway on the chance that it may not be too late. If in fact it is too late, then nothing matters except whether we can go out in style. If, on the other hand, it will not be too late if all necessary steps are taken, well, obviously, all necessary steps must be taken. We will only know for sure if we take those steps, and take them now.

Putin and Obama, and far too many others, seem entirely oblivious to any such considerations, as they play out their Kabuki recital and archaic mid-twentieth-century rituals of imperial rivalry over petroleum now past its peak. If the consequences were not so dire, the irony might even be funny. Of course, the consequences for the people of Ukraine/Crimea continue to look more dismal every day. But that will pale in comparison to the consequences for the planet if these “leaders” do not get real, and very soon.