For some time now, I have wondered what it is about the images of The Wall on the U.S. southern border that seems to disturb not only my political cognizance but also my aesthetic sensibility. Most of the images I have seen show it as what I would have to call a high steel fence stretching over long distances, imposing itself upon the desert. But what does it mean? Continue reading
Another in the Mad Jubilado series
Border crossings always involve some stress. After all, borders do represent the absolute authority of the state over the legitimacy of persons. Will the state accept me as who I claim to be or not? Are my papers in order? Will they allow me to cross, or will I be detained for an unknown time? Lots of young men with guns on both sides view everyone with both suspicion and indifference. Crossing an international border can be a critical inflection in the trajectory of a life.
Juaréz has become the iconic dangerous border town. Investigative journalists have written Important books about the extreme murder rate, frequent disappearance of women, and drug cartel shootouts, suggesting an endemic culture of violence. For the past few years, we traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, down the center of Mexico, stopping in Chihuahua, Torreon, Durango, and finally the old city-center of Mazatlán, on our way to a small town on the Pacific coast.
Although I had been to Mexico many times in my life, only once before had I driven long distances through Mexico. That time I spent most of my 1964 college summer there. My roommate and I drove down the west coast to Guadalajara, spent eight weeks living with Mexican families while completing our college language requirement. Then we drove to Mexico City, climbed the pyramid of the moon nearby, and drove up the east coast to the border. Then, just about out of gas money, we turned west to return to California, where we were teased for our newly acquired Mexican accents.
At the Texas border, the U.S. border guards made us take everything we had out of my VW van, and take everything out of all suitcases, backpacks, etc. We suspected that they were certain these two bearded young men must have been carrying some contraband. They looked disappointed as we took our time re-packing all our clothes, ten-dollar guitar, books, and assorted trinkets into the van. It was a degrading experience, but it was also the nineteen sixties.
Now retired, this Mad Jubilado and his esposa have begun to enjoy spending at least part of the winter in a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico, where the daytime temperature hovers around 80 degrees F, and the water at the beach is comfortably cool. We take our dog in the cab and too much stuff in the bed of my ever-reliable Tundra.
After three winters in La Peñita, getting there was less than half the fun. It’s a long drive, but we have found some nice reasonable hotels with gracious staff who accept our dog. Las carreteras cuotas are as good as New Mexican highways, with frequent clean rest stops. The peso had taken a dive, with among other factors the U.S. presidential election of 2016 – “I will build a great wall…” So, we are able to live on about the same money as if we’d stayed home.
However, the transition to a warm pleasant winter is all about the border crossing. Once we had gotten our new tourist cards and temporary vehicle import permit at the aduana (customs) checkpoint on the highway south of Juaréz, we felt as if someone had lifted a great burden from our backs. We were ‘good to go’ in Mexico.
Driving through Juaréz is much like driving through Los Angeles, Albuquerque, or any other large U.S. city. Its violent reputation is not visible in the direct experience of driving through mid-day, heading south toward Chihuahua. Everything seemed quite mundane. Yet, the world is changing in very dangerous ways far more rapidly than most of us are aware or will admit. That is largely because the urban-industrial machine that operates across all borders keeps plodding along as if the nations they define were actually doing something about global climate disruption.
“The demographic transition” is a concept that has been around for decades, but has received declining interest as populations have changed. A half century ago, some social scientists suggested that it is the key to national development. Once a nation reached the economic “takeoff point,” it would experience both sustained economic growth and a slowing of population growth.
A good deal of data suggested that this model of development in the West might be replicable elsewhere. If a significant middle class is established and grows, people will have fewer children and population will gradually reach an equilibrium. But like so many theories, that seems to be sometimes true and sometimes not true.
What the western economic development theories ignored is the historical and contemporary processes of intercontinental exploitation of colonialism, then imperialism. The economic and military domination by Europe and North America short-circuited the development dynamic in the Global South. The industrially developed nations of the Global North have consistently extracted resources from the not so developed nations of the Global South.
The robust development of Europe and North America both depended upon and caused the underdevelopment of the Global South. So-called “developing” nations remained underdeveloped and dependent for revenue, usually from underpriced commodity sales and politically incurred debt, on the developed nations. The theory of economic takeoff falls apart under conditions of political and economic dependency that resulted from historical colonialism and modern imperialism.
Economic Growth Here, Population Growth There
Population growth and resource depletion have been problematic issues for a long time. Several key issues come up and fade away generation after generation. Human populations have long influenced their environments. Sometimes too many people have strained local ecosystems to the extent that they can no longer provide the resources those people depend on for survival. Jared Diamond illustrates how this happened in several past societies in his now famous book, Collapse.
Despite world population approaching seven billion and evidence of resource depletion everywhere, the debate over how many humans the planet can support rages on. Proponents of the conventional theory of endless economic growth through technological and resource innovation don’t see population growth as a problem. The form of neo-classical economics that dominates business and government policies today requires endless economic growth to satisfy the demand for return on capital investment.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, see the damage that human populations inflict on ecosystems as a clear threat to the environments that humans depend on. This leads them to conclude that limits to growth of both populations and economies must be achieved to avoid complete resource exhaustion and human devastation. Global warming and accelerating climate destabilization, along with the sixth mass extinction now underway, provide conclusive empirical evidence that the environmentalists are right.
But minds attached to economic interests are hard to change. Mainstream economists claim that human creativity and technological innovation can support growing populations indefinitely, if corporations are given enough tax breaks. The growing number of their opponents argue that at current levels of resource depletion we have already surpassed the capacity of earth’s ecosystems to sustain human life. Resource depletion is real; the evidence is clear. But the facts of physical limits to growth conflict with the ideology of endless economic growth, the presumed engine of all prosperity. This ideology dominates the thinking of most conventional economists and politicians. It is no more than collective magical thinking in the form of pseudo-science.
Another Demographic Transition
Despite having reached unprecedented numbers, population growth has slowed in some regions, notably China, Japan, and the U.S.A. The slowing of population growth means that as fewer babies are born and medical technology improves, a population grows older. That is, an increasing proportion of the population is old and a decreasing proportion of the population is young.
Under those conditions, a new demographic transition is underway. The “working age” population becomes a smaller portion of the total. This has an effect on the economy. The economic growth that is touted as necessary and inevitable requires more workers than are available. In the U.S. and Europe, that has meant immigration and all the social resentments and political turmoil that entails. In China, plenty of young rural poor are still available to fill the ranks of the urban industrial plants. In Japan, which has traditionally not welcomed immigrants in significant numbers, industrial growth has stagnated. This has made Japan a model for the fears of other industrial nations with dwindling supplies of workers.
Population patterns are not that difficult to project in the short run, but demographic trends over long periods are far less certain, both in numbers and in the complications for life on the planet resulting from changes in population composition and growth. If we hold to the myth of necessary endless economic growth, we will not find answers to our demographic dilemma. We will not consider the fact that our technological capacity for production does not require large numbers of workers anymore.
The problem is not that the industrial world has insufficient workers. It is that the economy is not organized in a way that recognizes that fewer workers should be needed with more efficient production. The extant economic system attempts to take up the slack of too many workers by expanding production. Part of that effort involves the creation of artificial wants to prop up consumer demand. The world over-produces, concentrates consumption in a decreasing segment of the total industrial population and leaves many in non-industrial regions without work.
The problem is not insufficient economic growth. The problem is not insufficient numbers of “working age” adults among industrial populations. Instead, the problem is a combination of over-production of artificial demand in industrial populations and the consequent overproduction of superfluous consumer products. Needed goods are under produced in non-industrial populations as their resources continue to be depleted by the extractive capital of the industrial nations. The result is an over-concentration of wealth and economic decisions in the world’s financial elites and the impoverishment of everyone else.
All this is leading to what Christian Parenti calls a “catastrophic convergence” of global poverty, agricultural failures, resource wars, mass starvation and forced migration, and political upheaval with climate collapse. Each crisis interacts with the others, accelerating the headlong rush of humanity to join the sixth mass extinction.
Ironically, the solution to all these converging crises is the same. A New Great Transformation of human institutions will be required to align economies with their ecological sources to attain human sustainability. That will be the most monumental task humanity has ever taken on. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the deepest levels of social order is the only way to restrain the carbon emissions that drive climate destabilization and amplify these crises. It is also the only hope to retain some semblance of civility in addressing humanity’s greatest crisis ever. The only alternative is chaos and collapse. The choice is very hard, but it is ours.
 The classic warning of excessive population growth came from Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971). Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s forecasts were premature, not having accounted for surges in industrial agriculture and other short term factors. It appears, however, that he will soon be right.
 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
 The first comprehensive modeling of resource depletion, population growth, and economic growth was published in Donella H. Meadows, The Limits to Growth (New York: Signet, 1972). The research and computer modeling were done at MIT, and sponsored by the Club of Rome. The original forecasts have been remarkably accurate nearly a half century later. See Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update (Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).
 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.
 Elisabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Picador, 2015. See also the scientific assessment of the sixth extinction in Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H., Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.
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.