How to Not Talk About Human Response to the Threat of Climate Disruption

They said the old John Kerry was back. Well, I listened to Kerry’s ‘impassioned’ speech before the United Nations Climate Conference, COP20, in Lima, Peru, but was not impressed. Were it not for the blatant hypocrisy it represented, I might have been inspired by his somewhat forced passion. Kerry was urging the developed and developing nations to put aside their differences over who is to blame for carbon emissions. He urged them all to work together to reduce world carbon emissions. The only methods he mentioned involved conversion from fossil fuel to alternative means of energy production.

International Collective Self-Deception

Kerry knows that the Western industrial nations are the source of most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere today. He should also know that the prosperity of industrial societies stems largely from exploiting non-industrial peoples and their resources throughout the industrial era. Yes, developing nations are now emitting more and more tonnage of CO2, with China and India leading the pack. The ‘developing’ nations – mostly former colonies – are at the point of passing the developed world in total annual emissions. But in the U.S. emissions continue to increase at alarming rates, while they talk of making progress. At the same time, many less industrialized nations are very low emitters – they live closer to indigenous ways, wasting very little energy or resources. Yet they increasingly suffer from the effects of the emissions of the industrial nations over the past 200 years. First, indigenous peoples suffered domination by the empires that still extract their resources and pollute their lands. Now they suffer from the profligate waste of empire. Naturally, they seek reparations for the damage our consumer societies have already caused them and they want assistance in adapting to the effects of continuing climate disruption.

The U.S. leads the industrial nations in arguing for “voluntary” emissions reduction targets while dodging any legal commitment to attain agreed targets. It expects the less industrially developed nations to turn away from the path that the U.S. and its allies followed for all that time and continue following today. And it makes gestures toward giving financial support for them to avoid the mistakes we made and to adapt to the damage we long-term industrial polluters have already caused them. But little real support already pledged has yet been given. So, the hypocrisy is palpable.

But wait, there’s less!  As I listened to Kerry, I found no mention of the root causes of the carbon emissions that have already caused significant global warming and will continue to do so. The profligate consumption so endemic to industrial corporate culture requires vast amounts of energy and waste to sustain it. Look around K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, or Macy’s – and your own garage. Endless stuff. The entire corporate industrial complex depends on a steady stream of consumption and disposal of its products to sustain good revenue numbers for that quarterly report, which maintains or grows the corporate stock price. It all revolves around unending growth of production. Not production for human need, but corporate need for production. The more stuff is produced, the more people buy, the more profit is made. No end in sight; no end contemplated. It’s a great unsustainable self-deception.

The Production Trap

It is not a human need-driven system. It’s a production/consumption growth-driven system that needs ever increasing consumption to absorb its ever-growing production need. On top of that, the direct consumption of energy is a great ‘profit center’ for the fossil fuel industry. So, the entire economy is organized around a process that is in direct conflict with John Kerry’s words expressing concern over the continued growth of carbon emissions. He argued for all nations to cooperate in converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative energy production. But he did not argue for constraint on the consumption or waste of energy. He did not argue for reducing the vast quantities of wasted energy built into our system of production/consumption. That would conflict with the core assumption of the economic system we are tied to – a system we must escape.

In a debt based economy, expansion of production and consumption is the only way to keep up with the payment of debt based on the continual growth of the debt through compound interest. To keep up, the system needs more and more consumption and that means more and more waste as well as more energy production for increasingly questionable purposes. Converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative ‘renewable’ energy production does not reduce energy consumption. It stimulates more energy availability as fossil fuel producers continue to supply their product and to compete with the new sources of energy production.

Renewable Illusions of the Corporate State

Equally important but largely ignored are the environmental and resource costs of ramping up alternative energy production processes. Each has its drawbacks. Environmentalists have given little thought and almost no public discussion of these problems. I had long known of the toxic waste generated by production of micro-electronics so quickly replaced in the rapid development of the computer industry; the same applies to smart phones, tablets and laptops, and the explosive number of new devises powering the “Internet of Everything.” The star renewable energy technology, photo-voltaic solar energy production, relies on the same technology and materials. There are limits.

Recently, Ozzie Zehner* carefully reviewed the environmental and resource costs of each ostensibly “renewable” form of energy production – along with the politics and economics of their promotion – with results that must be very disappointing for many environmentalists. The largely ignored dirty elements of “clean energy” production require a complete rethinking of how the project of moving energy production away from fossil fuel might be accomplished. Zehner’s findings also call for a revisiting of much less exotic but simpler more effective methods for significantly reducing carbon emissions. The answer, though complicated in a variety of ways, is to simply reduce consumption and conserve resources. That will take complex forms of social reorganization, not exotic technologies, something that the corporate state, as evidenced by John Kerry’s hypocritically impassioned speech, is entirely disinterested in. It is up to the rest of us to seek a new path with the help of the wisdom of indigenous knowledge and ways of living.
* Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Culture Hack: The Clash of Capital with the Natural World

The entire edifice of today’s system of predatory extractive capitalism rests on a foundation of not mere sand but a major destabilizing false premise. Economics in denial seems to be driving the world economy to a terminal collapse. The most fateful and flawed fiction of modern life is the idea of Man pitted against Nature, wresting control over the material world. But Nature bites back.

To the extent that environmentalists and progressives attempt to succeed in “changing the system” without overthrowing this fatal fiction and its consequences, they will fail. Reducing the negative effects of the system is not nearly enough. For most of the course of the industrial era, the entire culture has been shaped around the presumptive necessity for Man [gender intended] to control nature through science and technology. This has been achieved through the imposition of a failed theory of the role of capital in driving economic “innovation” and production in the world. Some innovations are better than others – for the whole system.

Science, by understanding the world, facilitates the invention of technologies to control it. But the analytical models of technology provide little understanding of the larger systems in which they operate. Capital invested in technical control of some elements in a system can cause imbalances in the whole system. The industrial sub-system of human endeavor operates within the confines of the whole interconnected complex of systems in Nature, but only as long as it does not “mess with Mother Nature.”

War on Nature
War has been a convenient means used by kings, emperors, and presidents to dominate political-economic environments and all who would challenge that dominion. After all, war is the ultimate means used to control the conditions that determine one’s dominion over the natural and social worlds. But it all plays out in the biosphere. By extracting materials from the earth and forging them into the most effective tools of control, one can exercise dominion over man and parts of Nature – for a time, always just for a time. The ability to cause death and destruction is the ultimate gauge of that control…up to a point.

Business is the application of the fruits of science – invention and technology – to control some sector of the world. In late capitalist nations of the 21st century, war and its industrial preparations have become the most profitable business of all, aside from fossil fuel production, which of course drives the engine of the war machine. The sale and expenditure of munitions has become more important than “winning” any particular conflict. War, in this context, might be considered the extension of business from economics to physical force. But even more important, war is the extreme extension of an economy that must grow to survive. That very growth has engendered a process of destruction of the environment it needs to continue. End Game approaches.

Earth Information
The fundamental hubris of “modern man” has resulted from the illusion that Nature is something that is separate from us and has to be controlled. This is also an illusion of independence. Technology is mis-perceived as giving us independence from Nature. But it is actually a kind of dependency on nature. The power of funding aside, curiosity drives much of science, but technology is driven by the need to control some aspect of the world we live in and sustain that illusion. However, the law of unintended consequences speaks.

Social systems contain within themselves a momentum that propels them forward. They are not closed systems, so they need continual re-supply of all the material and organizational means to continue. Those, of course, must come from the environment that sustains the system. It is now abundantly clear that the world system of predatory extractive capitalism is reaching an end. It needs ever increasing supplies of the means for the expansion that its foundational illusion requires but cannot perpetuate. But both materials and ecosystem are approaching their limits. As those limits are reached, the ecological stability that sustains it all is failing. Something’s gotta give, and it won’t be Mother Nature.

Capital could be organized differently, of course. But it is not. We have to deal with what is, and what is cannot be sustained. It must be changed, but the dominant economic ideology has left little room for new ideas. Because of the great power and ubiquity of this failing system, a great transformation is inevitable and a “hard landing” very likely. The danger, of course, is that the result may very well be collapse into chaos. That is not necessary or inevitable, but without massive human intervention overriding the failing system, it is increasingly likely. Such intervention will require huge mostly unanticipated cultural and structural change.

The Ecological Hack
The progress of industrial society – until recently – has been nothing short of amazing. In a world of unlimited resources, lots of lands and peoples to conquer, and imperturbable ecologies, it could go on indefinitely. But in the real world we are now at an impasse. The fundamental flaw underpinning the teetering system must be addressed and surmounted. The trajectory of endless economic growth through extracting endless supplies of resources for endlessly expanding technological innovation is quickly ending. The knowledge of that path had limited scope but developed as if there were no limits. Survival requires a vastly different paradigm. We must hack into industrial era culture and reprogram it to be ecologically effective.

Earth Ecology – the whole system – has within it vastly more knowledge than all that has been compounded throughout the history of humanity. Indigenous cultures have foundational knowledge we need to tap into (before it is destroyed) in order to survive as a species. Only then can we re-balance our complex relations with the Earth so that we can reset the ecological harmonies we have already severely disrupted.

The Ecological Hack of industrial culture is being worked on by numerous hackers of the culture and biosphere in a variety of ways. Most of the work is yet to be done. A successful Great Transition to an ecological economy will require many cultural-ecological hackers and “open-source everything.”[1] It won’t come from “the top.”
[1] Robert David Steele, The Open Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth & Trust. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions, 2012.