Exxon’s Money or Your Life: Immoral Capital is Still in Charge

What makes the majority of politicians most uncomfortable about Bernie Sanders is not that he is a “democratic socialist” (Notice, they usually leave out the “democratic” part.) Most do not understand the concept anyway. They just find the word an easy target for the personal derision of Bernie, the disheveled outsider who has remained an outsider working on the inside for decades.

What really disturbs the political and media elites about Bernie is that he is an authentic moralist. It is Bernie’s insistence on framing economic issues in moral terms that most offends the political “pragmatists” of whatever party persuasion. Unfortunately, in order to be accepted as a member of the Washington Establishment you have to give up any sense of personal morality in favor of platitudes and political “compromise” of moral principles.

American political culture sustains a powerful pretense of morality as it’s justification for the politics of the economic system. Economics itself stands firmly in the quicksand of magical thinking rooted in the consensual adulation of a simple phrase mentioned only a couple of times by the politically deified Adam Smith: “the invisible hand.”[1]

That magical thinking extends to the supposedly necessary and “natural” financial structure of an impossible economic objective: endless economic growth in a world of obviously finite resources.

Both the “invisible hand” and the perpetual growth machine are claimed – endlessly and with a straight face on CNBC – to offer the best and only solution to providing for the general welfare of humanity. Well, look at where that has got us. What is conveniently ignored or denied by our immoral economic system apologists is the completely unprecedented destruction it has wrought upon people and planet. The “business model” of immoral capital, simply put, is to extract maximum “value” from people, land and ecosystems, then leave the waste in its wake, looking for the next “resource” to plunder.

Unbounded Global-Scale Immorality

Hurricane Patricia, Category-5, about to make landfall south of Puerto Vallarta, 23 October 2015. Unprecedented.

Hurricane Patricia, Category-5, about to make landfall south of Puerto Vallarta, 23 October 2015. Unprecedented.

The most egregious execution of the plunder capital business model must be the actions of Exxon’s executive decision-makers over the last four decades. In the 1970s, its own scientists had discovered the trend of global warming in Exxon’s internal climate research program. The Exxon scientists reported to their bosses that global warming would trigger climate destabilization. It has been known for awhile that Exxon has funded propaganda efforts at “climate denial” since global warming became a public concern. But the Big Lie was much bigger than anyone knew.

Recent investigative reporting by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, revealed the greater evil of Exxon. “As Croasdale’s team was closely studying the impact of climate change on the company’s operations, Exxon and its worldwide affiliates were crafting a public policy position that sought to downplay the certainty of global warming.”[2] Exxon executives knew from the 1970s on how fossil fuel burning was causing global warming and they knew from reports of their own scientists the highly probable catastrophic consequences that would have for the planet by destabilizing climate around the world. Yet their only concern was for the company’s operations.

In 1988 renowned NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Congress, expressing concern about his findings from research on climate models he had begun over a decade earlier. He knew that only a small window of opportunity remained to change the course of energy production and consumption before the ultimate climate catastrophe could no longer be averted. Exxon had a moral choice. The executive “leadership” of Exxon chose the immoral strategy, risking the extinction of the human species in favor of its own corporate bottom line. If that is not a crime against humanity, then nothing is.[3]

Imagine the impact of Exxon’s prodigious scientific research and its massive databases collected on CO2 in the atmosphere and on global warming might have had on skeptical congressmen in 1988. Confirmation of Hansen’s analysis by Exxon’s large-scale empirical investigations might have spurred serious climate actions decades ahead of present-day fits and starts. Indeed, today, the continued faltering of climate-policy efforts is in part due to Exxon’s massive climate-denying propaganda effort. Exxon took the exact opposite of a moral path, the most evil of all possible paths. It launched the same propaganda strategy of denial that the tobacco industry previously used to sow seeds of doubt about the scientific facts of cancer caused by Americans’ tobacco use. Well, Big Tobacco was a piker compared to Big Oil.

Economic Justice Must Be Societal and Global in Scope

What if there existed an international court actually capable of meting out justice for high crimes against humanity committed by corporations and their executives? I would surmise that complete confiscation of every asset of Exxon and its subsidiaries would provide a minimal down payment for compensation to the people of the world. Incarceration for life with hard labor on projects designed to mitigate the damage they have wrought would be a minimal “punishment” for the decision-makers. Would that be sufficient punishment? Who cares? The planet is in a state of emergency that is still barely recognized for its urgency by political decision-makers. We need to apply all available resources to undoing as much of Exxon’s damage that we possibly can.

Of course the responsible executives must be punished. Past failures to hold bad executive actors to account for their crimes continue to encourage such behavior. We can afford no more of it. It is good to see that Bernie Sanders and others are pushing for a Justice Department investigation to determine if there is sufficient evidence of racketeering to prosecute the Exxon Offenders. No “expert consulting” form of “community service” sentencing for these guys – we don’t need them for that. Only hard physical labor on climate action projects will do. After all, that’s what the greatest victims of Big Oil have to do every day just to survive.

The haze of corporate propaganda and the fog of political oratory still form a thick ethical overcast that blankets the national consciousness. They project a false image that implies, “We’re taking care of this.” Meanwhile, profits and political corruption keep flowing right along with climate degradation.

A serious illusion blocking adequate climate action globally is the “debate” over responsibility between the “developed” and “developing” nations for funding and taking major climate actions. However, the sweep of history we call the Industrial Era demonstrates that it is a much simpler matter. Big Oil would prefer the “debate” continue while it reaps more profits from our doom.

The Earth is Warming...

The Earth is Warming…

China may be the world’s currently most prolific polluter. How much of its emissions come directly from Corporate America’s outsourced manufacturing? Well, nearly every product of U.S. corporations sold in the Big Box stores is made there. North America and Europe are the source of most of the total carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution two-hundred years ago. The total CO2 already emitted is the source of our growing current and near-term climate disruptions. All current and future emissions have to be drastically reduced (as in, to zero) to avert climate collapse. And who suffers most from past and current emissions? The non-industrial peoples of the equatorial regions that were most plundered for the materials to feed the industrial and economic growth machine, that’s who.

Immoral Capital Must Pay, Humanity Must Receive

The only moral solution is also the only viable solution that has a chance at slowing climate destabilization before it becomes irreversible. It is largely a matter of cause and effect. In fact, those who have gained the most economic wealth from the extraction, manufacturing, consumption, and waste of planetary resources must pay the most to reverse the headlong charge to species extinction (ours). It is quite simple: they have the money and they are responsible for the problem. The only viable solution, however, will not be an easy one. After all, the very corporate elite from which the money must be taken is protected by the political elite that has pandered to corporate criminality all along.

Those nations whose land, populations, and resources have been most plundered by these industrial processes and typically suffer most from the climate consequences, must receive support to “weather the storm” created by the industrial north. They must also find near zero-carbon paths to sustainable development – not growth – with that support. China, India, and to a much lesser degree a number of other developing nations must turn away from emulating the industrial nations and instead find sustainable paths to ecological economies. The industrial nations, for their part, must rapidly construct their own ecological economies from the remains of the disintegrating global-growth economy.

However, immoral capital is still in charge of the economies of the world. It is immoral capital that forced austerity on the Greek people to protect itself from the immoral actions of plunder capital (Goldman Sachs) and politics (former military ‘governments’ and their moneylenders). Immoral capital still attempts to make its victims pay for repairing the damage it has inflicted on the economies of its victims.

The institutionalized immorality of today’s capital is relentless and is bolstered by international political structures. However, Iceland provided the world a model for responding to attempts to force a nation’s people to take the punishment for the crimes of private bankers. The U.S. revolving-door Wall Street politicians did just the opposite, bailing out the criminal banks and brokerage houses and saddling the nation with unprecedented debt.

Corrupt politicians protect immoral capital by convincing the people that we must save “capitalism” from itself by “fixing” it. Congressional agents of the corporate elite try to convince the people that we need “market solutions” and “investment in technology” to save the planet by saving their doomed endless-growth economy. Nothing is thought to work unless it feeds the corporate pig.

To get a sense of the disconnect, just look at the world climate trajectory and species extinction rates today – it shows up in diverse research reports online from NOAA, NASA, and numerous university climate research centers, including the recent report by Stanford University researchers on the accelerating Sixth Mass Extinction. [4] Then look at CNBC and see the bulk of the business of immoral capital proceed as usual – a total disconnect. We must build ecological capital fast. You can fool many people for awhile, but you can never fool Mother Nature.
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[1] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (1759) Part 4: Utility’s Effect Upon Approbation. Chapter 1, and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) Book IV, Chapter II. In his A History of Astronomy, written before The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith used the term to refer to “natural phenomena otherwise explainable.” As Joseph Stiglitz put it, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand#Other_uses_of_the_phrase_by_Smith.
[2] Los Angeles Times, “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic,” by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust (Oct. 9, 2015). Accessed at http://graphics.latimes.com/exxon-arctic/ . Bill McGibbon’s article, “Exxon’s climate lie: ‘No corporation has ever done anything this big or bad,’” concisely describes Exxon’s treachery in The Guardian.
[3] Democracy Now! aired a good summary and discussion of the Exxon situation, including prospects for a Justice Department investigation on October 21, 2015. See: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/10/21/prison_for_exxon_execs_calls_grow
[4] See for diverse examples: http://www.noaa.gov/climate.html; http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/; http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/june/mass-extinction-ehrlich-061915.html, and http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

A Teachable Moment: Criminalizing Everyone

A recent “dust-up” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between the school district and the police department ought to be an important “teachable moment.” But the opportunity to resolve institutional overreach and get back to basics is likely being ignored.

It all started when a highly respected middle-school teacher Marcy Slaughter allegedly threw a paperback book at a misbehaving student. A fire drill had just ended before the final bell of the day rang. The teacher asked her students to remain in their seats for the moment. As you may remember, fire drills are sometimes occasions for frolicking as preadolescent students become agitated by the activity, especially a few days before the end of the school year. According to most reports, four students in Ms. Slaughter’s class decided that she had no right to hold them after the bell and began walking out of the classroom. Their teacher, in frustration with their insubordination, threw one or more – “flimsy” by another student’s description – paperback books at them.

Escalation Unbounded
One of the students complained to her mother; the mother called the police – and the media! She did not call the school. Police immediately charged Slaughter with felony child abuse and charged Principal Marc Ducharme with obstructing a report of child abuse. Neither teacher nor principal were notified of the charges, nor were they arrested. An adequate investigation was not conducted prior to the charges being filed with the support of members of the office of the District Attorney. “Heavy-handed” is a rather mild characterization of these actions. Principal Ducharme had reported the incident to his superiors at the school board, in line with district policy, as he pursued his own investigation into the event.

There is certainly enough blame to go around in this incident. The students were blatantly disobedient to their teacher. The teacher clearly overreacted. The student who complained to her mother clearly ignored her own culpability, as did her mother. The police, instead of acting like “peace officers,” took a combative stance in seeking any basis they could for filing criminal charges. In several articles and columns in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, the unreasonableness of the behavior of various parties was widely acknowledged. Yet the institutional implications of this incident were barely mentioned and only in terms of resolving the inconsistency between school district procedures and police criminal procedures. This incident was a symptom of a much deeper dilemma. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of this teachable moment was missed. The blame game dominates too many institutions today, at the expense of problem solving. But there is more and it touches the very fabric of the social order. Why does something like this happen?

“Higher Authority” Usurps Functional Community
Compassionate resolution of disputes reflects a civil society. That is not how things are going in Santa Fe, in the nation or in the world. Conflicts are routinely escalated rather than resolved. Appealing to “higher authority” marks social-system failure. We humans are in serious trouble. Today, ever-increasing unwarranted authoritarian power is executed with bias, injustice, and abuse. Political power is widely enforced by expensive military and police command-and-control technologies – from “stop-and-frisk” and SWAT home invasions to drone attacks. Authority is claimed at the end of the barrel of an AK-47 or by suicide bomb. In this case, a relatively minor conflict in a public institution was escalated into a criminal case when instead, a conflict resolution process should have been initiated.

It is now common for “social control” to be exercised not by any democratic process or interpersonal negotiated consensus. Instead, arbitrary “rules” of increasingly totalitarian bureaucracies are simply “enforced.” That is a failure democracy cannot tolerate. A Los Angeles police officer, who was at the same time a member of the Crips gang, once told me, “The police are just another gang, but with more power.” In the current case, a police officer inserted himself into a minor case of civil conflict and forced an interpretation of “crimes” having been committed. The prosecutor’s office enabled that overreach. To what end? As a result of the media exposure of the absurdities involved, the prosecutor eventually dropped all charges. The media moved on to other news, but never addressed the implications of the incident for civil society or democracy.

Police are no longer “peace officers.” Instead, high school bullies are self-selected, recruited and trained to treat every citizen as the enemy. The New Mexico state Law Enforcement Academy trains cadets to embrace a paramilitary “warrior cop” mentality, with a strong emphasis on unrestrained use of force. Though it may seem extreme, especially to white middle-class suburbanites who rarely have contact with police, this combative police culture is not uncommon. Nationally, typical police cadets receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours on defensive tactics, but only 8 hours learning to de-escalate tense situations.

The cult of the warrior cop is all about confrontation. While the police were not in any physical confrontation in this case of classroom disruption, their behavior was nothing but confrontational. They should not have been involved at all until and unless some actual crime had been determined to have occurred based on a thorough investigation. Instead, they exhibited aggressive overreach. Similarly, a badly behaving adolescent whines to her mother, who immediately complains to the police – and to a television station – without even contacting the school. She sought vengeful “justice,” entirely ignoring her daughter’s misbehavior, thus encouraging police overreach. Such uncivil self-righteous anger is increasingly as common in America as is excessive police action.

Civil Democracy or Police State
Some conflict is inevitable in any society. Criminalizing one side of a civil dispute does not resolve it. Widespread unnecessary police homicides of unarmed vulnerable persons are symptoms of a dying democracy, as is the rush to criminalize everyone. The “charge first, investigate later” police approach in this instance stems from the same combative police culture that has placed police in crisis across this nation. Continued police intrusion into domestic and civil affairs is as dangerous as is foolishly expecting police to solve all social problems.

Santa Fe Police Chief Garcia and District Attorney Pacheco’s mutual buck-passing upon public exposure of their excessive practices reflects stubborn but embarrassed culpability. As Milan Simonich aptly put it in his 5/18/2015 column in The Santa Fe New Mexican, this problem should have been resolved the old fashioned way: a serious sit-down parent-teacher conference in the principal’s office resulting in well-earned apologies from both sides. That would be the civil solution, and would serve to strengthen community ties. But today’s overburdened regulatory environment of education and law-enforcement limits the principal’s and even district superintendent’s authority to solve problems. This further damages the community’s ability to function effectively and thereby weakens its institutions.

When police rush to criminally charge a teacher and principal in a dispute over classroom authority, the school becomes the dangerous equivalent of a police state. Santa Fe Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd did the right thing in confronting the police chief over this. This police intrusion into the internal affairs of a civil institution reflects an intolerable totalitarian mentality. Police and prosecutor both have a whole lot to reconsider if they are to salvage any credibility for their departments. However, we must remember that this is not some rare parochial incident. Instead, the behavior of police and prosecutor is notably symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem.

The Death Dance Continues: “There is no excuse for …” But there are Reasons

The upsurge of rage over the apparent police killing of twenty-five year old African American Freddie Gray in Baltimore is emblematic of widespread public discontent with law enforcement. It is just the latest incident demonstrating the continuing chaos in the relationship of American law enforcement to the citizenry. There is little point in listing here the seemingly endless number of citizen videos documenting inept and mean spirited police aggression against citizens, especially young men of color.

Media reaction to the events in Baltimore has been predictably distorted. As with Ferguson and numerous other cities, public protest is framed primarily as potential or actual violence. The police violence that sparked the protest is given scant coverage despite clear evidence of brutality. “The authorities” fail to openly address the grievances by fully informing the people. Some teenagers begin rock throwing and other vandalism. The immediate media response is: “There is no excuse for this violence!” Young African-American female Baltimore prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, with only four months on the job and not part of the old-boy network, is from a law enforcement family. To the surprise of many she swiftly – and bravely – handed down indictments against the six officers involved. But the problem is much larger than individual Baltimore officers.

No Excuse
Baltimore is no exception; it reflects a national pattern. Despite local variations, as more and more evidence of institutionalized police misconduct and brutal behavior across the country is exposed, the pattern becomes clearer. From this general pattern and its specific incidences can be gleaned the elements of a deep pathology of law enforcement, which is inexcusable and requires radical excision. Sadly, that pathology is not likely to be seriously addressed unless the systemic social pathology that breeds it is faced and eliminated.

The typical crisis unfolds something like this: First, an incident where police appear to have overstepped their authority and committed gratuitous violence or murder upon a citizen is caught on cell-phone video. Second, the video “goes viral” and is picked up by local or national media because of its sensationalistic elements and social-media exposure. Typically, a young (or not so young) man of color (or homeless man or other vulnerable person) is killed or maimed by police. Third, outraged citizens exercise their constitutional rights and engage in peaceful protests. Fourth, police characteristically over-react to what should be an acceptable expression of public concern and/or outrage. They define the situation as a threat to “law and order” and to their own authority. They bring in heavy military weaponry, riot gear, armored vehicles, and swat teams, as if they were confronting a foreign enemy military force. Police then force protesters into some confined area or force them to move or disperse, leading to sporadic confrontations. Fifth, some unruly teenagers throw some rocks or smash some windows, enabling the police to define the entire protest as a “riot.” The police then move in with full military force and as often as not break heads, fire rubber bullets or bean bag rounds, or launch flash-bang grenades. More often than not, it is the peaceful protesters who are injured and/or arrested. Any distinction that police may have recognized between peaceful protesters and “rioters” is quickly lost. Usually the next night, the peaceful protesters prevail upon the angry youth to remain calm or go home. Further protests are greeted by admonitions from both “the authorities” and the media that, “There is no excuse for violence!” Public pressure and media exposure by this point restrain further police aggression.

Well, there is no excuse for violence. Rampaging or rioting crowds must be controlled for the sake of public safety. Out-of-control police violence against citizens also must be controlled for the sake of public safety. There is no excuse for the media to dismiss police violence and only focus on violence that results from anger over repeated patterns of police violence on vulnerable populations or excessive use of force in crowd control.

There Are Reasons
“Everything happens for a reason.” Well, not exactly. We live in a chaotic world. Explaining everything by reference to some ‘higher purpose’ is usually unproductive or worse counter-productive, though psychologically comforting. However, events do have causes and many causes are quite complex and are best understood by looking to their history. If we fail to recognize complex causes of problems, then we are unlikely to find effective solutions. So it is with police violence and social unrest.

Police violence is not new. Nor is it unique to the U.S.A.  Anywhere authority is enforced by an armed group, violations of human rights are likely if certain controls are not in place. Law enforcement institutions must maintain a high sense of public purpose, a high level education, a strong tradition of self-discipline, and a strong humanitarian value structure. And they must be held publicly accountable whenever they misbehave. Otherwise, they will be subject to growing corruption of their proper mission: keeping the peace and catching criminals. In many places around the world, such conditions of effective law enforcement do not exist. In the U.S., we pretend to uphold such high standards, but we do not. The public purpose of law enforcement has been subverted and corrupted by a “we vs. them” mentality and an increasingly militarized framing of mission as that of the “warrior cop” defending power elites against the people.

“No justice, no peace!” That protest slogan reflects the growing frustration among vulnerable populations and many others with the continual violation of human rights by police. It also reflects the demand that this corruption of mission be eliminated. As long as law enforcement is not radically reformed, we have no reason to believe that peaceful protests against police abuses will not be exploited by those who are prone to violence – including the police.

The conditions of urban life for populations that are essentially isolated from the new economy of little opportunity are increasingly oppressive. It is unlikely that the elites of the corporate state will relinquish their control over the economy to the extent needed for the economy to actually serve the public interest. In order to make the economy reflect the needs of the people rather than the greed of the plutocracy, major changes will have to be made to re-balance power toward economic and political democracy.  Indictments are not enough; they address individual cases, not systemic change.

Without democratic politics and an economy serving the public interest, the radical reformation of law enforcement to reflect its most common motto, “to protect and to serve,” is highly unlikely. At the same time, a national culture that glorifies violence in the exercise of imperial ambitions around the world will continue to view subject populations in “the homeland” as the evil other. Our violent culture, institutional racism, self-selection of violent persons as police officers, a culture of punishment, and institutional corruption must be changed.