Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part III: Ecological Transformation

An ecological society will require some basic changes in the way we live. Most analyses of climate change are about disruptions leading to untenable future conditions. Specific reductions in carbon emissions will require transformation of economic infrastructure, which is rarely discussed.

To stabilize global temperature, return to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is necessary. That goal might be achieved if a tipping point is not reached before we take major actions. We are already at about 400. Several indicators suggest such a tipping point is near, where positive feedback loops will amplify already accelerating trends, even if we drastically cut emissions. Warming melts tundra releasing methane, causing more warming, etc. Calling for “further research” excuses intolerable inaction. We must act now based on what we know now.

Carbon Control
It is impossible to list all major contributors to carbon pollution in a blog post. But here are some major categories of carbon polluting infrastructure we need to get under control.

● The Built Environment. More carbon emissions come from fossil fuel burned to heat, cool, and supply electricity to homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and factories, than any other source.

Transportation. Cars, trains, boats, and planes consume huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Energy Production. We burn a lot of carbon fuels in the process of extracting the raw materials from which those fuels are refined. Power plants emit 40% of U.S. carbon pollution. Fracking, the latest technology for extracting oil and gas, is itself a major methane polluter and consumes huge amounts of water and fuel. Tar-sands extraction and processing is another big one. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is so dangerous.

Electronics Everywhere. Little thought is given to the immense amount of electricity used to run electronic equipment. ‘Phantom load’ from computers, music electronics, and appliances in standby mode accounts for about ten percent of the electricity usage in households. “The Cloud,” consists of many competing computer “server farms” the Internet giants use to store and process data of all kinds. Let’s not forget the giant telecom corporations. The NSA and other surveillance operations consume massive amounts of electrical energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

The Military. The various branches of the armed forces consume more fossil-fuel energy than any other economic sector. Not surprising. Always contemplating future threats to its viability, the DoD has been pursuing research on alternative propulsion systems and energy sources for a number of years.

These diverse economic sectors involve infrastructure powered by fossil-fuels. Each requires different changes to achieve carbon-neutrality. Priorities must be set and ‘least-impact’ parameters established to make reasonable decisions for each of these sectors. Who is doing that?

Conversion of Economic Infrastructure
All infrastructure conversion requires technology, materials, and labor. Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is labor intensive, which translates into lots of jobs. Most talk of energy efficient buildings is about new construction. But existing buildings produce most of the energy wasted. So investing in retrofitting existing buildings with energy conserving technology will best upgrade this sector of infrastructure.

Conversion to electric cars seems inevitable. But it requires infrastructure – mostly solar-powered charging stations to allow commuters to use their cheap second-generation Teslas. International trade involves massive amounts of mostly diesel fuel consumption. Advanced designs for solar and wind driven ships are now proven. But new ship building takes time. Meanwhile, the false economies of corporate “free trade” must be restrained. The free movement of capital to exploit cheap immobile labor must be curtailed so that local labor can be employed to serve local needs.

If the environmental and social costs of fracking were taxed, the practice would come to a screeching halt. It poisons local water resources, spews lots of methane into the atmosphere, and accelerates global warming. A carbon tax reflecting the real costs would put an end to fracking and accelerate solar power installations and adoption of electric cars.

The Cloud” provides no better data storage than increasingly cheap local storage, which by comparison minimizes electricity use. It should be abandoned for most computing purposes. “Phantom load” is easily controlled by inserting ‘smart’ power bars between the source and all those electronic gadgets and appliances.

The best way to reduce military energy consumption is to stop all the futile wars of choice, eliminating a major source of terrorism as well as the huge environmental costs of war. Cancel absurd super-weapon projects. The vast savings could be converted to useful activity, like converting to an ecological economy.

These are only a few of the economic conversions that are necessary to bring carbon emissions under control while converting to an ecologically viable economic infrastructure and employing millions of citizens.

Necessary Social Mobilization
Here’s the rub. The large scale infrastructure conversions required to realistically control carbon pollution to minimize climate chaos are huge. Yet, national and international institutions remain moribund. Their response to the climate crisis consists mainly of false promises and finger pointing. A major social mobilization is necessary and must be from the bottom up.

Direct action is needed now to mitigate climate disruption and dampen its most extreme effects. Only engaged citizens can take such immediate action. Awareness is surging. Clear mechanisms for meaningful effective action must be made a matter of public knowledge. Bill McKibben and 350.org have made divestment from fossil-fuel industries the centerpiece of direct climate action. Move your money to local credit unions and banks. Drastically slash corporate consumerism — what do you really need and from what local source can you get it? Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates for solar installations while they’re still available. Be creative. Momentum follows action. Join others. Act.

After Obama: Apocalypse or What?

It ought to be clear to just about everyone who had hoped for “change we can believe in,” that very little of significance will likely emerge from the Obama Presidency in its final years.  Whatever the outcomes of the mid-term elections, the political commitments of the president, as well as the Democrats in Congress, are likely to continue to put the interests of the ruling elites – the energy industry, Wall Street Banksters, military contractors, the prison-industrial complex, and international industrial corporations – above the public interest.  The entrenched power of the “Deep State” –  that informal assembly of the most powerful political, economic, and military elites that shape national policies in all domains – is in full control of the nation’s direction.  No matter what we may imagine Obama would like to have accomplished, it is clear that the interests of the most powerful institutions and the wealthiest individuals who are represented by the army of lobbyists in Washington who control congressional [in]action, will continue to limit the range of actions that this president will take.  What we have here is an elite plutocracy behind a thin veil of a hollowed out imaginary representative democracy.

Sadly, however we interpret the humanitarian causes referenced by eloquent impassioned rhetoric, the substance of those great speeches simply has not been reflected in national or international policy, except in the smallest of ways.  “Yes we can!” – well, how did that work out for us?  The widely popular principle of universal health care – routine in “advanced” nations except for our own – was taken off the table at the very beginning of the effort for “health care reform” in favor of protecting the economic interests of the unnecessary health insurance companies, the middle-men of the consequently expensive and distorted health care system.  The wind-down-the-wars president became Commander in Chief of Drone Assassination and Civilian Massacre.  The self-righteous indignation over Russia’s occupation of Crimea in response to the West’s pressuring Ukraine to join NATO and supporting the overthrow of its elected government – both seen as military threats by Russia– is nothing if not massively hypocritical.   Obama’s climate change policy of “all of the above” panders to the entrenched corporate interests of coal, nuclear energy, and fracked gas and oil, all of which are the main drivers accelerating the crisis of a destabilizing biosphere.  Meanwhile, Obama makes oratorical gestures toward human and planetary survival, while carefully avoiding any threat to corporate sovereignty.

Nothing, really, seems to be going all that well.  “Trickle down economics”?  How has that worked out for you?  Extreme wealth and income disparity to the point of economic destabilization, extreme climate disruption accelerating and politically ignored, extreme corporate control of mass communications constraining public understanding of the crises, never-ending propaganda supporting the fantasy of never-ending economic growth and consequent resource depletion, etc. – it all adds up to socio-economic as well as ecological disaster.  After all, the crises we face are only intensified by of the politics of business as usual – and that has been the problem all along.  So, the serious question now is what can be done outside the Obama presidency and after it ends, particularly when no Democrat or Republican made president by corporate controlled elections is any more likely to face the idea that the nation and the planet are in deep trouble.

Exactly what can anyone do, who has observed the politically moribund corporate state that prohibits the national concerted action necessary to re-establish some semblance of democratic process, no less a massive redirection of public policy toward international action to save the planet from certain biospheric catastrophe?  It is now quite clear that electoral politics – even if voter suppression could be reversed, gerrymandering unwound, and elections democratized – is too slow and cumbersome, given the proximity of disaster.

Of course, those things must be accomplished anyway.  But major actions must be taken now to stop continued expansion of the fossil-fuel economy and replace it.  Setting goals for utilities to produce ten or twenty percent of energy from renewable sources by 2030, and the like, are nothing more than pathetic gestures in the present emergency.  Even rationing energy production may be necessary in the short term.  But is it possible?

A new kind of thinking seems necessary and a new kind of action is required now – direct citizen action.  What is it and how can it be initiated and executed?  The beginnings of direct citizen action to stave off some of the worst projects of the oil and gas industry – protests of the Keystone XL pipeline and of oil and gas fracking around the country – offer examples of immediate lines of citizen action, along with divestment.  Such actions must be intensified, expanded and multiplied.

We are entering an apocalyptic era – not in the evangelical sense, but in the sense of the original meaning of the word, “to uncover, reveal, or disclose” – and we need to respond accordingly.  The catastrophic character of anthropogenic climate disruption will be revealed to us, even though we may have already ignored it too long.  A majority of citizens in a recent poll were still deceived into believing that Keystone XL is a ‘job creator’ and necessary for “energy independence.”  Wrong, but also irrelevant.  It is clear that much propaganda must be overcome to uncover the truth about dirty coal, nuclear, and fracked oil and gas, so that the nature of the crisis we all face can be fully revealed and collectively acted upon.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.

The Great Jobs Myth and the Transformation of the Growth Economy, Part II

The pervasive acceptance of conventional economic theory as a “natural science” that gives us guidance for dealing with our economic lives is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding and making rational choices about the converging crises of our time.  Simply put, the fundamental flaw in conventional economics is that the economic system it promotes as a natural system operates in an ecological vacuum.  In the real world, however, economic policy confronts actual obstacles to its illusion of endless economic growth that it cannot overcome.  That is why the choices ahead are so difficult and will require massive social change.

The economics profession initially struggled to be recognized as a science, just like physics.  That recognition eventually came, but was not entirely justified.  Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef[1] have powerfully demonstrated how the scientific limits of economics were overcome by clever conceptual illusions and political alignment with the forces of wealth and power in society.  That has gone so far that, for example, the Koch brothers now control the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University, having cut a deal that allows them veto power over faculty hiring in exchange for monetary support for the department.  So much for independent intellectual exploration in that academic setting.  The economics departments of high ranking universities around the nation are more subtly influenced by expectations tied to financial support from major corporations.  No wonder fields like ecological economics, which examines economic systems in relation to the ecological systems in which they operate, are so commonly excluded from such programs.

A few forward looking economists such as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill,[2] and Richard Heinberg,[3] have begun to unmask the myths of the orthodoxy of the Economics of Endless Growth and the false assumptions at its base.  As we reach the planetary limits to economic growth, the new ecological economics is an emerging attempt to build a basis for a steady state economy consistent with the carrying capacity of the biosphere.  Much remains to be done on figuring out how to respond to and manage the Great Transformation to the new economic reality.  The economists mentioned here have outlined some of the changes needed, but little has been said of how to accomplish them.  Gar Alperovitz[4] has extended that discussion, focusing on nascent democratizing economic organizations forming at the grass roots level.  That will be increasingly important, but strategy and tactics for getting there from here are the key factor which is both most important and least elucidated.

It is quite clear that electoral politics are so dominated by the corporate forces that sustain conventional growth-at-any-cost economics in their own short-term interests [quarterly profits and stock prices as well as obscene executive pay and bonuses] that getting reasonable independent people elected in the near term is highly unlikely.  The only other option is the building of a social movement from the bottom up.  The American people are not nearly as stupid as the plutocracy imagines.  People know something is very wrong, even when they don’t connect it to their own economic behavior.  Extant climate disruption has already overcome the corporate propaganda of climate-denial, but what’s a concerned citizen to do?

The news that a coalition of seventeen of the world’s biggest private foundations has announced that they are divesting their holdings of nearly $1.8 billion from fossil fuels corporations[5] indicates one thing.  Consciousness can change and change can become exponential; that is how emerging non-violent social movements are realized.  350.org was initially ridiculed for its plan to pressure educational institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.  But it is happening.  A much broader movement is needed, however.

Integral to modernity is the decline of the solidarity of natural social groupings (family, village, clan, etc.).   The discontent resulting from economic individualism could be countered by engagement in the very kinds of social movement that are needed to confront the otherwise overpowering force of corporatocracy.  Out of participation will come change in self-awareness.  If [when] Obama’s absurd “all of the above” [ultimately anti-ecological] energy policy results in approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new surge of activism will facilitate the larger social movement – and solidarity – necessary for change when conventional politics are locked out by corporate financial control.  What most middle-class “progressives” don’t quite understand, yet, is that the necessary massive reductions in CO2 and methane emissions will radically alter their consumer “lifestyle.”  That shock, sobering as it will be, must lead to massive collective action by new social groupings grounded in the human interest – not individual selfish short-term interests –  so that the broken fossil-fuel economy can be transformed into a new ecological economy never before seen.


[1] Philip B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011.

[2] Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill, Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2011.

[4] Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013