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

The Big Climate Blunder and Its Antidote: Risking Everything for What?

The Industrial Era has provided prosperity for many in the nations that industrialized first. In many ways it has also involved the plunder and pollution of both Body and Planet for over 200 years. After beginning to improve material existence for industrialized nations, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, the broadening participation in prosperity began to fade. The widely praised success of the industrialized nations of the North was achieved on the backs and at the expense of the non-industrialized peoples of the South.

Colonialism and later imperialism were essentially a massive transfer of materials for industrial production just as slavery was a forced transfer of human labor for agricultural production. The result was prosperity in Europe and North America and poverty nearly everywhere else. At first, environmental degradation was mostly in the South except in Northern factory towns; now it is everywhere. The culmination of the Industrial Era is climate disruption and its converging catastrophes of social disintegration, poverty, starvation, and war – unless drastic actions are taken now.

The Worst of the Best
But prosperity had its costs for the people in the industrial North. It has increasingly distorted human life by marketing more and more meaningless products while wages decline and jobs are lost. Capital is mobile; labor is not. NFTA, TPP, and other international trade agreements betray citizens and national sovereignty in favor of unfettered international capital movement. The worst of prosperity for the growing numbers who are excluded is that the poverty and pollution caused by extractive industry and international trade fall disproportionately on them. The worst of pollution is that the politics of extractive industrial technology have allowed increasingly toxic materials invade living systems everywhere.

Any real democracy would have put on controls to protect the public interest. Our false democracy serves the corporate interest in immediate profit at the expense of the public interest in health and happiness. Exposure of the smallest microorganisms and the largest ecological earth systems to the myriad of chemicals in the waste of prosperity wreaks havoc on living systems. The diverse and ubiquitous forms of industrial and consumer waste never existed over millennia as living systems evolved. So they never had a chance to develop resistance to the toxic effects of unnatural waste. Biological evolution occurs at a pace vastly slower than the speed with which the industrial revolution has polluted the planet. Today’s unprecedented rate of species extinction is accelerating with no end in sight.[1] Humanity depends on the complex web of life for its survival. But our power elites are locked into a death dance of short-term and very short-sighted self-enrichment. [2]

Larger earth systems, mainly climate and the oceans, are key determinants of the stability and survival of species in local ecologies. In addition to widespread exposure to toxins, climate disruption has also caused major damage to local ecosystems as well as larger earth systems. The damage is seen in key components of these systems, such as acidification of the oceans and increasingly erratic storm patterns. These large earth systems play major complex roles in local ecological conditions over time, and have major impact on their stability. What recently appeared to some as a hiatus in global warming, measured as average atmospheric temperatures, was actually an artifact of the oceans absorbing much more carbon dioxide and heat than had been expected. This has caused unprecedented acidification of ocean waters, massively disrupting the food chain by causing many species of crustaceans to be unable to form their shells. Coral reefs are dying; clam and other populations are plummeting. Changes in ocean temperatures are having major effects on weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina, which in turn cause more extreme weather in various locations.

Prisoners of Greed
The extreme danger of doing nothing or doing a little about global warming is increasingly obvious to most thinking humans who have access to basic climate-change information. But one factor in policy decisions that is rarely mentioned is the relative comparison of risk and reward for different lines of climate action and for different political interests. Power elites are ‘in the game’ but play out their personal (high salaries and obscene bonuses) and corporate (stock prices) short-term interests, without reference to the public interest or the interests of humanity.

“The Prisoners Dilemma,” is an exercise used by game theorists and behavioral researchers to better understand how human decisions are made in conditions of variable risks and imperfect information. It is a simple game. Each player has two choices. If player A chooses the potentially high-reward option, s/he can win all, but only if Player B chooses the moderate reward option. If both players choose the potentially high-reward option, both lose. However, if both players choose the moderate reward option, both players win moderate rewards. Ultimately, it is about greed and aggression vs. cooperation and moderation. In such simulations, the players usually learn over several iterations of the game that the moderate-reward win-win scenario works best for all. But learning takes time.

In the real world where situations are much more complex, the risks and rewards can vary widely. But despite claims of free-market fundamentalists, cooperation often performs far better for all involved than does greed. Our economy of ever-growing extractive capital and industrial and consumer waste has in recent years performed very well for those power elites who have chosen the potential high-reward option of greed. (The rest of us seem to have chosen the moderate reward option, and we are losing.) But just as in the Prisoners Dilemma, the continuation of the plunder capital model of success is ultimately unsustainable. Because these “corporate robots” are captives of the magical thinking of the Sacred Money and Markets” ideology, they are slow learners when it comes to cooperation and protecting the commons.

Games are abstract forms; they can be repeated endlessly by simply starting over regardless of the outcome. But the real world is not a game; it has real boundaries of time and environment. When we destroy earth systems, there is no do-over. Extinctions are forever. We cannot restart destroyed ecosystems; we can only try to save them before it is entirely too late. We cannot rewind the growth economy, nor can it go on much longer. All we can do is create a new economy that does not destroy the earth systems upon which we depend for survival. The old failing growth economy will die of its own failures or we will transform it into a living economy that supports both humans and the rest of life on this planet. We must choose quickly.

Choosing Life
Ever more concentrated wealth in the hands of the power elites ultimately will destroy their dominance. It is an open question whether their downfall will come at the hands of climate catastrophe or social rebellion, or both. The timing and success of cooperation overcoming greed will determine the degree of chaos avoided. We also wonder whether the necessary Great Transformation of the economy and society can happen before climate disruption leads to increased food insecurity, poverty, mass migration, water wars, and related catastrophes.[3] We must say yes, turn away from the international corporate growth economy, and shape resilient local community economies in harmony with the living Earth. No small task.

Life, of course, is much more complicated than the “Prisoners Dilemma” game. Yet, games can help us learn more about human behavior and decision making. Other social psychological patterns are also informative, such as the “free rider syndrome.” I liken the Wall Street financial elite, the President, and the Congress to a gang of subway riders who jump over the turnstile to get free rides at everyone else’s expense – only the consequences of their ‘free ride’ are far worse. They take vastly more and cost the rest of us vastly more, both on an immensely grander scale: that of the global economy. They destroy the system in order to continue plundering it.

These elite players routinely take the high-risk option in seeking the high reward – but they have already rigged the game. They ‘socialize’ the high risk (pass off the losses to the rest of society). They ‘privatize’ the high rewards (capture for themselves the phantom wealth generated by their financial and economic manipulations). They do all this through personal and corporate control of “the game” – but they don’t seem to understand that it is not a game; it is a life and death struggle for humanity. Just a few of their methods include:

• legislating tax reductions for the rich;
• preventing climate action, which would cut into their pollution-producing profits;
• eliminating legal controls on financial speculation, cutting government programs that are in the public’s and planet’s interest;
• keeping wars of choice going for huge arms industry and banking profits;
• reducing government control over international financial transactions, trade, and money laundering; and
• forcing through Congress international trade deals – such as NAFTA and TPP – that legalize corporate sovereignty over governments, preventing health, labor, and environmental regulations that might interfere with their profits.

In the short run, that high risk is borne by everyone else and the high rewards are theirs. We have to understand, many of the most powerful are clever sociopaths; that is how they got where they are. Others are merely highly paid skilled functionaries, supporting the system that rewards them and punishes deviance from corporate “values.” They can retire to their high-security estates and revel in their clever success, though many are unable to quit their quest for ever more power. But their greed is ultimately self-destructive in spite of their denial and their political power. They may even survive a little longer in their gated compounds than some less privileged. But nobody will escape a dying planet. We may all lose everything if their gamble fails, and it will. It is only the rest of us who can make a difference, if we will.[4]

The most important question is whether we will be able to do something about the coming collapse in time to avoid it. That is why to do anything less than take extreme actions to constrain climate chaos is suicidal. That is also why our situation is so difficult. To wait for the President, the Congress, or the financial and corporate elites to take drastic actions to transform the growth-at-any-cost economy to a sustainable living economy is both futile and suicidal too. Only by massive social mobilization can the power elites be brought under control and the economy transformed to align with the requirements of living on the Earth. Perhaps Pope Francis’ encyclical and his invitation to Naomi Klein to the Vatican conference on climate change portend a major shift toward the Sacred Life and Living Earth story. Yes, there are signs everywhere that the Great Transformation has begun. But we must hasten it.
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[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” Science Advances. Vol. 1 no. 5 (19 June 2015). http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
[2] David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015) makes an important point: Because of the predominance of the culture of “Sacred Money and Markets” the power elites are not so much in control of the corporations (“money seeking robots”) that rule the economy. Rather, they are mere cogs in the leviathan of corporate plunder of the Earth’s living wealth. Control rests with the Story, which, as he argues, must be changed.
[3] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011) takes us on a tour of numerous locations around the world where the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate disruption” is already fueling migrations, wars, and starvation amidst the devolution of failed states and collapsing economies unable to sustain growing populations whose “carbon footprints” are vastly smaller than those of the industrialized nations that have caused most of anthropomorphic global warming.
[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) chronicles both extractive capitalism’s disruption of the climate and the political failure of mainstream environmental organizations to institute effective climate action policy. Klein concludes that only a mass movement from below that transforms the social order can save the planet. David Korten (2015) offers a transformative framework for replacing the “Sacred Money and Markets” narrative that dominates the planet today, with a “Sacred Life and Living Earth” narrative capable of producing and sustaining a moral economy in the interests of humanity and the planet.

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.

Racism and Climate Denial Are Positive Feedback Loops

Learning is usually an exalted concept – in the abstract. But the practice of learning does not often measure up to the ideal. That is clear in the way we treat our schools. Social learning reflects the failures and deficits in personal learning. Power fears truth. Institutions perpetuate the prejudices and magical thinking of their members, who take their direction from the elites upon whom they depend. People too often believe what is convenient for protecting and maintaining their wealth, position, or other form of power. This is called ideology: language constructed to justify power.

Political and economic elites are able to promote their ideologies, which in turn are deployed to promote their political or economic power. The process is a closed positive feedback loop. That is why the public interest is so rarely represented in the actions of government institutions and corporations. It is also why we so often hear subjugated or exploited populations repeat the very propaganda that elites use to oppress them. What is the matter with Kansas? The Big Lie repeated over and over again, in the absence of contrary facts, is believed. Critical thinking is in short supply.

Police Racism Denied
Positive feedback loops between power and language reinforce power while excluding any language or meanings that might diminish power. “The rich get richer.” Any conflict that may threaten power is framed as a question of “us” versus “them.” The powerful are, ideologically, right by definition. Anyone who challenges the ideology of power is by definition wrong and a threat to “law and order,” or “public safety,” or “economic growth,” or “family values.” The public interest is not represented by elites, who do not represent the public as they seek greater power and wealth.

The head of New York City’s biggest police union publicly berated the mayor because the mayor publicly acknowledged the problem of racism among police. The mayor had “crossed the line,” having violated the traditional ideological unity of mayor and police. The outrage at a revelation of the “us vs. them” police ideology had nothing to do with the truth. The mayor had offered negative feedback disrupting the closed loop of authoritarian police ideology. The truth was what every Black parent knows. The mayor publicly stated that his Black son had been given the same warnings that other Black children are given by their parents about the dangers of experiencing police racism on the streets of New York City.

Social media – mostly communicating smart-phone video – has now publicly exposed racist police brutality all across America. Most Americans already knew at some level but may not have directly witnessed it. Formerly silent, many citizens now demand that police crime be prosecuted without bias, because what they knew all along is now publicly exposed and intolerable to anyone with a shred of compassion. Negative feedback has broken into the positive feedback loop.

Climate disruption Denied
Climate denial has the same ideological structure as racism; it is just applied to another population: scientists. Here again, widely distributed ideological propaganda funded by power elites wielding great wealth, such as Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, dominates the mass (corporate) media. Racism dehumanizes and demonizes its victims, facilitating brutal violence against them. Climate scientists are characterized as greedy research-grant seekers who produce results that some government conspiracy with unclear motives dictates. The fears of large segments of uneducated and poorly educated citizens are exploited by the power of propaganda.

The solid facts of biology demonstrate that race is a social construction having little to do with genetics and everything to do with social definitions. Statistical differences are explained by social-economic conditions. Similarly, the solid facts of climate science demonstrate that the earth is warming to dangerous levels and that the only explanation supported by facts is anthropogenic carbon emissions during the industrial age. Massive and diverse data sets are collected and analyzed by thousands of independent scientists around the world. That work leads to clear findings that have catastrophic implications for human survival. This means little to the climate deniers.

Why do climate deniers seem so irrational? They are irrational because they live in a cognitive positive feedback loop that excludes negative feedback. Their magical thinking helps them stay there, since a key element of magical thinking is a high degree of comfort with ignoring facts that conflict with one’s rigidly held belief. Climate deniers participate in a “universe of discourse” that only allows consideration of statements that provide positive feedback to support their beliefs. Their sources of information are limited to the corporate media that sustain the ideology of the fossil fuel industry. Those same sources purvey magical thinking to replace any critical thinking that might attempt to enter the loop.

Living in the Real World
The kinds of magical thinking and intellectual positive feedback loops that exclude negative evidence that characterize racism and climate denial have been around for a long time. But conditions have changed. The costs of catastrophic social and earth-systems failure loom ever larger as our complex systems break down and become increasingly unsustainable. The Internet is littered with magical thinking and all sorts of ill logic and fakery, along with just plain goofy stuff. But social media also offer a channel of communication that provides vividly real facts.

The pervasiveness of the culture of police racism is increasingly harder to deny. The growing availability of information on increasingly unprecedented weather events, and related disruptions of earth systems, makes climate denial more difficult to sustain. But the converging crises of our times grow rapidly more urgent. The race to a great transition is on. Will we make it or will it unmake us?

Apocalypse When? Revealing the World, If We can See It

The Next Great Transformation is inevitable. We live in a world that is changing, and that change is accelerating and increasingly undeniable, despite the efforts of the fossil-fuel and related industrial, financial and media elites to cover up the hard facts of climate science and economic failure in a shroud of denial. The direction of that change is not entirely clear, but it does not look good. Yet humans may be able to play a role in salvaging civilization from planetary disaster, if we can see what confronts us.

The nature and direction of the Next Great Transformation is not inevitable, though the evidence is increasingly troubling. But it may reach a tragic tipping point if humanity does not change the collective direction of its own behavior and do so rapidly. It is difficult to imagine such massive reorganization of humanity. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the way we live is a matter of survival. It may only be possible if we quickly revise our collective way of thinking and act upon what is thereby revealed.

Robert Jensen has presented an unusual assessment of apocalyptic thinking, entirely unlike the vision of the magical thinkers who see themselves as the “chosen” ones and expect a cataclysmic “apocalypse” any time now, in which all non-believers will be destroyed and the chosen few – which somehow always include these magical thinkers – will be saved and ushered into a new miraculous reality as the world crashes in upon the rest of us. These conclusions typically come out of revelatory imaginations and twisted readings of biblical scripture. Such fantasies are entirely at odds with Jensen’s understanding of apocalypse.

An apocalypse in the original Greek and Latin meanings of both terms, apocalypse and revelation, is an uncovering of hidden reality, a new understanding revealed, allowing hope through knowledge. The realities of climate disruption will be, without any scientific doubt, revealed to us all in the severity of the damage they cause, including the disruption of economic, political, and social systems which have been so dependent on fossil-fuel energy consumption. It is now only a matter of how extreme and rapid the catastrophic change will be and whether humans will be able to do anything about it. As a result of the elite’s cover up of this burgeoning reality, the whole culture has been corrupted by an imposed inability to acknowledge that, as Jensen puts it, “a large scale human presence on the planet at this level of consumption is impossible.”[1]

The falsifications of the fossil-fuel economic ideology will be uncovered as the economy breaks down from the consequences of its own dreamlike assumptions. Such revelations are inevitable as the old economic, political, and social systems collapse under the ecological stresses they have produced. The kind of apocalyptic thinking that Robert Jensen advocates would allow us to focus on uncovering the realities the elites do so much to deny. That would accelerate public awareness of the otherwise inevitable acceleration of global warming, so that humans could attempt to undo some of the anthropogenic climate disruption we continue to unwittingly cause.  Because of the lag between cause and effect, we will experience the damage due to global warming we have already caused; the big question is whether we will take it to the point of no return, to the collapse of civilization.

Whether Jensen’s kind of apocalyptic thinking can take hold and sufficiently reveal the urgency of his call to action soon enough for widespread human action to mitigate – not just adapt to – anthropogenic climate disruption is uncertain. But the only hope is to do everything possible to have sufficient impact to constrain the accelerating feedback loops that are rushing us to the wrong tipping point. What is most urgent now is to achieve a cultural tipping point resulting from a new awareness that will require us to mobilize humanity to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable.

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[1]  Robert Jensen, “A Call to Action.”  Transcript of speech in Austin, Texas:  Alternative Radio (24 February 2013).

Errors, Mistakes, and Stupidity: Why Magical Thinking Can Be Deadly

We humans are both rational and emotional beings.  The mix between the two can produce some strange and amusing results.  Conventional economics assumes that all human behavior is rational in the sense that everyone chooses only actions that serve their best economic interests and the result is the best overall outcome for everyone.  Yet all sorts of factors are known to influence behavior.  So, we have to conclude that the “scientific” theory that has become the greatest intellectual source of public policy is built on an empirically falsified myth.  Human decisions are demonstrably based on many psychological and social factors as well as economic ones.  No wonder we have so much concentration of wealth at the top and so much unemployment and poverty among the general population.  But that’s another (related) story.

It is well known among social scientists that human decisions result from a complex of emotional, experiential, and rational elements.  We resist changing our minds about things that we have been comfortable with for a long time.  People change their behavior more often in response to the perception that their neighbors and friends have done so than because of any rational argument.  In fact, social psychologists have long known that people often act on impulse or under some other influence they may not even be aware of and then produce a “rationale” for what they have done after the fact.  On top of that, mistakes can be made because of misconceiving the situation, and the results can be catastrophic.  That is why ballistic missile systems with nuclear warheads involve so many “fail-safe” features.  Even so, there have been numerous incidents where nuclear missiles were almost launched in error.  No human system or related technology is completely fail-safe.

Looking at the big picture is not the forte of most of us.  We are busy trying to “make ends meet” or make a million bucks.  Citizen participation has been largely taken out of the political process.  Decisions of public policy are usually made in response to the economic interests of powerful institutions and supported by their propaganda.  Some fairly simple logic and clear evidence may easily refute such propaganda when it is counter-factual, but is rarely heard in the mass media, which is controlled by those same powerful institutions.  Yet the truth sometimes leaks out.  So it is with global warming and climate disruption.

I recently ran across a YouTube video that reminded me of those good old “type I” and “type II” errors that form the basis for statistical decision making for risk analysis in science.   In a very humorous way, “One Guy” demonstrated the failed logic of “climate deniers” who place their magical thinking above scientific evidence.  The problem is not just that they don’t understand the facts – although they often don’t – it is that, whatever their psychological or other sources of their conclusions, their logic for deciding what to do about the future is fatally flawed.  And, if accepted as the basis for public policy, that logic could be fatal for the planet.

Here is the real-world situation we face as a species:  If we assume for argument’s sake that we don’t know if global warming and climate disruption are “real” or can produce complex catastrophic results for the planet, there are two choices.

  • Do nothing, because climate scientists may be wrong and the actions taken to counter global warming will be expensive and wasted if scientists are wrong.
  • Take action (drastically cut carbon emissions and invest in carbon neutral technology) because if the climate scientists are right, failing to take action will result in mass extinctions and possibly extinction of the human race.

The possible consequences of the first choice are: 1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we save a lot of money; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is real) and the results for humanity are catastrophic (massive death and destruction if not extinction).

The possible consequences of the second choice are:  1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is real) and we spend a great deal of money and employ many people to reduce carbon emissions, with the result that we save humanity through major changes in the way we all live; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we spend a lot of money and employ many people in reducing carbon emissions when it was not necessary.  When faced with maybe saving some money but maybe destroying the planet in the process, or spending a lot of money to save the planet, what would you do?  I’d spend the money.  Full employment is a valuable side benefit.

There are errors by incompetence and errors by corruption – some are by corrupt incompetence .  Both can be confounded with elements of magical thinking, which results from combining ignorance, rigid belief, and ill-logic with an inability to perform critical thinking.  When you combine an aversion to complexity with magical thinking and unwavering belief in the face of facts [confirmed evidence from observation], the result is insistence that absurd counter-factual assertions must certainly be true.  Unwavering believe in the face of evidence really is stupid, especially when it can in some situations – such as climate disruption – be catastrophic in its consequences.

Some Serious Social Illusions

It’s hard to accept the idea that most human activities are based on illusions.  But look at the nature and kinds of illusions out there.  Some illusions are necessary and good, while others are quite destructive.  We tend to see the illusions of tribal cultures as “myths,” illusory fictions about the world, whereas we see our beliefs as real.  But what’s the difference between the Native American’s image of the origins of “Turtle Island” and the biblical creation story?  Both are creation myths (stories around which a people organize their understanding of life) and they serve mostly the same purpose in their respective cultures.  Some myths conflict directly with scientific evidence, such as the idea that the earth was created four thousand years ago and that man walked with dinosaurs, or that recent and forecasted unprecedented climate disruption is unrelated to 200 years of accelerated emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Well, in these cases, the evidence just conflicts with the myth.

Some illusions conflict with reality because they are more detached from our everyday lives; others are consistent with everyday observations.  Yet, the idea that society operates on illusions points to some other kinds of phenomena.  Social illusions are mental constructions that are used as a means of interacting with the lived world.  They appear to be real because they are consistent with our experience and help guide our actions.  But our experience may also be constrained by those illusions – that’s where we get into trouble.  For tribal peoples who have lived in a particular stable ecological context for many generations, the social illusions they use work for them, or else the group would have died out.  Today, in our far more complex societies – really, our complex world financial and industrial system – social illusions that are so abstracted from our experience and observations, and are controlled by powerful institutions, can get us into very serious trouble.

If our ideas conflict with the environmental conditions under which we live, then the result can be detrimental to our survival.  Think of the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse in Greenland, or the collapse of other societies that Jared Diamond so presciently described in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.   The Mayan “chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems,” is more prophetic than recent speculations about the meaning of their calendar.  While the ecology could sustain it, Mayan illusions worked well as the abstractions around which the society was organized.  The economic illusions of our waning industrial age worked rather well until growth got out of hand; now they confront contrary conditions of planetary ecology.

Certain groups in the deep jungles of the Amazon hold complex views of the nature and uses of certain plants.  These ideas have been worked out over many generations and result in an indigenous pharmacology that works because it is precisely integrated with the conditions of jungle life and the properties of those plants.  But for the university trained pharmacology researcher, the native conceptualization of such plants may be considered misguided (unscientific) illusions.  Through laboratory research the western professional can isolate certain molecular compounds key to the medicinal benefit of the plants.  Oh, boy!  It’s patentable-profitable!  The abstractions each believes best represent reality may or may not work depending on the environmental context – the jungle or the economics of Big Pharma.

So, who is right?  Both illusions work for their respective adherents within the right context.  What?  Yes, the pharmacologist’s ideas are illusions too.  In this sense, I am using the word to indicate that illusions can be defined as particular conceptual packages that represent our experiences in the world and that what’s an illusion within one framework is a fact within another.  So, let’s just call them all illusions for simplicity and examine their usefulness and veracity separately.  We can thus state that all human imaginations regarding reality are illusions, because none are reality, they merely represent reality in the abstract.  Seriously.  If we can make that leap and recognize that all images and concepts we have about reality are not reality but illusions that represent reality well or poorly, it will be easier to evaluate each one on, dare I say it, a realistic basis.

Now, that is where ideology comes in.  All illusions reflect in some way the interests people have in their reality, or more accurately, in those aspects of reality that interest them.  So, we are not so surprised to find that the executives of the giant multinational oil and gas companies are not so interested in the fact that peak oil production has already occurred (2005) and that world production has flat-lined ever since – except to the extent that they can temporarily use “fracking” to forestall the inevitable decline in supplies – which raises society’s obvious need to contemplate energy-source substitution.  Their financial interests lie in keeping the focus of energy policy on more exploration and production – not on the catastrophic effects of climate disruption on the rest of us – even as the fruits of exploration rapidly diminish.  The seriousness of their illusion is to be found in its effects on survival of our species on the planet.

Nor do we really expect the Big Banksters to give up their control of the real economy they so handily manipulate by using the money system, or to give up the continued promotion of their illusion that the vastly expanded abstract debt-driven system of financial expansion is somehow the core driver of the real economy.  The seriously damaging illusions promoted by financial, petro-chemical, and industrial-military elites all merge into the political-economic illusions of permanent prosperity through imperial expansion and endless economic growth in a finite world of rapidly diminishing environmental resources.  Sometimes it’s too easy to believe in magic, especially when the prestidigitators so totally control the illusions.