How to Change the Economic Culture…and Save the Planet

It’s pretty clear that the corporate state is in control of the economic culture of the U.S. and that of most other nations as well. As environmentalists try to get enough attention to explain what is obvious about climate change, the scientific information is minimized, suppressed, or distorted.  We’re told that the best solutions to “potential” climate disruption is to apply established “free market” solutions of the “growth economy.” Never mind that imaginary “free” markets are tightly controlled by giant trans-national corporations whose congressional lackeys ignore the radical disruption of the complex climate systems upon which we depend for survival.

From local building ordinances to national economic policies and ruthless trade agreements, decisions are supported by an economic ideology that always makes “economic growth” the top political priority. It is an assumption so deeply ingrained in our culture that it remains unchallenged, even as we try to find ways to mitigate the economic causes of the climate chaos that is already upon us. The ideology of economic growth and the illusion of U.S. “energy independence” allow more CO2 and methane emissions from fracking for short term production increases. We might as well be lemmings.

The scientifically aware continue to argue with the Koch brothers’ agents provocateurs as if it was merely a matter truth prevailing in rational debate. We have to face the fact that culture does not change by rational discourse when the power structure dominates the flow of “information.” All you have to do is listen to the Sunday talk shows to see who defines the culture through the media. However, sociologists and behavioral psychologists have known for decades that the most powerful way to change behavior and influence opinion is to strategically exert peer pressure. Education can help a little, but will be too late. It is no match for pervasive mass media propaganda so prevalent today. Strategic behavior of “influentials” in a community is.

While mass media control the economic culture instilled in the general population, significant numbers of young people around the world, including the U.S., are aware of the nascent climate disaster and have begun to campaign for divestiture of fossil-fuel investments by university endowments. The response from Harvard’s president Drew Foust illuminates the “generation gap,” claiming that Harvard should not be a “political actor.”  See:  http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels  Well, investing in fossil-fuel is a political act. This is a classic case of the old established economic culture opposing the new ecological culture of sustainability.

Neither the civil rights movement nor the anti-apartheid movement succeeded by the relatively minor economic damage they inflicted – they won by exerting major political pressure. But as that battle continues – and it does have promise as one avenue to put political pressure on the fossil-fuel economy – we must find  ways to immediately divest our economic behavior from dependence on oil, gas, and coal. We face an urgent – time sensitive – crisis.

As a general principle of urgency, every effort possible is necessary. But we need a strategy that applies the facts of social science to maximize the broad adoption of innovations to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Behavioral change does not come fast by rational argument. Most people adjust their behavior when the judgment of others matters. That is what “politically correct” language is all about. When racist speech was no longer accepted in public, many Americans changed their public speech even though they did not purge their personal racism. They knew that they would be judged badly if, for example, they used “the N word” in public, even in their own segregated suburban neighborhoods. We all know folks who still harbor racist feelings but avoid expressing them in public settings.

The recent racist outbursts of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy are the exceptions that prove the rule.* Initially oblivious to the offensiveness of their words, even they back-pedaled with media exposure. For the most part, overt racism is banished from public discourse. When we are able to elevate “sustainable living” behaviors, such as installing solar systems, to the level of politically correct actions, it will mean that peer pressure can be brought to bear on economic behavior that affects individuals’ self-perception in relation to those peers who are “influentials.” Open opposition will fade and support will blossom.

The “bulk Solar” strategy is an example of how this can be done. If a relatively small group of “early adopters” organizes to make bulk solar purchases, say 5 houses in a neighborhood, the installer can do the work cheaper and give a discount. The innovative “first adopters” are likely to be “influentials” who can have an impact on their neighbors. A tipping point can be reached where it becomes no longer an odd thing to ‘go solar,’ but the popular thing to do. It then becomes a new norm: to take that [personally and socially] rational step of reducing one’s carbon footprint.
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* See “What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America” https://thehopefulrealist.com/2014/04/30/what-donald-sterling-and-cliven-bundy-can-teach-us-about-racism-in-america/

What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America

Ignorant racism occasionally bursts onto the scene in the national media because the racists involved are unaware of the social and political impact of their blatantly racist talk. Sometimes ‘honest’ racists don’t even believe they are racists and are ignorant of the nature of their racist thinking. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay his fees for grazing on BLM land – our land – and does not recognize the existence of the U.S. government, may fall into that category, with his seemingly unconsciously racist comments about black folks. Donald Sterling, the wealthy owner of the LA Clippers, on the other hand, was recorded making private racist comments that went viral; but only then did it become public that he had for decades practiced housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in his Los Angeles properties and that the NBA had tolerated it all those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exposed the hypocrisy of public anti-racism a day or two later in his Time Magazine opinion piece on the reaction to the Sterling exposure. Then the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.

Liberal white folks don’t like to hear racist talk, but they routinely tolerate institutionalized racism. And smart “closet” racists know how to appear “politically correct” in order to avoid the uncomfortable reactions of more sensitive people, despite their racist behavior and attitudes, which are re-coded to appear to the unsuspecting ear to refer to something other than race. Some, like Sterling, talk quite differently in private and in public settings. Magic Johnson expressed hurt and disgust with that hypocrisy in an interview after the “Sterling tapes” were revealed, having been given public ‘respect’ by Sterling before his private racism directed at Magic was revealed. Sterling embraces his racism but tries to avoid the embarrassment of its expression in public. Cliven Bundy, unused to the public limelight, appeared unaware and divulged his personal thinking unfiltered, then was made partially aware by the public reaction and tried to ‘dial it back.’

But we make a big mistake if we think we can understand racism in America by assuming that “racists” are only those people who make racist statements in public. Structural institutionalized racism is alive and well in America, and it is far more important than the naïve racism of fringe isolates like Cliven Bundy, who only recognized the damage to his image when public exposure showed him his own racism. What these different cases can teach us is that personal racism can take many forms and may have different levels of self-consciousness attached to it, but it is not the essence of contemporary racism in America.

The politically correct re-coded racists are in total denial, at least publicly. By avoiding traditionally racist language, they think they are immune to the charge of being a racist, even as they harbor feelings of superiority over the Other. They think of racism as merely a matter of proper speech. But in fact these folks are the bread and butter of institutional racism in America – an endemic system of inequality whereby the racism is built into the social and economic culture and institutional practices of society. In some respects it is as widespread as ever. Many ‘liberals’ voted for Barack Obama at least in part to demonstrate their lack of racism, which in polite company allowed them to proclaim a “post-racial” America – besides Obama emulates intellectual white social liberalism, with which he charmed them.

Closet racists re-code their racism in various ways. All the attacks on Obama as being a ‘socialist,’ a Muslim, a Kenyan, by ‘birthers,’ et al, merely excuse their closeted racist belief that a black man cannot legitimately be President of the United States of America. They do all they can to explicitly not recognize him as president. Their vision is of a White-Christian Nation, not the multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have become. But in a twisted way, the joke is on them. This president may be a good deal smarter than Dubya, but he is as strong a supporter of the corporate-state plutocracy as any president – in that sense, he is as ‘white’ as anyone, since it is the white male who symbolically represents the status quo anti. Remember, race is a social construct – in both biology and anthropology it has failed the test as an empirically viable concept, but it is a social reality.

America’s mostly unacknowledged status as Incarceration Nation, the system of actual apartheid embodied in the increasingly corporate prison-industrial complex, with the highest number of prisoners in the world, sustains our racism. Structural racism is a set of institutional practices that produce racist outcomes of inequality whether or not the individual actors are personally racist. As Michele Alexander has so perceptively demonstrated, a New Jim Crow system of segregation – facilitated by the sustained system of residential and educational segregation and media indifference – has emerged mostly from the drug war, which incarcerates massive numbers of mostly boys and men of color – despite equivalent rates of drug use by whites – producing in effect a new caste system stigmatizing and isolating many young blacks and browns from the economy and society.
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are best understood as anachronisms, although Sterling’s wealth institutionalizes his personal racism. We need not be so offended by them, for their personal pathologies are not today’s real problem of racism. They are relics of an openly racist past in which racist language was merely the cultural expression of an openly self-acknowledged oppressive system. Today’s re-configured system of racial oppression and re-coded racist language pose a greater danger by their camouflage. White liberal reactions of disgust over these relics reflect a discomfort with what may be a subliminal recognition of the continued racial caste system in their imagined “post-racial America.” Where are they when white male millionaire congressmen repeatedly engage in a strategy of degradation and obstruction that no white president has ever experienced? They blame it on “party politics,” not the re-coded racism they tolerate.