Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transition

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.

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Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.

REFERENCES

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

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Dumbing Down America Degrades the Nation and More

An article in Psychology Today, posted by Ray Williams on July 7, 2014, delineated a long list of indicators of the decline and fall of culture and education in the U.S. in recent decades. Diverse measures of that decline led the author to conclude that, as I would rather put it, “American Exceptionalism” is in fact a particularly degraded concept describing the downwardly spiraling status of our culture.

The loss of respect for education, teachers, science, and intellect, contrasts sharply with the cultures of Japan and Europe, for just two examples, where these cultural features are highly valued. Ridicule of intellectual accomplishment is quite popular. This has led to the fall of the U.S. in its ranking on various measures of competence in science and the humanities. Even more important, the anti-intellectualism and anti-science mentality that accompanies the insecurities of ignorance, can have a disastrous effect on our chances for survival as a species. No small problem.

Training for Exclusion

For many decades now, the education of Americans has been transformed into the training of potential workers for the degrading dull jobs with little creativity that remain available. At the same time, the outsourcing of well paid jobs to poor nations with extremely low wages, has forced many middle class workers into the ranks of the poor. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity and anger, especially among the formerly privileged class of white male workers.

A few bright software engineers and developers create products with increasingly meaningless connection to actual life in the modern world. It is all about distraction and disorientation to life with any intellectual content. The young are taught to respond impulsively to images and emotions in the online game culture and social media. Who now reads books and contemplates their meaning?

Among the many implications of the turn away from intellect and toward impulsive response to images and associated emotions, the reality of politics has detached itself from the reality of life in the nation and on the planet. Shocking percentages of the population hold beliefs that contravene massive evidence that they either fail on the facts or simply have no particular connection to reality. This cultural situation is ripe for demagogic exploitation.

Political Degradation

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False Front

Despite the flaws of Hillary Clinton, the attraction to the demagoguery of the certifiable megalomaniacal sociopathic business cheat that is Donald Trump boggles the imagination of any modestly informed citizen. The man maintains a vast store of ignorance of most matters related to national security and domestic government, with the possible exception of how to work the income tax system. His international entanglements and personal nature of his business and political connections with disreputable characters in Russia and elsewhere, make the concept of putting his financial interests in a blind trust (administered by Ivanka!) something less than laughable.

It is difficult to grasp the extent of ignorance out there. Nor is it easy to understand the widespread indifference to information in favor of impulse and emontion. No point in going on about all that; either you are paying attention to basic verifiable facts or you are a victim of confirmation bias — the common defense mechanism where any evidence that contradicts prior beliefs is simply ignored in preference to self-delusion consistent with beliefs held closely.

Ignorance or Survival

More importantly, the fate of the nation, and possibly the planet, hinges on the necessity of immediate and comprehensive actions to stave off the very worst impacts of climate destabilization. Things are so bad that not even the feigned climate-action promises of Hillary Clinton could make a significant difference in responding to this global crisis.

Species Extinction and Human Population_USGS_1451324_650954518277931_1616731734_nWhich ever U.S. presidential candidate “wins” the election in November, little hope for the kind of change we must have seems to be in the offing. The probability of adequate societal response to the emerging crises of global financial collapse and global climate collapse is very low indeed. Something very different from conventional politics or its current deranged deviations must arise in some form of broad social mobilization demanding the actions not even conceivable by our distorted, corrupt, “politics as usual.”

Individual Climate Ethics and Social Action

Climate action: can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything we can, take shorter showers, and install some solar panels, will that prevent the looming climate chaos? We could buy an electric car and low-emissions consumer products, maybe even go “off the grid.” But would that be enough to avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem is far deeper than that. Global warming and the climate destabilization it causes result from systemic defects endemic to industrial civilization itself. Changing middle class consumer “lifestyle” choices is only one small, though necessary, part of the whole solution. Alone, it would be far too little and much too late. That means, in some sense, everything must change and change quickly. The massive changes required are a very uncomfortable prospect for middle and upper class sensibilities. Most of the remaining middle class (and above) believe that the “climate problem” can be fixed with new energy technology, better consumer choices, and recycling, but it cannot. the flaws endemic to a system cannot be fixed by tinkering with its symptoms.

So, how can change adequate to this rapidly advancing climate crisis be accomplished? That is the big politically unacknowledged question left largely unaddressed. False promises abound. I have read too many emissions reduction targets to count (you know, 20% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, etc.). The reasons for choosing the baseline year are never explained, but they are arbitrary and politically self-serving. Why are the CO2 levels at the beginning of the industrial revolution not the baseline?

The politicians never specify the source of the numbers touted. They appear unrelated to any findings of climate science. Nor do they specify how or fr.om what industrial process emission reductions can be obtained – they mean nothing. They are no more than feeble political gestures meant to dodge the questions the elites don’t want to answer. The non-binding “commitments” made at the latest UN climate conference, COP21 in Paris, 2015, have been promoted by governments and corporate media as a major breakthrough. Yet they lack substance, being devoid of any specific actions to reduce energy use by industries or consumers, as emissions continue unabated.[1] We are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity, both historical and current.  And we have lots of data on every form of ecological and climate disturbance, including evidence of their accelerating expansion. We are also awash in vacuous platitudes and abstract “plans.”

The Crisis is Now

From dozens to two hundred species are variously estimated to be going extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway and thoroughly documented.[2] Its primary cause is indisputably the ecological havoc produced by industrial civilization. In the U.S., new car sales are booming, as is consumer finance debt, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has yet to exceed ¾ of 1%. Some coal-fired power plants are slowly being replaced by natural gas, which, because it is extracted by fracking, now produces as much in carbon pollution as coal. Other coal-fired plants are being replaced by utility-scale solar power. At the same time, solar credits for homeowners and businesses are being cut back or eliminated as investor owned utility companies desperately try to hold on to their economic power by exerting political influence.

The environmental damage and total emissions from natural gas, when the toxic waste and methane leakage of fracking are considered, are well documented. They are at least as bad as those from the coal-fired plants they replace. Nuclear power, a miserable financial and environmental failure, is still touted as a zero-emissions option. Corporate nuclear power interests still seek government subsidies for construction and insurance that corporate underwriters will not write. Nothing is being done about the vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of the national power grid; it could be taken down not just by a terrorist attack, but by its own internal weaknesses.[3] Actual security of power grids can only be achieved by distributed power generation. Smart metering and local power management would allow automatic isolation of failed components. All of this is technically feasible now. Only the political power of corporate financial and energy elites prevents the needed changes from being implemented. None of this is affected by individual consumer lifestyle choices.

There are so many ecological fronts on which climate destabilization is accelerating that it is nearly impossible to keep up. It is no less difficult to mount the massive changes required of us to actually make a difference. Euphemisms continue to trump direct confrontation of difficult political and economic policy decisions. Given the inaction of moribund national institutions, it seems only some kind of mass social movement can put enough pressure on those institutions to act in the public and planetary interests. Public resistance to the status quo is necessary – think 350.org’s rapidly growing fossil-fuel divestment movement. Rapid replacement of institutionalized fossil-fuel energy production is required – think accelerated installation of distributed solar and wind technologies for power production. Also think universal upgrading of insulation and weather stripping on existing buildings and net zero energy efficiency for all new construction – not just showy demonstration projects. We don’t need Bill Gates’ pie-in-the-sky technological innovation to feed his venture capital; we need to take the critical steps that present no technical problems, are available today, and have the most near-term chance to mitigate the current trajectory of climate destabilization.

The building of local and regional institutions and community actions must create resilience, not just by adapting to increasingly dire rapidly deteriorating conditions. The best way to adapt to the climate disruptions that are already happening and accelerating is to mitigate them both locally and nationally. That will require significant curtailment of excessive and superfluous production, consumption and unnecessary waste. To do these things we must radically changing our relations to the institutions – collectively best described as the corporate state – that perpetuate the problem while issuing political platitudes and false hopes.

What if the true costs of extraction-production-transportation-consumption-waste had to be paid at the big-box checkout line? Or better, let each currently “externalized” cost be paid at its respective point of extraction, manufacture, transportation, or consumption. The total of such payments should reflect the full environmental cost and be deposited in a public trust to be applied directly to mitigating the causes of global warming. The culture of consumerism would be significantly dampened if the true costs of industrial society had to be paid up front. Again, this is entirely beyond the reach of individual ethical action.

Individualism and Collective Action

For those of us who already take climate disruption seriously we must directly address one of the most important factors that contribute to weakening the climate movement. We must not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. When it comes to climate mitigation, self-satisfaction is a very dangerous vice. Individual action by those who are aware of the planetary crisis and care, while necessary, will never be enough. Widespread individual action will not happen by itself. We could each recycle everything we can, and the industrial juggernaut would still march on to climate collapse and social chaos. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism. It will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan continuing its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. The paradox of individual and collective action will remain as long as individuals do not organize to produce large-scale collective action.[4]

The extant momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some plausible level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. Some argue that it already has – all the more reason to take maximum collective action to minimize the damage. The change we need is systemic and it is now. That will not happen until a social movement even broader than the political revolution Bernie Sanders hopes for can mobilize at a vast scale.

Only a mass social movement can force the economic and political elites to transform the extractive industrial economy (or get out of the way) so that an ecological society can be built. Such a movement is emerging in part from such actions of resistance as the movement for fossil-fuel divestment by universities, retirement funds, and government agencies, initiated by 350.org. Movements of resistance are also growing at the local level in some initially small ways all across the U.S., as well as around the world. Particularly committed and active are indigenous groups whose lands and ecosystems extractive industries threaten. Only when these and other local movements take off, will the societal level changes we need be possible. That is why collective action at every level possible is necessary in diverse ways.

Much more is needed and on a much larger scale than has so far occurred. One might suggest the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s or Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence from colonial Great Britain as models for a new climate movement. Numerous other examples of non-violent political movements could be cited. However, the kind of change required by the climate crisis is of a very different order. It is vastly more complex and involves deep structural changes, especially in the industrialized nations, that remain yet to be started or even fully envisioned. The U.S. civil rights movement forced some major changes in public behavior toward Black citizens; it is now clear that the more complex and deeper cultural change sought remains far from achieved. Today, it is not just freedom from oppression for individual groups that we need; it is the total transformation of the global political economy.

Transformative Action

The needed transformation is not unrelated to current struggles of diverse oppressed groups around the world. It is, after all, the capital-driven process of industrialization that has caused most of the poverty and oppression so widespread in the world today. The Black Lives Matter movement, despite fairly broad support by individuals in the white middle class, is unlikely to make significant progress in itself. Until the politics that created a militarized police across the U.S. is transformed into a democratic government whose priorities are guided by a commitment to the quality of life of the people, police will still act in the interests of the corporate state. Similarly, government climate policy will continue to favor corporate techno-industrial false solutions until forced to do otherwise. So far, climate politics favor the conveniences demanded by wealth. They do not reflect the needs of the people or the planet. Instead, a strong commitment to human values and wellbeing must guide climate policy. It is currently guided by corporate financial interests. Only a massive social movement for democracy can change that.

At the same time, we must all do whatever we can do individually, knowing it is not nearly enough. We must do what we can and not be satisfied by our limited personal actions; we must forge alliances to organize larger socially transformative actions that can penetrate the shield of corporate wealth. Most importantly, we must join any effort we can in our local communities and regions to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path that will otherwise add human extinction to the rapidly growing list of other species already destroyed.

[1] Sara Nelson, “The Slow Violence of Climate Change,” points to James Hansen’s assessment that the COP21 accords are “just worthless words.” She also points out that current national commitments, in the unlikely event that they would be realized, would add up to a 2.7 degree Celsius global temperature rise, which would, by sea-rise alone, annihilate many of the world’s major cities as well as island nations, producing massive climate induced population displacements. Accessed at:  http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/35293-the-slow-violence-of-climate-change.

[2] Details of the currently accelerating mass extinction and previous such events can be found in The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert.

[3] Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (New York: Crown, 2015) points to the vulnerabilities of the national power grid, discusses responses to an attack or failure. But he never questions the centralized structure of the grid or how it can be decentralized to distribute power production, increase efficiency, and reduce vulnerability. Koppel’s book does, however, provide a sobering view of the devastating consequences of a widespread power outage as it would occur with our current power grid.

[4] The recent article by Peter Kalmus, “How Far Can We Get Without Flying?” Yes! Magazine, illustrates the dilemma of individual vs. collective action. Kalmus, a climate scientist, decided to stop flying to cut his carbon emissions and became aware of some of the implications of a post-oil future. But neither all climate scientists, nor the general public, will stop flying or engaging in other climate-destructive consumer behavior on their own. It will take a large scale social movement to change the culture of consumerism that feeds the industrial leviathan. Accessed at: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying-20160211  Reposted at:  http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-02-16/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying

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.

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

A lot of congressional politicians and media pundits of both Republican and Democratic persuasion are jabbering these days about “job creation.”  The 2014 mid-term elections are fast approaching and nobody wants to be caught looking indifferent to the lack of jobs for an increasingly large numbers of Americans.

Their approaches are different, of course.  The Democrats want more ‘stimulus’ to “grow the economy” by restoring government spending and infrastructure investment.  The Republicans, as usual want to cut even more taxes on business and the wealthy than ever, despite already record low taxes and swollen corporate coffers.  They would “encourage investment” in economic growth to “create jobs.”  But despite the obvious cruelty of actions such as cutting food stamps – a program benefiting more working age recipients than ever before – and failing to extend unemployment benefits when jobs are so hard to come by, neither wing of the ‘republican/democrat’ Corporate Party gets the basic facts of a changing economy nor wants to face them if they do understand the situation.

The entire history of the industrial era has involved forcing people off their lands and into a vast pool of “free labor” to be tapped by growing industry as needed, then forcing them out of their jobs by outsourcing capital to cheaper labor markets.  The whole time, investment in growth has included technical innovations that increase production while reducing the labor required for a given level of production.  Only the slave holders of the South wanted to retain a labor-intensive method of agricultural production – the labor was free!  Government policy all along has been to subsidize increased productivity and to supply the kinds of labor needed.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill allowed returning vets to get a college education that would open employment for them in a technologically expanding economy.  Continuing technological innovation – especially the explosion of computer technology from the 1980s onward – required fewer middle-management jobs and increasingly required smaller numbers of new jobs with highly technical skills in product development for military hardware, medical devices, industrial processes, computer hardware, software, and networks.  The labor market bifurcated into 1) high paying upper-management and technically-skilled jobs and 2) low paying unskilled jobs, as manufacturing capital was moved overseas for production with labor at a fraction of the cost that manufacturing labor had been in the U.S.  The middle class shrunk accordingly as consumption was increasingly funded by credit-card and mortgage debt.  That, of course, rolled into highly leveraged financial “assets” by the Big Banks, led to the 2008 financial collapse.

We now have a labor market which is composed of an increasingly smaller number of very high paying executive positions, well paying technical jobs, fewer and fewer moderately compensated white-collar jobs, very few blue-collar manufacturing jobs at depressed wages.  This followed the successful destruction of unions in the U.S.  Wage suppression and outsourcing let to an expanding labor market for low to minimum wage dead-end jobs that cannot be outsourced because they involve direct manual labor in the service sector, largely retail clerking, cleaning, building maintenance, etc. –  jobs that cannot adequately support a worker no less his/her family.

Despite my thirty-five years in higher education and belief in the importance of education for every citizen in a democracy, I know that more college educated workers in a labor market that does not need them is no solution to the shortage of jobs with a living wage.  Nor will technical training programs create the jobs they are meant to fill.  Most proposals from politicians to improve access to college education – low-interest student loans, subsidized tuition, loan forgiveness for those who go into teaching, etc. – are good in their own right.  But they will not solve the problem of insufficient livable-wage jobs available in the labor market.  Too many private training ‘institutes’ or ‘universities’ arrange federally subsidized student loans to pay for training that does not result in jobs for graduates.  The problem is not just the lack of educated workers; it runs much deeper than that.  The political rhetoric completely misses the real problem.

Labor markets were sustained in the growth economy because expanding production always needed new workers, even when technological innovations reduced the number of workers needed for individual industrial processes.  As long as growth could be sustained, debt-based capital infusion into new production increased the total number of new workers needed even though each process needed fewer workers to function.  But that is over now.  And the end of the growth economy is in fact the beginning of the Great Transformation that politicians are entirely unprepared to deal with, even as it fast approaches.

The accumulation of massive private and public debt is today running up against the enormous accumulation of the waste and damage produced by unfettered economic growth as we approach the end of cheap energy and natural resources.  As resource limits and ecological collapse draw near, a Great Transformation is inevitable.  What that transformation will look like is a very open question.  How it plays out will be up to the ability of humanity to recognize the new planetary reality and to reorganize society and its deployment of technological and social innovation to create a new realism of hope that transcends the illusions of the recent past.  Part II of this post will explore where we stand in that quest.

“A Revolution of Values” is What It Will Take to Humanize the Coming Great Transformation

Martin Luther King referred several times to the need for “a revolution of values,” in his speech, “Beyond Viet Nam,” April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, a year before he was assassinated,.  I listened again as it was replayed on Martin Luther King Day, 2014, forty-seven years later. That speech had been immediately vilified by the media and many politicians who still supporting the war.  King’s words included, along with important but inconvenient truths of that time, some prophetic implications for today.  Not only did Dr. King nail the unacknowledged facts of the increasingly militarized foreign policy that has since grown more aggressive, he also projected his vision into the future with remarkable foresight.

Several converging trends together mark a great transformation in human history that is no longer easy to deny.  Official Washington circles denied it then, with the corporate media chiming in; today official Washington circles conspicuously ignore the writing on the wall and the corporate media follow suit in their silence, even as its biospheric proportions become ever more clear.  Not surprising, really; that is what “company men” and women have always done.  But it is stunning to hear or read Dr. King’s vision of the consequences of the nation’s folly as it reaches its pinnacle, a half century after he acknowledged it as the nation’s elites denied it.

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit…” [Read Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.]  That malady remains as an ever-growing culture of cruelty abroad and increasingly at home.  The fundamentalist values of imperial domination of the Feared Other are now being turned inward as the domestic population is increasingly viewed as the enemy of the “free market” [read corporate controlled market] and its plunder of the entire planet.  The history of the industrial age has been one of forcing people off their land, and now from their jobs and homes, in the never-ending quest for more profit and less costs through reduced and outsourced wages and efficient production through labor-saving technology.  But to what end?  The economic values of the growth imperative override and supersede any human values we attempt to retain.  This is the extension of the malady Dr. King pointed to.

The human malady we continue to experience is expressed in the destruction of social relations – that is, relations among persons – in the economic interests of corporations.  Dr. King recognized that destructive trend quite clearly even in 1967:

“…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The result has been an ever growing culture of cruelty.  To counter that, we need a revolution of values.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ..
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation…  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Dr. King did not anticipate the emergence of a massive ‘incarceration nation’ that would be the legacy of the drug war, nor the extreme disparity in income and wealth that would surpass the conditions preceding the great depression.  But all across the nation and the world, people are now beginning to seriously question government policies and economic conditions that approach being intolerable, recognizing that they serve the interests of the power elite only by destroying people’s lives and the biosphere in which we all live.  The evidence of their damage just keeps piling up.  But individuals are also aware that alone they have little opportunity to take actions that they feel will ‘make a difference.’  So, often on the model provided by Occupy Wall Street and with similar perspectives, small local groups are forming to address specific problems arising at a human scale from the destruction of the growth-imperative political-economy.  They embody Dr. King’s words:

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.:”

Twenty-four hours before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Martin Luther King expressed his vision of the necessary movement of people around the world to redirect humanity through a revolution of values:

“Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…
It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Wendell Berry recently commented that we are beginning to experience the “resettling of America,” in which people recognize the importance of their relations to the land and to the people around them, and are acting on that awareness – they are turning away from the giant institutions that have failed America.  They are taking direct actions in response to the emerging Revolution of Values of which they are a part and which cannot be stopped.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part II

The reality we face in the coming decades involves three integrated crises: 1) the consolidation of the corporate state driven by the debt-based endless corporate-growth economy, which increasingly damages populations by isolating them from economic resources and destroys the environment we all need, in service to short-term profit and political power; 2) accelerating resource depletion which makes the conventional economic model of debt-based economic growth and expanding populations unsustainable; and 3) accelerating climate disruption caused by unrelenting carbon emissions resulting from (1) and (2).  Unlimited economic growth is an illusion that is ultimately self-terminating.  Our current path poses the utmost threat ever to human survival, making it the greatest imaginable challenge to an outlook of hopeful realism.  If you recognize the existential threat facing us, how can you not be a hopeless pessimist?  If you deny the existential threat facing us, you must be a foolish optimist.  Both those options are useless.

Any solution requires both hope and realism.  We must face necessary massive transformations in the ways we live on the planet if hope is to be sustained.  We must sustain a huge dose of hope in order to take the drastic challenging actions necessary for survival.  Most discussions that recognize the threat look for solutions that assume continuing on some “green” path of the consumer culture we have come to view as “normal.”  That will not work.  However, the Great Transformation that is now inevitable – though its outcome is unpredictable – need not require a Luddite approach that would simply destroy manufacturing technology.  Instead, we must recognize that human technology has gone off in a direction of “creative destruction” and must be re-directed and transformed into a new human-scale enterprise.  But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.  It is not hard to come up with a list of imperative economic and technological changes, all of which involve freeing ourselves from fossil-fuel dependency.  Here are just a few major items for such a list:

  • Convert electricity production from coal and gas to wind and solar.
  • Convert the hugely wasteful long-distance electricity transmission grid to interconnected local-community solar/wind electrical smart grids.
  • Reduce much of capital-intensive production to labor-intensive production.
  • Convert transportation from petroleum based to electricity based propulsion.
  • Break up the Big Banks; re-institute the Glass-Steagall wall between commercial banking and investment (casino) banking, and while were at it, have the Federal Reserve re-sell all those casino junk bonds back to the Big Banks at the price paid; that will re-direct the Bad Debt back to where it belongs; then resolve those bloated unnecessary institutions and let those gamblers take the losses they earned.
  • Establish State and local banks as public institutions in service to public needs.
  • Limit international trade to products and materials that are not capable of being produced in the receiving nation; convert all shipping to non-fossil-fuel propulsion systems.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Obviously, this list could be extended considerably, and much detail would have to be worked out.  But you get the idea: massive transformation of international, national, and local-regional economies in line with the energy requirements of stabilizing the biosphere to achieve stable local and planetary ecological systems.  Well, that was easy.  But wait.  How can these things be accomplished?  Conventional political processes are controlled by the very corporations that continue to resist such changes in order to grab as much short-term profits as they can before being forced to change.  But if we wait for the force of nature to stop the insanity, then it will be too late to stop the acceleration of climate disruption beyond the limits of human habitation on the planet.  Many corporations see the climate writing on the wall, but they are compelled by their own internal logic to grab all they can before the end of the era of endless growth.

The only answer left is popular resistance, and that is a long shot because the popular culture is largely controlled by the corporate media that promotes only its own short-term interests, and we will have to change the way we live rather quickly to make enough difference.  Yet, people are not nearly as stupid as politicians and CEOs think they are.  We know we are in crisis, but most just don’t know what to do personally and most still believe that we can somehow have a “green” economy and still consume all that stuff the corporations are selling us.  The most important result of the Occupy Movement – and the Arab Spring as well, for that matter – is that it really scared the political-economic power elites.  Occupy has dispersed, but many local actions based on similar principles are occurring.  History shows that the power of numbers can overcome the power of elites.  No guarantees; we have so much to do and so little time.  In Part III of this essay I will discuss the sources of hope in this sea of harsh reality.