Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.

The Trouble with Economics: William Nordhaus and Pope Francis

Economics is perhaps the one social science “profession” that is most entrenched in the political economy of contemporary nations. Little economic thought escapes the halls of academia without the neoliberal stamp of theoretical approval. The trouble with most of the social sciences is that it is very difficult for them to actually be scientific. In the first place, complexity is amplified exponentially by the fact that human behavior is mediated by language. Moreover, the language of human affairs is saturated with concepts and terms that have implicit political content.

Economics, like sociology, political science, and psychology, is a “discipline” that is disciplined by ideology. In particular, in its contemporary form economics is a powerful influence over national and international political policies, especially as applied to economic forces in society. Economics is in turn powerfully influenced by the most prevailing societal forces in the world today – the machinations of financial elites. Academic economics is dominated by the so-called “free market” theories for which Milton Friedman is most famous. From his intellectual throne at the University of Chicago, Friedman and his minions have dominated the economic framework of U.S. international as well as domestic policies for decades. Of course, there is little human freedom in the corporate-controlled “free markets.” Many of these policies have been at the heart of U.S. imperial strategies of foreign domination in the later twentieth century right up to today. U.S. geopolitical strategies have been driven largely by attempts to control world fossil-fuel markets.

Empire of Emissions

Anyone so naïve as to believe that U.S. foreign policy is meant to “bring democracy” to other nations must read Confessions of an Economic Hit man, by John Perkins (2004). As an “economic hit man,” it was Perkins’ job to persuade leaders of developing nations to accept huge loans to build massive infrastructure projects that did little to aid the development of those nations. Instead, they were designed and structured to bring poor countries with rich resources into submission to U.S. corporations and indebtedness to the U.S. government and the Big Banks. The deals required the money from the loans to be spent with U.S. construction companies on projects that would never generate enough income to pay off the loans. Pressure was then brought to bear on such nations to comply with U.S. political demands for resource exploitation and political subservience. Perkins’ book is a fascinating on-the-ground account of the workings of the expansive imperial structure, the larger picture that Naomi Klein characterizes as “disaster capitalism” in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007).

Despite the exposure of the massive economic and social failings of the growth-at-any-cost form of predatory extractive capitalism that is ideologically propped up by the neoliberal economic theorists, not much has changed in “modern economics.” This is also true of the specialty of “environmental economics.” The latest effort to stand firm supporting “market mechanisms” as the means to solve all problems in the world, is made by William Nordhaus. His essay in the New York Review of Books, October 8, 2015, tries to destroy the economic credibility of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015. Available at w2.vatican.va).

Nordhaus is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and a well established environmental economist. His attack on Pope Francis’ encyclical pretends to be grounded in supposed rock-solid economic facts of “effective” market approaches to restraining carbon emissions. He entirely ignores the strong evidence that carbon trading in Europe has been a dismal failure. Rather than having a basis in scientific findings, his analysis is actually grounded only in neoliberal economic ideology. It ignores both the severity of the economic and ecological facts of our destabilizing world and the moral questions raised by Pope Francis’ argument.

At least ecological economists examine economic systems as operating within the living earth systems that sustain all life, including economists and other humans. Norhaus’ failure – and that of economics in general – is that he treats earth systems as mere economic factors to be incorporated in the economists’ models of market forces. In fact, economies are human systems operating within and now seriously disrupting the earth systems upon which they rely. This is a direct result of the propagandistic role of economics in the political culture of the U.S. and most of the other industrially overdeveloped nations.

Immoral Economics

Nordhaus wants to protect the failed economic system by tweaking its damaging impacts. However, living earth systems are being so severely destabilized by the fundamental ways that system operates, that only a massive reorganization of human economic life will be sufficient to allow those systems to re-stabilize.

Nordhaus concludes his essay by chiding the pope for not endorsing a “market-based solution” such as carbon pricing (and the disaster that is carbon trading) as “the only practical policy tool we have” to turn back the dangerous trends of climate change. Certainly, such “solutions” would constitute the limit of action if we had to accept the corporate free market ideology. But Pope Francis has other ideas. He asserts the social immorality of a system that destroys climate stability and all that depend on it while creating more plutocracy and poverty. Pope Francis calls upon the people to turn away from compulsive consumerism. He calls upon world leaders to abandon the “magical conception of the market” and to turn away from the failed economic system they have allowed to rule us and severely damage the planet.

Nordhaus will have none of it. He dismisses economists like Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz, who recognize in different ways the relationship between capital gone wild and increasing inequality. By attacking the idea that climate disruption causes poverty, Nordhaus attempts to deflect attention from the fact that unrestrained predatory global capital causes both. He optimistically asserts that utilizing assumed magical qualities of market mechanisms can somehow undo the damage that unbridled global capital markets have wrought. That is the trouble with economics.

Immigration, Refugees, Arms Sales, and the Food Crisis

The current stream of refugees to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones is just the tip of a growing iceberg. Most major news outlets focus on the struggle to resolve how the Europeans can absorb the current rush of migrants to Europe fleeing death and destruction. Distinctions are made between economic refugees and political or war refugees. Those deemed to be migrating to flee poverty and seek economic opportunity are more likely to be turned back. Those acknowledged to be fleeing political persecution are more likely to be welcomed. That is understandable, but much more is involved. News stories focus on the events of the moment and in this case are “Eurocentric.” Historians will later reflect on the role of such events in the larger flow over time. Meanwhile, there is more to come.

Some major newspapers, such as Great Britain’s The Guardian and The Independent, have begun to look also at the larger picture of which the current crisis is a mere symptom. There are several important connections between crises of war, poverty, climate disruption, and agricultural failures than commonly acknowledged, especially in the U.S. corporate media. Here and in Europe refugees are often seen as being of questionable character and possibly criminal intruders.

Blaming the Victims

We need not listen to Donald Trump to recognize the prejudice against Mexicans and all Central Americans, which permeates discussions of immigration in the news. Yet most refugees from Central America are fleeing violence in countries whose militaries were trained by the infamous U.S. military run “School of the Americas.” The results were clandestine but official death squads that tortured and murdered rebels and civilians alike. Their brutal actions are still taken in support of dictatorships in Central America that the U.S. has propped up for decades. And, of course, Mexican farmers, driven out of business by NAFTA enabled cheap corn dumping on the Mexican food market by U.S. corporations, have sought employment north of the border.

The refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as smaller numbers from war torn regions in Africa are conceived by many Europeans as invaders. Other kind souls have held up welcome signs and handed out food to the immigrants, recognizing both their plight and their humanity. But the conflicts they flee have resulted largely from neocolonial attempts to exert geopolitical control over regions rich in oil, minerals, and materials needed for the failing endless economic growth of the Global North. The U.S. “war on terror” is inextricably entangled with its undead pretensions to Empire, cloaked in the phony ideological veneer of “bringing democracy” to the developing nations of the world. In a fundamental way, these immigrants are refugees from the consequences of empire.

Merchants of Death

Not much is said about the connections between the international arms trade and the current wave of immigration from the Middle East to Europe. It is common among humans to attribute the problems of other humans to assumed defects in those who suffer with the problems. This is no less true of the current situation and the geopolitical events leading up to the current surge of migration. In the U.S. it is commonly assumed that the problems of Sunni-Shiite violence stem from age-old animosities attributed to these groups. We ignore the fact that before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites lived peacefully in the same neighborhoods and intermarried peacefully in Baghdad and elsewhere. In fact the U.S. demolish-divide-and-conquer approach to its occupation of Iraq forced Iraqis into conflict relations by destroying the civil society that sustained peaceful relations. That civil society existed under the prior dictatorship and certainly could have been sustained under a democratic regime the U.S. government claimed to be bringing to Iraq. But the U.S. destroyed civil society and most of the basic infrastructure upon which it depended.

The geopolitics of war is immensely influenced (and stimulated) by the international arms trade. In most conflict zones, little violence would be occurring were it not for the saturation of arms among conflicting groups supplied and sponsored by outside entities. The so-called “great powers” set up conflict situations by their attempts to control extant or potential “client nations.” The proliferation of arms results from loans or grants for sales by the dominant suppliers such as the U.S., China, Russia, and Germany, with significant sales from Eastern Europe as well. These nations facilitate sales by private arms dealers as well as making direct “loans” for purchases by client states and non-state actors. The U.S., for example, has contracted with various arms dealers to supply Afghan troops to fight the Taliban. Most of the arms used by ISIS are U.S. made, some confiscated from fleeing Iraqi troops and some purchased on the private arms market. The U.S. government does nothing to restrict sales by U.S. arms manufacturers and their dealers around the world – after all, that might upset the NRA.

Climate of Collapse

With the impact of global warming causing climate disruptions including regional drought and flooding in developing nations, food production is already being severely damaged. Some refugee camps in Lebanon, crowded with Syrians who fled their destroyed homes, have run out of food. The common idea that migrants are merely poor people seeking better economic opportunities is for these reasons both inaccurate and simplistic. Most poor rural Africans or Afghans –or middle class Syrians for that matter – would have had little or no motivation for leaving their homes for Europe or anywhere else if it were not for the threat of death by war and starvation.

It is the convergence of the externally stimulated armed conflicts – and imperious resource seizures – with growing disruption of regional agriculture and the destabilization of local political and economic structures that makes life in such places unbearable. Most of the destabilization in the world today is the result of “great powers” vying for power over nations rendered weaker by prior colonialism. The nations of the industrialized Global North compete to control the world’s resources. They destabilize weaker nations, as they charge headlong and indifferent, causing climate chaos and planetary destruction.

Accelerating Concentration of Income and Wealth: Another Positive Feedback Loop

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
~ John Ruskin [1]p.187

Everybody seems to know that the concentration of income and wealth among “the one percent” has accelerated in recent years. Actually, the most extreme concentration is in the top one percent of the top one percent of the population. We all agree that beyond some undefined point that is not a good thing. Conservatives don’t want to talk about it. Liberals will decry the situation but don’t want to talk about the conservative’s bugaboo: “re-distribution of wealth.” That’s a bit of a contradiction, of course, since the recent extreme concentration of income and wealth is exactly that: a massive redistribution of income and wealth from the whole economy to the top 0.1% of the population – the wealthiest of the wealthy.

Democracy Derailed
A funny thing happened on the way to democracy. The “American Experiment” got de-railed by the formation of power elites and their reinforcement since before C. Wright Mills first wrote about them in 1959.[2] Mills was a true maverick sociologist. American sociology had been busy finding its place as an academic profession among the more established fields of economics, political science, and psychology. In the 1940s and ‘50s, sociologists were trying to distance themselves from the European sociologists and their socialist leanings. That was the era of the “Red Scare,” Joe McCarthy, and the height of American anti-communist witch-hunts after the Korean War. Mills was an accomplished researcher with all the right academic credentials, but his iconoclasm forced him out of Columbia University. His work exposing the workings of class, status, and especially power under industrial capitalism is as relevant today as is President Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation. The power of financial, corporate, and military elites has grown much greater since Mills’ work.

The political ideology of the power elite is simple: the corporate and financial elites are presented as the source of innovation, technology, jobs, and economic growth – they are “the job creators.” Therefore, its members should be left to do their good works for society with no regulation and no taxation on their wealth creation. For, the riches they create will certainly “trickle down” to the masses and everyone will live happily ever after. Somehow, the distorted invocation of Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” – whereby the self-interested behavior of all the economic actors will mysteriously result in the public interest being optimized – is supposed to fit into that image of elite noblesse oblige.

Fortunately, that mythological form of elite ideology is beginning to conflict with the understandings of the public. That is one of the main reasons for the initial popularity of maverick outsider candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President for 2016. Bernie Sanders unashamedly speaks directly to the failure of the ideology of the economic elite and the blatant injustices that now dominate the economy. He proposes programs to compensate for the failures of the endless-growth economy to include the general population in the economy. He would even break up the “too big to fail” banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008, directly challenging the financial elite on Wall Street.

But why does this concentration of wealth and income seem to be inevitable if unconstrained by populist politics? Will it be enough to just develop programs such as those of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” during the Great Depression, to rebalance the economy?

Positive Feedback
One thing is generally missed when extreme income inequality and concentration of wealth are topics of conversation. Quite simply, the concentration of income and wealth is a positive feedback loop. In other words, they feed upon each other; each reinforces the growth of the other. I would even go so far as to say that this is a universal principle of power accumulation in any money economy that has no counter-force. Money is power and that power is usually exercised politically. High income and extreme wealth make the accumulation of more wealth easier because of the access it gives to economic and political resources. Great wealth provides great opportunities to influence politics; the exercise of that undue political influence results in decisions by politicians – legislation – that affords the wealthy more income and thus more wealth. It’s a positive feedback loop.

Most Americans do not make enough income to accumulate even a modest amount of savings, no less anything that could be called wealth. The very few, on the other hand, through very large incomes – including salaries in the millions, obscene self-gifted bonuses, stock options, dividends, and capital gains – are able to accumulate large fortunes. That can happen only by the creation of growing poverty.

Phantom Wealth Causes Poverty
John Ruskin, the nineteenth century British art historian, articulated this problem very well when he wrote on political economy. Ruskin argued that the creation of wealth inevitably produces poverty whenever wages are unjust.[1] Ruskin’s analysis of just and unjust wages was the basis for his critique of the political economy of his day for its obtuse claim to be simply “the science of getting rich.” I cannot imagine a more relevant consideration in examining the wildly distorted wage disparities created and accepted in today’s corporate state under the same crass ideology. Elites accumulate ever more millions in salary and bonuses, as well as capital gains through stock market manipulation, etc. The real wages of workers are ever lower as better-paying jobs are outsourced to destitute workers in poor nations. The greater the concentration of wealth, the broader is the spread of poverty.

The accumulation of vast wealth provides many political opportunities to influence the economy through the political system of lobbying, graft, and corruption. Tax laws have been significantly changed since the 1950s more and more to favor the rich and powerful. Yet the clamor of the political elite for “lower taxes” and deregulation of corporate activities – including the direct economic influence over elections – continues unabated. Political elites reinforce extreme income and wealth concentration by legislative pandering to economic elites. The two tend to merge.

Pushed to the Breaking Point
The American people have been victims of the ideology of the economic elites for decades. But just as with mass incarceration, unrestrained police shootings, and other political aberrations, the middle class did not lose its values over the last few decades, become lazy and thereby fall into poverty. The power of the wealthy has gotten so great that the inevitable distortions to what might have been a just or a moral economy, have intensified. People have been forced out of the middle class and have become poor because the rich have increasingly become super-rich. We are reaching a breaking point. All money economies rely on the circulation of money to sustain their operations in support of human life. The extreme disparities in income and wealth are pushing our economy to collapse as the super-rich abandon life for money.

Fortunately, more and more people are recognizing the absurd extent of income and wealth concentration and are looking for a new model for the political economy. But we need clarity to change our vision of a new life-sustaining economy.[3] We would all do well to read John Ruskin and C. Wright Mills today. They are more relevant than ever.
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[1] John Ruskin, “The Roots of Honor,” and “The Veins of Wealth,” pp. 167-203 in Unto This Last and Other Essays.(1862) London and New York: Penguin Classics, 1985, 1997.
[2] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
[3] David C. Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015) goes a long way in seeking that clarity.

Local Community Resilience to Reduce Climate Disruption

In some ways, Northern New Mexico may be ahead of other regions in building local community resilience and adapting to increasingly difficult environmental conditions. Santa Fe sports a reputation for one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the nation. On the other hand, its recycling program is dismally inadequate. Over-dependence on a national economy that infuses cash into local businesses through tourism may be a risky strategy as climate disruption intensifies. Tourism may become a declining economic asset as conditions become more severe.[1] It has become almost a cliché to say that local economies must increasingly rely on local production to be sustainable. As the converging crises of climate, economy, and energy intensify, conditions will be less stable.This calls for building community resilience. How can this resilience be accomplished? So far, we see too much image, not enough substance, but we know deep down that we must reorganize our lives in exceptionally challenging ways.

Critics of climate action and the “sustainability movement” look to an imaginary prosperity driven by international trade in a fantasy-world of ever-growing energy use and unacknowledged waste. Like most Americans, the people of New Mexico participate in that fantasy in various ways. Maybe the most obvious is the extravagant highways speeds at which we drive our over-powered pickup trucks. Then, look at those busy “big box” stores and ask what of all that stuff do we really need. However, the “slow food” and “slow money” movements are taking root at some moderate level here.

From Corporate Dependency to Community Resilience

A burgeoning local organic farming industry in Northern New Mexico struggles to mature in the sparse high-desert valleys as the record-breaking drought continues. Local communities still depend mostly on national food distribution as California’s ever more severe drought continues to damage production in the “nation’s bread basket.” The U.S. depends on California’s factory farms for over ninety percent of many staple food crops. The vast majority of grain and feed crops are produced by giant Midwestern factory farms. Systems science has known for decades that large complex systems are vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns and even collapse. The signs are there. Dependency on these mega-systems puts us all at high risk.

Climate forecasters predict that total precipitation, in the near-term anyway, may not be terribly low in Northern New Mexico. But early snow melt and a moderate snow pack means premature runoff and less usable water. In the hotter climate, evaporation accounts for a large amount of water loss. As seen elsewhere, extreme storms with sudden downpours result in flash floods, rather than building reservoir reserves. This year’s spring and early summer rains may produce extra fuel for wildfires in the Fall.

The climate disruption we already experience is part of a planetary problem brought on by the carbon emissions the “advanced” industrial nations have caused since the dawn of the industrial revolution over two centuries ago. It is cumulative and accelerating. Worse, its effects lag its causes, making the nastiest effects seem far off. It is already here and the only mitigating response is to drastically reduce further emissions to stave off far worse climate catastrophe than we have yet seen. To merely adapt to the evolving disturbances in our climate will not suffice. In the vulnerable Southwest, as elsewhere, increasingly extreme measures will have to be taken to give relatively stable communities a chance.

The growing climate crisis is now and it is urgent. If recent (and past) world-wide governmental responses and voluntary “commitments” to arbitrary reductions in carbon emissions are any measure, we are in deep trouble. They are not only fictions, but they bear no relation to the real requirements of climate mitigation based on the best science. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that we can neither rely on rationality among politicians nor wait for them to take the drastic measures that are necessary to avert the catastrophic convergence of climate disruption, poverty and violence around the world.[2] All the most powerful incentives are provided by the lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and its mega-corporate allies. These powerful incentives, of course, point the politicians in exactly the wrong direction.

Resistance, Replacement, Resilience

The accelerating climate crisis requires massive mobilization of populations to take back control of their lives through Resistance, Replacement, and Resilience. Relatively small groups of people around the world are beginning to resist the pressures of the hyper-consumer culture. But majorities have not “just said no” to the Big-Box stores. The few resistors are replacing corporate dependency by building local economies, producing and buying locally, forming co-ops and resilient community institutions. These movements must grow rapidly. It is a race against time.

To replace corporate dependency with local community economic independence in harmony with living-earth systems requires a new vision. Creating sustainable local communities requires forging new ways and adapting the old ways to transform our relations with the earth and each other. We must capitalize on the natural elements of working with instead of against the earth systems upon which we all ultimately depend.[3]

Resilience comes not from adapting to climate chaos, but from creating viable local living  economies not dependent on the mega-industrial endless-growth global economy that causes climate chaos. Such local community economies must adapt to the increasingly difficult environmental conditions we face while replacing dependency on corporate products with self-sufficient community economics. Such resilient local communities will be the most sustainable and better able to respond to increasingly severe climate conditions. No small task.

The first principle of this New Great Transformation is that control of economies must shift from multinational corporations to local communities. Corporate trade legislation such as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” attempts to steal national sovereignty over environmental, health, and labor rights worldwide. That, of course, would further constrain already subservient national governments. Control of the global economy is already mostly in the hands of the mega-corporations and financial elites. Power is concentrating in the largest institutions, which transcend location or nation. We need just the opposite.

The great challenge is to recognize our personal and cultural ways of living that must be changed, then figure out how to change them, together. Taking back control over community and economic life requires resistance to the mega-corporate domination of life ways, replacement of the extractive-industrial consumer culture of waste, and creating community resilience by living in harmony with the living earth systems we inhabit.

Only when many communities take these actions can the leviathan of extractive international-trade driven capital plundering earth resources and people be slowed. When earth-integrated local community resilience replaces profligate consumer culture, a social movement will have arisen from civil society, which will force governments around the world to constrain corporate plunder and slow carbon emissions to a point where human survival can be sustained.
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[1] NASA expects increasingly sever droughts in the Southwest and Central Great Plains, exacerbated by continued global warming. See Mark Fischetti, “U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1000 Years: The Southwest and central Great Plains will dry out even more than previously thought.” Scientific American, February 12, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-droughts-will-be-the-worst-in-1-000-years1/
[2] The “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change” across the latitudes most vulnerable to early extreme weather events, mostly near the equator, is well under way, as well documented by Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.
[3] To shape a living economy in support of resilient communities, a lot of good ideas are contained in David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.

Making Money, Making Time, and Making a Living

For many Americans, the time has come to reassess our relations with the economy that is being driven off the cliff by the creation and hoarding of phantom money by the very few and catastrophic burden of debt for the rest of us. The economy is controlled by the Big Banks and it has not worked for ordinary citizens. The economy of the plutocrats has kept the nation in debt. At the same time it has made it more and more difficult to make a living by simply working at a job.

This situation raises several serious questions about the nature of money itself and how it is created, managed, distributed, and used in our economy. Most of us are not schooled in the technical aspects of ‘money and banking’ or the philosophy of money, neither of which quite rises to the level of science. But we know that something is very wrong with the way money flows – mostly up – in today’s economy. Just like blood in our arteries and veins, money must circulate broadly to assure a healthy society. One might consider today’s mega-banks as aneurisms in the economy’s aorta, poised to burst.  Surgery is required.

Time is Life
Some recent criticisms of contemporary economic culture have looked at money from the larger perspective of life itself. We have all heard the cliché, “Time is money.” An alternative view is that “Time is life.” What does that mean? Well, time is all we really have in this life and what we do with that time is our life. When we complain that we “don’t have time” for things we deem important, it is because we do not make time for them. Our time is mediated by money, which controls our access to the essentials of living. [1] Thus, money controls much of our life, so political control of the money system is critical for making a living — life.

The cult of American Individualism would blame the victim of poverty for not exercising her/his “individual freedom.” But where is the individual freedom of the increasingly common fast-food or other service worker who has to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Such admonitions assume a perfect world in which anyone who works hard can achieve anything. As Barbara Ehrenreich[2] and others have demonstrated, for many Americans, hard work is simply not enough.

You can’t make time you do not have. If you have to work at minimum wage or less, it is necessary to work most waking hours to avoid homelessness. As middle-income jobs are “outsourced” to China or other super-low wage nations, the middle class shrinks because jobs with a living wage continue to disappear from the American economy. Corporate controlled international trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the new TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) supersede national sovereignty over environmental quality and worker rights. They are negotiated in secret because voters would not tolerate them if they knew of their terms. “When Corporations Rule the World,”[3] the people lose their basic rights along with power over their own lives and the ability to make a living.

What Christian Parenti [4] has called a “catastrophic convergence” of accelerating poverty, violence, and climate disruption is already producing chaos around the world. An impending sense that the party is over is also beginning to bring about a sea change in the image ordinary people have of their lives in relation to both the economy and the planet. Profligate consumption and waste are reaching their limits as resources have passed their peak of easy extraction. Increased costs of extraction cascade into manufacturing costs and cannot be controlled. Capital is moved to locations where labor costs can be reduced. But this results in post-industrial markets shrinking due to the loss of wages that would otherwise be used to buy products. It’s a downward spiral.

A major cultural reassessment is under way. The economy is obviously failing to serve the people. The concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the top 1% is now greater than at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is unsustainable. Any economy is sustained by the effective circulation of money as the means for allocating time for doing work. Capital exists only to the extent that labor organizes material – the production of value. Yet, our economy has become subservient to a financial elite that increasingly “makes” phantom money [false capital] by generating more debt without economic productivity.

The fundamental purpose of money in the economy has been subverted. Corporate media attempt to maintain the illusion that multinational corporate capitalism is just that good old Adam Smith version of “small business” and “free” markets in bucolic communities. But we are closer to a corporate police state than any imagined democratic capitalism. Whether they articulate it in such economic terms, people know that the system is rigged. They also know that it is the corporate control of the economy and political system that is doing the rigging. Not only do the people have little or no chance of making a living in that rigged system, but those who do so sustain the larger problem.

A living Economy to Thwart Climate Catastrophe
So, what is to be done? When a system is rigged the only way to break out is to turn away from that system. This is being done in little ways all around the country. Most scientists know that massive programs to stop or at least slow climate chaos must be initiated at the national and international levels. But the system is rigged against that as it accelerates toward the convergence of climate, economic, and population catastrophes causing mass starvation/migration, resource wars, and social chaos. Energy production and wasteful consumption must be severely curtailed, but how?

Parenti argues that: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate…Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.” (p. 241) Parenti, like so many others who see what is needed, fails to articulate how such a massive transformation can be accomplished. He says that it “will require a relegitimation of the state’s role in the economy.” But that is precisely what the power elites will not allow – except, of course, where that role entails the massive economic subsidies the state already provides to the mega-corporations. So, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right to say that we cannot wait, but for what? He is wrong in assuming the energy economy will be transformed from the top without revolutionary change in the structure of political power.

First, we cannot wait for the federal government to act in the public interest – it is controlled by the corporate interests tied to the fossil-fuel economy. The energy economy must be transformed immediately, but how? Even if Bernie Sanders were elected president, the hypocritical Corporate Democrats and the magical-thinking Corporate Republicans would still be in control of legislation and continue to serve their corporate masters. Second, the only action that cannot be stopped by the political-economic elites is the grass-roots action of growing numbers of people organized to change their lives to make a living without depending on the corporate consumer economy. That is both very difficult to do and the only viable path available.

Parenti is right in saying that the immediate task is specific: drastically cut carbon emissions. But that entails a myriad of even more specific tasks, which if achieved will have arisen from below, demonstrating human resilience in the face of corporate-state paralysis. So much to do, so little time.
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1 David C. Korten, Change the Story, change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
2 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
3 David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001.
4 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

Overcoming Ideology: New Actions and New Ideas

Efforts to find a viable path to mitigating climate chaos and forging an ecologically viable economy are just not moving fast enough. They seem bogged down in struggles over old ideas and inadequate actions. Even some of the most esteemed liberal economists who are not on the corporate bandwagon have failed to escape this trap.

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both highly respected liberal economists, oppose the crass neo-conservative economic ideology of corporate imperialism. Yet, in his own way each remains trapped in the general economic ideology of extractive capitalism as the only way forward. Krugman imagines robust restrictions on carbon emissions without curtailing economic growth. Stiglitz imagines a ‘reformed’ capitalism where healthy competition can be restored. The imaginary and the possible are not necessarily the same.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has received vastly more attention and sales than ever expected of a heavy economic tome. Piketty seems to expect inequality to be reduced by expanding economic growth. A simpler version of the myth of sharing a “bigger economic pie” or the “rising tide lifts all boats” story is available in any Econ. 101 class. Unfortunately for these fables, inequality is a positive feedback loop – greater power begets greater power.

Meanwhile, Krugman argued in his September 18, 2014 New York Times column, that carbon emissions can be reduced cheaply amidst strong economic growth. He does not mention the skyrocketing depletion rates of many important industrial materials – including petroleum – upon which continued economic growth depends. The connection between economic growth, growing poverty, and climate disruption is nowhere to be found.

Stiglitz writes in last September’s Harper’s Magazine, that Piketty is wrong in concluding that inequality is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Instead, he says, ‘capitalism as we know it’ isn’t truly competitive like a capitalist system should be. Our system’s growing extreme disparities in income and wealth have been engineered by the wealthy. Stiglitz would reform capitalism.

Ending Economic Ideology

Stiglitz and Krugman are stalwart and articulate critics of the neoliberal economic ideology that attempts to justify corporate dominion over economic and political policy. However, despite their rather sophisticated economic analyses, our present economic system is what it is because it is not allowed to be reformed. The concentration of both wealth and income in the hands of a small elite is inherent in any economy in which excessive political power accrues to the financial elite. Inequality is becoming extreme, extractive demands of industrial production grow ever stronger as resources are depleted, and the devastation of the planet continues. Reform? You can’t get there from here.

As the international death dance continues around failed commitments to reduce carbon emissions, sufficient national and international actions to curtail climate chaos seem ever more unlikely. We know a lot about carbon emissions and the most important sources. Technically, the necessary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could be planned as effectively as the U.S. mobilized the entire economy upon entering World War II. But execution is a political matter and therein lays the collective failure. Another way is needed and not even the most sincere and smart conventional economists seem able to help.

Increasing poverty, massive concentration of income and wealth, and accelerating climate disruption all have the same cause. The economy of endless growth required by the debt-driven imperatives of extractive capital is not susceptible to political reform. The very financial and corporate elites that drive the economy have captured and completely control the key players in the political process. We must look elsewhere for solutions. And elsewhere we will find them.

Resistance and Replacement: Actions Reforming Ideas

The people and the planet desperately need resistance to and replacement of the very institutions that even the most liberal critics of economic and environmental failure cannot give up. As neo-conservative economic policies still seek to solidify the empire of growth, progressive leaning conventional economists seek to reform what needs to be replaced. Powerful financial and corporate elites do not give up easily. Consider Jamie Diamond’s arrogant dismissal of Elisabeth Warren’s desire to regulate Wall Street’s excesses. The conversation in which it occurred is noted in the Afterward to the paperback re-issue of her book, A Fighting Chance.

Neither resistance nor replacement will be easy. But both will be nurtured by the growing sense among more and more people that we are on a path to catastrophe and need an immediate course correction. There is much to learn from non-violent movements of resistance that have succeeded, as reported in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Even so, new models of resistance must involve accelerated withdrawal from the consumerist complex – no easy task. There is still a place for the forms of resistance seen in the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. But Gene Sharp, whose From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, inspired those movements’ strategies, urged practical agility and creativity in fighting oppressive forces.

Today’s forces of oppression, especially in the ‘industrially advanced’ nations, are of a different order than the old dictatorships. The “inverted totalitarianism” with a façade of democratic formalism, as Sheldon Wolin describes in Democracy Incorporated, calls for new creative forms of resistance. Naomi Kline argues for ideologically driven forms of resistance in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. However, new ideologies of humane social and economic relations, economic justice, and ecological society must be shaped by resistance that has direct and meaningful relationships to the immediate crises we face.

Replacement of the failed perpetual-growth political economy and its extractive energy-production and consumption practices requires even more creativity and organization. Various books, magazines, and Web sites, such as John Brown Childs, Trans-Communality, David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future, Yes! Magazine, and Resilience.org – to name just a few – seek alternative cultural and political as well as economic paths. Works like that of Juliet B. Schor, author of True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, point to the formation of a new society grounded in humanity’s relationship to the earth and all its inhabitants. The idea of the good life is captured in that title. Many families and communities are experimenting with new ways of living outside of institutional entanglements. But much more is needed and on a much larger scale.

The hard part, of course, is getting it done, especially with so little time before catastrophic consequences of our current path become unavoidable. Some argue that it is too late. But that claim is pointless. We fight not because we will win; we fight because we must win.