To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the Ivory Tower

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

[Please note: This article is republished with permission from the site, ensia.com. It was accessed at: http://ensia.com/voices/to-build-a-sustainable-world-academics-need-to-tear-down-the-ivory-tower.]

Anthony D. Barnosky
@tonybarnosky Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth A. Hadly
@LizHadly Stanford professor and global change scientist

Paul R. Ehrlich President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature.

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster. View Ensia homepage

Comment:

Robert M. Christie  Mar. 19th, 2016
This is the most precise and concise delineation of the elements of the contemporary human-planetary predicament I have yet heard. If allowed, I will republish it on my little blog, TheHopefulRealist.com. My only qualification is that the ultimate obstacle to the solution is the global political economy and its power over culture and consequently public and political awareness. We are confronted with the necessity of performing the next, and perhaps final, Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship to the earth systems upon which it depends and which it is destroying. All that is said here is true, but moot if a path to the transformation of the extractive system of industrial growth to a truly ecological economy is not found and rapidly pursued.

The Ideology of Predatory Capital: Social Illusions and Planetary Reality

With the fall of the Soviet Union and various other communist states, the victory of capitalism seemed assured. Ronald Reagan took on a God-like aura, anointed by Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” affirmed that there was no such thing as “society,” and there was no alternative to unfettered growth of neo-liberal capitalism. All was well in the West, or so it was said.

Now, all sorts of things were possible with the “peace dividend.” The triumph of American Individualism over Soviet totalitarianism was expected to yield huge savings resulting from the end of the arms race that had been required by the “cold war.” Yet, somewhere on the way to peace and prosperity, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us against, just kept growing bigger and bigger. We were warned against potential new forms of conflict for which we must be prepared.

That growth relentlessly consumed more and more of the federal budget. The pursuit of military goals to assure the continued supply of energy from the Middle East left little money for “domestic programs” throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The pursuit of endless wars of choice into the twenty-first century created widespread international resentments. “Freedom fighters” in their own minds, growing numbers of “terrorists” and “insurgents” defended against indiscriminant U.S. invasions and occupations. Such groups grew much more rapidly than they ever had before nine-eleven. The costs of these military adventures have been mostly off-budget, yet have continued to bloat the national debt, their funding appropriated from nowhere. Meanwhile the congress continues to focus on cutting corporate taxes and domestic programs and subsidizing fossil-fuel extractive industry. Small government for the people, big government for the Empire.

The Ideology of Economic and Military Predation

In tandem with aggressive U.S. foreign policy, the growing dominance of neo-liberal economics – formerly called “Laisse Faire” – meant increasing control of the U.S. economy by international corporations. So called “free markets” and “free trade” operated as ideological cover for ever-increasing corporate domination of both domestic and international economies. The story was always, let individual entrepreneurs and small businessmen – the mythical “job creators” – be freed of government regulation and Adam Smith’s “indivisible hand” will assure the best outcome for all. But the hard economic reality has been quite different.

Capitalist economies work best for their people when markets are regulated to control the worst excesses of the power of capital itself. The free-market ideologists carefully neglect to admit to the power of power to accrue more power. The question, “free for whom?” is neither asked nor answered. That is exactly how the mega-corporations have ideologically controlled polity, economy, and society. The corporatists, whether pundits on CNBC or the politicians bought and paid for by the corporate and financial elites, have clear expectations and intentions. Only by reducing taxation on corporate profits and eliminating “onerous regulations” needed for public health, workplace safety, and the environment, as well as those evil “entitlements,” can the capitalist economy work best – well, best in fact for the corporations and worst for the people.

Of course, corporate taxes are at all-time lows and deregulation of financial markets has been fully achieved by the Republi-crat one-party corporate state. The result is the starving of federal and state budgets and destruction of middle-class employment. Deregulation of financial markets, aided by the power of electronic computing, has allowed corporate malfeasance on a scale never before imagined. This has driven both U.S. and international economies to financial crises on a scale not seen since the great depression of the 1930s.

Deregulation of production and labor markets has released large corporations from any responsibility for environmental damage, abuses of labor, increased health risks to citizens, or unfair competition. Their domination of politics, economics, and society was thereby assured. Their control of politics and the mass media have kept at bay any serious discussion or action to counter the climate crisis that fossil-fuel driven extractive capital has created. The corporate state propels us toward the sixth great extinction while its elites grab their short-term profits.

Illusions of Separation and Dominion

All this is sustained by massive social illusions about the nature of human society and the nature of nature itself, all promoted by the power elites’ propaganda. The social illusion that the capitalism we have is what we need is promoted and sustained by the financial, corporate, and military elites who benefit economically from its unrestrained damage to people and planet. The problem, of course, is that almost all political discussion, deeply grounded in illusions and propaganda imposed through the media they control, flatly excludes reality. The power of mass media control is the power to ignore.

It is not only interesting but very important to note that the illusions fostered by the power elite about society are the same illusions promoted about nature. The perspective is atomistic and reductionist. But contrary to the pseudo-science of economics, the natural world is the world in which we live, and it is a complex living system, not a simple mechanistic causal chain. It and we are complex interdependent living systems. Despite any illusions we hold about our dominion over nature, we are inescapably part of it.

To think clearly about humanity and its place among the other complex living systems on earth, we must purge the old ideological schism over capitalism vs. socialism. (It is all internal to society anyway and the ideological debate ignores nature while assuming human domination over the earth.) Roosevelt tried to save the capitalism of the early twentieth century by modifying its destructive tendencies – it worked for awhile. Later, communism collapsed from its own dead weight. Neither was much cognizant of the natural world – that would have been anti-industrial and thereby unacceptable.

Despite the limitations imposed on him, Roosevelt did a pretty good job – the “New Deal” reforms kept U.S. Capitalism alive for almost a century. The former extreme boom-bust cycle was dampened by the regulations he imposed on banking – separating speculative investment banking from commercial depository banking. The result was “the business cycle” where relatively mild recessions between periods of growth replaced the severe crashes previously experienced. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and later programs dampened socioeconomic instabilities. But in the post Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation, we have regressed to extreme risk of financial collapse and social chaos resulting from the abolition of those reforms. Our situation is not unlike the past, but amplified by the electronic speed of today’s financial transactions and the much greater size and power of today’s corporations.

If we continue on this path of self-delusion about economic and planetary realities, the next financial collapse will be far more severe and will reverberate throughout the world in the form of social chaos. If we continue with the self-delusions of the extractive predatory capitalism we have, not only will the world economy collapse, but the unmitigated climate disruptions produced by the delusional endless-growth economic system will put the planet over the brink, ultimately – and soon – leading to full-on climate collapse, extreme crop failures, mass starvation and uncontrollable migrations, widespread armed violence, and untold human suffering.

Interdependent Reality

The underlying reality of both human society and living earth systems resides in the fact of interdependence. Some elements of the idea of personal independence and freedom are important and true and lead to cultural creativity in a variety of ways, within a context of inherent societal and ecological interdependence.

Yet the ideology of American independence, unfettered capital markets, and “free” trade, as promoted by the power elites, is rapidly becoming deadly in its consequences for both human society and large numbers of living species, as well as the living earth systems of which we are a part.

Ecological Reality and Political Illusions

So, Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” or, in the European term, a “social democrat.” From the perspective of the ideology of the U.S. power elites, that is a political horror of horrors. That is why the mass media try to ignore Sanders. Besides, the unreality of “The Donald” is so “entertaining.” After all, the social programs Bernie Sanders advocates would disrupt their near total power over the economy. But from the perspective of a desire to secure the future against the ravages of unfettered predatory extractive capital hell-bent to destroy the living earth in favor of the next quarterly report, Bernie is a rather mild-mannered moderate. He would institute many of the same sorts of programs that Roosevelt did to save capitalism from itself. But today there is a big difference.

It is no longer a matter of fixing our socially and environmentally dysfunctional version of capitalism; now it is a matter of replacing the disaster capitalism we have with a new ecological economy never before seen on the planet, except in miniature among indigenous peoples. We must create local indigenous economies at planetary scale. That is a daunting but necessary task that must be accomplished in very short order if we are to avoid much more severe social and ecological chaos in the wake of economic collapse as well as climate collapse. The system we have is destabilizing all sorts of natural systems that have been in relative balance for a very long time. Oscillations in disturbed systems tend to amplify toward system collapse. This is why tipping points are so important. The economic and climate oscillations are accelerating.

It is not just poverty, racism, unemployment, or the extreme accumulation of phantom wealth in the delusional financial markets that are at stake – as if they were not enough. Now it is a matter of social and ecological survival. The living interdependence of multiple species in multiple ecologies around the world is being disrupted on a massive scale. We are only partly aware of the complex ways humans depend on these even more complex ecological inter-relationships. Many such interdependencies are being exposed as we careen toward mass extinction. Scientists know this; politicians are not listening. We are all at extreme risk. Only massive cooperation among people, neither corporate competition nor the corporate state, will make the difference between a forming a new ecological society and our present path to an accelerated extinction of many more species, including our own.

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.

State Secrecy: Collapse or Transformation

A number of books and articles have appeared over the past few years raising the specter of societal collapse. The crises of climate disruption and hyper-inequality in an increasingly unstable U.S. and global economy are converging toward destabilization. These converging destabilizing forces will likely produce some form of radical change –like it or not. But what will it look like? That will depend on us.

Societal Collapse
One of the most comprehensive works on historical cases of societal collapse is Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Focused entirely on how and why things happened in the societies he studied, Diamond cautiously avoids any direct contemporary predictions. He steadfastly avoids inferences from the catastrophic collapses of Mayan civilization, the Easter Islander society, or several others he studied. But a number of implications seem obvious. For example, in each case, when confronted with ecological crises, elites squandered declining resources on self-aggrandizing displays of wealth or power, accelerating the approach of collapse. These were all societies dependant on irreplaceable local or regional ecological resources. Today, we arguably face the same kind of problems, but at a planetary scale. Only a massive “Great Transformation” has any likelihood of staving off a global collapse of both economy and ecology. We are used to moving on to the next land to plunder. No more.

Like the examples Jared Diamond describes, our power elites engage in denial and projection as they busily accumulate more and more phantom wealth and power. They entrench themselves in an increasingly totalitarian security state they think will insulate them from the world. Their state benefactors, obsessed with a perceived need for secrecy and military control of everything, give them a false sense of security. The corporate-state response to almost any problem is violent repression. From 9-11 to Gaza, from Viet Nam to Ukraine, each power elite, whether here or there, acts in the same way. It posits an all-powerful enemy – the evil Other – who can only be defended against by overwhelming superiority of weaponry and violence.

The Secrecy of the Surveillance State
Robert David Steele’s book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto, is striking because it proposes a radically different framework for “intelligence,” and for avoiding societal collapse. It identifies massive systemic fraud and corruption in the secretive ‘top-down’ violence-driven intelligence establishment and he calls for its abandonment. But what is most stunning is that Steele is a respected and accomplished member of the military and intelligence communities. Steele would abolish and replace those institutions. Based on his extensive professional experience, Steele argues that “intelligence” produced by secret agencies is mostly dysfunctional and often just wrong. Steele’s take on the modern form of totalitarianism with a democratic façade is grounded in the insider perspective of a professional spy. In contrast, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. describes a creeping “inverted totalitarianism,” from a political scientist’s outsider viewpoint. But the implications for democracy and its survival are remarkably similar.

Steele’s case for universal “open source intelligence” rests on a model of shared information in which the ever-growing secrecy establishment would be counter-productive. After all, the more secrecy in a system, the more opportunity corrupt elites have to “manage democracy” in their own interests. To the extent that society’s major institutions are shrouded in secrecy, democracy is destined to become a façade for totalitarianism. The evidence is overwhelming that both state and corporate secrecy and unrestricted spying are seriously dysfunctional and lead to oppression. Open source intelligence demands an entirely new way of thinking about nation states and various social formations. Effective human systems operate as whole systems and whole systems require whole-systems thinking and participation – by everyone, not just elites.

The combination of predatory capital and power technology operated by a secretive military-industrial corporate state destroys true democratic processes. The secrecy based intelligence establishment inevitably further concentrates power and wealth in the institutions that are controlled by the less-than-1%. These trends have reached their breaking point.

The Unknown Transformation
No, the center will not hold – it’s not even the center anymore. Internal contradictions quite different than Marx predicted are driving the social hierarchy to a chaotic collapse. With all the inter-dependencies of Big-System Society and its global reach, collapse may well spread broadly. The big question is what will replace the corporate state and how. A great transformation is inevitable, but how it occurs and with what result is not. Hierarchical information control has so far assured elite dominance, but dysfunction is accelerating; it cannot be sustained. We seem to be headed for widespread political and economic chaos. One plausible result may be massive breakdowns of systems of supply of industrial and consumer products, even the very necessities of life.

Then, there is the Achilles heel of the so called “global economy.” Complex systems have internal vulnerabilities. Moreover, both climate chaos and the limits of the growth economy predict the end of the corporate state – it just can’t cope. Allies such as the World Trade Association and the International Monetary Fund, have no value other than to the failing system they attempt to support. Nor does the array of military alliances that support global empire.

Very little serious work has been done on the question of how a viable transformation can be accomplished without high levels of chaos and damage to both people and environments. The works of Diamond and Steele provide two hard sources (and there are others) for beginning to shape a new social intelligence that can help transform the old institutions to meet the needs of the post-industrial era.

Living in Fear of the Other: The Process of Destruction

No power elite in the world is immune from becoming a perpetrator of the process of destruction of a population of Others. Unwarranted extreme power of corrupt officials is often enhanced by manipulation of the mass media to demonize an “out group” of Others. Information control and propaganda allow elites to control “public opinion” and see “the Other” as the epitome of danger. With these tools, a political-military elite can lead the way to a classic “process of destruction” of a subjugated population.

Such was the situation in the classic case of institutionalized demonizing of Jews leading to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Similar processes have arisen in South African apartheid, the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, and even to the “New Jim Crow” and “illegal aliens” in the U.S. In the post-911 world of U.S. wars of choice collectively characterized as “the war on terror,” all peoples of the Muslim religion have become the collectively demonized Other.

Of course, violence works both ways, but the process of destruction is usually extremely asymmetrical. America is demonized by the victims of its military incursions into their societies. But they have little recourse. The processes of destruction – in the form of U.S. state terror – perpetrated upon populations of Others, breeds new hatreds and more non-state terrorists with little resources to commit violence, but whose outrage sustains fanatical commitment. Drone attacks on villages and night raids killing whole families in their homes breed more “insurgents” than they capture or kill “terrorists.” The application of the word “terrorist” to all victims of indiscriminate military assaults demonstrates the absurdity of efforts to justify the process of destruction.

In wars between actual armies, a certain symmetry emerges in the process of destruction, to the extent that technological power disparities allow. But in highly asymmetrical conflicts, the relative power of the two sides is so disparate that the destruction is almost entirely one-sided. Whatever atrocities are committed on either side, the extreme disparity of destructive power, its use, and effects is a moral trap the dominant power cannot escape without exercising considerable restraint. Such self restraint is uncommon at best.

Elites and the Process of Destruction

Throughout history, corrupt elites have inflamed the fear of the Other to secure their own political power. Propaganda demonizing a subjugated population of Others encourages broad participation or willingness to accept a process of destruction of Others. Elites motivate their followers to condone or participate in inhumane treatment of an oppressed population of Others. Gradually exploitation and criminal violence, sanctioned by the state, are escalated, institutionalized, and rationalized as “justice.” Destruction is conducted with impunity against those who are deemed outside the ‘chosen’ population. In a recent post on TruthDig.org, Chris Hedges quotes a crucial passage from Raul Hilberg’s monumental work, “The Destruction of the European Jews”:

“The process of destruction [of the European Jews] unfolded in a definite pattern,” Hilberg wrote. “It did not, however, proceed from a basic plan. No bureaucrat in 1933 could have predicted what kind of measures would be taken in 1938, nor was it possible in 1938 to foretell the configuration of the undertaking in 1942. The destructive process was a step-by-step operation, and the administrator could seldom see more than one step ahead.”

Destructive Fear of the Other

And so it has been with other historical and contemporary examples of “the process of destruction.” The Cheney-Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq was stupid and naïve (though more brutal than Saddam ever was, and far more destructive). Each foolish step seemed a blind effort to recover from the previous blunder. Ultimately, the entire enterprise emulated an “outdoor prison.” The entire Iraqi population was in effect tortured by destroying the country’s infrastructure and means of survival for many of its people.

The all but forgotten genocidal ‘carpet bombing” of the people of Viet Nam resulted from a gradual ‘escalation’ of the impositiion of destruction in a vain attempt to control an entirely misunderstood people.

The latest assault by the Israeli Defense Forces’ massive fire power against the civilian population of Gaza, Palestine, is the result of a similar “mission creep” grounded in an irrational fear of the dehumanized, subjugated, and dis-empowered Palestinian people. Its vastly disproportionate destruction of an impoverished subordinate population is excused by the flimsiest of applications of the ‘terrorist’ meme to a powerless people.

The mass incarceration of urban youth of color in the U.S. is another escalation of “the process of destruction” that Hilberg elucidates. Steadily over decades, the young black and brown populations of U.S. cities have become a caste of isolates. They are denied any meaningful way to engage in the economy and tainted as ‘felons’ for the rest of their lives. In U.S. cities, young men of color are stigmatized because of the profits law enforcement agencies accrue by incarcerating them. “Law enforcement” is rewarded with funding and equipment as part of the “war on drugs.” Yet young whites, who use drugs in equal proportion with the Others remain unscathed, for they are not “Others.”

In each case, ‘the authorities’ expand their level of violence in the process of destruction by building the fear of the Other and by demonizing and punishing a whole population for the alleged crimes of a few. In each case, the process of destruction is driven by the business of profiting from official violence. Orwell understood it all.

Why a Return to Progressive Taxation is necessary…and Right

The accelerating concentration of income and wealth in the upper 1% of the upper 1% of the population and the failure of the “growth” economy to serve the population that supports it, are not only moral questions of fairness. The distribution of income and wealth are also important elements of the health of the economy itself. Between 30% and 75% of aggregate income in the past 30 years has gone to the top 10% and most of that has gone to the top 1%. After the “great recession” of 2008, almost all of new income went to the top of the top 1%. If this trend continues, the circulation of money and therefore the health of the economy will stagnate even further.

It is fortunate that French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, is making such an international splash. Piketty raises fundamental questions about the economy that most economists, in their pandering to the power elites, have avoided ever since crowning Adam Smith patron saint of mainstream economics.

What classical economics, as practiced throughout the industrial era, has ignored is the inherent tendency of capital to concentrate among the wealthiest individuals and corporations, unless mitigated by social policies that assure the broader circulation of money throughout the economy.  It’s really quite simple. The economic power of those who control the most wealth and income gives them advantages that enable them to accumulate wealth at increasing rates, to the disadvantage of everyone else in the economy.  Without economic regulations that dampen the special advantages of wealth, such as the progressive income tax that once benefited the economy, extreme disparities in income and wealth cause all sorts of problems.

The evidence of that destructive process is grossly obvious in the current economies of the industrial nations, especially in the United States. That is exactly what happened before the Great Depression of the 1930s, causing economic collapse due to excessive concentration of wealth among the richest class in America. Yes, class, that concept so long banned from discussion in the U.S. Forget the fancy academic analyses of socioeconomic class and status in social relations. It’s simply a matter of an inevitable distortion of the distribution of wealth and circulation of money when the tendency for concentration is not tempered by some kind of social policy designed to limit concentration by re-balancing the circulation of money in the economy. Such policies were enacted in the 1930s, but, under pressure from the most privileged, have been abandoned, allowing further distortion of income and wealth.

The concentration of wealth and income was moderated when we had a progressive income tax system. The simplest and most practical approach to staving off plutocracy (rule by the wealthiest members of society) and reducing damage to the economy that results from unfettered accumulation of wealth, is to return to a progressive system of taxation of income and the return of the tax on inheritance. There is simply no economic reason, let alone moral justification, for allowing the economy to spin out of control and fail to serve the public interest in order to allow the wealthiest members of society to become that much wealthier, simply because they already have excessive economic power.

At the same time, the obsession with reducing the federal debt by further cutting expenditures that support the general population, such as social security, medical insurance coverage, and public education, serves no earthly purpose other than to make the rich richer. The biggest con of all these days is the one that characterizes the ‘rentier’ class – those who merely make money on the value of the wealth they have already accumulated – is that their income and wealth ought to be protected from taxation because they are the “job creators.” They are no such thing, and their excessive income is of benefit to nobody, not even themselves – you can only spend so much before reaching absurd redundancy.  But the quest for power knows no bounds.

Restoring the progressive income tax would be fit medicine to help restore the health of an economy suffering from the cancerous growth of the ‘cells’ of the richest class of Americans and the corporations they control. The federal revenue gained thereby could be applied not only to the national debt, but to investing the desperately needed transformation of the fossil-fuel driven economy to a carbon neutral economy in order to minimize the damage of climate disruption. After all, it is the 1% and their fossil fuel related investments that have driven us to the brink of climate catastrophe.

Bottom line: an economy is not an economy of the whole society without consistently adequate circulation of money throughout the population.  It is both immoral and foolish to continue on the path of accelerating concentration of wealth to the detriment of the entire society. Privilege and wealth will not disappear with progressive taxation. Look at the post WW-II 1940s and 1950s, when the marginal tax rate on income above $200,000 — the tax rate on the part of income above the first $200,000 earned, and there were 23 brackets below that with progressively lower rates — was 91%; adjusted for inflation, that would be the rate for income above $2.41 million today. We should have such a healthy economy today!

The Liberal Conservative and the Conservative Liberal

Political labels along the supposed continuum from left to right have always been problematic for me. As a professor long ago explained to us naïve freshmen in an introductory political science class in college, if you move far enough to the left, you end up on the right and if you move far enough to the right, you end up on the left. Where does that leave the average American? Where, exactly is the middle?

Most people I know hold a mix of views on different issues, yet define themselves as firmly Liberal or Conservative. Yet, in the politicized corporate-controlled mass media, most “commentators” (pundits and propagandists) play the issues to stimulate fear of the Other, thus causing cultural conflict by appealing to whatever fear-driven image or stereotyped value or belief can be used to serve the interests of the corporate state. That usually involves exploiting social stressors such as race, immigration, gay marriage, unemployment, some caricature of “the undeserving poor,” or presumed threats of “terrorism,” crime, or some other source of fear, to gain political favor by portraying one candidate as more ‘righteous’ or likely to ‘protect’ us in some way.

But what are the real issues that concern Americans most? Independent scientific survey results often diverge from poll results funded by candidates. Conservative and liberal Americans agree on more than power elites want us to know.

What are the issues? Mostly human-scale concerns about fairness and getting by in a moderate reasonably way, and being left alone by the powers that be. Ralph Nader argues in his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, that liberals and conservatives must unite against the corporate state to bring it down and establish a viable ecological economy and democratic society where people’s everyday concerns are addressed and the world is kept intact so we can live normal lives.

Social conservatives often decry undue corporate interference in government even as they argue for smaller government. Well, government certainly would be smaller without all that corporate pork, massive tax dodging, and subsidies. Liberals want social justice, mostly around issues of human rights, employment, healthcare, and environment. If various minorities and demonized Others were not scapegoated by the corporate media, then justice would be far more easily served. If we actually had a ‘free market’ among local small entrepreneurs and businesses oriented to local production of needed products instead of generating mass consumption of outsourced products in response to manufactured needs, and vast waste of resources on futile wars of empire, we could have lots of jobs and the economy could support health care for all, just like the Europeans and many others routinely afford.

As things stand, the American commonwealth is being rapidly drained of real wealth by the manipulation of the debt-based economy to generate phantom wealth among those who control the financial system. Both conservative and liberal citizens – I’m not talking about politicians here, just real people – do not like the centralization of everything, the unfettered ascendance of power elites, and the failure of government to respond to the people’s needs rather than the corporate oligarchy’s demands.

So, maybe Nader is right. It seems that the only way the American people can overcome the power of the corporate state to impose its own agenda while claiming it is enacting ours, is to unite behind our own values and needs and take down the forces that will, if allowed, destroy what is left of the republic and the biosphere upon which we all depend. Then we can go on and have our debates of left and right politics if we must.

But maybe conservatives would have to stop watching Fox News’ racist Obama-demonizing sniping sessions and liberals would have to stop watching MSNBC pundits defend every corporate-driven Obama policy as if it reflects the needs of the people instead of the demands of the oligarchs who fund the politics of both conservative and liberal politicians.

The politics of social division serves only the interests of corporate oligarchy. The interests of the American people will only be served by the people ourselves, if we can overcome the propagandists who seek to divide and conquer us.