On the Rails Again: Euro Trains are No Amtrak

Another in the series of occasional rants by the Mad Jubilado.

Over two hundred kilometers per hour? That’s more than 124 mph! Well, we seemed to be going pretty fast.  It was no Shinkansen (the Japanese “Bullet Train”) rocketing the 330 miles from Tocho-Mai Station in Tokyo to Kyoto between 150 and 200 mph. In the U.S., the contrast is striking.  Amtrak passenger trains dare not go over about 65 mph, and with good reason. The European trains are quiet, fast, and comfortable.

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Dutch Tulips

In Tokyo, trains routinely pull up to the platform and stop exactly as scheduled, to the second, after their high-speed runs. Departure times are equally precise. In Europe, they are very close. In the U.S., well, things are different. Here, passenger trains have been relegated to a second-class status, behind the more profitable freight trains. They are not particularly comfortable, fast, or on time. Moving all that coal, oil, and Chinese manufactured consumer goods imported by U.S. corporations, gets first billing. Gotta sell that junk to Americans who have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs and now work as Walmart greeters or fast food cashiers. That is the priority, not public transportation.

Like so much here, public transportation systems have been ‘privatized,’ leaving the public interest behind. The railroads were created to help stimulate western expansion. The federal government gave wide swaths of land to railroad companies to encourage their development. Huge profits were made not only on the rails themselves but in the many land deals that followed. Private corporate exploitation of the commonwealth continues apace, with little challenge.

Now, the railroad companies act like it is their God-given right to exploit those properties in their own interest, the public be damned. Contrary to the corporate “free market” ideology, most of the magnificent technological developments of the industrial era were subsidized by the public purse. The prime beneficiaries have been the private corporations that took advantage of government largess. Any public benefit was secondary, though there have been many. Unlike Europe, where public infrastructure is valued and maintained, here it is all about the next subsidy or tax break for the corporations and super-rich, to be paid for by squeezing public infrastructure and services ever more tightly as the national debt grows.

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On the Rails to Haarlem

The speed, smooth ride, and quiet on the electric European rail lines got my attention. I don’t remember a more comfortable train ride anywhere else. Then I saw the flat panel display on the forward bulkhead in the rather new passenger car. It displayed the speed in kilometers per hour and the time of arrival at the next station. We were on the TGV, the Euro Rail line, heading from Lyon, France to Haarlem, Netherlands.

The French countryside is a beautiful green in springtime. The tulips are in bloom all across the flat lowlands of Holland. What color! The mix of architecture in passing towns and cities, ranging from medieval to modern, is a bit dissonant in its charm. It is all so lovely to watch through the large windows of our passing train. It is almost as if nothing has changed in the world…but it has.

If there is to be a solution to the converging crises of climate chaos, poverty, resource wars, failed agriculture, mass starvation and forced migrations, it must include transforming public infrastructure to create low-carbon forms of transportation, powered by solar and wind-generated electricity and human energy. Trains, trams, and bicycles must become an essential element of a new life strategy, if we let it. The U.S. is so far behind. We wallow in political fights over false narratives while the planet burns. Making significant progress on issues like public transportation will require a political revolution.

America’s False Divide

“According to polls, most Americans think the nation is more divided than it’s been since the Civil War. And these divides are getting worse…”

Really? Exactly what divides America? Well, there are polls and there are polls. In November 2016, a Gallup poll suggested shortly after Trump’s election that 77% of the people perceived the nation as divided. Certainly, if you watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the traditional networks, or participate in social media, you can easily get that impression. Conflict makes the news. Certainly, the nation is going through some major changes, some of which produce more denial than contemplation. That tends to escalate the ‘blame game.’

Nostalgia for imagined “good old days” leads many to wish to “Make America Great Again.” Generational losses of income and status breed fear, resentment and anger. Trump has deftly exploited such fears and resentments, inciting anger and even violence among his base of mostly working and former middle-class white males and some of the women who love them.

We hear formerly politically incorrect expressions of racism, sexism, and xenophobia uttered more openly now in public and semi-public arenas. However, it seems clear that many of the voters who put Obama in office also voted for Trump. That may seem crazy, but it was a complex electoral dynamic that would take many pages just to describe no less explain.

Institutional Divisions by Racism

Did we really become that divided between presidents? Well, of course, the big political division between Obama Democrats and the racist Republican Congress of his second term has grown wider and wider, resulting in unprecedented partisan practices that border on violating at least the spirit of the Constitution.

Is it really that the American people are so divided, or is the actual division between the growing power of the corporate state in conflict with the public interest in seeking a safer more livable world for the American people? Establishment Democrats like to treat Trump as an anomaly, an outlier so bizarre that he does not fit into the standard assortment of political positions.

To be sure, Trump’s impulses are weird and vastly ignorant of national norms of the political process, civil behavior, and the constitutional constraints on his pretentions to unlimited personal power. He blatantly exposes his racism, misogyny, and narcissism in daily Tweets. But is that so different from the perverse behavior of those old white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee who dismiss the entirely credible story of Dr. Christine Blaisey Ford as they did decades before with Anita Hill?

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley speaks as Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Chuck Grassley ~  HuffPost

Political operative Brett Kavanagh would surely guarantee a plutocratic majority on the Supreme Court. He represents the same culture of elitist white male entitlement to power embodied in Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Lindsay Graham. For Trump, it is a matter of protection from prosecution even more than plutocracy; for the senators, it is a matter of achieving the corporatist goals of their PACs to dominate the federal government by executive action as well as voter suppression.

Plutocratic Unity and the Veil of Division

Trump’s policy choices – however dangerous in international relations for example – fit well with the notion that his presidency is the logical extension of the trends of the corporate state over several decades, whichever party was in power. The cooperation of Senate Democrats in the unconstitutional Republican wars of choice, just like the bailouts for Wall Street criminals of 2008, but not for their victims, reflects the unity of the plutocrats that underlies and belies surface “party differences.”

One might even conclude that the great divide today is between the people and a federal government that now almost entirely serves the interest of corporate elites and the super-rich. Despite the distortions of demagoguery, the trends now deeply entrenched in the corporate state run counter to some of the most basic of American values.

Because of the dominance of corporate money in national politics, federal elected officials are less and less connected to the people they are supposed to represent. The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision and the injection of blatant representatives of corporate polluters as executives in the EPA along with sweeping executive orders unwind decades of gradual improvement in modest environmental protections. Abandoning our commitment to the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, like many other actions, runs counter to the interests of the public in safety, security; others constrain the ability of average Americans to earn a decent living.

The demagoguery, confusion, anger, and resentment run high and as usual in such situations, a charlatan who Michael Moore terms a master of performance art. Trump deftly turned that resentment toward scapegoating vulnerable minority populations, including refugees, in order to energize the base of those who resent their losses of status and income under the policies of the same corporate state he serves. The falsely generated divisions among the people conceal a much deeper divide.

No, the real division in America is between the plutocrats and the people.

Climate Crisis Confusion: Mitigation or Adaptation

I ran across a publication on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Website the other day. It seemed useful on one level and very disturbing on another level. Its title is, “Community-Based Adaptation to a Changing Climate.” [1] The eight-page document by the EPA Office of Policy, describes various effects of global warming on local community services. It also suggests ways a community might “adapt” to those effects in order to better sustain community services. In a number of ways it states the obvious. It could be viewed as an educational narrative for the uninformed. On the other hand, it could also be a distraction from the central problem of global warming.

Suggestions and examples are given for climate-disruption effects on various community resources and services: water resource management, clean air, waste management and exposure to chemicals, emergency response to “heat events,” transportation, natural and environmental resources, and cultural resources. Suggestions are made for “protecting people most at risk” as well as for “comprehensive planning.” For example, regarding “heat events,” the article states:

“What are some heat event adaptation strategies?
• Develop an emergency heat plan to prepare city services for a heat event
• Establish cooling centers to reduce heat stress and heat-related deaths and illnesses
• Provide emergency notification and well-being checks to protect the most vulnerable
• Incorporate heat island reduction strategies – such as green or cool roofs, cool pavements, or increased vegetation and trees – into long-term planning efforts to help lower urban temperatures”[1]

The suggestions seem over-general and not all that practical. No “how to,” just “do it.” But examples of actions already taken by community and city planners are also given, where “climate action plans” had been developed. The question does arise, are such plans realistic? Well, some are and some are not. Of course, plans mean nothing without their implementation. If implemented, would they be enough? These are not easy questions to answer.

To be clear, we must understand the distinction between mitigating and adapting to climate disruptions as they intensify in the coming years. NASA defines them thus:

“Because we are already committed to some level of climate change, responding to climate change involves a two-pronged approach:
1. Reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (“mitigation”);
2. Adapting to the climate change already in the pipeline (“adaptation”).”[2]

It is also important to understand how mitigation and adaptation are related to each other and how they may be mutually supportive or counterproductive for one another.

Deep Mitigation

The steady flow of scientific information confirms the increasing pace of carbon emissions. Many studies, whether they document unexpectedly rapid polar ice melt or accelerated species extinction, foretell dismal prospects for a stable climate. Many climate-driven disruptions of earth systems interact with others. Some disruptions, such as melting tundra trigger others, such as methane releases from melting tundra. Many other examples could be listed, most of which involve interacting accelerated disruptions of natural systems resulting from the destabilization of other related systems. Cascading deadly effects of local and regional climate disruptions on diverse species are now common.

The urgency of taking immediate and major actions to mitigate (counteract) climate disruption is simply undeniable. One of the false narratives opposing climate action is that “we” cannot afford it. Well, “we” cannot afford to not take critical climate actions immediately. The underwriters of climate denial do not want to “afford” climate action. The economic interests of the Koch brothers, Chevron, Shell, BP, and others who profit from the fossil fuel industries, as well as their political affiliates, directly conflict with the public interest (the human interest) in a secure climate future. None of us can afford to live on a planet where the earth systems we depend upon are destabilized.

The science is quite clear; the politics are dreadfully confused. In the present political climate, despite the fact that the plausibility of climate denial is ebbing, the false narratives around mitigation continue unabated. The techno-industrial culture continues to focus on developing new technology to interfere with earth systems. That is, of course, what got us into this mess. Yet we already have the technologies to address the human necessity to come back in harmony with nature. What we lack are the ecological consciousness and political power to reorganize our life-ways to re-establish that harmony with the environment that sustains us.

False Narratives and Stupid Ideas

Techno-idealists are people who believe that all problems of humanity can be fixed by some new technology. Faced with depleting sources of materials needed in an industrial process, they assure us a technological solution will arise. They believe we can invent technologies to use existing fuels without emitting carbon or invent new fuels to do so. They fully partake of the mythology of human omnipotence in confronting the exigencies of nature. But they are wrong. Human survival will depend on our ability to reconnect and achieve a new balance with nature – not extract what we want from it and destroy the living systems of which it is comprised. To do otherwise is to deny our place in the natural world.

Attempts to compensate for carbon emissions by carbon-capture systems are like schemes to block the sun to lower temperatures – both avoid attacking the source of global warming. They are really forms of denial. So called “geo-engineering” is an artifact of the system of industry and capital growth that are the very source of our problems. A fundamental failure of techno-industrial culture has been its inability to grasp the complex-systems nature of nature. That failure is at the heart of a number of stupid ideas labeled “geo-engineering.”

Such ideas are stupid because they attempt to change one variable in a very complex system without any concern for the many unknown consequences of forcing such a change. Geo-engineering is always about fixing the damaging effects of climate disruptions by attacking symptoms, not the cause. The cause is two hundred years of huge quantities of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere. Attempts to suppress any of the effects of that cause will be, even if temporarily successful, futile because they cannot re-stabilize the system itself. It is the exact same failure that so often characterizes modern medicine – symptom suppression by means of very profitable technology while failing to understand the basic process in need of healing. Earth systems are urgently in need of healing. Geo-engineering schemes are feeble attempts to extend the hubris of the waning petro-industrial era.

Under the present conditions, the politically safe focus for the EPA is to talk of adaptation to the inevitable greater disruptions ahead. The EPA is a mixed bag. Sometimes it seems to be in bed with industry. But it has also developed rules for constraining emissions from coal-fired power plants. That is good. But piecemeal actions will never be adequate to address the larger crisis. The problem, of course, is that without a full-scale planetary program of emissions mitigation, climate disruptions will become so severe that no adaptive measures will be adequate to the severity of the consequent constraints on planetary life. That is why adaptations must also mitigate the causes of climate disruptions.

Adapting to what?

Adaptation to climate disruptions that are inevitable results of our past and present failures to take strong mitigating actions is unquestionably necessary (if not sufficient). However, adaptation without mitigation is doomed to failure. There are limits to adaptation – there is no way to adapt to the hangman’s noose. But we must adapt to the conditions that have already begun, at the same time we try to mitigate further climate disruption. We must defend against the threats of drought, floods, rising sea levels, food-crop losses, etc., that we know are coming. The essence of the climate confusion – forgetting the foolishness of the tread-worn denial gambit – is the false choice between mitigation and adaptation. We must find a balance but have not yet done so. As a NASA online document put it:

In the absence of national or international climate policy direction, cities and local communities around the world have been focusing on solving their own climate problems. They are working to build flood defenses, plan for heat waves and higher temperatures, install water-permeable pavements to better deal with floods and storm water and improve water storage and use. [2]

Simply put, such adaptations are absolutely necessary; but they are absolutely not sufficient. In the absence of strong international climate mitigation actions, local community adaptations must do everything possible to solving their own carbon-emissions problems. Local communities must also organize themselves to take strong steps to reduce local emissions even if strong international agreements are reached in Paris this winter. Top-down international agreements will be slow in their implementation nationally and regionally, as well as locally. The last thing humanity needs is to wait for leaders who need to be pushed. The international climate action and justice movement is doing the pushing. Local communities everywhere need to act locally while international momentum builds.

Everyone must begin to adapt to the climate disruption already “in the pipeline,” in any way we can. But we cannot tolerate continued emissions of greenhouse gasses leading to disruptions so severe that we will not be able to adapt to them sufficiently to survive. Nobody will be able to “solve their own climate problems” by adaptation alone. That fact is not mentioned in the EPA document cited above. Communities must make mitigating actions their first priority. We must all take adaptive actions locally that are needed to respond to the climate disruptions that affect us most. But those actions must be taken using techniques that minimize the burning of fossil fuels. That means making major changes in our ways of living.

Adapting to Mitigation

So, like adapting to climate disruptions for short-term survival, mitigation of their cause is absolutely necessary. But most important, the necessity of mitigation is absolutely paramount. Without mitigation, adaptation will quickly become futile. Adaptation alone will only temporarily defend against increasingly unsurvivable climate disruptions. Adaptations must also work to mitigate the cause of the disruptions to which we adapt. That is why fundamental ways of living – including actions adapting to climate disruption – must abandon fossil-fuel energy consumption.

The various forms of climate disruption – epic droughts and floods, rising sea levels, massive crop failures, starvation, migration, and ensuing armed conflict – all interact, especially in their effects on humans. Their interactions further aggravate the problem of human survival in a destabilized world. This could become intractable, particularly in light of the fact that human populations have already surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity. Inevitably, people in many places will be forced to flee their homes to avoid the life-threatening local effects of climate disruption. Without massive mitigation efforts directed at the causes of climate disruption, attempts to only adapt to such disruptions will ultimately relegate humans to a place in the sixth great extinction. Many species are already going extinct at unprecedented rates due to climate disruption. [3] Using fossil-fuel energy intensive technologies to stem the tide of climate disruption would be a fatal contradiction of purpose – doomed to failure.

At this point, we have had tragic decades-long delays in adopting serious carbon-emissions mitigation measures. International and domestic politics continue down the path of complacency with marginal hope for serious international action in Paris this winter. We are already experiencing major disruptions of the very earth systems that are so necessary for local and regional human populations to survive where they live. Compounded by wars supplied with arms by the industrialized nations whose emissions are greatest, the inevitable survival-motivated migrations have already begun. Drought was a major contributing factor resulting in the war in Syria. It also contributes to the conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. When adaptation is no longer feasible, people naturally flee the regions where prospects for survival are hopeless. So far, this has happened primarily in the “belt of economically battered post-colonial states girding the planet’s mid-latitudes.”[4] Only comprehensive climate action to stop global carbon emissions can constrain the coming stages of the climate crisis and the human chaos sure to accompany them.

It would be far wiser for local communities, particularly in the high-emissions developed world, to focus on their own carbon-emissions mitigation measures than to ignore them in favor of adaptations that will soon become insufficient. A delicate balance must be achieved; that will be very difficult. The dilemma is that both are necessary, but only the most difficult combination of the two will be sufficient. Adapting to a world that is very different as a result of climate disruption and simultaneously taking the necessary measures to curb carbon emissions will be the most difficult large scale human effort ever. But it is no less necessary for its difficulty. We must adapt to mitigation.
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[1] Office of Policy, United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Community-Based Adaptation to a Changing Climate.” EPA-230-f-15-001. (June 2015) Accessed at: http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/P100MVEO.PDF?Dockey=P100MVEO.PDF
[2] NASA, Global Climate Change Newsletter, accessed at: http://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/
[3] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances 19 Jun 2015: Vol. 1, no. 5. Accessed at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253
[4] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2001. p. 8.

Public or Private: It’s Time to Decide

The imminent conversion from fossil-fueled energy production in the U.S. to renewable sources of electricity is quite uneven. In New Mexico, it might be described as bizarre. It is not at all clear what the motivating forces driving the biggest electric utility, Public Services Company of New Mexico (PNM) or the governmental regulatory agency, New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission (PRC), actually may be. But it doesn’t look good.

We PNM “rate-payers” may be excused for feeling a bit dizzy. Each revelation of PNM attempts to avoid its duty as a public utility to serve the public interest, is bad enough. PNM’s private corporate interests prevail, with recurring foot-dragging, mission corruption, and endless corporate spin. The unspoken goal would seem to be to continue down the deadly path of high carbon emissions as long as PNM can get away with it. The falsified analyses of its proposed plan for the pollution-laden San Juan Generating Plant in the Four Corners area, is a case in point. It involves long-term coal commitments that entail huge public liabilities for intolerable carbon emissions at ever-increasing costs. It seeks to keep energy-supply contract decisions secret from the public while negotiating to keep far more coal and nuclear power in “the mix” than is in the public interest. That is simply outrageous.

PRC passivity is no less disturbing. The PRC supposedly “regulates” utility companies in the public interest. As Steve Terrell, columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, recently noted, some PRC commissioners and staff have met with a securities analyst, who presumably sought to learn the status of the PNM proposal for the San Juan generating plant. But high-end analyst-PNM executive lunches and private analyst meetings with PRC commissioners and staff? In Jon Stewart’s parting words, “If you smell something, say something.” Three of the five PRC commissioners just voted to drop the attempt to enjoin The New Mexican from publishing relevant documents – a small glimmer of hope.

The PRC should actively pursue the public interest. Yet it seems indifferent to how PNM might ultimately meet the State’s modest requirement for 20% of electricity generation to be from renewable sources by 2020. Why has not the PRC developed a carbon-emissions reduction plan as a baseline for negotiations? PNM should find ways to meet PRC requirements – if the PRC had any. The PRC just waits for a PNM plan it can legally accept. That is not nearly enough. Getting to low carbon-emissions energy production requires a strategy that does not add coal, nuclear, and fracked-gas sources electricity generation. That is precisely the direction that the PNM proposes and the PRC takes seriously. New Energy Economy, A non-profit intervener in the case, offered an economical emissions-reducing alternative to PNM’s financially self-serving plan. Its analysis exposed the faulty calculations and convenient conclusions of PNM’s proposal. Its plan demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness and sustainability of much greater reliance on renewable energy technologies, while accelerating emissions reduction. PNM’s coal-laden proposal is driven by its own financial interests in direct conflict with the public interest.

PRC Acting Director of the Utility Division told me on the phone that the PRC’s policy criteria for ruling on the PNM proposal for the future of the San Juan Generating Plant is based on New Mexico law, which specifies that electricity generation must be 15% from renewable sources by 2015, for four years, then 20% by 2020. Proposals, objections, and agreements are to be weighed by the commission on that basis in evaluating PNM’s proposed plan. The San Juan Generating Plant and adjacent coal mine, in the Four Corners region now notorious for its atmospheric “methane bubble” visible from space. Navajo health statistics in the area are a disaster.

The Public Interest Deferred

But I think that the law allows for a lot of interpretation as to how its requirements may be met. So far it seems that the PRC is primarily passively responding to interpretations embedded in the PNM proposals rather than pro-actively framing the discussion in the interests of public safety and health as it should. The law does not say “no more than 20%” renewables by 2020. There is no reason why the PRC cannot aim for more than 20% by finding a strategy such as that proposed by New Energy Economy, which leads to the 20% minimum goal while improving the health, safety, and costs for New Mexicans, sooner rather than later.

Now, as if icing on the cake of malfeasance, two alleged clean-energy groups, “Western Resource Advocates” and the “Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy,” which are also interveners in the case, along with PRC Staff Counsel Patrick Lopez and NM Assistant Attorney General, P. Cholla Khoury, have signed a “compromise” deal that would accept PNM’s current plan and leave open the question of whether coal-fired generation at San Juan should continue operations after 2022. The two remaining coal-fired plants would remain open at San Juan through at least 2022. These putative environmental groups have acquiesced to virtually every element of the PNM proposed plan. Western Resource Advocates’ Web site brags that it has achieved a great “victory” for the environment. I guess that is how you spin allowing yourself to become a victim of cooptation by corporate polluters.

New Energy Economy had withdrawn from the negotiations. Perhaps its Director, Mariel Nanasi, smelled something. The strategy of cooptation has worked nationally for polluters in dealing with “Big Green” environmental groups for decades. Naomi Klein, Tim DeChristopher and others have independently documented the corruption of groups like The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and other Big Green groups by the polluters they were trying to work with. They supported climate schemes like carbon trading that gave corporations opportunity to profit from them while dodging real carbon emissions reduction. In the process of such compromises, Big Green “non-profit” organizations’ bank accounts swelled with corporate donations and the planet continued to overheat. This New Mexican “compromise” smells just like the fishy national failure of Big Green environmental groups.

Big Green Fails Again

The problem with Big Green groups in New Mexico is the same as with the national Big Energy and Big Environmental groups. Their deals are all about economics and politics – most of it self-serving. But Mother Nature doesn’t make deals. Anything short of rapid transition away from fossil fuels will accelerate the devastating climate disruptions already occurring. The convoluted legal “stipulation” filed with the PRC as a “compromise” with PNM, was also signed onto by PRC “Staff” – a peculiar element in itself. The “agreement” between PNM and the Big Green interveners kicks the emissions-can quite a ways down the regulatory road riddled with loopholes for PNM to wiggle through. I read it and found nothing that commits PNM to do any more than what it had already proposed. It’s a not-all-that-clever shell game, sufficiently convoluted as to deter all but the most persistent citizen from seeing the game for what it is.

Some PRC commissioners are happy with the compromise. Instead, the commissioners should demand robust compliance with the New Mexico State renewable energy goals set years ago then largely abandoned. We need serious emissions-reduction targets for New Mexico energy producers, not compromises that push solid climate action down the road.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

PNM has severely reduced and eliminated incentives for citizens installing solar-electric equipment that would reduce fossil-fuels use – but not add to PNM’s profits. Citizen-owned distributed generation adds electricity to the grid without adding emissions, but does not add to PNM’s cost-basis for its profits. This leads PNM to discourage the very technology that is best for the public. The PRC appears oblivious to the urgency of the renewable-energy production transition, as the crisis of climate disruption accelerates. As Peggy O’Mara pointed out in last Sunday’s The New Mexican, the race for renewable energy has already passed a turning point. Continued reliance on coal is now a high financial risk as well as environmentally stupid. The PRC also has a fiduciary responsibility to the public to protect it from undue costs and financial risk. PNM’s plan would introduce new coal and nuclear health and liability risks to New Mexicans. On the other hand, the history of regulation in the U.S. is one of corporate control over agencies ostensibly meant to regulate them.

Public Rights or Private Privilege

This whole mess revolves around an “unmentionable” flaw in the way energy is supplied to the public – through a faux public utility. The goals of a public utility should match the public interest. The goals and actions of PNM as a privatized “public utility” – an oxymoron of sorts – do not. Its obvious schemes to increase profits at the expense of the public interest should be offensive to its customers. At a deeper level, its guaranteed monopoly profits based on its capital investments and operating costs, give incentive to create investments and costs to justify rate-increase demands – and increased profits.

This setup reminds me of those corrupt “cost plus” Defense Department contracts that enrich the likes of Boeing, Northrup-Grumman, and others with “cost overruns” at the tax-payer’s expense. Without real public oversight, it’s a never-ending cycle of gouging the public for private corporate profit. Unlike some investor-owned public utilities that are moving expeditiously to solar and wind, PNM is regressive in the extreme. New Mexicans simply cannot afford the wasted water, methane pollution, coal-dust diseases, nuclear liabilities, and profligate profiteering of PNM. Now if the PRC were to really do its job…

Certainly, converting from a privatized energy supplier like PNM to a publicly owned and operated public utility is complicated. Nevertheless, PNM and PRC failures to move quickly toward significant carbon-emissions reduction and affordable energy in ways that serve the public interest would make it well worth the effort in the long run. It is time for the people of New Mexico to look after their own interests and pressure the State to change the way it does the people’s business, especially where energy and a healthy environment are concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalist Culture and the American Worker

We are a Capitalist Culture. The entire course of the industrial era has been driven by capital investment in technologies and materials that together have increased economic production. In the U.S. – contrary to corporate folklore – much of that capital investment has been made by the government, often at the behest of business. Infrastructure was the primary focus. The federally funded railways were a major factor in the expansion of the West. The Interstate Highway System started by President Eisenhower, virtually guaranteed post-WWII economic growth and indirectly subsidized the boom in the automobile industry. The early years of NASA saw major new technological inventions and aerospace accomplishments by a government-funded mission-driven enterprise. Advances in the aviation industry, largely publicly regulated then, benefited greatly from those developments. Numerous aerospace corporations grew rich on government “cost-plus” contracts, all the while praising “free market capitalism” and “free enterprise.”

The allies had won World War II supported by U.S. government investment in rapid invention and deployment of new (mostly military) products, also generating full employment. The war economy produced many jobs after politically powerful capitalists forced unemployment-inducing cutbacks in the initially successful New Deal. Investment in productive assets is the driving force behind all economic development. Government investment of public capital – paid for by our taxes – has driven much of the growth of the U.S. economy. U.S. business has been a prime beneficiary of public investments over the nation’s entire history.

Corporate Capital and American Culture
Americans have come to believe that economic development has resulted only from the combination of private capital and personal invention. It is an unquestioned cultural assumption. Why? Because Big Corporate Capital now controls most cultural communication in the U.S.A. The interests of the biggest corporations dominate the content communicated in the mass media — also controlled by Big Corporate Capital. Corporate ideology is expressed in a variety of ways by twisting the ideas that would normally express core American values. The mass media implicitly support corporate agendas rather than the public interest, while sounding like they defend core American values.

A classic case of corporate capitalist culture distorting cultural values were the efforts of groups like the John Birch Society in the 1950s. Like the Birch Society, today’s Koch brothers’ front groups work to get “right to work” laws passed in most states. Who would not agree that everyone has a right to work? It is virtually a universal cultural value, closely tied to “American individualism.” However, the “right” of one person to work in a particular unionized factory or office – without joining the union or paying union dues – is not quite the same thing.

When a union negotiates with management for a living wage or safe working conditions, all wage workers in that business benefit from that negotiation. For a worker to have the “right” to not pay union dues or a fee for the cost of the negotiations that benefit him, that worker becomes a “free rider.” He or she benefits from the success of the group but refuses to pay his/her share of the costs of that benefit. Any one worker has a “right” to not contribute to the efforts of a united group of workers to achieve a living wage. But in that case, s/he should not expect to reap the rewards of that effort. Such blatant exploitation of the efforts of others is the height of hypocrisy. It is also a direct attack on the rights of all other workers to effectively bargain for reasonable wages.

Sure, one could point to some cases where a union has gained unjustified power. Unions, like any other organization, when they grow too big and powerful, tend to act in the bureaucratic interest, not in members’ interests. The teamsters under the ‘union boss’ Jimmy Hoffa come to mind as such as case . A man like Hoffa was rather similar to the likes of a Jamie Diamond or the CEOs of several other financial corporations today, who have ruthlessly exploited their positions as heads of their institutions. The main difference is that nobody had qualms about prosecuting corrupt union leaders. However, corrupt “Banksters” today seem immune to all but the mildest disparagement, no less jail time. Instead, we hear “nobody could have predicted the financial crisis,” when many non-corporate economists did just that as well as point out the corrupt nature of the behavior of the financial elite.

American Values: Minimum Wage and a Living Wage
Recent surveys make clear the American public’s view that workers should be paid at least enough to subsist – it is called a “living wage.” If you work full time, you ought to be able to pay rent and buy food, clothing, and shelter, the basics. Yet over the past several decades more and more jobs are at or near, even below in some cases, the woefully inadequate “minimum wage.” The power of corporations over the political culture coincided with the corporate takeover of the congress and many state legislatures. Wage theft is rampant in situations such as the fast food industry where workers’ power to defend themselves against abuse is at or near zero. That, of course, is where wages are extremely low and the supply of workers is much greater than the demand.

The pure apologists for capitalist culture even argue that there should be no minimum wage, so that the magical “invisible hand” of a “free market” in labor can find the “true value” of any particular job. In a civilized society, one would think, no job should be valued at less than is needed for survival. Yet many executives who have the opportunity to do so, pay starvation wages. I know small business owners who insist on paying their workers a living wage, even for unskilled jobs, when they could pay only minimum wages. But these are entrepreneurs who have consciences; they believe in the American values of fairness and mutual loyalty of employer and employee.

One retired business owner told me with great confidence that raising the minimum wage would be counter productive for low wage workers. They would simply have to spend extra on more expensive fast food because their higher wages would drive up prices. Others claim that raising the minimum wage would destroy their businesses, because their customers would not pay the difference. Most critics of a livable minimum wage claim it would be a damper on the economy. Yet in every instance where the minimum wage was raised significantly, unemployment went down as the local economy was stimulated by the increased demand.  The additional income is mostly spent on necessities in the local economy.

Conscientious employers have proven the living-wage critics wrong time and again. Their businesses typically thrive, both because of the better mutual loyalty between employer and worker, and because the business just runs smother and is usually more responsive to customers as well because the owner has a better attitude about everyone. The public knows that the employment system in the U.S. is rigged to squeeze the workers and disempower them. That is why a new movement for economic fairness and justice is growing. At the same time, growing numbers of low-wage workers are recognizing that the only way they can break out of the trap they are in is to organize themselves and protest en mass. Despite continuing massive corporate propaganda, unions may be on the rise again.

Outsourcing America, or Reviving Our Economy
In the current situation of a continuing “wage recession,” we observe corporations sitting on vast quantities of cash. They hesitate to invest it in production, since low wages have driven demand for basic products so low. Everyone knows that a low-wage worker must spend every dollar s/he is paid just to survive. Production depends on demand. Corporations send capital overseas to reduce production costs and attempt to sell cheaper goods to workers here who cannot afford them. A shrinking middle class trying to survive on unsustainable poverty wages cannot maintain high levels of consumption. The rich can only buy so many mansions and yachts. The super wealthy corporate elites park their riches in financial instruments that contribute little to the real economy that would otherwise need workers at livable wages.

It is time to reassess the entire framework of the dying American economy. Narrow short-term corporate interests are destroying the potential for capital to be invested in creating many needed jobs in this country. The nation needs to do much work in areas that serve the public interest – such as energy efficiency – providing livable wages in the process. A massive investment of existing capital in converting the carbon economy to self-sustaining energy production and conservation would require many jobs. The fossil fuel industry cannot and will not provide such jobs – they are in the public interest, not the fossil fuel industry’s interest.

The so-called free market is anything but free. Capital has been put to many uses that cost society far more than their value to society and now even threaten our survival. Capital enables and empowers social action. Only a realignment of the role of capital in the new economy can make a livable society possible.

The Democrats’ Dilemma

The Democrats have a serious problem. They have abandoned efforts to put into practice their traditional principles of supporting social and economic justice. In practical terms their election depends heavily on the largess of the rich and powerful. They are just as beholden to Wall Street and the corporate elite as are the Republicans. But as less reliable surrogates for corporate power than their Republican colleagues, they are also less well funded by the power elites. What’s a Democrat to do?

It seems clear that the Democrats will never be able to compete effectively for campaign funding in comparison with the Republicans. Generally, it is mostly the more liberal rich who will support them, and there are not enough wealthy liberals or liberal CEOs to level the electoral playing field.

Death of the Public Interest
Of course, the Republicans are in trouble too, but in different ways. They can’t seem to produce any legislation – and they consistently refuse to pass bills even based on their own ides if Obama favors them. But they have been very effective at voter suppression, gerrymandering, and pandering to their extreme right “base” from their vacuous ideological position of opposition to anything that does not further enrich their corporate and financial benefactors. The Public Interest is simply not part of the political equation.

The media narrative feigns attention to the public interest, but it plays off the hopes and fears of the general population to keep the narrative consistent with the interests of the corporate state. The media also parrots the ways the two parties frame the definitions of “issues,” as if those definitions emerged from the people rather than the financial and corporate powers that control the parties. Thus, it is not surprising to observe major misconceptions of public policy among the people.

When scientific surveys are conducted by independent researchers, not paid for by a political party, so called “public opinion” turns out to be quite different than when the corporate controlled networks or political consultants conduct them. The Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as “Obama Care,” is hated or liked depending on how the question is asked. When asked about specific provisions of the act, such as the elimination of “pre-existing conditions” as a means to exclude patients from insurance coverage, almost everyone reported favoring that provision. Yet many of the same people also reported that they oppose “Obama Care”. Similarly, I was amazed to watch “on the street” television interviews where people were asked if they liked Obama Care, to which most said no. Then the interviewer asked if they favored “The Affordable Care Act.” Most said, “oh, yes.”

Why this apparent contradiction? Well, it is clear that many people are not accurately informed about the Affordable Care Act or its politically charged shorthand designation. But it is obvious that many of them have been influenced by the racist anti-Obama propaganda that pervades talk radio and the corporate media. “Issues” are shaped by a news narrative that fits the political interests of the corporate and financial elites, not the concerns of citizens.

So, here is the Democrats’ dilemma. Democratic politicians are trapped in an ideological-financial bind. They cannot truly represent the interests of the public because that would cause the funding of their careers to be cut off. They have given up the fight for human and economic justice while retaining a hollow rhetoric of support for “jobs” and “economic growth,” “equal pay,” and sometimes even “civil rights.” They are locked into the political system of the corporatocracy. Sadly, they remain full participants in what I believe Russell Brand called “the entertainment division of the military industrial complex.” That certainly is how the corporate media portray the American political system. But it is just not that entertaining to the growing numbers who see through the thin rhetorical veil.

Reinventing Democracy for Survival
It is not working. More and more people recognize the false hope of “change we can believe in.” Whatever the accomplishments of the two Obama terms, the project for a (small-d) democratic America is in shambles. The Democratic Party façade is part of the problem and offers no solution. Despite rhetorical dance with ‘climate deniers,’ the so-called “national leadership” is going along to get along in a dying political economy that feeds them. The corporate economy continues accelerating not only planetary climate chaos, but very possibly human extinction. The scientific evidence is overwhelming and ignored.
None of this is about to change on its own. As people experiencing the growing crises of climate disruption, failing industrial food production, economic and financial disruption, and international conflicts over diminishing resources, they will begin to organize their lives in their local communities in more sustainable ways. In fact, many are already doing so.  The Occupy Wall Street movement and recent Climate marches have already demonstrated the rapidly growing awareness that the changes we need are going to come from those who need them most: regular people in the communities where we live.