Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

co2_Ice-core.and.Manaloa_to.403ppm_Scripts.Inst.800k_zoom-768x461

CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.

The Upside-Down Economy

The idea that the financial markets are the essential force that drives economic growth and progress, has dominated political thinking for too long. The financial markets and their agents have dominated politics and the Congress over recent decades more than ever before. After all, it took several decades for the financial elite to accomplish the complete abandonment of the controls instituted to prohibit the financial market excesses that caused the Great Depression. We are at greater risk today of an even bigger crash than 1929.

The U.S. and world economies are stumbling on the precipice of part II of the “Great Recession” of 2008. The global integration of financial markets and institutions put the entire world at risk and none of it has any democratic foundation. It is all happening against the will of the people and in opposition to the public interest. The massive contraction of the middle class and the swelling of the ranks of the poor are now undeniable. The so called “recovery” has been all about the financial elites and the stock market. Corporations are awash in cash. Those who lost jobs that had a livable wage can now only find minimal-wage jobs and must work at least two to pay rent. The real economy falters and the financial markets are built on quicksand.

The Disappearing Real Economy

The economy is upside down because real economic activity – the production and exchange of goods and services needed by the people in their everyday lives – no longer drives the global economic system. The most powerful economic force in the world today consists of the actions of multinational corporations attempting to continually grow consumption by reducing the costs of growing production. International “free trade” is in effect the removal of production from the nation – outsourcing.

To minimize cost and maximize output, capital is moved to poor nations with the least labor costs and environmental controls. Economic “globalization” allows U.S. corporations to import cheap goods for our increasingly poor workers to buy at Wal-Mart with credit cards. That, of course, reduces the availability of production jobs here by exploiting the destitute elsewhere. While capital is easily mobile globally, labor is relatively immobile. The globalization of capital drives wages down so that U.S. citizens can only buy cheap imported goods.

Continuing down the ruinous path of the Wall Street financial elite is supported by a lot of political rationalization. The fact that work, pay, production, and consumption are what any real human economy is actually about, is simply ignored. On the one hand, we are told that capital must be free to find its “highest and best use.” That will enable the capitalists – falsely characterized as “the job creators” – to invest in new technology and production, thereby improving employment. Well, how has that worked out? The new technologies have mostly reduced the need for skilled labor in the U.S. The free international movement of capital – they call it “free trade” – has increased demand for unskilled cheap labor abroad. Who benefits? The wealthy investors in “globalization.” Who suffers? Workers everywhere suffer the loss of control over their lives and the inability to earn a living wage.

Feed the Rich, Starve the Poor

The myth that the super rich somehow need a tax break pervades the political discourse even though wealthy corporations and individuals pay less in taxes than ever. The delusion is that such public largess economically favoring the already rich would allow them to invest in the real economy. The “news” media – owned by the same mega-corporations that feed the super-rich – go along with that fiction even in the face of several decades of decline of American work, pay, production, and consumption.

All the while, the rich continue to get richer, paying less and less taxes, by controlling politics and indebting the nation. Both the U.S. Congress and the President are elected by having access to massive political funding by so-called “political action committees” (PACs). Legislation is actually written by the biggest financial lobbyists in the Congress – the lobbyists for the financial elite that is enriched by the “globalized” economy. Worldwide corporate theft, subsidized by the U.S. government, is a scam of unparalleled proportion.

Simply put, in a real economy it is income from employment that drives economic health. Employment provides individuals and families with incomes to buy the necessities and niceties of life. It is employment that produces goods and services people need. The income from employment allows consumption to drive production. Financial speculation among the super-rich has distorted the real economy by “financializing” it and ruined all that.

That is why the economy is so upside-down today. Financial speculation drives investment in cheap overseas production, leading to domestic poverty and declining ability to buy what is produced elsewhere. It is all driven by the greed of the financial elite, not by any national economic policy. Big investment banks’ speculating in abstract financial instruments – derivatives and the like – are allowed to create phantom money by depleting the real economy in the form of consumer and government debt.

In a real economy the Big Banks would be invested in actual productive activity. But because of outsourcing, underemployment, and low wages, workers cannot afford goods produced domestically as cheap goods from abroad flood the shelves of the big-box stores. At the same time, the propaganda of marketing and advertising encourage more and more consumption of less and less meaningful products. Low wages force reliance on consumer credit, increasing indebtedness to the corporations controlled by the financial elite. It is an upside-down economy.

Growing suppression of public education and critical thinking facilitates the manipulation of consumer behavior. People keep trying to buy whatever represents the imagery of the consumer culture that dominates their experience. “Affluenza” afflicts some of the few who experience new wealth. But the pervasive desire for the trappings of affluence – driven by pervasive marketing propaganda – drives consumer behavior, leaving little room for “free will” in economic behavior. Mass media images dominate consumer as well as political thought. Cultural images of “the good life” all involve increased unthinking consumption of corporate products.

Converging Crises and Catastrophic Collapse

In the present context, certain fundamental factors are at work. The vast accumulation of “phantom wealth” by the Big Banks via the “bailout” has encouraged further speculation and facilitated more economic concentration. The easy availability of cheap loans to corporations already awash in cash has not resulted in their investing in the domestic economy. All that cash and cheap credit is used for mergers and acquisitions, which further concentrate corporate wealth. A stock market booms while the main-street economy remains stagnant with vast numbers of workers unemployed or underemployed. Stock market growth is without foundation in the real economy. It has little basis in actual economic value, its growth is speculative, and is at increasing risk of collapse.

After the greatest financial heist of the public treasury ever, we must ask why such vast accumulated wealth has no benefit to the real economy. Overextended consumers can no longer rely on home equity and credit cards to make up for those decades of stagnant to regressive wages. It becomes clear that another few hundred million more dollars in the coffers of billionaires will not be invested in domestic production for the suppressed consumer demand for necessities that results from stagnant domestic employment and over-indebtedness.

It is not as if this is all happening in the abstract. Real world allocation of capital has planetary consequences. The distortions of mass production induced by extractive capital are global in scope. With a world population of over seven billion people and the drive to emulate Western patterns of consumption, the carrying capacity of the planet’s ecologies is already exceeded. Whatever one’s interpretation of the world’s economic system and imagined alternatives, the convergence of overproduction, consumer culture, overpopulation, looming crises of food production, resource wars, and climate chaos, all foreshadow a catastrophic collapse of existing economic and social systems. Only a massive human effort to reorganize the way we live on this planet can avoid human tragedy on a scale as yet mostly unimagined.

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 Great Jobs Myth and the Transformation of the Growth Economy, Part II

The pervasive acceptance of conventional economic theory as a “natural science” that gives us guidance for dealing with our economic lives is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding and making rational choices about the converging crises of our time.  Simply put, the fundamental flaw in conventional economics is that the economic system it promotes as a natural system operates in an ecological vacuum.  In the real world, however, economic policy confronts actual obstacles to its illusion of endless economic growth that it cannot overcome.  That is why the choices ahead are so difficult and will require massive social change.

The economics profession initially struggled to be recognized as a science, just like physics.  That recognition eventually came, but was not entirely justified.  Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef[1] have powerfully demonstrated how the scientific limits of economics were overcome by clever conceptual illusions and political alignment with the forces of wealth and power in society.  That has gone so far that, for example, the Koch brothers now control the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University, having cut a deal that allows them veto power over faculty hiring in exchange for monetary support for the department.  So much for independent intellectual exploration in that academic setting.  The economics departments of high ranking universities around the nation are more subtly influenced by expectations tied to financial support from major corporations.  No wonder fields like ecological economics, which examines economic systems in relation to the ecological systems in which they operate, are so commonly excluded from such programs.

A few forward looking economists such as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill,[2] and Richard Heinberg,[3] have begun to unmask the myths of the orthodoxy of the Economics of Endless Growth and the false assumptions at its base.  As we reach the planetary limits to economic growth, the new ecological economics is an emerging attempt to build a basis for a steady state economy consistent with the carrying capacity of the biosphere.  Much remains to be done on figuring out how to respond to and manage the Great Transformation to the new economic reality.  The economists mentioned here have outlined some of the changes needed, but little has been said of how to accomplish them.  Gar Alperovitz[4] has extended that discussion, focusing on nascent democratizing economic organizations forming at the grass roots level.  That will be increasingly important, but strategy and tactics for getting there from here are the key factor which is both most important and least elucidated.

It is quite clear that electoral politics are so dominated by the corporate forces that sustain conventional growth-at-any-cost economics in their own short-term interests [quarterly profits and stock prices as well as obscene executive pay and bonuses] that getting reasonable independent people elected in the near term is highly unlikely.  The only other option is the building of a social movement from the bottom up.  The American people are not nearly as stupid as the plutocracy imagines.  People know something is very wrong, even when they don’t connect it to their own economic behavior.  Extant climate disruption has already overcome the corporate propaganda of climate-denial, but what’s a concerned citizen to do?

The news that a coalition of seventeen of the world’s biggest private foundations has announced that they are divesting their holdings of nearly $1.8 billion from fossil fuels corporations[5] indicates one thing.  Consciousness can change and change can become exponential; that is how emerging non-violent social movements are realized.  350.org was initially ridiculed for its plan to pressure educational institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.  But it is happening.  A much broader movement is needed, however.

Integral to modernity is the decline of the solidarity of natural social groupings (family, village, clan, etc.).   The discontent resulting from economic individualism could be countered by engagement in the very kinds of social movement that are needed to confront the otherwise overpowering force of corporatocracy.  Out of participation will come change in self-awareness.  If [when] Obama’s absurd “all of the above” [ultimately anti-ecological] energy policy results in approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new surge of activism will facilitate the larger social movement – and solidarity – necessary for change when conventional politics are locked out by corporate financial control.  What most middle-class “progressives” don’t quite understand, yet, is that the necessary massive reductions in CO2 and methane emissions will radically alter their consumer “lifestyle.”  That shock, sobering as it will be, must lead to massive collective action by new social groupings grounded in the human interest – not individual selfish short-term interests –  so that the broken fossil-fuel economy can be transformed into a new ecological economy never before seen.


[1] Philip B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011.

[2] Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill, Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economics profession provides the ideology, the corporations fund the politicians and their lobbyists write the legislation, the congress formalizes the legal cover and the stacked courts confirm it, the Federal Reserve provides the “fractional reserve” lending authority, and the Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” direct capital to drive the endless-growth economy that is killing the planet.  The military, of course, assures that the dwindling planetary resources flow to the growth machine and the increasingly militarized police act as an occupying force to “manage” the population.

Where can we find the hope in all this harsh institutionalized reality that is already exceeding the limits of the biosphere?  Hope lies where it always has: in the people.  When we examine the examples of revolutionary change in history, one fact becomes clear.  All successful revolutions (aside from those overthrowing in invading or occupying armies) have been non-violent movements of the people against oppressive regimes of one sort or another.  Popular resistance is a powerful force.  Real power results from the consent of the governed; that is what frightened the financial and political elites so much about the Occupy Movement.  When that consent is withdrawn, elites tremble.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall surveyed a wide range of movements of popular resistance to oppressive regimes in the last 100 years in their book, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, and found that a variety of non-violent sanctions – from strikes and boycotts to civil disobedience, street demonstrations, and non-cooperation – exercised by ordinary people, can separate ruling elites from their sources of power to end oppression.  Each case was different – from Gandhi’s movement of non-cooperation in India in the 1920’s to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980’s, from Russia in 1905 (before the Bolsheviks) to Argentina in the 1970’s and Chile in the 1980’s to Burma today – but wherever popular resistance bloomed, it could not be stopped.

Today, our problem is the same but also different.  What Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” in his book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, has quietly and incrementally overturned democratic institutions in the U.S., resulting in a elite-managed façade of corrupted democratic formalities that gloss over a pervasive corporate plutocracy.

What does all this mean for a citizen movement to transform the economy to achieve ecological justice, a stable biosphere, and the triumph of human values over economic growth serving corporate power?  Because all national institutions are now under unified totalistic control of the economic/political elite, serious change can only come from the bottom up – from the people ourselves.  Both collective acts of resistance and re-organization of economic activity in communities are necessary.

Close all your accounts with the Big Banks; open accounts only with local banks and member-owned credit unions.  Start employee-owned businesses.  Dump Comcast and join or start a cooperative member-owned Internet association at half the cost.  Divest your investments from fossil fuel corporations and military contractors.  Organize local opposition to water-table destroying oil/gas fracking.  Organize your community to establish publicly owned municipal community solar/wind driven electricity and local-regional smart grids.  Start community gardens and food coops.  Buy local, especially food, and avoid any “food”-product with more than five ingredients.  Pay a little more for locally grown organics and buy less plastic junk – the costs and benefits will balance out.  Organize to pressure city, county, and state governments to embark on seriously carbon-neutral energy programs.  The list can be extended by dozens of actions people can  take where we live.

We must change the way we live by taking individual and collective action in conflict with and in resistance to the very consumer culture we have internalized since World War II, but must now purge from our sense of ourselves.  We must again communicate with family and neighbors about steps we can take together to stem the tide of ecological catastrophe.  The new culture for a carbon-neutral world will look very different as we shape it, but will be fulfilling in ways the alienated consumerism we have been deceived into thinking is the mark of “success,” can never be.  And when you consider all those people who are just not paying attention, remember Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words:  “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The inattentive will eventually recognize hope in a new reality forming.  The possible is not necessarily the probable.  That is up to us.  Only our individual commitments and collective actions will make it so.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  ~  Mahatma Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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