Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

Individual Climate Ethics and Social Action

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

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

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

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

The Crisis is Now

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

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

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

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

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

Individualism and Collective Action

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

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

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

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

Transformative Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dilemma of Transformation: From Petro-Economy to Eco-Society

What will it will take to reduce world carbon emissions enough in the short time necessary to fend off the worst of the effects of climate disruption? So much of the economy and energy technology is involved that it is hard to even imagine the magnitude of resulting social disruption.

Yet here we are, faced with such colossal dilemmas that any serious student of the climate crisis is easily overwhelmed. Where to start? Everywhere. How much to do? Everything. But priorities must be set and optimal sequences of action must be developed. Here are some of the key dilemmas.

Individual change
“If everyone would just stop driving so much and using all those plastic drink-bottles…,” etc. Well, yes, many everyday behaviors will have to change if we are to even stop the continuing growth in carbon emissions, no less reverse the trend. But a serious consideration of the colossal scale at which many things must happen, the means to accomplish them appear perplexing at best.

Human habits would be hard enough to change without the social pressure to consume in our current manner. Beyond that, little exists in the way of a model for “responsible” ecological behavior. Besides, most folks barely have time to get the dishes done before work the next morning to spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I have always been a strong advocate for education, even as I saw its quality slide over the past 40 years in the U.S. But something much faster and more intense is needed.

Leadership AWOL
“George W. Obama,” someone called the equivocating “environmental president” who, as Naomi Klein put it the other day, just can’t bring himself to just say no to the dangerously destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, The Congress-of-No reeks of a vulgar racism that is willing to cost America whatever it takes to prevent “Obama” (the title “President” deliberately missing) from accomplishing anything at all. And as the rest of the world puzzles over how to respond to the growing climate crisis, U.S. Congress members wallow in sanctimonious denial. Their minds and their morals: Absent Without Leave.

Leadership in responding to climate disruption would take both recognition and bold public articulation of the catastrophic nature of the planetary climate emergency. Real leadership would entail mounting a major operation to mobilize all the major economic institutions to respond to the crisis. Each corporate and government sector should be required to develop plans for immediate ramping up of a maximal conversion of all energy systems. No special deals. If you are waiting for that you might as well plan for societal collapse; that is where the AWOL “leadership” is taking us.

So, leadership can only come from the “grass roots,” not just in individual ‘lifestyle’ changes – which must accompany economic, industrial, and technological conversions. Grass-roots leadership must force the restructuring of all the major institutions, public and private/corporate, that drive the fossil-fuel economy. Many local community actions, such as public banking, local non-chemical agriculture and small manufacture, etc., are needed, now. But the ultimate and proximate necessity is for large scale institutional transformations. These can only come from broad popularly supported collective demands upon the larger system. That will come when the crisis is sufficiently severe. But will it be soon enough?

Collective Action
Some sociologists specialize in studying “collective behavior and social movements.” Crowds, mobs, fashion, riots, rebellions, all have certain characteristics that distinguish them from everyday actions and normal social processes. Ordinary norms and beliefs are suspended as a collective recognition of special circumstances arises. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and collective definitions of it. In context of natural disasters, sometimes whole communities have spontaneously risen up and responded to crises with highly organized mutual aid. Or, a riot can be a collective act of spontaneously organized destruction. Anti-colonial liberation movements resulted from a another form of collective consciousness. It all depends on the level and focus of awareness and collective definition of the situation.

But the climate crisis is somewhat different. It has emerged as an ecological consequence of the multiple converging crises of economics, politics, and expanded capital investment in extractive technologies of overproduction. Its scope is so broad, yet its impact is often very local and also episodic. A super storm here, a drought there, a super-hot wildfire or raging flood somewhere else, a lot of species extinctions everywhere. At the early stages the effects were diverse and diffuse. That does not lend itself to collective recognition or a focus for action. That must come from science, and science is something too many people are unfamiliar with and have been indoctrinated to mistrust. But the scientific evidence is now so clear that it constitutes a call for action.

Unprecedented Social Mobilization
The immediate dilemma is that deep and comprehensive structural change is needed on a very large scale and very quickly. But massive change will only happen when enormous numbers of people demand it. “National leadership” is unavailable; it serves the corporate state, the very source of these converging crises. Oddly, massive mobilization, which is driven by recognition and emotion, may be easier to launch than education.

This Changes Everything,” as Naomi Klein’s new book title accurately proclaims the essence of the climate crisis. But such immense transformation of all fundamental human systems requires complex coordination too – much akin to the rapid mobilization initiated on the U.S. entering WW II, but on an enormously larger scale. The social mobilization needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis must be national and international as well as local. But people in places are the only hope for launching such an unprecedented multifaceted human social mobilization to avoid extinction.

So a massive social mobilization is unequivocally necessary. It has happened before on a much smaller scale – the civil rights struggle, anti-apartheid movement, Poland, India, even Argentina in a sense, and with varying ‘success’ – but it is highly unpredictable and difficult. We are in for quite a ride….

Climate Science or Social Science?

The mass media continue to present the issue of climate change as if it were an unsettled scientific topic for political debate. Of course, the mass media are owned by the very corporations that have externalized the real costs of their pollution of the environment. If the real costs to people and the planet were fully grasped by the public, many of the largest corporations would be recognized for their criminal destruction of the very basis for life on the planet. Any reading of the research makes it clear that is no real scientific debate over whether global warming is real or whether the climate disruption we now experience is mostly anthropogenic. The data simply overwhelm any honest doubt; the rest is the politics of greed.

Many of the details of the deadly trajectory down which we are plummeting are still being clarified. That is always the case in scientific research. But it is entirely feasible to calculate the extent that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, etc., must be reduced in order to stave off an environmental death spiral. Aside from how to carry out the reductions, the biggest question is whether or not it is too late to stop the accelerating increase of the earth’s temperature. Each new report indicates that prior modeling of climate change underestimated change and effects. But the science is improving as the prospects continue to look more bleak. Yet recognizing the urgency is strongly resisted.

Total Social Mobilization
Seeking certainty is irrelevant to an effective response to climate disruption, and at this point it is self-destructive. Calculations of the probabilities of the catastrophic consequences of continuing on the present path can and are being made. But it is already clear that drastic changes in energy consumption must be made immediately. It is nothing more than prudent to make the best calculations possible now and take every action necessary to stave off catastrophic climate disruption and societal collapse. Most climate scientists know that, but they are in no position to initiate drastic societal actions more massive than the greatest mobilizations of humanity ever attempted. Climate science describes our condition, but it cannot give us answers about how to mobilize humanity to save itself and the planet.

The present situation is an interesting contrast with the U.S. mobilization as the nation entered World War II. Automotive factories were converted to production of military tanks in a matter of weeks. New fighter aircraft were designed and put into production in a couple of months. Most importantly, the society and virtually the entire population put itself on a “war footing” almost immediately. Today, the difference is that this time the scale of mobilization necessary is just as comprehensive but many orders of magnitude greater in scale than that impressive social transformation. The same level of mobilization must occur in different ways in most other nations too, based on their differing patterns of fossil fuel consumption.

The Political Impasse
The impasse is rather obvious. Because of the central control of information and culture by the corporate state, the urgency of the situation is not recognized by most of the population. That is fine for the plutocrats attempting to squeeze those final profits from the dying growth economy, but it cannot last for long. If, as at the beginning of World War II, the entire population were able to recognize that total social mobilization is required for the survival of the nation, and if we had political leadership dedicated to facing the new reality, it could happen.

But we are in a very different place. Extreme economic individualism promoted by the corporate culture has weakened the social bonds that would support concerted action. Mass media “dysinfotainment” distracts the majority from facing the accelerating crisis. Self-indulgent politicians continue to collect their corporate largesse and look the other way while pandering to “climate deniers.” Presidents do what the corporate state requires – corporate aggrandizement is the priority, not societal survival. Total social mobilization is needed to make the massive economic and technical changes that are required to curtail the destruction that will otherwise befall humanity. Yet, the most important factors run counter to these changes. Even most environmental activists don’t talk about the huge scale of mobilization needed.

The Great Transformation
So, the most serious scientific questions remaining as to the future of humanity and the biosphere that must be addressed are really questions for the social sciences, not climate science. That is not a comfortable prospect for several reasons.

First, I have always called the social sciences the “hard sciences,” because the subject matter is so difficult. Most people call the physical sciences the hard sciences, but they have a different meaning. “Hard” data are the realm of physics and chemistry. Measurement and prediction of human behavior, let alone changing it, are much more difficult to do because of the fluidity of human behavior and social processes. Fluid dynamics is quite explicit because fluids behave in highly predictable ways. Not so humans. Mobilizing human behavior is far more complex.

Second, society today is tightly organized around the demands of an elitist growth economy that is in direct conflict with the needs for human survival. Politics and policy are driven by the economic elites. The only serious climate leadership is at the grass-roots level where the uphill battle is for the attention of a population. Most people must struggle daily to put food on the table. Not a pretty sight. The only hope lies in the fact that the public is not so stupid as the elites think. Growing numbers are recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis, which is now the greatest human emergency ever. Perhaps a tipping point can be reached in time.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part III: Ecological Transformation

An ecological society will require some basic changes in the way we live. Most analyses of climate change are about disruptions leading to untenable future conditions. Specific reductions in carbon emissions will require transformation of economic infrastructure, which is rarely discussed.

To stabilize global temperature, return to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is necessary. That goal might be achieved if a tipping point is not reached before we take major actions. We are already at about 400. Several indicators suggest such a tipping point is near, where positive feedback loops will amplify already accelerating trends, even if we drastically cut emissions. Warming melts tundra releasing methane, causing more warming, etc. Calling for “further research” excuses intolerable inaction. We must act now based on what we know now.

Carbon Control
It is impossible to list all major contributors to carbon pollution in a blog post. But here are some major categories of carbon polluting infrastructure we need to get under control.

● The Built Environment. More carbon emissions come from fossil fuel burned to heat, cool, and supply electricity to homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and factories, than any other source.

Transportation. Cars, trains, boats, and planes consume huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Energy Production. We burn a lot of carbon fuels in the process of extracting the raw materials from which those fuels are refined. Power plants emit 40% of U.S. carbon pollution. Fracking, the latest technology for extracting oil and gas, is itself a major methane polluter and consumes huge amounts of water and fuel. Tar-sands extraction and processing is another big one. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is so dangerous.

Electronics Everywhere. Little thought is given to the immense amount of electricity used to run electronic equipment. ‘Phantom load’ from computers, music electronics, and appliances in standby mode accounts for about ten percent of the electricity usage in households. “The Cloud,” consists of many competing computer “server farms” the Internet giants use to store and process data of all kinds. Let’s not forget the giant telecom corporations. The NSA and other surveillance operations consume massive amounts of electrical energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

The Military. The various branches of the armed forces consume more fossil-fuel energy than any other economic sector. Not surprising. Always contemplating future threats to its viability, the DoD has been pursuing research on alternative propulsion systems and energy sources for a number of years.

These diverse economic sectors involve infrastructure powered by fossil-fuels. Each requires different changes to achieve carbon-neutrality. Priorities must be set and ‘least-impact’ parameters established to make reasonable decisions for each of these sectors. Who is doing that?

Conversion of Economic Infrastructure
All infrastructure conversion requires technology, materials, and labor. Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is labor intensive, which translates into lots of jobs. Most talk of energy efficient buildings is about new construction. But existing buildings produce most of the energy wasted. So investing in retrofitting existing buildings with energy conserving technology will best upgrade this sector of infrastructure.

Conversion to electric cars seems inevitable. But it requires infrastructure – mostly solar-powered charging stations to allow commuters to use their cheap second-generation Teslas. International trade involves massive amounts of mostly diesel fuel consumption. Advanced designs for solar and wind driven ships are now proven. But new ship building takes time. Meanwhile, the false economies of corporate “free trade” must be restrained. The free movement of capital to exploit cheap immobile labor must be curtailed so that local labor can be employed to serve local needs.

If the environmental and social costs of fracking were taxed, the practice would come to a screeching halt. It poisons local water resources, spews lots of methane into the atmosphere, and accelerates global warming. A carbon tax reflecting the real costs would put an end to fracking and accelerate solar power installations and adoption of electric cars.

The Cloud” provides no better data storage than increasingly cheap local storage, which by comparison minimizes electricity use. It should be abandoned for most computing purposes. “Phantom load” is easily controlled by inserting ‘smart’ power bars between the source and all those electronic gadgets and appliances.

The best way to reduce military energy consumption is to stop all the futile wars of choice, eliminating a major source of terrorism as well as the huge environmental costs of war. Cancel absurd super-weapon projects. The vast savings could be converted to useful activity, like converting to an ecological economy.

These are only a few of the economic conversions that are necessary to bring carbon emissions under control while converting to an ecologically viable economic infrastructure and employing millions of citizens.

Necessary Social Mobilization
Here’s the rub. The large scale infrastructure conversions required to realistically control carbon pollution to minimize climate chaos are huge. Yet, national and international institutions remain moribund. Their response to the climate crisis consists mainly of false promises and finger pointing. A major social mobilization is necessary and must be from the bottom up.

Direct action is needed now to mitigate climate disruption and dampen its most extreme effects. Only engaged citizens can take such immediate action. Awareness is surging. Clear mechanisms for meaningful effective action must be made a matter of public knowledge. Bill McKibben and 350.org have made divestment from fossil-fuel industries the centerpiece of direct climate action. Move your money to local credit unions and banks. Drastically slash corporate consumerism — what do you really need and from what local source can you get it? Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates for solar installations while they’re still available. Be creative. Momentum follows action. Join others. Act.

The Next Great Transformation

Most of us tend to see the world in fairly stable terms.  Our own daily routines, as well as those of the world around us have a consistency that is predictable and thus comfortable.  Yet over extended periods of time, human history has been punctuated by many major upheavals, revolutions, and transformations of the way we live.  In a book by that name, Karl Polanyi characterized the massive changes of the late Nineteenth Century expansion of the industrial revolution and its impacts on the early twentieth century as The Great Transformation.  Today, we sit at the cusp of the Next Great Transformation, and in some ways perhaps the last, as the accelerating climate disruption, resource depletion, financial, water and food crises, and the end of the era of the limitless-growth economy, all converge as the single greatest crisis to ever confront humanity.

The Next Great Transformation is undoubtedly in its initial stages now.  It is likely accelerating beyond expectations, just like climate chaos has.  But its character and direction are not easy to predict, since they will rely on the human response as well as on biophysical trends already in play.  Some of the key factors in determining its shape and trajectory include:  1) whether sufficient massive social mobilization will occur to reduce carbon emissions to a degree that will slow the headlong rush into ever more devastating climate disruptions; 2) the degree of resiliency of human populations in responding to radically changed environments, and in creating massive changes in the way we live; and 3) the extent to which the fossil-industrial and financial world political economy can be dismantled and transformed into a ‘planet-friendly’ localized ecological economy.  These factors will determine whether the Next Great Transformation will be of a kind that will sustain human life on the planet through the end of this century and beyond, or will extend beyond human intervention toward mass extinction.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi analyzed the “free-market” economic ideology of nineteenth century unfettered capitalist development as the cause of the economic crises of the Great Depression and two world wars.   Revolutionary changes in technology and geographic expansion had been initiated in an era of great economic growth, but the ensuing crises resulted from distortions brought on by what Polanyi saw as a utopian image of a self-correcting market.  The nineteenth century civilization based on classical economic doctrine had collapsed, as evidenced by the Great Depression and the world wars, but the society was subsequently rescued by the expansive growth of World War II and the booming consumer economy that followed.

After FDR failed to follow through with his New Deal reforms, the massive economic and social mobilization of World War II ended the economic crisis of the 1930s.  A similar but much larger crisis complex is playing itself out today with much the same utopian economic “free-market” images being used to justify unsustainable growth to feed an ever-greater concentration of wealth and unprecedented corporate power over both economy and politics.  The emergent corporate state still pays little heed to the resultant burgeoning planetary crisis that knows no political boundaries.  The headlong clash of this political economy with the physics and chemistry of the biosphere will either be averted by rapid social mobilization to transform society, or it will result in a massive extinction of many species due to inability to adapt to changing ecologies, including the human species.  Elizabeth Kolbert describes these processes vividly in her new book, The Sexth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Five great extinctions have occurred in earth’s history, including the greatest, the Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago, likely caused by an asteroid-impact and killing seventy percent of terrestrial vertebrates.

The Next Great Transformation will likely involve a catastrophic plunge into the sixth mass extinction, if total mobilization to curtail climate chaos is not achieved rapidly.  Or, if we create new modes of collective survival – most likely based on building local resilience and international cooperation – they must involve a huge reduction in fossil-fuel driven economic activities, which have for over two centuries focused on growth but which now must massively reduce activities that emit carbon into the atmosphere.  Here’s where human creativity and innovation come in.  To achieve a workable, livable Great Transformation will require us to come up with a full range of new economic forms, locally, regionally, and nationally.  But this time, we will have the advantage of drawing upon all the [appropriate] knowledge and technology from both our history and our latest innovations.  For this, we will have to start making decisions on the basis of science, not magical thinking.

To achieve all this will require total mobilization toward converting carbon-based activities to carbon neutral activities.  That will require the populations of the “advanced” fossil-fuel economies of the world to drastically change the way we live.  Remember, the per capita emission of carbon is vastly greater in the first-world nations than in third-world nations.  And, of course, most of the emissions so far have come from the fully industrialized nations.

Either path of the New Great Transformation will entail huge human displacements and comprehensive reorganization of human life – it cannot be otherwise.  Nor can I imagine how this will be easy, either way.  But one path will lead to species extinction [or near extinction] for humans as well as many other species; the other path will lead to some new level of survival as a result of humans re-organizing their relations to the biosphere and each other in ways that will dampen the plunge into further climate chaos.  The right path, if chosen, will be the one previously less traveled.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.