The climate of Political Nihilism

In September 2018, the Trump administration produced a realistic environmental impact report that reflected current scientific estimates of emerging climate chaos. That alone was a bit shocking given Trumpist rhetoric claiming that climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” But the political misuse of that information was shockingly brazen, if not exactly surprising.

After all, presidential prevarication is the “new normal” in American politics. The ill logic in this particular case is tremendously twisted. The administration wants to roll back fuel efficiency standards in the transportation industry. The latest scientific estimates of anthropogenic heating of the planet if present emissions continue, predict as much as 4 degrees additional average heating of the Earth within the next few decades if the global economy continues on its current path.

That alone is shocking enough. The near-term consequences of that predicted heating will be devastating in several ways. Greater destruction from more frequent and intense super storms, sea rise that will threaten the world’s major coastal cities, the death of most of the world’s coral reefs, longer more intense droughts and more powerful floods, etc., etc. However, in Trumplandia the “logic” goes like this: The emissions from trucks and cars add up to such a small part of the total that we really need not bother restricting carbon emissions from them.

International Hypocrisy

Of course, the rapidly accelerating carbon emissions from human activity energized by the burning of fossil fuel since around 1950 has been so great that scientists have labeled it “the Great Acceleration.” Scientists expect total global emissions to continue rising next year since most nations are doing so little to curtail even more carbon spewing into the atmosphere. Despite the international agreements signed by almost every nation at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, no nation has taken serious steps to control their emissions since then. The scope of the necessary response is daunting at best. Every nation seems to be waiting for someone else to take the first step. Yet, the problem is now, with no time to delay to avoid global catastrophe.

So, as with several other treaty obligations, such as the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. You might argue that the withdrawal doesn’t really matter since the agreement has no teeth. The agreed reductions are not mandatory, just vague intentions.

No nation’s leaders want to jeopardize economic growth or bear the costs of complying with the agreements. However, the costs of failure to do so will be so great to the human condition that such concerns appear to be somewhere on the far side of foolish. Besides, the process of converting to clean (solar and wind) sources of energy production will create more jobs than so-called leaders can imagine. So will programs to insulate existing buildings, which contribute a lot of the energy waste worldwide. So, why do the world’s leaders balk at doing the right thing?

Nihilist Power Elites Overpower the Public Interest

The problem, of course, is that such major economic transformations threaten existing financial interests of the world’s power elites. The most powerful financial interests in the world are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. The further enrichment of the richest of the rich is also good for business at various Trump Towers around the world. The petulant president is enriching himself by enriching the ultra-rich elites of the world.

For the nihilist, nothing is forbidden. The only value is to exercise more and more power to satisfy the endless narcissistic demands of the sociopath. Of course, when such practices become a central feature of government, the threat of rising fascism grows with every moral transgression. Every act of demagoguery attempting to incite mass fear and anger in support of the self-imagined authoritarian ruler is another step on the road to fascist dictatorship. Do not believe those who say, “It can’t happen here.”

Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

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Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.