Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.


Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.


Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Why Recycle? Sometimes the Necessary is Insufficient

I have been recycling for a long time. At first it was just aluminum cans and glass bottles, especially when there was a deposit to collect. Then plastic grew to dominate the world of packaging. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, ‘mid-twentieth century’? Why, I even remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk when I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties. But that was re-use, not recycling. I suspect those glass milk bottles, when cracked, chipped, or broken, were just thrown in the trash. But their useful lives had been extended beyond twenty-first century imagination. I sometimes remember little details about my post-WWII childhood better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity.” Today’s consumerism is driven by the high-tech petroleum-based industrial culture of perpetual economic growth and one-use post-consumer waste. (APW) is a new Website dedicated to helping consumers live a “parallel lifestyle” by buying only ecologically sustainable products and services. Living a parallel strategy can be done now, even though the economic culture would have you think otherwise. While not always obvious, many consumer decisions involve making a ‘mainstream’ or a ‘parallel’ buying choice. Buying organic lettuce, for example, involves avoiding the heavily fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. Less petroleum inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for giant industrial harvesting machines and long-distance trucking, etc., all contribute to lower carbon emissions. But then the proliferation of plastic packaging of produce, whether organic or not, ups the carbon cost of eating.

Plastic Proliferation

Plastic Proliferation

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife was to make for the APW holiday reception. Despite its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products from around the world available there. It is the only place in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan halibut – just a day out of the sea – if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle class income. Many prepared salad ingredients are displayed along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” pre-washed spinach leaves, Romaine hearts, etc., are all neatly packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

Finally, the recycling of plastic in “progressive” Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and unidentifiable fused materials combinations used in ever more complex packaging systems just accelerates. Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling.

Images of wholesome fresh organic food are belied by the carbon cost of the food-presentation fetish of marketing strategies that require more recycling. Increasingly necessary, recycling is yet another carbon emitting industrial process. The proliferation of complex packaging systems matches the expanded technologies for the production of diverse plastic packages themselves. I have noticed more and more plastic packages that have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Sometimes the recycle triangle with number is so feint and obscurely placed as to suggest an intent that it not be seen. Is the ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

In the cultural context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, hardly holding back the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. We could recycle everything and it would not stop global warming before it reached the point of no return from climate catastrophe and social chaos. Paradoxically, recycling is another fossil-fuel dependent industry. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient. If the parallel strategy really takes hold and works, there should be far less need for recycling.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties were re-used many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on today’s obsession with “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction for manufacture. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. So should the production of plastic packaging. The revenue generated by a direct tax on carbon energy production – think Exxon-Mobil – should be used to convert energy production to the simplest forms of renewable technologies now available. And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the commercial environment – the factory. What is most important about consumer waste is that it can only be reduced by constraining its production. If all, or even half, of the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. In such circumstances, the consumer has little or no choice, and the energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conserving Energy: The Overlooked Key to Mitigating Climate Disruption

Increasing production of renewable energy at competitive cost is the core strategy for environmentalists whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions and minimize the damage caused by the climate effects of global warming. The goal is to replace fossil fuel energy production with clean renewable energy production. It is widely known that per capita energy use has increased significantly in recent years. But the idea of limiting or reducing total energy use is rarely a topic of discussion among either environmentalists or politicians. Conserving energy is just not that exciting and does not provide a clear target for the investment of capital. Nobody wants to tell the public that its energy consumption is excessive; it’s easier to focus on replacing fossil fuel with ‘renewables.’

The Production Transition

Most of the debate around the growing use of energy has to do with its production. In New Mexico, for example, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is a dominant investor-owned utility company. PNM plans to replace its old San Juan coal-fired plant with other coal-sourced and nuclear-sourced energy production. New Energy Economy is a clean energy advocacy group trying to get the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC) to reject the plan and require more investment in solar and wind energy production. Critics complain that the plan will lock New Mexico ‘rate payers’ into costly liability for (1) future damage to the environment and public health caused by continued mining and burning of coal in the Four Corners region, and (2) nuclear power plant risks and huge future decommissioning costs. And the costs of producing electricity will be greater as well. PNM is one of the most intransigent utilities in the nation, seemingly dragging its feet in every way possible to block solar and wind energy production. PNM’s ownership of and partnering with other investor-owned utilities in coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities most likely are drivers of its plans.

California has structured its relations with utilities differently. Incentives are in place that allow utilities to make more money if energy is conserved. Significant investments are being made in very large solar farms in the high desert to reduce dependence on burning fossil fuel. In contrast, despite boasting some 300 days of annual sunshine and a lot of wind, the state of New Mexico has taken little advantage of alternative forms of energy production. Yet, whatever level of effort made at reducing carbon emissions by converting from fossil fuels to alternative or renewable forms of energy production, the problem is almost universally seen as only an economic conversion problem. That is, if we just get off using fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources of energy, carbon emissions will go down and climate catastrophe will be averted. But that is not quite true.

How much is the addition of solar and wind powered energy production helping us reduce carbon emissions? Well, not so much. In the U.S., emissions have continued to increase. Every discussion of how to mitigate climate change is framed in a context of assuring continued economic growth. In that context, solar and wind add to the total energy production and may even encourage more consumption and waste.

Houston, we have a contradiction!  First, the entire economic system is structured to encourage over-consumption. The culture focuses almost entirely on economic materialism. Second, the consumer culture is now infused with the idea that everything must be upgraded at shorter and shorter intervals. Current product replacement regimes far surpass the old slower paced “planned obsolescence” product design criteria. The “greening” of marketing and advertising do not reflect production and consumption practices that would result in any energy conservation. The entire environmental movement, it seems, has been captured and marketed as another means to achieve the economic growth encouraged by the corporate state.

Another even more disturbing problem has been brought to light but has not been widely discussed among solar or wind power ‘productivists.’* The new high technologies for renewable energy production not only consume considerable quantities of fossil-fuel sourced energy in their manufacture and installation. They also deploy significant amounts of the rare earth, heavy metals, and other exotic and toxic materials. These are the same materials used in the production of all the microelectronics in computers, smart phones, and the endless array of ‘smart devices’ that comprise the burgeoning “Internet of everything.” The manufacture of such devices consumes vast quantities of water, polluting it in the process, in addition to materials that are increasingly in short supply and often very toxic. Hardware upgrades constitute a growing problem of waste and pollution rarely talked about or considered in assessing the value of ‘renewable’ sources of energy.

Social Transformation, Not Production Transition

When the energy consumed in producing renewable energy production systems is combined with looming shortages of materials and increasing waste and pollution, it becomes clear that transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to ‘renewables’ will fall far short of achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to avoid climate chaos over the next few decades.

Other strategies, often simpler and with far less environmental impact, are available, but they will require that we radically reorganize our economy, social policies, and the way we live. Devising ways to reduce energy use and waste will require a lot of creativity and work; this will generate jobs that use relatively little energy while directly reducing the excessive energy use and waste that cause carbon emissions. Investment in such jobs will be in direct conflict with the capital investment regime under which we now live.
* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Zehner’s insightful and comprehensive study of the intersection of environmentalism and the growth economy goes beyond merely showing how difficult the situation is; he makes valuable suggestions for realistic policy changes that could be far more effective by reducing energy consumption, than the ‘whiz-bang’ high-technology based ‘productivist’ approaches to reestablishing a viable relationship between humanity and our biosphere.

How to Not Talk About Human Response to the Threat of Climate Disruption

They said the old John Kerry was back. Well, I listened to Kerry’s ‘impassioned’ speech before the United Nations Climate Conference, COP20, in Lima, Peru, but was not impressed. Were it not for the blatant hypocrisy it represented, I might have been inspired by his somewhat forced passion. Kerry was urging the developed and developing nations to put aside their differences over who is to blame for carbon emissions. He urged them all to work together to reduce world carbon emissions. The only methods he mentioned involved conversion from fossil fuel to alternative means of energy production.

International Collective Self-Deception

Kerry knows that the Western industrial nations are the source of most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere today. He should also know that the prosperity of industrial societies stems largely from exploiting non-industrial peoples and their resources throughout the industrial era. Yes, developing nations are now emitting more and more tonnage of CO2, with China and India leading the pack. The ‘developing’ nations – mostly former colonies – are at the point of passing the developed world in total annual emissions. But in the U.S. emissions continue to increase at alarming rates, while they talk of making progress. At the same time, many less industrialized nations are very low emitters – they live closer to indigenous ways, wasting very little energy or resources. Yet they increasingly suffer from the effects of the emissions of the industrial nations over the past 200 years. First, indigenous peoples suffered domination by the empires that still extract their resources and pollute their lands. Now they suffer from the profligate waste of empire. Naturally, they seek reparations for the damage our consumer societies have already caused them and they want assistance in adapting to the effects of continuing climate disruption.

The U.S. leads the industrial nations in arguing for “voluntary” emissions reduction targets while dodging any legal commitment to attain agreed targets. It expects the less industrially developed nations to turn away from the path that the U.S. and its allies followed for all that time and continue following today. And it makes gestures toward giving financial support for them to avoid the mistakes we made and to adapt to the damage we long-term industrial polluters have already caused them. But little real support already pledged has yet been given. So, the hypocrisy is palpable.

But wait, there’s less!  As I listened to Kerry, I found no mention of the root causes of the carbon emissions that have already caused significant global warming and will continue to do so. The profligate consumption so endemic to industrial corporate culture requires vast amounts of energy and waste to sustain it. Look around K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, or Macy’s – and your own garage. Endless stuff. The entire corporate industrial complex depends on a steady stream of consumption and disposal of its products to sustain good revenue numbers for that quarterly report, which maintains or grows the corporate stock price. It all revolves around unending growth of production. Not production for human need, but corporate need for production. The more stuff is produced, the more people buy, the more profit is made. No end in sight; no end contemplated. It’s a great unsustainable self-deception.

The Production Trap

It is not a human need-driven system. It’s a production/consumption growth-driven system that needs ever increasing consumption to absorb its ever-growing production need. On top of that, the direct consumption of energy is a great ‘profit center’ for the fossil fuel industry. So, the entire economy is organized around a process that is in direct conflict with John Kerry’s words expressing concern over the continued growth of carbon emissions. He argued for all nations to cooperate in converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative energy production. But he did not argue for constraint on the consumption or waste of energy. He did not argue for reducing the vast quantities of wasted energy built into our system of production/consumption. That would conflict with the core assumption of the economic system we are tied to – a system we must escape.

In a debt based economy, expansion of production and consumption is the only way to keep up with the payment of debt based on the continual growth of the debt through compound interest. To keep up, the system needs more and more consumption and that means more and more waste as well as more energy production for increasingly questionable purposes. Converting from fossil fuel energy production to alternative ‘renewable’ energy production does not reduce energy consumption. It stimulates more energy availability as fossil fuel producers continue to supply their product and to compete with the new sources of energy production.

Renewable Illusions of the Corporate State

Equally important but largely ignored are the environmental and resource costs of ramping up alternative energy production processes. Each has its drawbacks. Environmentalists have given little thought and almost no public discussion of these problems. I had long known of the toxic waste generated by production of micro-electronics so quickly replaced in the rapid development of the computer industry; the same applies to smart phones, tablets and laptops, and the explosive number of new devises powering the “Internet of Everything.” The star renewable energy technology, photo-voltaic solar energy production, relies on the same technology and materials. There are limits.

Recently, Ozzie Zehner* carefully reviewed the environmental and resource costs of each ostensibly “renewable” form of energy production – along with the politics and economics of their promotion – with results that must be very disappointing for many environmentalists. The largely ignored dirty elements of “clean energy” production require a complete rethinking of how the project of moving energy production away from fossil fuel might be accomplished. Zehner’s findings also call for a revisiting of much less exotic but simpler more effective methods for significantly reducing carbon emissions. The answer, though complicated in a variety of ways, is to simply reduce consumption and conserve resources. That will take complex forms of social reorganization, not exotic technologies, something that the corporate state, as evidenced by John Kerry’s hypocritically impassioned speech, is entirely disinterested in. It is up to the rest of us to seek a new path with the help of the wisdom of indigenous knowledge and ways of living.
* Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

War, Wealth, and Waste

I never quite understood the logic of the “laws of war.” The idea of a “just war” is a little more complicated, but also weak. Stanford historian Ian Morris’s recent book* claims war has reduced human violence over the past ten thousand years. Sometimes a really counter-intuitive but brash idea can garner a lot of attention, whether it is valid or not. For now, I’ll retain the belief that war causes waste for the many and creates wealth for the few.

Wasting Humanity
War is destruction. It is hard not to be outraged by military or ‘paramilitary’ aggression in any form. Increasingly, in modern warfare civilians are targeted and die in greater proportions than combatants. Certainly, I can understand the outrage and indignation felt on hearing of or seeing barbaric practices such as, in recent cases, the ISIS/ISIL beheading of journalists attempting to report on the events in a war. I was as offended as the next person on becoming aware of the CIA engaging in “extraordinary rendition” of persons to be tortured at “black sites.” I cannot accept the “collective punishment” of Palestinians in the outdoor prison that is Gaza. But drone attacks on wedding parties in Afghanistan are no less arbitrary and tortuous for the victims. Many more examples from all sides of all wars could be listed as barbaric too. It seems the “laws of war” are never enforced, except by the victor against the vanquished after the fight.

Immoral laws? It’s not about law. Unlike pre-industrial “man to man” battles, acts of war today are usually criminal in a more fundamental sense. Recent so called wars, it seems to me, consist not so much in armies facing each other on a battlefield. Rather, they are pure acts of destruction of mostly civilian population and their livelihood.

What we are left with is the Waste of War, the largely indiscriminate torture and killing of innocent civilians all around the world. The waste of war has a parallel in the relationship of the late stages of the industrial era to the populations whose lives are wasted by capital “investment.” On the one hand, the proportion of civilian deaths and injury to those of combatants in modern wars has steadily risen. Not only has technology made this possible, but the practices of war have increasingly incorporated indiscriminate attacks on civilians. On the other hand, industrial investments have increasingly degraded the lives of workers and produced more and more unemployed poor. The financialized economy is rapidly wasting humanity with its destruction.

Qui bene?”: Profit from Waste
An old sociological rule says that if you want to understand an organized course of action, you must apply the principle of “Qui bene?” – Who benefits? In the case of war, as with other organized actions, we must throw out all the rhetoric of the leadership. The self-righteous indignation directed at “the enemy” may have some footing. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, supported by the U.S. not long before being declared the enemy. Then he became the excuse for massive destruction of the nation he ruled. While there are complex personal and political reasons for that “war of choice” based on official lies, the outcome tells the main story. Instead of looking for explanations in Iraq, simply ask the question: Who benefited? Iraqis now live in destitution.

In Obama’s re-branding of the “war on terror,” the beneficiaries of war continue to be the bankers and “defense” industrialists. This is not because winning a war makes it safe for them to operate and make a profit. No, war is itself is their most profitable enterprise. In the present cases, the more drone attacks in Yemen, the more missiles must be replaced. The more F-14 bombings and missile strikes on houses, hospitals, and UN shelters in Gaza, the more replacements will be purchased from the U.S. “defense industry.” Air strikes destroy ISIS-captured U.S.-built artillery in Iraq. New weapons and equipment must be bought by the military to replace those abandoned by Iraqi troops we pretended to have “trained.” Waste is profit.

It’s all a waste. Vast quantities of “surplus” military hardware and weapons are now given to civilian police departments in the U.S. in the deliberate militarization of police forces and law-enforcement culture. A parallel militarization of mass-media entertainment supports the idea of ‘lower classes’ – the poor – as another enemy. Nearly every “law enforcement” problem on television is solved by the equivalent of war. The implicit model of policing in both media and police culture involves massive force against the civilian population-as-enemy.

Wasting the New Enemy
War is waste. In our Incarceration Nation, law enforcement wastes human lives by both detention/incarceration/stigmatization and by police violence. That’s a strong statement, but not so far from the everyday on-the-ground truth. The increasing proportion of the ‘wasting’ of civilians in war is matched by the growing willingness to shoot and kill citizens at home. Increasingly militarized attempts are made to quell civil disturbances resulting from lives wasted in cities across America due to their worsening isolation from the economy. A new element is emerging in the escalating “class war” waged by extreme wealth against the population.

Civilian police forces are becoming the destructive agents of wealth against the growing numbers of poor that extreme wealth creates. Whenever the injustices of the economy that serves only the interests of wealth are raised, some apologist pundit objects that “class war” is being incited. Quite the contrary. The war of the wealthy class against the rest of us has been going on since the reforms following the Great Depression. Abandonment of those reforms allowed them near total control of all significant income and wealth. They have nearly won their class war. But in doing so they are destroying the very economy that sustains their extreme power. It can’t last.
* Ian Morris, War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!