"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Capitalism’

How Federal Dollars For Arizona Cotton Are Financing The Water Crisis In The American West

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2015 at 7:51 pm

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Oldspeak:”Oh the demented irony. While farmers in India are literally killing themselves and selling their children in to slavery to cope with crop-losses because their government’s corruption limits the amount relief aid they receive, when their crops fail, the corruption in U.S. government is making it so farmers in the U.S. are being paid handsomely to plant cotton, a highly water-intensive crop, that there is no real market for. In a fucking desert, in the midst of a 1,000 year drought, no less. What’s crazy is without the government handouts, there’d be lots of U.S. farmers offing themselves too. Massive fossil-fueled infrastructure is required to pump millions of gallons of  precious water in to the deserts of Arizona, in spite of the fact that many farmers have been forced to fallow fields due to the drought, yet this madness continues at the behest of cotton lobbyists, insurance corporations and politicians. Ecology be damned. I’ll say one thing for Bizzaro World, it’s never boring, and never makes any fucking sense. One more reason to ignore the ongoing and upcoming climate talks. Major emitters plan to blabber about reaching agreements for emissions reductions targets, green energy and all that Jazz, at the same time they’re opening new and more sensitive areas to extract fossil fuels to burn in the death machine and heat engine that is Industrial Civilization. In the climate of insanity that exists today, (pun intended) prospects for survival grow dimmer every day. “Ignorance Is Strength” -OSJ

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State Route 87, the thin band of pavement that approaches the mostly shuttered town of Coolidge, Ariz., cuts through some of the least hospitable land in the country. The valley of red and brown sand is interrupted occasionally by rock and saguaro cactus. It’s not unusual for summer temperatures to top 116 degrees. And there is almost no water; this part of Arizona receives less than nine inches of rainfall each year.

Then Route 87 tacks left and the dead landscape springs to life. Barren roadside is replaced by thousands of acres of cotton fields, their bright, leafy green stalks and white, puffy bolls in neat rows that unravel for miles. It’s a vision of bounty where it would be least expected. Step into the hip-high cotton shrubs, with the soft, water-soaked dirt giving way beneath your boot soles, the bees buzzing in your ears, the pungent odor of the plants in your nostrils, and you might as well be in Georgia.

Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state.

But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford.

Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride, practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others: The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to.

“Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.”

The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population.

The federal subsidies that prop up cotton farming in Arizona are just one of myriad ways that policymakers have refused, or been slow to reshape laws to reflect the West’s changing circumstances. Provisions in early–20th-century water-use laws that not only permit but also compel farmers and others to use more water than they need are another. “Use It or Lose It” is the cynical catch phrase for one of those policies.

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Growing cotton in the desert has always been a challenge. But for many farmers, it is a proud tradition and a cherished way of life. Below: Downtown Coolidge, where drought and sinking cotton prices have had their effect. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

Western leaders also have flinched repeatedly when staring down the insatiable, unstoppable force of urban sprawl. Las Vegas authorities have spent billions of dollars inventing new ways to bring water to their ever-expanding city, yet could not cite a single development permit they had ever denied because of concerns about water.

Instead, when faced with a dwindling water supply, state and federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate change that is exacerbating the drought.

Few crises have been more emphatically and presciently predicted. Almost 150 years ago, John Wesley Powell, the geologist and explorer, traveled the Colorado River in an effort to gauge America’s chances for developing its arid western half. His report to Congress reached a chastening conclusion: There wasn’t enough water to support significant settlement.

For more than a century, Americans have defied Powell’s words, constructing 20 of the nation’s largest cities and a vibrant economy that, among other bounties, provides an astonishing proportion of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

For almost as long, the policies that shaped the West have struggled to match the region’s ambitions — endless growth, new industry, fertile farming and plentiful power — to its water supply.

Today, as the Colorado River enters its 15th year of drought, the nation’s largest reservoirs have been diminished to relative puddles. Power plants that depend on dams along the river face shortages and shutdowns that could send water and electricity prices skyrocketing. Many of the region’s farmers have been forced to fallow fields.

The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious. The Wuertz family has received government checks just for putting cottonseeds in the ground and more checks when the price of cotton fell. They have benefited from cheap loans for cotton production that don’t have to be fully repaid if the market slumps. Most recently, the government has covered almost the entire premium on their cotton crop insurance, guaranteeing they’ll be financially protected even when natural conditions — like drought — keep them from producing a good harvest.

Cotton in Arizona Though Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, farmers planted more than 161,000 acres of cotton in Arizona in 2013, the second-highest total for any crop in the state, most of it clustered around Phoenix. (Sources: NASA/USGS Landsat, National Hydrography Dataset, USDA CropScape)

The payments, part of the U.S. Farm Bill, are a legacy of Dust Bowl-era programs that live on today at the urging of the national cotton lobby and the insurance industry. Similar subsidies support corn, rice, wheat and, indirectly, alfalfa — all of which also use lots of water. But in Arizona one of the driest states in the nation, it’s cotton that has received the most federal aid, tipping the balance on farmers’ decisions about what to plant.

Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

Cotton growers say the subsidies don’t make them rich but help bridge the worst years of losses and keep their businesses going. And because the money is such a sure thing, they have little choice but to keep planting.

“If you’re sitting on land and thinking of shifting, cotton is safer,” said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of trade policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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Greg Wuertz’s family has grown cotton for generations, always with the backing of federal subsidies. “Some years, all of what you made came from the government,” he said. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

Growing cotton in the desert, long term, may be doomed. In Arizona, the price for cotton has been in decline, and with it the overall planting of the crop. But when the price spikes, as it did dramatically in 2010, the growers get busy. One thing has yet to change: the government’s willingness to back and protect those still wanting to be cotton farmers.

For years, the federal support came through subsidies and price protection cash put directly in the farmer’s pocket. In Arizona, those payments could total tens of millions of dollars a year. Today, the government’s aid comes chiefly in the form of insurance subsidies — reliable and robust protections against losses that many farmers and their lobbyists hoped would be every bit as effective as cold cash. And so every year more than 100,000 acres of cotton still get planted, making the crop the second-most popular in the state.

Thus, at a time when farmers in Arizona, California and other Western states might otherwise adapt to a water-short world, federal farm subsidies are helping preserve a system in which the thirstiest crops are grown in some of the driest places.

“The subsidies are distorting water usage throughout the West and providing an incentive to use more water than would be used in an open market,” said Bruce Babbitt, Arizona’s former governor and a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

One night last October, in the weary twilight of the cotton harvest, Greg Wuertz nestled his white Chevy pickup by the mailboxes at the head of his street. Opening a small aluminum door, he removed an envelope containing a $30,000 insurance payment on a policy paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Easy money, to be sure, but it left Wuertz uncertain.

“This kind of way of life in the West, it’s got to be different,” he said. “Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century and it should go to the best use. Right now, I don’t know if we’re doing that.”


Cotton might never have been grown in Arizona without some form of government enticement. During the Civil War, a Union blockade impounded the Southern states’ global exports. As Europe turned to new strains of cotton grown in Egypt, Arizona’s settlers, knowing the Pima Indians had long planted cotton there, thought they could replicate hot and dry North African conditions and compete. Townships reportedly offered cash to farmers willing to pioneer commercial-scale crops, according to a local historical account. Arizona’s first cotton mogul was said to be a blacksmith who abandoned his trade to take the subsidies and try farming.

Arizona, at the time, was short on people and long on land. It was also rich in freshwater aquifers, groundwater that then seemed ample enough to irrigate vast fields and turn the desert into an oasis.

When the United States first went to war in Europe, the demand for cotton surged. The fibers were used to reinforce truck tires and canvas airplane wings. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought thousands of farm acres and built a factory west of Phoenix, where a city by the name of Goodyear still stands. Farmers flocked to the state in search of opportunity.

In 1929, Wuertz’s grandfather packed the family’s belongings into their old Buick and drove down from South Dakota. He strung up tents on 160 acres, six miles outside Coolidge, and planted his first rows of cotton in the months before the Great Depression. By the 1950s, cotton farming had been woven into the state’s identity; Arizona schoolchildren learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and cotton.

Draw a sagging line today from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and every state below it grows cotton. The United States is the world’s largest exporter, with 17 states producing some eight billion pounds of cotton each year, most of which gets shipped off to Asia and Europe.

California and Arizona are able to produce more than twice as much cotton on each acre they plant as can cotton powerhouses like Texas and Georgia because they irrigate their fields more often. But that also means that they use two to four times as much water per acre.

From almost the beginning, Arizona’s cotton farmers understood they were withdrawing from a finite account. “There was a sense the water would run out,” said Wuertz’s father, Howard, now 89. “You could tell there was going to be an end to it, even in the 1950s.”

They’ve made it last, in large part, because as the aquifers beneath their feet were depleted, the state brought in new supplies, mainly from the Colorado River.

Today, Wuertz’s irrigated cotton plants grow to about 4 feet tall, and are planted in even rows, about 3 feet center to center, extending for miles across furrowed fields. Every August, the bolls — pregnant pods just smaller than a golf ball — burst open, allowing their white cellulosic fiber to spring outward from hearty, splayed leaves and a small seed. Modern tractors, called cotton pickers, drive a comb through the fields, plucking the drying bolls from their stems and shooting them through a mechanical snorkel into a large basket being towed behind. Another basket, or “boll buggy,” dumps the load into a compressor, which packs the cotton into a brick 8 feet tall and 32 feet long.

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On Greg Wuertz’s farm, cotton gets harvested as it has for generations: with field hands, cotton gins and flat beds. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

The brick is hauled through Coolidge to a local gin, where computerized modern machines roll it through a whirring conveyor, separating the seeds and fibers from their leaves and chaff. The seeds are collected for animal feed or crushed for cooking oil. The lint, cleaned and dried, is strapped into 500-pound bales and shipped off through distributors who either sell the cotton or store it in vast warehouses, waiting for prices to rise and the commodity markets to buoy the crop.

Between land costs, labor, equipment, shipping and other expenses, Wuertz said he spends about $1,200 for every acre of cotton he harvests. His cotton has garnered about 62 cents per pound lately, so even if Wuertz gets four bales from each acre — a blockbuster harvest — he brings in about $1,240 and barely breaks even.

Cotton farmers can cut corners to try to eke out a profit, stretching their water, cutting back on fertilizer and making fewer laps with their tractors to save on diesel. But in years when the price is lower, water is short or demand plummets, they’ll lose money. This is when they count on federal subsidies and the crop insurance programs. If Wuertz needs an advance until his cotton is bought, the government lends it to him. If he can’t sell his cotton at a profit, the government never asks for its money back. If the price falls below a base of around 52 cents, Wuertz is insured for much of the decrease in value. If his fields produce a light yield — perhaps because he couldn’t give them enough water — he’s covered for the difference in weight, too. Other crops get subsidized insurance and loans, but none, Wuertz said, are covered as thoroughly as cotton. Add it all up, and the message from the Farm Bill is clear: Grow cotton and you will not be harmed.

“If they didn’t have insurance, it would be ugly around here,” Wuertz said. “It’d be the rope and chair. There’d be people killing themselves. It’s that bad.”


Standing in his field last fall, Wuertz cupped a tuft of cotton about the size of a softball and mused over its miraculous origins.

He gets about one-quarter of his water from the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, the system of canals that brings water from the Colorado River, some 230 miles away. The rest comes from a federally built reservoir nearby called San Carlos Lake, which, with the drought, has been diminished to little more than a bed of mud.

“There comes a time when you have to leave some to keep the fish alive,” Wuertz said wryly.

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Arizona schoolchildren have for years learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and cotton. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

Wuertz loves to farm cotton. Fingering the plant’s thorny, rose-like leaves, he explains the difference between hirsutum, what Arizonans call Upland, or short staple cotton used for everyday clothes, and barbadense, the long-fiber Pima cotton used in high-end sheets and expensive textiles. He is stocky, wearing jeans, cowhide boots, a blue-striped button-down shirt and a broad-rimmed white cowboy hat that shields his face from view as he talks. Every 10 days, he explains, he releases his ditch gates and floods the furrows, using an irrigation technique hundreds of years old, until the roots of his plants are submerged ankle deep. If he were to do it all at once, the water Wuertz spends to produce one acre of cotton would stand 4 feet deep. The ditches flow with hundreds of millions of gallons of water every year.

For the last third of a century, Wuertz was supplied prodigious amounts of water, largely because Arizona was pushing its farmers to use as much as they could. The state’s run on water began in the 1970s, when Arizona planned its mega canal in order to lay claim to its full share of water from the Colorado River. The canal would bring more water than the state needed at the time, ultimately supplying future urban expansion as its cities and economy grew. But in the short term, Arizona had to justify the canal’s $4.4 billion federally subsidized construction cost by demonstrating to Congress that it had a plan to put all that water to use right away.

The state’s aquifers had been drawn down so much that, in places, the land had begun to settle above them. The canal project looked like a way to wean Arizona’s farmers off ground water, using river water to replace it. It looked good on paper until 1993, when the Central Arizona Project canal was completed. The cost of construction plus the cost of the power needed to pump the water made CAP water more expensive than what farmers could pump cheaply from underground. In a bind, state and federal officials slashed the price — subsidizing nearly half the true cost of the water and charging farmers just a fraction of its value to get them to use more of it.

For a while, the plan worked. Farmers made the switch, using government-subsidized canals and inexpensive power to nourish their farms for another generation. But the farms were little more than a place holder in the state’s grand plans. It was understood that as cities grew, farming in Arizona would have to change. Much of the cotton, alfalfa, wheat and citrus would eventually need to be grown somewhere else as the water from CAP was switched to supply urban areas.

“That was the deal that was struck to induce agriculture to go out of business,” said Jon Kyl, the former three-term senator and four-term congressman from Arizona.

But the transition hasn’t been completed, in part owing to the farm subsidies that have delayed change. And now the state’s intricate water supply plan is beginning to crumble.

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Farmers around Coolidge get some of their water from the Central Arizona Project, a system of canals that brings water from the Colorado River, 230 miles away. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

Drought has diminished the Colorado’s flow so much that federal officials — who control water deliveries on the southern half of the Colorado — now predict they will have to cut the state’s water deliveries through the CAP canal as soon as next year, potentially eliminating much of the farmers’ share. Meanwhile, loopholes in laws designed to conserve aquifers for exactly this situation have allowed housing developers and others to draw down resources that were supposed to be protected.

The water needs of Arizona’s cities are surging. The state’s population — less than two million in 1970 — has ballooned to more than three times that and is expected to reach 11 million within the next 30 years, turning the state into what the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has described as a “megalopolis.”

Last year Arizona officials forecast the state could run out of water within a few decades.

“The shortages projected hitting municipal customers are really in the 2026 time frame,” said Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, as if a 10-year cushion was supposed to be reassuring.

Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, and since 1985 they’ve dropped by more than half in the area around Phoenix. The Wuertz family sold a chunk of its fields to home developers in 2009.

But the patterns of agricultural water use make clear that it’s not just how many acres of land are planted there, but what is grown on them.

Cotton’s domestic benefits are questionable. After a price spike in 2010, production of cotton surged while global demand — and prices along with it — plummeted. Today, China, the world’s largest cotton producer, has enough cotton in warehouses to stop farming for a year. And Texas, the U.S.’s largest producer, harvests enough to cover more than one third of U.S. exports alone, relying largely on natural rainfall, not irrigation, to do it. Wuertz’s cotton — produced with Arizona’s precious water — is likely to get stacked in cavernous warehouses until the marketing cooperative he uses finds new customers. If Arizona stopped farming cotton tomorrow, Wuertz said, he’s not sure anyone would notice.

This underscores questions about whether continuing to grow these water-hogging crops at their current levels is in the public interest, and whether such an important pillar of U.S. economic policy as the Farm Bill should continue to champion them.

“The basic question is how are you going to manage your water supply? And we have managed it in a way that has subsidized agriculture,” said John Bredehoeft the former manager of the western water program for the U.S. Geological Survey, referring not just to subsidies for crops like cotton, but also the support for crops like alfalfa that are grown as feed. “If you look at the fact that half of the water use in the West is to raise cows — can you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a water shortage in the West?’”


First established as a New Deal program to rescue farmers during the Great Depression, today’s unwieldy version of the U.S. Farm Bill wraps everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly $1 trillion law.

The measure allots about $130 billion over 10 years to protect farmers against price drops, bad weather and bad luck and to insure them against virtually any scenario that gets in the way of turning a profit.

No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the American West.

Until this year, the bill doled out direct subsidies for a full menu of crops. Every farmer planting commodities, including those planting cotton, got $40,000 just for signing up.

Then there are the steeply discounted business loans, which have a measurable impact on what farmers decide to plant. In many cases, to be eligible for these subsidies one year, a farmer has to have previously planted the crop — a basic component of the bill’s architecture that gives farmers an incentive to maintain “base” levels of acreage. In an analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the subsidies don’t just maintain the status quo, they also foster more planting, and more water use. The USDA’s marketing loans alone, for example, led to a 10 percent increase in the amount of cotton farmers planted — compared to 2.5 percent increase in the amount of wheat, and a 1.5 percent increase in the amount of soybeans produced — in part because the subsidies not only make cotton a safer bet, they also make it more competitive against alternative crops. Banks lend cotton growers money they wouldn’t lend for other crops, largely because they know the government will stand behind them.

All told, Wuertz estimates that nearly one-fifth of his income is derived from Farm Bill aid, and cotton has almost always been his largest and most important crop. According to USDA statistics compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the Wuertz family — including his brother’s and father’s farms — has received more than $5.3 million in farm bill subsidies since 1995, a portion of which may have been targeted for efficient irrigation equipment, Wuertz said.

The Farm Bill has been used in the past to steer environmental policy. It provides for withholding money, for example, from farms that would contribute to soil erosion or the destruction of wetlands. In North Dakota, where farmers were tearing out grasslands to plant corn for ethanol production, the law contains “sodbuster” provisions withholding insurance benefits from those who rip up lands the government wants to conserve.

The Farm Bill contains $56 billion for conservation, funding an effort to encourage farmers to reduce their water consumption by using more-modern equipment as well as measures meant to conserve land. Another section of the bill is aimed at saving energy. But the law’s farming incentives run counter to its far more modest water conservation initiatives.

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Cotton farming in Arizona may, in the long term, be doomed. But farmers, still backed by federal support, plant more than 100,000 acres a year. (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

“There is a real disconnect between that and what the commodity and crop insurance program are promoting, and that’s a basic conflict,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.

The Farm Bill’s authors have sometimes factored in environmental concerns in specific places and tailored incentives to affect them, Hoefner said. But when it comes to cotton, the bill does not consider the related water use, and it does not distinguish between the places where it is grown. Instead, the money corresponds roughly to the amount of cotton harvested; Arizona, which ranks in the middle in terms of its cotton production, also ranks 10th among the 17 states that receive cotton aid. California, which ranked third for overall cotton production in 2013, also ranks third in subsidies over the last 20 years according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group. It’s in those places that the incentives created by the subsidies are most in conflict with the government’s aid to conserve water.

“Trying to get USDA to break down the silos is difficult,” Hoefner noted.

The Congressional Budget Office attacked this disconnect in 2006, urging the USDA to stop supporting agricultural products that act to “impede the transfer of water resources to higher value uses,” and “encourage the use of water.” Analysts advised the USDA to enhance its conservation programs, align its subsidies with those conservation efforts, and stop paying for infrastructure that makes water artificially cheap.

Every six years or so Congress has the opportunity to revisit its Farm Bill policies and update the bill. When Congress reauthorized it in 2014, however, lawmakers changed, but did not retreat in their support for cotton farming in the Southwest, despite growing awareness of the persistent water crisis in the Colorado River basin.

Instead, legislators allowed the cotton industry to write its own future. Faced with international trade pressures and allegations that subsidies — like payments triggered by price drops — were distorting the market, U.S. cotton trade associations lobbied to ramp up the USDA’s insurance program.

Rather than paying direct subsidies to cotton farmers, starting this year the USDA will use taxpayer dollars to buy farmers additional crop insurance. Policies that once covered up to around 70 percent of farmers’ losses can now be supplemented with new coverage covering up to 90 percent, cushioning the shallowest of losses. The lucrative marketing loan program that serves as a sort of price guarantee also remains in place.

Right now, though, the stubbornly low price of cotton is making Wuertz nervous that the new, enhanced insurance program won’t deliver the same revenues as the old direct subsidies. He’s temporarily cut back, then, planting less cotton this year and only the most valuable strains.

Still, the more than 161,000 acres of cotton that were planted in Arizona in 2013 accounted for almost one out of every five acres of the state’s irrigated farmland. Many believe the insurance program is likely to keep the practice going because it limits most — if not all — downsides, encouraging farmers to take big chances with limited resources.

“If I knew my 401k was guaranteed to not fall below 85 percent of its current level and there was no limit on the upside,” said Craig Cox a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, who was a former staff member for the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, “my portfolio would be a lot riskier than it is.”


If the Farm Bill reshuffled its incentives, water policy experts say, farmers in states that draw on the Colorado River could reduce their water usage substantially, adding large amounts back into the region’s budget.

According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.

There’s little financial reason not to do this. The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.

“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”

Today Wuertz lives with the deep uncertainty that comes with a transition he can no longer control. He told his son, Thomas, 24, that there is no future in cotton farming. He says that if Arizona farmers keep planting cotton, farming itself may be in jeopardy. But knowing that and acting on it have so far been different beasts, and Wuertz finds himself resistant to change. He tried growing more cantaloupe but had difficulty finding buyers who would take the time-sensitive crop before it rotted. He’s planting some acres he used to plant with cotton with alfalfa instead, but that uses even more water, though it commands a premium price.

In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as well as he knows cotton. He’s been a gin director, president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, head of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. His identity is wrapped up in those prickly bolls out in his fields.

“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”

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A worker sweeps cotton scraps at the gin where Wuertz brings his harvest. Wuertz says that if he stopped growing cotton, “ninety percent of my life is gone.” (Jake Stangel, special to ProPublica)

This story was co-published with Matter, a new digital magazine on Medium. Follow ProPublica on Medium for more conversation on the West’s water crisis.

Anarchy And Near Term Extinction

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2014 at 3:34 am

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Oldspeak: “…militarists make a fundamental error in assuming that current forms of hierarchical organization will continue on indefinitely. Institutional hierarchy has only existed for about 1% of our time on Planet Earth. There is every reason to believe that hierarchical organization, far from being inevitable, is actually unnatural for human beings insofar as it creates massive social dysfunction…In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate statistically that more equal societies “enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher math and literacy scores, higher stands of child wellbeing, less bullying in schools, lower obesity rates, and few people in prison.”…Equally interesting, the psychological malaise caused by hierarchy extends to the men and women at the top of society’s pyramid. In The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, psychotherapist Graham Music notes that “The higher up the social-class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behave… Those with more materialistic values consistently have worse relationships, with more conflict.”… If the assumptions inherent to state capitalism continue to be shared by majorities or large minorities, environmental collapse will likely entail an increase in intra-species violence, exactly as the militarists predict; however, as our rulers are quick to point out in their internal literature, in crisis there is opportunity. Environmental degradation may also force people to examine alternative ways of living, including those currently deemed “utopian.”…. War, poverty, environmental collapse and other catastrophes of modern existence are inextricably linked. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” states capitalist ideologue Thomas Friedman. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.” ” -Scott Noble

“Strong case for transitioning to a decentralized anacro-syndicalist socio-political system and doing away with the failing, ecocidal hierarchical system humans have only operated in for 1% of their time on this planet, yet have managed to bring about Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction. We have to ask ourselves why we’re so accepting of a such an unnatural, dysfunctional, debilitating system dependent on conflict, competition, untruth and violence to function at the expense of fully half of humanity and innumerable other lifeforms? Why are we allowing the state to “function as an artificial surrogate for real community“? Why have we abandoned ways of being that were sustainable, balanced regenerative for millions of years, and replaced them with ways of being that are suicidal, imbalanced, extractive and unsustainable for all life on this planet?” Why is Anarchy constantly being equated with violent chaos, when the reality is it’s the closest thing to pure democracy? (Probably because our rulers are mortally TERRiFiED of a rulerless, self-governed society) We’ve born witness to the violent chaos bred by hierarchy. Our hierarchical system is rapidly deteriorating. it is unsustainable. it is unhealthy. it must be retired before the worst comes.” -OSJ

By Scott Noble @ Dissident Voice:

It is often said that the invention of terrible weapons of destruction will put an end to war. That is an error. As the means of extermination are improved, the means of reducing men who hold the state conception of life to submission can be improved to correspond.

– Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1849)

Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.

– Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989)

According to the theory of Near Term Extinction (NTE) the human race is about to go the way of the Dinosaurs. Though polls on the subject are scarce, it is safe to assume that the majority of humanity disagrees. Most of us remain at least cautiously optimistic about our long term survival prospects. Notable exceptions can be found amongst various apocalyptic cults, whose followers anticipate near term divine intervention, as well as trans-humanists, who anticipate the rise of post-humans due to exotic new technologies. In contrast to these worldviews, NTE is not rooted in religion or science-fiction but a pessimistic reading of the environmental sciences, probability theory and the law of unintended consequences. Nor is NTE limited to the fringe. A growing number of scholars, including highly visible figures like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, have suggested that near term extinction is plausible, though certainly not inevitable (predictions range from years to decades to centuries). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, environmental crises such as climate change have supplanted global thermonuclear war in the pessimist’s hierarchy of doom. Yet these threats are not mutually exclusive. A leaked 2004 report by the Pentagon on global warming anticipates increased risk of “Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting…Once again, warfare [will] define human life.”1 Though such predictions are self-serving – environmental crises are deemed yet another threat that can only be contained by militarism – they are also rational. Under state capitalism, competition for diminishing resources may exacerbate violent conflict, creating a feedback loop not unlike global warming itself. This essay will argue that if the human race is to survive, anarchic systems based on participatory democracy must replace top down models of state rule.

Realpolitik

In his book The McDonaldization of Society, sociologist George Ritzer portrays rationalism as a paradox: highly rational models frequently produce highly irrational outcomes.2 The modern workplace, where we spend most of our waking hours, provides a familiar illustration: rationalist modes of production based on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control have reduced large swathes of humanity to human resources, disposable entities afforded little in the way of self-determination and dignity. In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the Little Tramp himself becomes part of the assembly line, compelled forward by gears and pulleys, sliding through the bowels of the machine.

When it comes to international affairs, rationalist models generally fall under the heading realpolitik, a term used to denote both cynical amorality and unflinching “realism” by political leaders acting for a perceived greater good. Unlike idealist interpretations of the state, which focus extensively on ethics, realpolitik is primarily concerned with power. The Italian philosopher and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote, “How we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that [the ruler] who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather bring about his own ruin rather than his preservation.”3 Since the ruler’s primary objective is to maintain power, immoral behaviour is not only acceptable but necessary.

Machiavelli did not usher in in a new political philosophy; he merely articulated what had always been understood by rulers anywhere and everywhere. In 1934, British historian A.J.P. Taylor suggested that the principles we associate with realpolitik are “a series of assumptions, with which statesmen have lived since their earliest years and which they regard as so axiomatic as hardly to be worth stating.”4 Nevertheless, Machiavelli remains scandalous to this day. His brutal practicality is summed up in Chapter 18 of The Prince – people ought either to be “well treated or crushed.”3

The 19th Century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin agreed with Machiavelli’s cynical understanding of power but came to very different conclusions about how humanity should proceed. He bitterly praised the Italian philosopher for exposing the state with “terrible frankness,” and demonstrating that “crime… is the sine qua non of political intelligence and true patriotism,” yet rejected the notion that such crime was inevitable. “We are the sons of the revolution… We believe in the rights of man, in the dignity and necessary emancipation of the human species.”5 The state – as well capitalism – should be abolished.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, and with the exception of a few rogue philosophers who advocated world government, self-government or no government at all, near-constant warfare between competing states has been viewed as an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of international relations. The invention of the nuclear bomb changed that – or would have, if the idealists were correct. American military strategist Bernard Brodie was overly optimistic when, in 1946, he wrote, “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”6

The military establishment, soon to be termed the military industrial complex by President Eisenhower, did in fact have another purpose, namely to expand American power through imperialism. Tolstoy was proven correct: not even the creation of the most “terrible weapons of war” would put an end to the state’s quest for dominance.

Few people who consider themselves rational would advocate for the disarmament of the state apparatus in which they live. Yet in the age of nuclear weapons, it is precisely this insistence on “national security” through state power that is most likely to kill us. If, as Bakunin argued, “small states are virtuous only because of their weakness,”5 powerful states demonstrate an ineluctable tendency toward dominating others. The result is militarism.

MAD

The history of civilization is sufficiently blood-soaked that many modern intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, have argued that competitive state frameworks must be abandoned if the human race is to survive.

Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein implored:

A world government must be created which is able to solve conflicts between nations by judicial decision. This government must be based on a clear-cut constitution which is approved by the governments and nations and which gives it the sole disposition of offensive weapons.7

It is doubtful that a world government such as envisioned by Einstein – which allowed for the centralization of “offensive weapons” – would have eliminated the nuclear threat, let alone war, if for no other reason than secessionist movements and other power struggles would have remained a constant concern (we will return to this subject at the essay’s closing).

In any case, Churchill, Truman and Stalin would carve up most of Europe at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, creating the foundation for the Cold War. As if to underscore the improbability of world government, the three leaders had an argument over who would enter the Potsdam conference room first; they eventually decided that they would enter at precisely the same time through three separate doors.8

The new paradigm was MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Because man is a rational being, he would not risk annihilation by attacking his foe. Game theorists at the Rand Corporation, a Pentagon think tank, provided the theoretical basis. According to the prisoner’s dilemma, both players had to assume the other was rational.

While most nuclear strategists took it for granted that the point of the game was to maintain peace between the super-powers, others believed, quite logically, that the point of the game was to win it.

Among those who embraced the “winner takes all” view was General Curtis Lemay, purported model for the character “Jack the Ripper” in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Best known for masterminding the massive bombing campaign against Japan during WWII (which resulted in half-a-million dead and about five million homeless), Lemay headed up the Strategic Air Command and served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965.

Lemay drew up a war plan which involved dropping “the entire stockpile of atomic bombs in a single massive attack” on the Soviet Union. The Washington Post later quoted the General as stating, “Every major American city – Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles – will be reduced to rubble. Similarly, the principal cities of the Soviet Union will be destroyed.”9

According to then Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, Lemay was “absolutely certain” that “the US was going to have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union” and that “we should fight it sooner rather than later.”9

Equally disturbing as the super-hawks at the Pentagon were the numerous academics – people who considered themselves highly rational – who advocated a similar strategy. Most found their home at the Rand Corporation.

One of Rand’s most notorious strategists was Herman Kahn. He believed that the US atomic arsenal was a wasting resource. So long as the Soviet Union continued to build its own arsenal, America’s would decrease in value. For Kahn, nuclear weapons were like a precious commodity in danger of depreciation on the global marketplace. Though he did not explicitly advocate a first strike, Kahn believed that a nuclear war was “winnable.”10

Breaking the Chain of Command

MAD is widely regarded as a triumph of both rationalism and hard-nosed realpolitik. The missiles stayed in their silos. We didn’t go extinct. Starry-eyed idealists who rejected Ronald Reagan’s belligerence and exorbitant military spending were proven wrong.

What few realize is that we escaped destruction primarily due to a handful of individuals who rejected the chain of command – and even the logic of their computer screens – in order to embrace the better angels of their being.

In my documentary film The Power Principle, I explore several of the biggest “close calls” during the Cold War.

The most serious event occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the midst of the conflict, a group of United States Navy Destroyers began dropping practice-depth charges on a Soviet submarine positioned near Cuba in order to force it to the surface. The sub commanders believed WWIII was underway.

According to Soviet military protocol, the commanders had previous permission to launch missiles if all three reached consensus. Two said yes – one said no. Then “an argument broke out among the three, in which only Vasili Arkhipov was against the launch.” Thomas Blanton, a director of the National Security Archive, later remarked, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”11

In 1983, a computer malfunction at a nuclear warning facility near Moscow falsely indicated a nuclear attack by the United States. The probability indicator was at level 1.

The man in charge, Stanislav Petrov, did not have the ability to launch a retaliatory strike. However, were he to pass on the information to the top command, the Soviet leadership would have only had a few minutes to decide on whether to launch a counter-attack. According to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategist, “the top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would [have made] a decision to retaliate.” Petrov broke military protocol, and waited.

It turned out that the computer malfunction was caused by “a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and satellites.”12

The third biggest close call occurred in the same year when NATO began a war exercise; the scenario – an all out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It was codenamed Able Archer.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during WWII, they did so under the guise of a war game. Alarmed by Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric, as well as America’s deployment of Pershing II strategic missiles in Europe, hard-liners in the Kremlin became convinced that history was about to repeat itself. In the run up to the exercise, the Soviets secretly mobilized all key components of their military forces, including nuclear submarines. One mistake by either side and a holocaust would have resulted.

There are other examples, though not quite as hair-raising. A report by the Nuclear Files Foundation lists over 20 “close calls” during the Cold War.13

The greatest danger has never been a rogue commander in the vein of “Jack the Ripper” – though that threat is real enough – but accidental nuclear war caused by incompetence and/or technical malfunction.14

Former Defence Sectary Robert McNamara, who was present in the Oval Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, eventually came to a stark conclusion: “It can be confidently predicted that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear arms will inevitably lead to nuclear destruction.”15

Unlike most of the public, US military leaders are well aware of the numerous close calls of the Cold War. The same is presumably true of most men and women who (along with military leaders) formulate current US policy. If their goal was the survival, let alone health, of the human race, the United States would have long since abandoned aggressive war. A fraction of the US military budget could eliminate poverty worldwide,16 and in doing so drain the swamp of resentment and rage that provides the lifeblood of the “terrorist threat.”

For critics of American foreign policy, the failure of US leaders to pursue a peaceful path following the collapse of the Soviet Union is often attributed to a uniquely American belligerence or depravity. Yet a cursory glance through the history books shows that the American empire, while exceptional in terms of global reach and technology, is anything but exceptional in terms of base motivation; it is behaving in a remarkably similar fashion to every empire that preceded it. We can only conclude that powerful states – and the people to tend to wield great power within them – share peculiar forms of logic that are alien to most of their citizenry.

The Power Principle

The dominant view amongst anthropologists is that we have lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative, egalitarian societies for 99% of our history. In the words of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, “Humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear.”17 Many of the behaviours we now celebrate – “success” through the hoarding of wealth, for example – were traditionally considered socially deviant. Ethnographies of extant nomadic foragers reveal that they are “all but obsessively concerned with being free from the authority of others. That is the basic thrust of their political ethos.”18

The Utku in the Canadian Arctic have an extreme intolerance for “displays of anger, aggression, or dominance.”19 The Pintupi Aborigines insist that “One should assert one’s autonomy only in ways that do not threaten the equality and autonomy of others” (Myers).20 Among the Wape tribe in New Guinea, “A man will not tolerate a situation where a neighbour has more than he has. A man should not possess either goods or power to the disadvantage of others” (Mitchell).21

In both egalitarian and hierarchical societies, power is jealously guarded. For egalitarians, the goal is to maximize freedom through group solidarity; for despots, the goal is to maximize the “freedom” of rulers to oppress the majority.

Among political philosophers, only anarchists have seriously considered the threat posed by hierarchy in human affairs. For this reason they have been labeled “utopian.” Yet it may be that idealized notions of benevolent hierarchies are not only unrealistic but wildly implausible. Just as systems of domestic law have proven incapable of preventing tyranny, so too have international laws utterly failed to prevent war.

For anarchists, the reason for this is self-evident: the logic of power is power. There is no law or principle so compelling that it will not be tossed aside at the first sign that those who hold power are in danger of losing it. Hunter-gatherers are able to prevent social dominance hierarchies because they act in a group wide coalition; under the state apparatus, with its entrenched hierarchies, this ability is severely curtailed.

Nevertheless, for the vast majority of political philosophers, the idea that a select minority should rule over the mass is taken for granted. James Madison, the “father of the American constitution,” argued that a primary purpose of government was to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” His great fear was “levelling tendencies,” in other words, real democracy.22

If nation states existed in a vacuum, incapable of waging war against other states, minority rule would perhaps be tolerable, depending on the disposition of the men and women who happen to rule over the majority at a given time. The problem is that states are not content to rest on their laurels. Schopenhauer’s famous quote about wealth – that it is “like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we get” – applies equally to power itself. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson explained the phenomenon in terms of “optima” and “maxima”: “the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems. The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more.”23

Egalitarian societies are able to maintain optima due to a low center of gravity. In large hierarchical societies, wherein power becomes centralized, leaders or entire social classes can easily become despotic. Lord Acton’s famous quote that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was more vividly expressed by the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “Human beings are chimpanzees who become crazy drunk on power.”

Austrian political scientist Leopold Kohr, who described himself as a “philosophical anarchist,” regarded powerful states as the most dangerous expression of the maxima principle:

There could be no gentler peoples on earth today than the Portuguese, the Swedes, the Norwegians, or the Danes. Yet, when they found themselves in possession of power, they lashed out against any and all comers with such fury that they conquered the world from horizon to horizon. This was not because, at the period of their national expansion, they were more aggressive than others. They were more powerful.24

Great powers may temporarily “check” one another, to the point where – depending on the global power configuration – some powerful states may seem positively benign; nevertheless, by their very nature, states must exist in an environment of perpetual conflict; when a “critical quantity of power” is reached by one state in relation to others, war is a likely result. For these and other reasons, Bakunin believed that international law is always destined to fail.

There is no common right, no social contract of any kind between them; otherwise they would cease to be independent states and become the federated members of one great state. But unless this great state were to embrace all of humanity, it would be confronted with other great states, each federated within, each maintaining the same posture of inevitable hostility. War would still remain the supreme law, an unavoidable condition of human survival.

Every state, federated or not, would therefore seek to become the most powerful. It must devour lest it be devoured, conquer lest it be conquered, enslave lest it be enslaved, since two powers, similar and yet alien to each other, could not coexist without mutual destruction.5

Universal Hostility

When NATO was created in 1949, its ostensible purpose was to protect Europe from the Soviet Union. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO did not; in fact, it expanded.

Speaking in 2005, American military geostrategist Thomas Barnett boasted that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, “demand for our services has increased 4-5 times.”14 Instead of the “peace dividend” promised by Bill Clinton, aggressive war by the United States actually escalated.

Twenty years after Perestroika, Gorbachev lamented that his concessions – rather than creating more peace and harmony – had produced a “winner’s complex” among the American political elite.25 Gorbachev had envisioned for post-Soviet Russia a social democracy similar to the Scandinavian nations. What actually followed were a series of brutal “free market” reforms engineered by technocrats from the Chicago school of economics. It took decades for Russia to regain some semblance of stability. Now that it has – and despite the vanished pretext of an ideological battle between capitalism and communism – the Cold War is back with a vengeance.

When Gorbachev allowed for the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union, he was promised by George H.W. Bush that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east.”14 Instead, NATO has expanded to much of the world – including Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Baltic and Central Asia. Coinciding with these aggressive policies of expansion and encirclement, the US has insisted on establishing anti-missile systems in Poland designed to eliminate Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

The theoretical basis behind America’s treatment of post-Soviet Russia crosses party lines. Paul Wolfowitz, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defence under George W. Bush, wrote in Defence Planning Guidance (1992): “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere.”26 Similarly, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard that control of Eurasia – to the exclusion of Russia – is the key factor in ensuring American primacy:

Failure to widen NATO… would shatter the concept of an expanding Europe… Worse, it could reignite dormant Russian political aspirations in Central Europe… Europe is America’s essential geopolitical bridgehead in Eurasia… A wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve the short-term and longer-term interests of U.S. policy.27

In February 2014 the democratically elected albeit corrupt government of Ukraine was overthrown in a right-wing putsch supported by the United States, prompting Vladimir Putin to engineer a referendum in Crimea allowing for its annexation into Russia. Long before the crisis, and in response to previous provocations on Russia’s borders, Putin delivered a speech to the Kremlin in which he stated:

Their [U.S.] defence budget in absolute figures is almost 25 times bigger than Russia’s. This is what in defence is referred to as ‘their home — their fortress’. Clever… Very clever. But this means that we also need to build our home and make it strong and well protected. We see, after all, what is going on in the world. Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.14

In Putin’s portrayal of America as a ravenous wolf we see an echo of Bakunin’s maxim that states must “devour lest [they] be devoured.”

The desire by Russian leaders to retain control of their Black Sea port in Crimea and to project power into neighbouring (NATO-affiliated) states is a classic expression of the cordon sanitaire or “quarantine line.” In state-craft, the term is defined as a protective barrier against a potentially aggressive nation or dangerous influence.

Putin has not been without his own forays into military violence, such as the brutal subjugation of Chechnya in the mid-90′s (during which the capital, Grozny, was largely reduced to rubble). Nevertheless, the Russian leader has focussed most of his attention on building economic alliances, most notably that of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Following the first BRICS summit in 2009, member nations called for a new global reserve currency (rather than the US dollar) that would be “diversified, stable and predictable.”28

Apart from the small matter of nuclear weapons, it is in the economic realm that Russia is considered most dangerous. Russia provides the European Union with about a third of its gas, remains one of Germany’s largest trading partners, and has arranged a massive natural gas supply deal with China.

In the same way that NATO has attempted to encircle Russia, the Pentagon’s “Asia pivot” seeks to quarantine China militarily. China has responded by announcing a new Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, overlapping disputed territories with Japan. In April, the US established a new “Defence” pact with the Philippines.

Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed US-sponsored Security Council Resolutions that would have allowed for the legal bombing of Syria (which houses one of Russia’s last foreign military bases outside of the former Soviet Union). Yet this has not prevented the United States from attempting to subvert the Syrian government through semi-covert means. The CIA, the British SAS, Saudi Arabia, and NATO member Turkey have been training and supplying Syrian rebels in Jordan and elsewhere since the beginning of the insurgency against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.29 Syria, in turn, has a mutual defence pact with Iran.

As always in the recent history of the Middle East, the wild card is Israel.

The destruction of Iran remains Israel’s primary foreign policy objective. Although Hezbollah has sensibly warned that an attack against Iran would “set the entire middle east ablaze.”30 Israeli leaders perceive Iran as a potential counter-check to Zionist power. In addition to geopolitical concerns, Israeli leaders embrace a peculiar military strategy known as the “Mad Dog” doctrine. First articulated by Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, it calls for Israel to behave “like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”31 North Korea seems to have embraced a similar strategy, though to considerably less effect.

The most disturbing manifestation of this strategy is the so-called “Samson option.” Named after the biblical character Samson, who pushed apart the pillars of a Philistine temple, thereby killing both himself and his captors, the Samson option calls for destroying much of the world in response to an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld explains: “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions… We have the capability to take the world down with us.”32

The Samson option, and Israel’s behaviour in general, has led the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein to describe the country as a “lunatic state.”33

In his article “Marching as to War,” American paleoconservative author Pat Buchanan expresses incredulity over American Vice President Joe Biden’s post-Ukraine-coup trip through the former Soviet bloc countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. During the junket, Biden reiterated America’s commitment to “protect” these nations: “our word” is “solemn” and “iron clad.” According to Buchanan, Biden was “affirming war guarantees General Eisenhower would have regarded as insane.”34

Here we may say that while Biden’s actions may have been insane during the Eisenhower administration, they are perfectly logical under the Obama administration. In keeping with the theory of the Power Principle, or Kohr’s notion of “critical quantities of power,” the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the primary check to the American empire. The dogs of war could be fully unleashed. Now that Russia is resurgent, and the US declining economically, there is a great deal of barking going on.

On April Fool’s Day, 2014, NATO Sectary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated:

NATO’s greatest responsibility is to protect and defend our territory and our people. And make no mistake, this is what we will do. We will make sure we have updated military plans, enhanced exercises and appropriate deployments.35

Rasmussen is nothing if not worldly, considering that “his” people evidently include populations from countries as varied as Albania, Croatia, Canada, France, Iceland, Italy, Romania, the UK and the USA.

The illegal bombing of Serbia by the Clinton administration may be regarded as the starting point in the New Cold War, for it was during the assault that NATO began its eastward shift.

The destruction of Yugoslavia was “rational,” argues historian Michael Parenti, because “Yugoslavia was the one country in Eastern Europe that would not voluntarily overthrow what remained of its socialist system and install a free-market economic order… Yugoslavs were proud of their postwar economic development and of their independence from both the Warsaw pact and NATO.”36

Considerably less rational was the behaviour of US General Wesley Clark during the conflict. According to British pop singer James Blunt (best known for his song “You’re beautiful”), who commanded 30,000 NATO troops in Bosnia, he was instructed by the US General to attack a squadron of Russian soldiers at the Pristina Air Base.

The direct command [that] came in from Gen Wesley Clark was to overpower them. Various words were used that seemed unusual to us. Words such as ‘destroy’ came down the radio.37

Like Vasili Arkhipov during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Stanislav Petrov during the 1983 nuclear-warning “computer glitch,” James Blunt disobeyed orders. He was backed up by British General Sir Mike Jackson. Said Jackson: “I’m not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War III.”38

In contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which demands “good-faith” efforts to work toward nuclear disarmament, the United States is projected to spend 1 trillion maintaining and expanding its nuclear weapons systems over the next 30 years39 – assuming we survive that long.

Rationalizing War

No state, no matter how powerful or totalitarian, is capable of engaging in aggressive war absent ideological justification. These justifications typically take on two forms: a noble cause that the public can relate to and a cause that – though it would seem brutal and even immoral to the public – is deemed rational by members of a particular ruling class.

The celebrated American political philosopher Rienhold Neibuhr claimed that “rationality belongs to the cool observers.” Elites should recognize “the stupidity of the average man,” who must be ideologically manipulated via “emotionally potent oversimplifications.”40 Walter Lippmann, the “Father of modern journalism,” agreed, arguing that the “masses” are a “bewildered herd” who should be “spectators” in the affairs of state but not “participants.”40

Very often, a casus belli (or war pretext) will be manufactured by leaders to coerce a peaceful population into accepting war, though intensive propaganda is often sufficient. In the modern age, covert agencies like the CIA have allowed for a more cost-effective and PR-friendly alternative to transparent military aggression. Black operations are especially useful for the United States because the over-arching propaganda narrative (“freedom,” “democracy,” “human rights”) is diametrically opposed to the brutal realities of American foreign policy. Eisenhower’s concept of the Military Industrial Complex is better described as the Military Industrial Intelligence Complex.

The vast gulf between propaganda and realpolitik can be seen in various internal memos by figures like US Cold Warrior and State Department official George Kennan. While American leaders publicly warned of an existential threat to democracy posed by the Soviet Union, Kennan’s 1948 memo to the Secretary of State cooly observes:

We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.41

Kennan helped to establish the Office of Policy Coordination inside CIA.42 Despite its intentionally bland title, the OPC specialized in black operations: assassinations, torture, coups, false flags. Its officers did in the dark “what would have never stood the light of day”43 in a self-proclaimed democracy committed to freedom and human rights. After the attacks of 9/11, these tactics were brought out into the open – a dangerous gambit that has undermined America’s moral legitimacy both at home and abroad.

According to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, the “neoconservatives” who would come to dominate the George W. Bush and Obama administrations were described by fellow analysts – in the 1970′s/80′s – as “The Crazies.”44 The neocons openly argued for war as a way of life, and for the projection of American power into every corner of the globe.

“Ideas do not succeed in history by virtue of their truth,” writes sociologist Peter Berger, “but by virtue of their relationship to specific social processes.”45 Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and coinciding with the increasing power of the Israeli Lobby, the neocon philosophy suddenly became not so crazy after all. It now had utility, and was widely accepted.

The philosophical “Godfather” of the neoconservative movement was the philosopher Leo Strauss. Born in Germany of Jewish parents, he emigrated to the United States and took up a teaching political science at the University of Chicago. Despite his lineage, Strauss’ teachings bear a disturbing similarity to those of the Nazis.

Shadia Drury, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, writes that Strauss believed in “perpetual war” and “an aggressive, belligerent foreign policy… Following Machiavelli, [Strauss] maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured.”46

For liberals and progressives, neoconservatism is the current Bete noir of American politics. In alleged contrast to the realist school, neoconservative are deemed idealistic, irrational, even insane, yet also uniquely ruthless and cunning.

In his book Reclaiming Conservatism, Mickey Edwards of the Aspen Institute argues that “Neoconservatives are driven by theoretical objectives, and by a moral or ethical compass that fails to take into account the complexities of world politics, [whereas] adherents to a Realpolitik foreign policy often seem to have no moral compass at all.”47

Apart from different propaganda narratives, the reader can be forgiven for failing to notice a significant difference between the neocons and their alleged ideological opponents in the American power structure. In terms of real world outcomes, what we actually find is a remarkable degree of uniformity between “realists” and “neoconservatives,” Democrats and Republicans, with foreign policy differences amounting to a friendly disagreement over exactly how to go about maintaining and expanding US hegemony. Increasingly, Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton are being described as “neocons” despite having no historical attachments to Strauss or his philosophy. This indicates a certain level of cognitive dissonance amongst the party faithful; unable to come to terms with the failure of the state capitalist model, they attribute the American empire not to structural factors but a diabolical clique that has usurped American power from its proper guardians.

A much more compelling and historically consistent explanation for the remarkable continuity between Democrat and Republican regimes has already been provided: the logic of power is power. For the half-a-million Iraqi children who perished under the sanctions program of Democrat Bill Clinton, or the similar number who perished under the Republican George W. Bush, the distinctions between philosophies of empire are meaningless. The ideological framework for imperialism may change, but the game remains the same.

In Love with Death

The Power Principle demands that the class that holds power attempts to retain and expand that power. Therefore, ruling classes within one nation find themselves in conflict not only with domestic populations but other nation states. The greatest fear of those who hold power is Anarchy – the loss of control by those who exercise it.

For neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, the 60′s counter-culture was an outbreak of “moral anarchy,” which, if it had been allowed to continue, would have led to the collapse of “ordered liberty.”48

Externally the same principles apply. “Realist” Zbigniew Brzezinski argues: “America’s withdrawal from the world… would produce massive international instability. It would prompt global anarchy.”49

When I asked the late historian Howard Zinn what he thought of the word “anarchy” being used as a synonym for chaos, he suggested that anarchic systems are actually much more stable than hierarchical systems. Anarchism is based on horizontal principles of free association and mutual aid, whereas hierarchical systems demand coercion and violence. “Our political systems are in chaos,” Zinn stated. “International relations are in chaos.”14 In the desire to dominate others in order to prevent chaos, chaos is the result.

It is by no means certain that chaos is considered undesirable by military strategists, provided it serves to weaken the opposition. In his “Strategy for Israel in the 1980′s,” Israeli strategic planner Oded Yinon advocated the fomenting of civil war throughout the entire middle east. Arabs would be turned against one another on the basis of nation, religion and ethnicity in order to increase Israel’s relative power.50

In countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya (or indeed Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia and Vietnam) we see the fruits of such strategies. Genocidal violence is not merely an unfortunate byproduct of well-intentioned plans for regime change but a goal in and of itself. It weakens competitors, and is therefore deemed justified. Human life has neither a positive nor a negative value, it is simply irrelevant – another number in the calculus of power.

Former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, the so-called “architect of the Vietnam war,” was obsessed with mathematics. “He was so impressed by the logic of statistics that he tried to calculate how many deaths it would take to bring North Vietnam to the bargaining table.”51 Millions of Vietnamese people were slaughtered by bullets and bombs, burnt with napalm, poisoned by Agent Orange; yet for the man who helped design the war, they were little more but numbers on a chalkboard. McNamara argued that US violence in Vietnam was preferable to the “complete anarchy” that might otherwise result.14

The psychologist Eric Fromm suggested that the desire to control and dominate may produce a necrophilous orientation. Such people are “cold, distant, devotees of ‘law and order’”52 who are excited not by love but death.

The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things…

He is deeply afraid of life, because it is disorderly and uncontrollable by its very nature. To the necrophilous person justice means correct division, and they are willing to kill or die for the sake of what they call justice. ‘Law and order’ for them are idols, and everything that threatens law and order is felt as a satanic attack against their supreme values.

…People are aware of the possibility of nuclear war; they are aware of the destruction such a war could bring with it – and yet they seemingly make no effort to avoid it. Most of us are puzzled by this behaviour because we start out from the premise that people love life and fear death. Perhaps we should be less puzzled if we questioned this premise. Maybe there are many people who are indifferent to life and many others who do not love life but who do love death.52

That many of our most beloved military figures had or have a necrophilous orientation is plainly evident. Observing the corpses and ruined architecture following a battle during WWII, George Patton remarked, “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”53

The actor Richard Burton, who played Sir Winston Churchill in a television drama, became repulsed by the figure:

In the course of preparing myself… I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history… What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, ‘We shall wipe them out, everyone of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of earth’? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.54

In Churchill’s desire to “wipe out” the “Japanese race” we sense a sort of mania bordering on sadistic perversion. Indeed, on the other side of the conflict, Imperial Japan took sadistic perversion in warfare to horrifying extremes. Hitler brought sado-masochism into his bedroom; a coprophiliac, he was sexually aroused by having young ladies defecate on his face. In so doing he became, in the words of historian Robert Waite, “the personification of [his own] depraved self, as the persecutor who attacks a part of himself in his victims.”55

Hitler believed that it was in doom that art reached its highest expression. Consumed by sado-masochism and narcissism, hiding at last in his bunker, he devoutly wished for all of Germany to die with him. Afforded the opportunity, Western military leaders may well opt for global conflagration rather than conceding a diminution in their power.

The Tyranny of Borders

For Cold War General Curtis Lemay and nuclear strategist Herman Khan, it seemed perfectly logical to risk the annihilation of the human race in order to “win” the game against the Soviet Union. Missing in their analysis was that the game itself was insane.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that climate change could pose an irreversible, existential threat to civilization.56 Among the few American military strategists who commented on the report was retired Army Brig. Gen Chris King. Echoing the conclusions of the Pentagon’s leaked 2004 report on global warming, King emphasized that increased military conflict would seem to be the inevitable outcome of environmental collapse: “This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years… You can see in military history, when they don’t have fixed durations, that’s when you’re most likely to not win.”56

Another American military figure, retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, commented on the report:

You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.56

I began this essay by noting that under the rules of state capitalism, it is rational to regard climate change and other environmental crises as probable force multipliers for interstate conflict. At the same time, militarists make a fundamental error in assuming that current forms of hierarchical organization will continue on indefinitely. Institutional hierarchy has only existed for about 1% of our time on Planet Earth. There is every reason to believe that hierarchical organization, far from being inevitable, is actually unnatural for human beings insofar as it creates massive social dysfunction.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate statistically that more equal societies “enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher math and literacy scores, higher stands of child wellbeing, less bullying in schools, lower obesity rates, and few people in prison.”57

Equally interesting, the psychological malaise caused by hierarchy extends to the men and women at the top of society’s pyramid. In The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, psychotherapist Graham Music notes that “The higher up the social-class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behave… Those with more materialistic values consistently have worse relationships, with more conflict.”58

If the assumptions inherent to state capitalism continue to be shared by majorities or large minorities, environmental collapse will likely entail an increase in intra-species violence, exactly as the militarists predict; however, as our rulers are quick to point out in their internal literature, in crisis there is opportunity. Environmental degradation may also force people to examine alternative ways of living, including those currently deemed “utopian.”

War, poverty, environmental collapse and other catastrophes of modern existence are inextricably linked. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” states capitalist ideologue Thomas Friedman. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”59

“Globalization” has entailed a dual tendency: increased border militarization combined with the growth of powerful supranational institutions. While capital is increasingly liquid – penetrating borders with the mere click of a mouse – 99% of humanity remains confined within nation states. The dominant media has portrayed this process as one of increased border erasure, yet the reality is that borders have never been more militarized. The logic of increased “border security” in the era of elite globalization is explained by the anthropologist David Graeber:

If it were not possible to effectively imprison the majority of people in the world in impoverished enclaves, there would be no incentive for Nike or The Gap to move production there to begin with. Given a free movement of people, the whole neoliberal project would collapse. This is another thing to bear in mind when people talk about the decline of ‘sovereignty’ in the contemporary world: the main achievement of the nation-state in the last century has been the establishment of a uniform grid of heavily policed barriers across the world. It is precisely this international system of control that we are fighting against, in the name of genuine globalization.60

Though David Rockefeller is often accused of conspiring to engineer a “world government,” he remarked in a 2007 interview with Benjamin Fulford that be believed states are necessary, and that he does not view World Government as likely nor desirable.61 Nevertheless, in his memoirs, Rockefeller clearly states that he is a proud “internationalist.”

Rockefeller’s brand of internationalism is consistent with the rise of supranational institutions like the EU, the IMF and World Bank. The goal is not the elimination of borders but the elimination of any semblance of democratic control over elites. The state has come to function as the ultimate divide and conquer mechanism, reducing the human species to a series of artificial, warring tribes serving a decidedly unpatriotic transnational ruling class.

Government as Constant Reconquest

Thus far I have conceived of warfare primarily in terms of external competition. But internal competition is at least as important. The American dissident philosopher Randolph Bourne believed that war is not only a primary function of the state but the health of the state. At the outbreak of WWI he wrote:

The nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty – or mystic devotion to the State – becomes the major imagined human value. Other values, such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.62

The domestic repercussions of war are typically regarded as an unintended consequence or happy accident for the ruling class; in the process of engaging in imperialism, or defending a population against imperialism, the state must neutralize subversive elements.

Neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss believed the opposite: domestic control is the imperative, war the effect:

Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed… Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.46

In 1984, Orwell also conceived of war in terms of domestic utility:

In some ways she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda. Once when he happened in some connection to mention the war against Eurasia, she startled him by saying casually that in her opinion the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, ‘just to keep the people frightened.’63

Viewed through a macroscopic lens, the perceived separation between “domestic” and “foreign” is an illusion. There is no race except the human race, no nation except the world.

Does this mean we should embrace a world state?

Before examining the question, we should ask ourselves exactly what the state is.

In contrast to coercion theories of state formation, which argue that the first states were only beneficial to a privileged minority, and were achieved through a process of violence, conservative theories argue that the state was brought about through a process of “mutual benefit” and “consent of the governed.” Though understandably popular amongst apologists for state violence, conservative models are easily dismissed. As noted by the anthropologist James C. Scott:

…all ancient states without exception were slave states. The proportion of slaves seldom dropped below 30 per cent of the population in early states, reaching 50 per cent in early South-East Asia (and in Athens and Sparta as much as 70 and 86 per cent)…slaving was at the very centre of state-making.64

The state is a new phenomenon in the human experience. But what of warfare itself?

In his book A Terrible Love of War, American psychologist James Hillman argues that war “is the father of all things,” “the first of all norms” and “the ultimate truth of the cosmos.”53 For militarists, this view is a comfortable one: war is inevitable, it has always existed and always will. Another prominent psychologist, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, has also advanced a “Constant warfare” theory of human evolution, suggesting that civilization and the state have actually diminished war, pacifying our instinctually savage, warlike ways. Like conservative theories of state formation, Pinker’s theories are easily debunked.65

In Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, and the Origins and Intensification of War, Ferguson analyzes worldwide evidence of violence before 10,000 years ago. He finds that while violence certainly existed, it was comparatively rare, and in no way indicative of war. Thus, a study of all skeletons available from 100,000-10,000 in southwestern France finds that only 2.5% show any signs of fractures – and even these could have been caused by accidental injury. In the Middle East, amongst 370 skeletons from the Natufian (10,800-8,500 BC), only 2 showed signs of trauma.66 Similar patterns are evident throughout the world:

Warfare is largely a development of the past 10,000 years. The multiple archaeological indicators of war are absent until the development of a more sedentary existence and/or increasing sociopolitical complexity, usually in combination with some form of ecological crisis and/or steep ecological gradients.67

Ethnographies of extant nomadic hunter-gatherers help to explain why war would have made little sense to our forebears. Anthropologist Douglas P. Fry writes:

The very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. The archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographic areas exactly when war began.  And in all cases this was recent, not ancient activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering.68

The cause of hierarchy and warfare is disputed, but a common explanation is the shift from nomadic bands to sedentary tribes; when these new domesticated forms combined with technological innovation and increased social complexity, the result was the state. Engels long ago suggested that agriculture was a primary determinant; it allowed for surplus, which in turn gave rise to social classes. In The Evolution of Political Society, Morton Fried points out that extreme social stratification is inherently unstable; thus, in any large hierarchical society, an organization with a monopoly on “warfare and killing” is required.69

The state has attempted to effect a reconciliation between different classes by arrogating to itself a monopoly on “legitimate” violence. Yet violence alone is not sufficient. Ideologically, the “religion” of the state is nationalism. In lieu of class analysis, nationalism is successful because it appeals to primal human desires for solidarity and belonging, as well as fear of the unknown (“outsiders”). Fear of outsiders is deliberately cultivated by rulers in order to mystify the real cause of the people’s discontent (namely rulers themselves), especially during times of economic/environmental crisis. Ultimately, the state has come to function as a sort of artificial surrogate for real community.

The textbook A Short History of War, provided to students at the US Army War College, is surprisingly candid about the state’s role as surrogate not only for community but spirituality and even “God”:

The aggregation of large numbers of people into complex societies required that those living within them refocus their allegiances away from the extended family, clan, and tribe, and toward a larger social entity, the state. This psychological change was facilitated by the rise of religious castes that gave meaning to the individual’s life beyond a parochial context. Organized belief systems were integrated into the social order and given institutional expression through public rituals that linked religious worship to political and military objectives that were national in scope and definition. Thus, the Egyptian pharaoh became divine, and military achievements of great leaders were perceived as divinely ordained or inspired.70

The role of state as surrogate helps to explain why the popularity of state leaders tends to rise – often dramatically – during times of war. George W. Bush began his presidential term with an approval rating of 50%; following 9/11, that number skyrocketed to 92% (the highest number ever recorded for an American president since modern polling began).71 The “rally around the chief” effect is no secret, and has been satirized in several Hollywood films such as Canadian Bacon and Wag the Dog.

Though egalitarianism alone is not sufficient to bring about peace (sedentary tribal societies often engaged in war, albeit on a far lesser scale than state societies), it is a necessary precondition for the simple reason that the perceived interests of rulers are often radically different – and even diametrically opposed – to those of their subjects. Nowhere is this more apparent than during times of violent conflict. Leaders are celebrated and aggrandized even as their subjects are oppressed and slaughtered. Indeed, Anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson has gone so far as to suggest that hierarchy may be the the most fundamental cause of war.

…My view is that in most cases — not every single one — the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision. The struggle can be joined over basic subsistence resources, but it can just as easily erupt over goods available only to elites.
…Not only do these leaders experience vastly different costs, benefits and powers in war, leaders may literally require successful war to establish and maintain rule.72

In Ferguson’s view, the problem is not limited to competition over resources but the manner in which such competition – or lack thereof – is expressed.

Since a world government would constitute the apotheosis of hierarchical organization, such an entity could not possibly put an end to war (which is, after all, simply organized killing by one group of humans against another). If a world state came into existence, propaganda models could simply be reconfigured to reflect the new cultural dynamic: internal enemies would replace external enemies, creating something akin to civil war on a global scale.

The Austrian philosopher Leopold Kohr, who was especially concerned with the problem of size in human social structures, found the prospect of world government positively chilling:

The process of unification, far from reducing the dangers of war, seems the very thing that increases them. For, the larger a power becomes, the more is it in a position to build up its strength to the point where it becomes spontaneously explosive. But not only does unification breed wars by creating war potentials; it needs war in the very process of its establishment. As states did not come into existence by natural development but by conquest, so they cannot maintain themselves except by conquest – the constant reconquest of their own citizens through a flow of patriotic propaganda setting in at the cradle and ending only at the grave.73

Kohr rejected the idea of artificial unity in favour of harmony, which he regarded as the natural order of the universe. The unity of a world government would need to be imposed, if for no other reason than consensus between different regions would be impossible (imagine, for a moment, attempting to create a system of law incorporating the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri rainforest; the people of Waco, Texas; the Inuit; and the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan). The result would not be the end of war but the constant reconquest of the global citizenry.

Conceivably, as technology advances, a logical solution for the ruling class to the “problem” of cultural differentiation, “surplus population” and rebellion may be the deliberate culling of the human race. This seems to have been one of the great fears of the brilliant yet homicidal primitivist Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber), who wrote:

Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses and because human work will no longer be necessary, the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system; if the elite is ruthless, they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity.74

There is no question that our elite is “ruthless” (over a thousand children die every day due to easily treatable diseases) so we can put aside moral conundrums. Interestingly, the quotation of Kaczynski has been cited by leading trans-humanists such as Ray Kurzweil, who currently works as Google’s Director of Engineering. Bill Joy of Wired magazine also cites the quote in his article “Why the Future doesn’t need us,” sub headed, “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nano tech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species”.74

The Path to Peace: Correcting the Power Imbalance

Now that we have examined what won’t work, we can start imagining real alternatives to the present system of state competition.

As we have seen, the greatest fear of world leaders in anarchy.

Though the term is falsely equated with violent chaos, Anarchy is defined by Noam Chomsky as “the closest you can get to pure democracy.”14 Chomsky also interprets anarchism as a “set of principles” rather than an a pure ideology. The word itself derives from the Greek Anarkos meaning “without rulers.” Rather than electing a politician who makes decisions for you, anarchists believe that decision-making capacities should lie with the people affected by those decisions.

It is often said that if politicians had to fight in wars, there would be no more war. By the same measure, if the CEO of a company polluting a water source was forced to drink that water daily, he or she would presumably be much less likely to dismiss concerns about water pollution. A key issue is accountability. Under our present system, our “leaders” have none. Indeed, we have managed to create a system whereby we begrudgingly elect the most depraved, venal individuals in society to rule over us.

In 2012, The Atlantic published an article entitled, “The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as Psychopaths.” Noting that “Psychopathy is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria, which include lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, cunning and manipulative behaviour, and refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, among others,” the article goes on to state that psychopaths may in fact be “particularly well suited” for careers in politics.75

Debates continue over whether what we call psychopathy is bio-genetic or culturally programmed (or some combination of the two), but there can be no disputing the fact that when it comes to the well-being of the majority, our “leaders” are at best disinterested and very often downright malevolent. This is well understood, even in the United States. Polls demonstrate that the Congress – which is imagined by orthodox political scientists to be a “check” on power – has an approval rating roughly on par with cockroaches.76

Instead of centralized power and competition, anarchists advocate decentralization and cooperation. Decentralized communities can be federated horizontally, thus ensuring stability through a low center of gravity rather than the precarious, ever-shifting power configurations of top-down rule. Anarchism does not demand a “one size fits all” model, and therefore embraces the organic rather than the mechanical.

Above all, anarchism demands equality; human beings should not be permitted to dominate their fellows.

In The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society, Sam Dolgoff writes:

Federation is the coordination through free agreement – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. A vast coordinated network of voluntary alliances embracing the totality of social life, in which all the groups and associations reap the benefits of unity while still exercising autonomy within their own spheres and expanding the range of their freedom.77

Paradoxically, for some “small a” anarchists, the state itself may be a tool. It can be used to protect the public against private power, create more equitable social conditions, and help facilitate horizontal power through participatory democracy. Some Latin American anarchists have described this process as “expanding the floor of the cage.”78

Other anarchists want little or nothing to do with the state, and believe in acting outside of official political channels. This is the traditional tendency amongst anarchists, and requires no explication.

The concepts of anarcho-pluralism and Pan-Secessionism seek “radical localism” and “the simple territorial withdrawal withdrawal of regions and localities and renunciation of the central state by secessionists.”79

Though anarcho-X-adjective strategies differ significantly, in common with all anarchists is a desire to prevent social dominance hierarchies whereby a privileged class is permitted to oppress the majority. Viewed globally, such oppression takes on the form of genocide and war.

The first step in solving a problem is to admit that there is a problem. For the majority, the state and its armies are viewed as a necessary evil. They are imagined to be required, at minimum, to defend populations from aggression by other states. This seemingly rational belief has produced the irrational consequence of possible near term extinction. Once we begin – as a global community – to conceive of states, as well as capitalism, as unnecessary and indeed harmful constructs, we can start to build alternatives from the bottom up. A pessimist view would regard such radical change as unlikely absent a massive global awakening. Yet such an awakening is not far-fetched, if for no other reason than current socio-economic models are unsustainable. Even a fatalist interpretation offers hope – that if humanity survives the coming calamities, our descendants may not automatically repeat the mistakes of our hierarchical, violent age. Anarchism will return us to our basic survival mechanisms as a species – cooperation, equality and peace.

  1. Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, “Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us” The Observer (22 February 2004). []
  2. George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society (London: SAGE Publications, 1998): 12. []
  3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1513): Chapter 15. [] []
  4. John Bew, “The Real Origins of Realpolitik.” []
  5. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Immorality of the State.” [] [] []
  6. Gregory G. Brunk, Donald Secrest, Ioward Tamashiro, Understanding Attitudes about War (University of Pittsburg Press, 1996): 37. []
  7. Nicholas Hagger, The World Government (John Hunt Publishing, 2010): 30. []
  8. Brad MacDonald, “President Obama and the Phone Call that Endangered America” The Trumpet (17 October 2013). []
  9. Paul Lashmar, “Stranger than ‘Strangelove’: A General’s Forays into the Nuclear Zone,” Washington Post (3 July 1994): C9. [] []
  10. Louis Menand, “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age” The New Yorker (27 June 2005). []
  11. Marion Lloyd, “Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis, Forum is Told” Boston Globe (Retrieved 7 August 2012): A20. []
  12. Burrell’s Information Service, “War Games,” Dateline NBC (November 12, 2000). []
  13. Alan F. Philips, “20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War.” []
  14. The Power Principle. Directed by Scott Noble (Metanoia Films, 2012). [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  15. J. Peter Scoblic, “Robert McNamara’s Logical Legacy.” []
  16. Bo Filter, “Slaying Goliath: Give David a Stone.” []
  17. Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour (Harvard University Press, 2009): 5. []
  18. Boehm, 68. []
  19. Boehm, 50. []
  20. Boehm, 74. []
  21. Boehm, 98. []
  22. Noam Chomsky, “Consent Without Consent.” []
  23. Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Cornell University Press, 1981): 506. []
  24. Leopold Kohr, “The Power Theory of Aggression,” Panarchy. []
  25. Claire Shipman, “Gorbachev: ‘Americans Have a Severe Disease’,” ABC News (21 July 2006). []
  26. “Excerpts from Pentagon’s Plan: ‘Prevent the Re-Emergence of a New Rival’,” New York Times (8 March 1992). []
  27. Mike Whitney, “Showdown in Ukraine.” []
  28. “BRIC wants more influence,” Euronews (21 June 2009). []
  29. Greg Miller, “CIA ramping up covert training program for moderate Syrian rebels,” Washington Post, (2 October 2013). []
  30. “Hamas will not come to Iran’s aid in a case of war with Israel: official,” Al Arabiya (13 April 2014). []
  31. Jonathan Cook, “‘Mad dog’ diplomacy: A cornered Israel is baring its teeth.” []
  32. Felicity Arbuthnot, “Attack Iran? Nuclear Insanity,” Dissident Voice. []
  33. Norman G. Finkelstein, “Israel is Now a Lunatic State.” []
  34. Patrick Buchanan, “Marching as to War.” []
  35. NATO takes measures to reinforce collective defence, agrees on support for Ukraine.” []
  36. Michael Parenti, “The Rational Destruction of Yugoslavia.” []
  37. “Singer James Blunt ‘prevented World War III’,” BBC (14 November 2010). []
  38. “Singer James Blunt ‘prevented World War III’” BBC (14 November 2010). []
  39. Robert Dodge, “Budgets as Moral Documents.” []
  40. Noam Chomsky, “Force and Opinion.” [] []
  41. Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Interventions in Central America (South End Press, 1985): 48. []
  42. Sarah-Jane Corke, “George Kennan and the Inauguration of Political Warfare.” []
  43. See Bill Moyers, “The Secret Government.” []
  44. American Intelligence Analysts Have a Patriotic Duty to Speak out and Transcend the Cult of Secrecy: An Interview with Ray McGovern,” Dissident Voice. []
  45. Peter Berger, “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Psychoanalysis,” Social Research, 32 (Spring 1965): 32. []
  46. Jim Lobe, “Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception.” [] []
  47. Mickey Edwards, Reclaiming Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2008): 141. []
  48. Ira Chernus, “Ukraine plus Flight 370 = Bad news for Neocons.” []
  49. Chris Erenesto, “The Eurasian Chessboard: Brzezinski Mapped Out ‘The Battle for Ukraine’ in 1997.” []
  50. Israel Shahak, “Greater Israel: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East.” []
  51. David K. Shipler, “Robert McNamara and the Ghosts of Vietnam,” New York Times Magazine (10 August 1997). []
  52. Eric Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil: 37. [] []
  53. Gracy Trosclair, “War’s Attraction: Love or Fascination?.” [] []
  54. Howard Zinn, Howard Zinn on War (Seven Stories Press, 2001): 194. []
  55. Robert G.L. Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (Da Cap Press, 1993): 241. []
  56. Eric Holthaus, “‘Climate Change War’ Is Not a Metaphor,” Slate. [] [] []
  57. Richard Wilkinson, “In Defence of Equality.” []
  58. Tanya Gold, “How Materialism Makes us Sad.” []
  59. John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (Verso, 2002): 114. []
  60. David Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review (January-February 2002). []
  61. Benjamin Fulford Interview with David Rockefeller. []
  62. Randolph Bourne, “War is the Health of the State” (1918). []
  63. George Orwell, 1984 (1949): 127. []
  64. James C. Scott, “Crops, Towns, Government.” []
  65. See Brian Ferguson, “Pinker’s List.” []
  66. Comments on Pinker’s History of Violence.” []
  67. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Reality Denial: Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence,” Dissident Voice. []
  68. Douglas P. Fry, “Peace in Our Time.” []
  69. Keith F. Otterbein, How War Began (Texas A&M University Press, 2004): 100. []
  70. Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, A Short History of War (Professional Readings in Military Strategy, No. 5, 1992): Chapter 1. []
  71. Behind the Numbers: Approval Highs and Lows,” Washington Post. []
  72. R. Brian Ferguson, “The Birth of War.” []
  73. Leopold Kohr, “The Power Theory of Aggression.” []
  74. Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired. [] []
  75. James Silver, “The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as Psychopaths” The Atlantic (31 July 2012). []
  76. Congress somewhere below cockroaches, traffic jams, and Nickelback in Americans’ esteem,” Public Policy Polling, 2013. []
  77. Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society (AK Press, 1 Jan 1989). []
  78. “Expanding the floor of the cage: Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamiam,” Z Magazine (April 1997). []
  79. Keith Preston, “Anarcho-Pluralism and Pan-Secessionism: What they are and what they are not.” []

 

 

 

Violence Against Our Environment

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2013 at 7:05 pm

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Oldspeak: “An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations…

….Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.” -Chris Williams

“Brilliant insight. in much the same way as we otherize & dehumanize each other in order to perpetrate violence, we consider ourselves separate from ecology we’re fundamentally a part of to rationalize violence against it. The faux distinction allows for the length, breadth and depravity of capitalist ecological violence. Blown up mountains. Poisoned waterways. Habitat Destruction. The list of offenses is very long. The economic system around which we organize our societies is at its foundation, ecocidal, homicidal, exploitative, repressive, racist, patriarchal, and interminably bureaucratic. it is animated by violence destruction & death. As long as we regard the biosphere a subset of the economy, the prospect of a livable future environment and planet is nil.  There is no economy on dead planet.” -OSJ

By Chris Williams @ Dissident Voice:

Both the words “environment” and “violence” have so many meanings, that they require some definition of how they can be of use in the context of a struggle for social justice. Regarding the word violence, according to Merriam Webster, one definition is “the use of brute strength to cause harm to a person or property”; a definition that doesn’t seem to have an immediately obvious connection to ecological issues associated with climate change, loss of biodiversity and various forms of pollution.

An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations.

Given these issues, and the importance of words to explain and communicate thought, how should those of us engaged in a struggle against capitalist environmental violence, conceive of that fight?  If we are to argue that the social, economic and political system known as capitalism is the root cause of environmental violence, what are we arguing it is responsible for?

Interestingly enough, but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the prevalence of overt violence in our world, the dictionary gives almost 50 related words for “violence”. These begin with words such as “coercion”, “compulsion”, “constraint”, go on to “barbarity”, “brutality”, “damage” and continue with “onslaught”, “tumult” and “upheaval.”

Putting these words into a human context and joining them up with the word “environment” now starts to make significant sense. It is no longer possible to restrict violence to an act that is immediate and causes direct and obvious harm, whether that is in the most commonly thought of cases of warfare, police brutality, or state-sponsored torture such as waterboarding, or racist, sexist or homophobic language and bigotry.

Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.

In this broadened understanding of violence, capitalism is an intensely violent system, as it depends on the systematic coercion of workers who are daily faced with the choice of working for “a living” or starvation and homelessness; their life choices for education, health and human fulfillment are hugely constrained by the unyielding ferocity of class exploitation and racism. Billions of people’s lives are stunted and foreshortened by the daily violence meted out to them via the dictates of a system that prioritizes profit above all else. In Volume I of Capital, Marx’s words resonate as much in our day as his:

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is supplied to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.

But for Marx, the violent treatment of humans by capitalist social relations, in shortening and hamstringing their lives through overwork, poor housing, inadequate food and pollution, was directly analogous to capitalist farming practices:

Capital cares nothing for the length of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the [worker’s] life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

One can only have nutritious food, health care, or decent housing located in an unpolluted neighborhood, if one has the money to pay for those things. Lack of access to these necessities by some, where others have access, makes the violence explicit. Furthermore, there is the violence of institutionalized racism, and a culture saturated with sexism that turns women’s bodies into objects, doubly exploits them through unpaid domestic labor, and in the United States, refuses to allow women control over their own reproductive organs.

There is the associated psychological violence done to humans against our own sociality, whereby we are forced to live, in Marx’s emotive phrase, in “dot-like isolation,” as the primacy of the individual over the collective is sanctified. Few have written of the social alienation and environmental degradation suffered by working people with greater effect than Frederick Engels, in his classic study, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels highlights the contradiction engendered by capitalism, between bringing millions of people together in giant urban conglomerations, which, rather than fostering collective solidarity and companionship, instead produce its opposite — an unfeeling and solitary individuality that corrupts the human spirit:

After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.

For  Engels, this produces feelings and a mode of living that is profoundly alienating of all that is good about humans:

The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Of course, there is the more overt and immediate violence of the state against people trying to protect their land from environmental degradation and ensuing displacement and poverty associated with fossil fuel extraction. From the Ogoni people in Nigeria fighting Shell, to indigenous people poisoned by Chevron in the forests of Ecuador, the paramilitary arm of the state serves corporate priorities the world over.

In North America, this was brutally demonstrated in September, as members of the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq First Nation, alongside local residents, blockaded a road in New Brunswick, Canada. They were trying to prevent fracking exploration and were assaulted and tear gassed for their protest by paramilitary police.

The group, which had never been asked about whether they wanted their land used in this way, had blocked the road to stop shale gas exploration by SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. As Susan Levi-Peters, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog indigenous group, told reporters, “The RCMP is coming in here with their tear gas – they even had dogs on us… They were acting like we’re standing there with weapons, while we are standing there, as women, with drums and eagle feathers.

There are myriad ways in which environmental violence plays out, especially when it is compounded by climate change. So, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack of tree-cover from ongoing deforestation, means even when rain comes, it runs off the land and carries fertile topsoil with it. As a result, women and girls, who are responsible for over 70 percent of water collection, have to travel further and further to obtain it. The UN estimates that women in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 200 million hours per day collecting water for food and farming purposes, or 40 billion hours annually.

In 1992, Lawrence Summers, who was at the time chief economist of the World Bank, later to become Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, president of Harvard, and most recently one of Obama’s key economic advisors in his first cabinet, wrote in an internal World Bank memorandum published by The Economist:

“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?” By way of answering his own question, he gives three reasons. Here’s the first:

(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

The fact that a major establishment actor is able to advocate and rationalize the dumping of toxic waste on poor communities is a perfect illustration of the inhumanity of the thought process behind capitalist decision-making.

As I have argued, we need a much broader definition of violence than is allowed for by limiting its meaning to a physical and immediate brutal act of aggression, and one that includes an environmental dimension. Violence can happen over extended periods of time. Exploited workers in unhealthy conditions and poor communities exposed to toxins gradually succumb to a worsening quality of life, through a compendium of often intersecting long-term ailments. Due to financial restrictions on health care (itself a violent act), they often can’t treat these illnesses by going to the doctor, seeking another job, or relocating to a different neighborhood.

A broadened definition of violence is exactly what Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Madison, argues is required in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor:

By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting in sensational visibility.

That is to say, the unplanned, shorter and shorter time frames upon which capitalism operates, clash with the longer and longer term effects of the actions taken on those shorter time scales. Human induced climate change is arguably the primary and perfect example of just such a contradiction between the short-term priorities of capitalism to make profit from continuing to burn fossil fuels, and the longer term implications for future generations of humans, and planetary life in general, due to the now well-known side-effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One could reasonably debate whether climate change, or the irradiation of the atmosphere from atomic tests and the need to deal with nuclear waste from nuclear power plants — waste that remains toxic and deadly for hundreds of thousands of years — is a more disruptive and long-term negative impact of capitalist social relations.

In the more immediate sense, while we currently produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, over one billion people suffer starvation and hunger. In discussing why people starve in England, when food was in fact abundant, Engels posed the question of who should be blamed for the extreme violence of death by starvation: “The English working-men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong?”

In answering Engels’ question, one must blame the system for the long-term “social murder” of our planet, and the daily degradation and violence of life under capitalism. Given the critical state of the biosphere and an exploitative and constantly-growing economic model based on profit and fossil fuels for energy, which is bringing about global climate change, Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion, that we face the choice of barbarism or socialism, rings true now more than ever.

If we accept that premise, to return to where I began, one cannot be a social justice activist without equally being an ecological justice activist; and link arms with all those fighting racist environmental violence the world over.

Ultimately, all of this can only be solved by the self-emancipation of humanity and putting in place a system that prioritizes long-term human and planetary health; real, bottom-up democracy based on cooperation; and production for human needs at its center. We need a system of cooperative and meaningful production, whereby the goal of society is social equity and ecological sustainability, and where environmental violence, in all its manifestations, is a thing of the past. To bring this about will require a social and ecological revolution. While we organize and fight for that future, we must simultaneously work to bring about the small victories, necessary to make people’s immediate lives better and less polluted under capitalism, organize, and gain confidence for the larger, longer-term, and more profound and revolutionary battles to come.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.

 

Sleepwalking To Extinction: Capitalism And The Destruction Of Life On Earth

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Smoke stacks.Oldspeak: “The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth. Instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse… We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop overconsuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the Earth, its waters and its atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs… Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend. That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists such as Bill McKibben or Al Gore, for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil-fuel-powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” – the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion, because greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy, not just by or even mainly by power plants… What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production and consumption would be to impose an emergency contraction in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more. Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world… Given capitalism, today, tomorrow, next year and every year, economic growth will always be the overriding priority… Most of us, really, don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil-fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another – either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive and wrench down this overproduction of fossil fuels, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.” -Richard Smith

“i am reluctant to agree with the author’s call for a ‘one world government’ on environmental issues.  Anachro-syndicalism would be effective in addressing environmental issues on a global scale. Monoculture,  in any endeavour, but especially one that is global, is not feasible. Natural & environmental and all other forms of variation must be accounted for. And our focus should not just be on saving the humans, but to saving as much of life on earth as we can. Creating conditions for all life to be sustained in all encompassing balance. Focusing on humans exclusively, as though we and our needs are somehow separate from the the rest of our environment is what got us into this mess in the first place. Otherwise, spot on analysis of existing conditions and what needs to be changed for the betterment of all.  if we hope to ensure our survival, we must heal our Mother. ” -OSJ

By Richard Smith @ Real World Economics Review:

When, on May 10, 2013, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world – not only among climate scientists.

CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been climbing ever since and, as the records show, temperatures rises will follow. For all the climate summits, the promises of “voluntary restraint,” the carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations has not just been relentless, it has been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.”

In the early 1960s, CO2ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74ppm compared to last year — “the biggest increase since benchmark monitoring stations high on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa began taking measurements in 1958.”[1] Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3 million and 5 million years ago, when global average temperatures were 3 degrees or 4 degrees Centigrade hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40 meters higher, jungles covered northern Canada and Florida was under water – along with coastal locations we now call New York City, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others.

Crossing this threshold has fueled fears that we are fast approaching “tipping points” – melting of the subarctic tundra or thawing and releasing the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom – that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it: “I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400-ppm level without losing a beat,” said Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling, whose father, Charles, set up the first monitoring stations in 1958: “At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.”

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.[2]

Why are we marching to disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as The Guardian‘s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirements of capitalist reproduction, that large corporations are destroying life on Earth, that they can’t help themselves, they can’t change or change very much, that so long as we live under this system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes.

The only alternative – impossible as this may seem right now – is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an ecosocialist civilization. I argue that, although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, we are witnessing a near-simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” as the Brazilians call it, almost a global uprising from Tahir Square to Zuccotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen.

To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question, “Don’t like capitalism? What’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic. And in this lies our hope. I’m going to make my case in the form of six theses:

1. CAPITALISM IS, OVERWHELMINGLY, THE MAIN DRIVER OF PLANETARY ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE

From climate change to resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centuries of accelerating economic development revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is today a roaring, out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, drilling, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible resources to turn them all into “product” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons.

Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 billion to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminum ore) fifteenfold. And so on.[3]

At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O Wilson says, “half the world’s great forests have already been leveled, and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.” Corporations aren’t necessarily evil – although plenty are diabolically evil – but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand.[4] BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building its flimsy, disposable furniture (IKEA is the third-largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo – violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. [5] Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds and small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet with their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids. [6] This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on Earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.

In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But now everything is produced in the millions and billions – then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow. When the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters – a lot.

The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth. Instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse. Marxists have never had a better argument against capitalism than this inescapable and apocalyptic “contradiction.”

2. SOLUTIONS TO THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS ARE BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS, BUT WE CAN’T TAKE THE NECESSARY STEPS TO PREVENT ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE BECAUSE, SO LONG AS WE LIVE UNDER CAPITALISM, ECONOMIC GROWTH HAS TO TAKE PRIORITY OVER ECOLOGICAL CONCERNS OR THE ECONOMY WILL COLLAPSE AND MASS UNEMPLOYMENT WILL BE THE RESULT

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop overconsuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the Earth, its waters and its atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.

Take Climate Change … 

James Hansen, the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, has argued that to save the humans, “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible, or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty. … Yes, [coal, oil, gas] most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That is the explicit message that the science provides.”

Humanity treads today on a slippery slope. As we continue to pump greenhouse gases in the air, we move onto a steeper, even more slippery incline. We seem oblivious to the danger – unaware of how close we may be to a situation in which a catastrophic slip becomes practically unavoidable, a slip where we suddenly lose all control and are pulled into a torrential stream that hurls us over a precipice to our demise. [7]

But how can we do this under capitalism? After his climate negotiators stonewalled calls for binding limits on CO2 emissions at Copenhagen, Cancun, Cape Town and Doha, President Obama is now trying to salvage his environmental “legacy” by ordering his EPA to impose “tough” new emissions limits on existing power plants, especially coal-fired plants.[8] But this won’t salvage his legacy or, more importantly, his daughters’ future. How much difference would it make, really, if every coal-fired power plant in the United States were to shut down tomorrow when US coal producers are free to export their coal to China, which they are doing, and when China is building another coal-fired power plant every week? The atmosphere doesn’t care where the coal is burned. It only cares how much is burned. Yet how could Obama tell American mining companies to stop mining coal? This would be tantamount to socialism. But if we do not stop mining and burning coal, capitalist freedom and private property is the least we’ll have to worry about.

Same with Obama’s “tough” new fuel-economy standards. In August 2012, Obama boasted that his new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards would “double fuel efficiency” in the next 13 years to 54.5 mpg by 2025, up from 28.6 mpg at present – cutting vehicle CO2 emissions in half, so helping enormously to “save the planet.” But as the Center for Biological Diversity and other critics have noted, Obama was lying as usual. First, his so-called “tough” new CAFE standards were so full of loopholes, negotiated with Detroit, that they actually encourage more gas guzzling, not less.[9] That’s because the standards are based on a sliding scale according to “vehicle footprints” – the bigger the car, the less mileage it has to get to meet its standard. So, in fact, Obama’s “tough” standards are (surprise) custom-designed to promote what Detroit does best – produce giant Sequoias, mountainous Denalis, Sierras, Yukons, Tundras and Ticonderogas, Ram Chargers and Ford F series luxury trucks, grossly obese Cadillac Escalades, soccer kid hauler Suburbans, even 8,000-pound Ford Excursions and let these gross gas hogs meet the “fleet standard.” Many of these ridiculously oversized and overaccessorized behemoths are more than twice the weight of cars and pickup trucks in the 1950s.[10] These cars and “light” trucks are among the biggest-selling vehicles in America today (GM’s Sierra is No. 1), and they get worse gas mileage than American cars and trucks half a century ago. Cadillac’s current Escalade gets worse mileage than its chrome-bedecked tailfin-festooned land yachts of the mid-1950s![11] Little wonder Detroit applauded Obama’s new CAFE standards instead of damning them. Secondly, what would it matter even if Obama’s new CAFE standards actually did double fleet mileage – when American and global vehicle fleets are growing exponentially? In 1950 Americans had one car for every three people. Today we have 1.2 cars for every American. In 1950 when there were about 2.6 billion humans on the planet, there were 53 million cars on the world’s roads – about one for every 50 persons. Today, there are 7 billion people but more than 1 billion cars. And industry forecasters expect there will be 2 billion to 2.5 billion cars on the world’s roads by midcentury. China is expected to have 1 billion.[12] So, at the end of the day, incremental half-measures like CAFE standards can’t stop rising GHG missions. Barring some technical miracle, the only way to cut vehicle emissions is to just stop making them – drastically suppress vehicle production, especially of the worst gas hogs. In theory, Obama could at least simply order GM to stop building its humongous gas guzzlers and switch to producing small economy cars. After all, the federal government owns the company! But of course, how could he do any such thing? Detroit lives by the mantra “big car big profit, small car small profit.” Since Detroit has never been able to compete against the Japanese and Germans in the small-car market, which already is glutted and nearly profitless everywhere, such an order would only doom GM to failure, if not bankruptcy (again), throw masses of workers onto the unemployment lines (and devalue the GM stock in the feds’ portfolio). So given capitalism, Obama is, in fact, powerless. He’s locked in to promoting the endless growth of vehicle production, even of the worst polluters – and lying about it all to the public to try to patch up his pathetic “legacy.” And yet, if we don’t suppress vehicle production, how can we stop rising CO2 emissions?

In the wake of the failure of climate negotiators from Kyoto to Doha to agree on binding limits on GHG emissions, exasperated British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre, Britain’s leading climate change research center, wrote in September 2012 that we need an entirely “new paradigm”: government policies must “radically change” if “dangerous” climate change is to be avoided:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions. … [The] misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2 degrees C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient. … Long-term end-point targets (for example, 80% by 2050) have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today, and those released in the next few years.[13]

And not just scientists. In its latest world energy forecast released on November 12, 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that despite the bonanza of fossil fuels now made possible by fracking, horizontal and deepwater drilling, we can’t consume them if we want to save the humans: “The climate goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade is becoming more difficult and costly with each year that passes. … No more that one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 degree C goal. … ” [14] Of course the science could be wrong about this. But so far climate scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and ferocity of global warming, and even prominent climate change deniers have folded their cards.[15]

Emergency Contraction or Global Ecological Collapse

Still, it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben of 350.org to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG emissions – in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend. That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists such as Bill McKibben or Al Gore, for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil-fuel-powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” – the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion, because greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy, not just by or even mainly by power plants. Globally, fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation accounts for 17 percent of GHG emissions, heating accounts for 5 percent, miscellaneous “other” fuel combustion 8.6 percent, industry 14.7 percent, industrial processes another 4.3 percent, transportation 14.3 percent, agriculture 13.6 percent, land-use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2 percent.[16] This means, for a start, that even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electricity-generating plant on the planet with 100 percent renewable solar, wind and water power, this would reduce global GHG emissions only by around 17 percent. What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production and consumption would be to impose an emergency contraction in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more. Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world. That’s why in April 2013, in laying the political groundwork for his approval of the XL pipeline in some form, President Obama said “The politics of this are tough.” The Earth’s temperature probably isn’t the “number one concern” for workers who haven’t seen a raise in a decade, have an underwater mortgage, are spending $40 to fill their gas tank, can’t afford a hybrid car and face other challenges.”[17] Obama wants to save the planet. But given capitalism, his “number one concern” has to be growing the economy, growing jobs. Given capitalism, today, tomorrow, next year and every year, economic growth will always be the overriding priority – until we barrel right off the cliff to collapse.

The Necessity of Denial and Delusion

There’s no technical solution to this problem and no market solution either. In a very few cases – electricity generation is the main one – a broad shift to renewables could indeed sharply reduce fossil-fuel emissions in that sector. But if we just use “clean” “green” energy to power more growth, consume ever more natural resources to produce more and more junk we don’t need, then we would solve nothing and still would be headed to collapse. Agriculture is another sector in which reliance on fossil fuels could be sharply reduced – by abandoning synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and switching to organic farming. And there’s no downside there – just the resistance of the agribusiness industrial complex. But for the rest of the economy – mining, manufacturing, transportation, chemicals, most services (including construction, tourism, advertising, etc.), there are no such easy substitutes. Take transportation. There are no solar-powered ships or airplanes or trains on anyone’s drawing boards. Producing millions of electric cars instead of millions of gasoline-powered cars, as I explained elsewhere, would be just as ecologically destructive and polluting, if in somewhat different ways, even if they were all run on solar power.[18] Substituting biofuels for fossil fuels in transportation just creates different but no less environmentally destructive problems: Converting farmland to raise biofuel feedstock pits food production against fuels. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands to produce biofuels releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they replace and accelerates species extinction.[19] More industrial farming means more demand for water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And so on. Cap-and-trade schemes can’t cut fossil fuel emissions because, as I explained elsewhere,[20] business understands, even if some environmentalists do not, that “dematerialization” is a fantasy, that there’s no win-win tech solution, that capping emissions means cutting growth. Since cutting growth is unacceptable to business, labor and governments, cap-and-trade has been abandoned everywhere.[21] Carbon taxes can’t stop global warming either because they do not cap emissions. That’s why fossil fuel execs like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (the largest private oil company in the world) and Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy (the largest electric utility in the United States), support carbon taxes. They understand that carbon taxes would add something to the cost of doing business, like other taxes, but they pose no limit, no “cap” on growth.[22] Exxon predicts that, carbon tax or no carbon tax, by 2040 global demand for energy is going to grow by 35 percent to 65 percent in the developing world and nearly all of this is going to be supplied by fossil fuels. ExxonMobil is not looking to “leave the oil in the soil” as a favor to Bill McKibben and the humans. ExxonMobil is looking to pump it and burn it all as fast as possible to enrich its shareholders. [23]

James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Barack Obama and most of us, really, don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil-fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another – either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive and wrench down this overproduction of fossil fuels, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.

Same with Resource Depletion

We in the industrialized “consumer economies” are not just overconsuming fossil fuels. We’re overconsuming everything. From fish to forests, minerals to metals, oil to fresh water, we’re consuming the planet like there’s no tomorrow.[24] Ecological “footprint” scientists tell us that we in the industrialized nations are now consuming resources and sinks at the rate of 1.5 planets per year. That is, we’re using natural resources like fish, forests, water, farmland and so on at half-again the rate that nature can replenish them.[25] According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s people accounts for almost 60 percent of consumption expenditures and the top 20 percent accounts for more than 76 percent of global consumption, whereas the bottom 40 percent of the world’s population account for just 5 percent. Even the bottom 70 percent of the world’s population accounts for barely 15.3 percent of global consumption expenditures.[26] Needless to say, the 70 percent wants and deserves a higher material standard of living. Yet if the whole world were to achieve this by consuming like Americans, we would need something like five more planets of natural resources and sinks for all of that.[27] Think what this means.

Take the case of China. Columbia University’s Earth Policy Institute predicts that if China keeps growing by around 8 percent per year, it’s current rate, Chinese average per capita consumption will reach current US level by around 2035. But to provide the natural resources for China’s 1.3 billion-plus to consume like America’s 330 million, the Chinese, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, will consume as much oil as the entire world consumes today. They also will consume 69 percent of current world grain production, 62 percent of the current world meat production, 63 percent of current world coal consumption, 35 percent of current world steel consumption, 84 percent of current world paper consumption. (See Table 1.) Well, where on earth are the Chinese going to find the resources (not to mention sinks) to support all this consumption? China certainly doesn’t have the resources. That’s why the Chinese are buying up the planet. And that’s just China. What about the other four-fifths of humanity? What are they going to consume in 2035?

2013.11.10.Table1

Already, as resource analyst Michael Klare reviews in his latest book, The Race for What’s Left, around the world existing reserves of oil, minerals and other resources “are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future.” This is driving miners and drillers to the ends of the earth, the bottom of oceans, to the arctic. We’re running out of planet to plunder so fast that serious people like Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have partnered with film director James Cameron to make life imitate art, to explore the possibility of mining asteroids and near planets. Avatar – the perfect capitalist solution to resource exhaustion (but the Marines will be Chinese). [28]

China’s Capitalist Environmental Nightmare

As Beijing has been choking on smog this year, Deutsche Bank analysts gloomily conclude that, barring extreme reforms, Chinese coal consumption and increased car ownership will push pollution levels 70 percent higher by 2025. They say that even if China’s economy slowed to 5 percent growth per year, its annual coal consumption still would rise to 6 billion tons by 2022, from the current 3.8 billion tons. Car ownership is expected to increase over the years to 400 million in 2030 from the current 90 million. For China to meet its goal of reducing PM2.5 particulate matter to 35 micrograms of per cubic meter by 2030, the government would have to take drastic steps – shut down large numbers of coal-fired power plants, sharply reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, and shut down many other polluting industries.

2013 1110-3a

Even then, air pollution would still be above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (25 micrograms of PM2.5 particulates per cubic meter). The current national average is 75 micrograms per cubic meter. In January, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached 900 micrograms per cubic meter.[29] But here again, the problem is that ever since China turned onto the “capitalist road” and made its economy and employment ever-more dependent upon market success like the Western capitalist economies Deng Xiaoping sought to emulate, it can no more subordinate growth to the environment than can Barack Obama or ExxonMobil. Instead, China’s commie capitalists, like regular capitalists everywhere, have no choice but to put the pedal to the metal, do all they can to accelerate humanity’s collective drive to suicide.[30]

“Wild facts” and Unquestioned Assumptions

In mainstream discourse it is taken as an absolutely unquestioned given by scientists like James Hansen, environmentalists like George Monbiot, not to mention CEOs and presidents, that demand for everything must grow infinitely, that economies must grow forever. That’s why Hansen, Monbiot, James Lovelock and others tell us that, Fukishima notwithstanding, we “have to” go nuclear for energy production. In their view, the human population is headed for 9 billion to 10 billion. All these billions want to consume like Americans, so we will need more power for their washing machines, air conditioners, iPads, TVs and (electric) SUVs. We can’t burn more fossil fuels to produce this power because it will cook the planet. Renewables are great but can’t reliably meet relentlessly growing “base load” demand for electricity 24/7. Therefore, they tell us, we have no choice but to turn to nuclear power. (Besides, what could go wrong with the “newest,” “safest,” “fourth generation” reactors? What indeed?)[31]

But not one of these people stops to ask the obvious question: Where are all the resources going to come from to support insatiable consumption on a global scale? In the capitalist lexicon, there is no concept of “too much.” The word overconsumption cannot be found in Econ. 101 text books except as a temporary market aberration, soon to be erased as “perfect competition” matches supply to demand and shortages and surpluses vanish down the gullet of the consumer. The fact that we live on one small planet with finite resources and sinks is just beyond the capitalist imagination because, as Herman Daly used to say, the “wild facts” of environmental reality demolish their underlying premise of the viability of endless growth on a finite planet. So inconvenient facts must be denied, suppressed or ignored. And they are. When, on May 10,2013, climate scientists announced the latest “wild fact” that the level of heat-trapping CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had passed the long-feared milestone of 400 ppm, an event fraught with ominous consequences for us all, this was met with total silence from the world’s economic and political elites. President Obama was busy preparing his own announcement – that he was clearing the way for accelerated natural-gas exports by approving a huge new $10 billion Freeport LNG facility in Texas. Obama’s Department of Energy gave Freeport LNG the green light because it “found the prospective benefits from exporting energy outweighed concerns about possible downsides.” No surprise there. Freeport LNG chief Michael Smith wasn’t anticipating downsides or any change in Obama’s priorities. He said: “I hope this means that more facilities will get approval in due time, sooner than later. The country needs these exports for jobs, for trade and for geopolitical reasons. … “[32] That’s why, even though, at some repressed level, most Americans understand that fracking the planet is disastrous, even suicidal for their own children in the long run, yet still for the present they have to make the mortgage payments and fill the gas tank. So they have little choice but to live in denial and support fracking.[33] And so we go, down the slippery slope.

No one stops to ask “what’s it all for?” Why do we “need” all this energy? Why do we “need” all the stuff we produce with all this energy? It’s high time we start asking this question. Economists tell us that two-thirds of America’s own economy is geared to producing “consumer” goods and services. To be sure, we need food, clothing, housing, transportation, and energy to run all this. But as Vance Packard astutely observed half a century ago, most of what corporations produce today is produced not for the needs of people but for the needs of corporations to sell to people. From the ever-more obscene and pointless vanities of ruling class consumption – the Bentleys and Maseratis, the Bergdorf Goodman designer collections, the penthouses and resorts and estates and yachts and jets, to the endless waste stream of designed-in obsolescence-driven mass market fashions, cosmetics, furniture, cars, “consumer electronics,” the obese 1000 calorie Big Macs with fries, the obese and overaccesorized SUVs and “light trucks,” the obese and ever-growing McMansions for ever-smaller middle class families, the whole-house central air conditioning, flat screen TVs in every room, iThings in every hand, H&M disposable “fast fashion” too cheap to bother to clean, [34] the frivolous and astonishingly polluting jet and cruise ship vacations everywhere (even Nation magazine cruises with Naomi Klein!), and all the retail malls, office complexes, the packaging, shipping industries, the junk mail/magazine/catalog sales companies, the advertising, banking and credit card “industries” that keep this perpetual consumption machine humming along, not to mention the appalling waste of the arms industry, which is just total deliberate waste and destruction, the vast majority – I would guess at least three quarters of all the goods and services we produce today just do not need to be produced at all. It’s all just a resource-hogging, polluting waste. My parents lived passably comfortable working class lives in the 1940s and 50s without half this stuff and they weren’t living in caves. We could all live happier, better, more meaningful lives without all this junk — and we do not need ever-more energy, solar or otherwise, to produce it. We could shut down all the coal-powered electric generators around the world, most of which, especially in China, are currently dedicated to powering the production of superfluous and disposable junk we don’t need and replace them with — nothing. How’s that for a sustainable solution? Same with nuclear. Since the 1960s, Japan built 54 nuclear power plants. But these were built not so much to provide electricity for the Japanese (their population is falling) as to power Japan’s mighty manufacturing export engine producing all those disposable TVs and Gameboys and Toyotas and Hondas the world does not need and can no longer afford to consume.

Endless growth or repair, rebuild, upgrade, recycle?

So, for example, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, we don’t really need a global automobile industry. At least we don’t need an industry cranking out hundreds of millions of new cars every year, because the industry is built on the principle of designed-in obsolescence, on insatiable repetitive consumption, on advertising and “cash for clunkers” programs to push you to crush your perfectly good present car for a “new,” “improved,” “bigger,” “more luxurious” model that is, in reality, trivially different, sometimes even inferior to the one you just junked. What we need is a different approach to transportation. To build a sustainable transportation system, we would have to divert most resources from auto production to public transportation, trains, buses and bicycling. But, of course, bikes and public transport aren’t feasible everywhere and for every task, particularly for those who live in the suburbs or the country or in the mostly rural developing world. So we would still need some cars and trucks – but many fewer if we “degrow” the economy to produce just what we need instead of for profit. As the VW ads below point out, properly designed and engineered cars can be sturdy but simple, economical to drive, easily serviceable and repairable (even DIY), perpetually rebuildable and upgradable as needed. I’m not suggesting an ecosocialist society should produce this particular “peoples’ car.” We need something with modern safety features. But to the extent that we would need cars in a sustainable society, we could save immense resources and GHG emissions by producing massively fewer cars and keep them running for decades, if not practically forever. Reducing global car production to something like, say 10 percent of current production – and sharing those – would not only save vast resources and eliminate massive pollution but also free up labor and resources for other uses. Let us shorten the working day – and take longer vacations.

The same goes for all kinds of industries.

Apple easily could build you iPhones and iMacs, in classic timeless designs that could last for decades, that could be upgraded easily. This would save mountains of resources, not to mention the lives of Congolese kids and Foxconn assembly workers. But how much profit is there in that? Apple could never justify such a humane and environmentally rational approach to its shareholders because shareholders (who are several stages removed from the “sourcing” process and don’t really care to know about it) are capitalists rationally looking to maximize returns on their portfolios, not to maximize the lifespan of the company’s products, let alone the lifespan of Congolese or Chinese. So to this end, you have to be convinced that your G4 phone is not good enough, that you “need” an iPhone5 because you need a phone that streams movies, that talks to you and more, and next year you will need an iPhone6. And even if you own an iPad3 you will soon “need” an iPad4, plus an iPad Mini, and how will you live without iTV? This incessant, exponentially growing demand for the latest model of disposable electronic gadgets is destroying societies and the environment from Congo to China and beyond.

IKEA easily could manufacture beautifully designed, high-quality, sturdy and durable furniture that could last a lifetime, that could be handed down to your children or passed on friends or antique shops for others. That would save a Siberia’s worth of trees, lakes of toxic dyes and finishes, and vast quantities of other resources. But why would it do that? IKEA is not in business to make furniture or save the planet. IKEA is in the business to make money. As Ingvar Kamprad, founder and CEO of IKEA (and Nazi symp), long ago discovered, the way to maximize profits (besides employing semi-slave forced prison labor in Stalinist regimes and moving his “Swedish” company from high-tax Sweden to low-tax Holland and Switzerland)[35] is to relentlessly cheapen production by, among other tactics, building flat-pack disposable particle-board furniture in accordance with the Iron Law of Marketing to sell “the cheapest construction for the briefest interval the buying public will tolerate” so IKEA can chop down more Siberian birch trees and sell you the same shoddy $59 bookcase all over again that will last you as long as the first one did – perhaps a bit longer this time if you don’t actually load many books of those flimsy shelves. As an IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, tells us: “an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn’t have any feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time.” The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They’re disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out.[36] This is how IKEA got to be the third-largest consumer of wood in the world, most of it from East Europe and the Russian Siberia, where, according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal even by the Russian kleptocracy’s standards of legality. IKEA’s wholly owned Swedish subsidiary Swedwood has even been condemned by Russian nature conservancy organizations and the Global Forest Coalition for clear-cutting 1,400 acres a year of 200- to 600-year-old forest near the Finnish border, a process that “is having deep ramifications on invaluable forest ecosystems.”[37] This is how IKEA’s business plan based on endless “repetitive consumption” is wiping out life on Earth. Here again, the capitalist freedom to make such junk wouldn’t matter – if it weren’t costing the Earth.[38]

Given capitalism, there’s no way to “incentivize” GM to stop producing new cars every year, IKEA to stop making its disposable furniture, Apple to stop pushing you to lose your iPhone 4 and buy a 5. That’s what they’re invested in. Companies can’t change, or change much, because it’s too costly, too risky, shareholders won’t allow it. And given capitalism, most workers, most of the time, have no choice but to support all this suicidal overconsumption because if we all stop shopping to save the planet today, we’d all be out of work tomorrow. Ask your nearest 6-year-old what’s wrong with this picture.

Capitalism and Délastage in the Richest Country of Poor People in the World

Yet even as corporations are plundering the planet to overproduce stuff we don’t need, huge social, economic and ecological needs – housing, schools, infrastructure, health care, environmental remediation – go unmet, even in the industrialized world, while most of Third World lacks even basic sanitation, clean water, schools, health care, ecological restoration, not to mention jobs.[39] After 300 years of capitalist “development” the gap between rich and poor has never been wider: Today, almost half the world, more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day, 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. This while the world’s richest 1% own 40 percent of the world’s wealth. The richest 10 percent own 85 percent of total global assets, and half the world barely owns 1 percent of global wealth. And these gaps have only widened over time.[40] Tell me again where Karl Marx was wrong? In Congo is one of the lushest, most fertile countries on the planet, with untold natural wealth in minerals, lumber, tropical crops and more. Yet its resources are plundered every day to support gross overconsumption in the north while poverty, hunger and malnutrition are so widespread that Congo is now listed dead last on the 2011 Global Hunger Index, a measure of malnutrition and child nutrition compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute. While European and American corporations loot its copper and cobalt and coltran for iPhones and such, half the population eats only once a day and a quarter less than that. Things have reached such a state that in places like the capital Kinshasha parents can afford to feed their children only every other day. Congolese call it “délastage” – an ironic takeoff on the rolling electrical blackouts that routinely hit first one neighborhood then the next. In this context it means “Today we eat! Tomorrow we don’t.”

“On some days,” one citoyen told a New York Times reporter, “some children eat, others do not. On other days, all the children eat, and the adults do not. Or vice versa.” [41] This, in the 21st century, in one of the resource-richest countries on Earth, and brought to them by an economic system that capitalist economists never tire of telling us is “the best system humanity can come up with.”

Contraction or Collapse

If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet, then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption? This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy” – shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful and polluting industries from junk food to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion,” bring back mending, alterations and local tailors and shoe repairmen. We would have to completely redesign production of appliances, electronics, housewares, furniture and so on to be as durable and long-lived as possible. Bring back appliance repairmen and such. We would have to abolish the throwaway disposables industries, the packaging and plastic bag industrial complex, bring back refillable bottles and the like. We would have to design and build housing to last for centuries, to be as energy-efficient as possible, to be reconfigurable and shareable. We would have to vastly expand public transportation to curb vehicle use but also build those we do need to last and be shareable like Zipcar or Paris’ municipally owned “Autolib” shared electric cars. These are the sorts of things we would have to do to if we really want to stop overconsumption and save the world. All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet.

3. IF CAPITALISM CAN’T HELP BUT DESTROY THE WORLD, THEN WHAT ALTERNATIVE IS THERE BUT TO NATIONALIZE AND SOCIALIZE MOST OF THE ECONOMY AND PLAN IT DIRECTLY, EVEN PLAN MOST OF THE GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY?

With 7 billion humans crowded on one small planet running out of resources, with cities disappearing under vast clouds of pollution, with the glaciers and ice caps melting and species going extinct by the hour, we desperately need a PLAN to avert ecological collapse. We need a comprehensive global plan, a number of national or regional plans, and a multitude of local plans – and we need to coordinate them all. When climate scientists call on governments to cut CO2 emissions to stay within a global “carbon budget” if we want to keep a livable planet, isn’t that, in effect, calling for “planning,” indeed, planning on a global scale? When governments pump money into research projects like nuclear power or biotech or the Internet or clean energy projects, isn’t that planning? When scientists say that we need to massively reduce and limit consumption of oil, coal, trees, fish, all kinds of scarce resources or stop dumping chemicals in the world’s oceans – isn’t that, in effect, physical planning and rationing? And don’t we want that? Indeed, because we all breathe the same air, live in the same biosphere, don’t we really want and need something like a “one-world government” at least on environmental issues? How else can we regulate humanity’s collective impact on the global biosphere? How else can we reorganize and reprioritize the economy in the common interest and environmental rationality except in a mostly planned and mostly publicly owned economy?

What Would We Have To Do To Save the Humans?

If we want a sustainable economy, one that “meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” then we would have to do at least some or all of the following:

  1. Put the brakes on out-of-control growth in the global North – retrench or shut down unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful, polluting industries like fossil fuels, autos, aircraft and airlines, shipping, chemicals, bottled water, processed foods, unnecessary pharmaceuticals and so on. Abolish luxury-goods production, the fashions, jewelry, handbags, mansions, Bentleys, yachts, private jets etc. Abolish the manufacture of disposable, throw-away and “repetitive consumption” products. All these consume resources we’re running out of, resources that other people on the planet desperately need and that our children and theirs will need.

  2. Discontinue harmful industrial processes like industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, logging, mining and so on.

  3. Close many services – the banking industry, Wall Street, the credit card, retail, PR and advertising “industries” built to underwrite and promote all this overconsumption. I’m sure most of the people working in these so-called industries would rather be doing something else, something useful, creative and interesting and personally rewarding with their lives. They deserve that chance.

  4. Abolish the military-surveillance-police state industrial complex, and all its manufactures because this is just a total waste whose only purpose is global domination, terrorism and destruction abroad and repression at home. We can’t build decent societies anywhere when so much of social surplus is squandered on such waste.

  5. Reorganize, restructure, reprioritize production and build the products we do need to be as durable and shareable as possible.

  6. Steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.

  7. Deglobalize trade to produce what can be produced locally; trade what can’t be produced locally, to reduce transportation pollution and revive local producers.

  8. Equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on.

  9. Devise a rational approach to eliminate or control waste and toxins as much as possible.

  10. Provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries, not just the unemployment line, not just because workers cannot support the industry we and they need to save ourselves.

 “Necessary,” “Unnecessary” and Who’s the “Decider”?

Now we might all agree that we have to cut “overconsumption” to save the humans. But who’s to say what’s “necessary” and “unnecessary?” How do we decide what to cut? And who’s to decide? Under capitalism goods and services are rationed by the market. But that’s not sustainable because the market can’t restrain consumption, the market can only accelerate consumption. So we need a non-market approach. I don’t claim to have all the answers. This is a big question and I’m sure there are others better qualified than me to figure out solutions. But I would think the short answer has to be a combination of planning, rationing and democracy. I don’t see why that’s so hard. The US government planned significant parts of the US economy during World War II and rationed many goods and services. And we managed just fine. Actually, far form suffering unduly, Americans took pride in conservation and sharing. Besides, what’s the alternative? What other choice do we have? There are only so many ways to organize a modern industrial economy.

The challenges of physically planning the world economy in the interests of the 99% instead of for the 1% – reorganizing and reprioritizing the world economy to provide every person sufficient, nutritious, safe and delicious food, providing every human with high-quality, pleasurable, and aesthetically appealing housing, consolidating our cities to maximize the feasibility of public transportation, building great schools to enable every student to reach her or his fullest potential, providing top-notch health care for everyone on the planet, reorganizing and reprioritizing work so that everyone can find constructive, enjoyable, interesting, challenging and rewarding work, work that’s rewarding in many ways beyond simple remuneration, providing fun, enlightening and inspiring entertainment, reducing the workday so people can actually have time to enjoy themselves and pursue other pleasures, while, not least, how to limit our collective human impact on the planet so as to leave space and resources to all the other wonderful life forms with which we have the pleasure of sharing this unique and amazing planet – all these are no doubt big challenges. They’re very big political challenges. But they’re not an economic challenge. This is not Soviet Russia in 1917. I’m not proposing Maoist austerity. Today, there’s more than enough wealth and productive capacity to provide every person on earth a very satisfactory material standard of living. Even more than half a century ago, Gandhi was right to say then that “there’s more than enough wealth for man’s need but never enough for some men’s greed.” I doubt that it would even be much of a technical challenge. Google’s Larry Page predicts that the virtually everyone in the world will have access to the Internet by 2020. Quantifying human needs, global resources and global agricultural and industrial capacities is, I would think, a fairly pedestrian task for today’s computers, with all their algorithms.

Planning Can’t Work? 

Right-wing economists like Milton Friedman denied the very possibility of planning any economy, equating all planning with Stalinism. I don’t buy that. The question is this: Planning by whom, for whom? Stalinist central planning was planning from the top down, by and for a totalitarian bureaucracy. It completely shut out workers and the rest of society from the planning process. So it’s hardly surprising that planning didn’t work so well in the Soviet Union. But I don’t see what that tells us about the potentials of planning from the bottom up, of democratic planning. Besides, capitalists indirectly plan the national and global economies all the time. They meet every year at Davos to shape the world market for their benefit. They conspire to privatize medicine, schools, public transportation, force us to buy “their” water or eat GMO foods. They use the IMF and World Bank to shackle countries with debt then open them up to U.S. corporate takeover. They’ve been using their states for centuries to expropriate peasants and tribes, even to exterminate them when necessary as in the Americas, to steal and privatize common lands, break up pre-capitalist societies, reorganize, replan whole continents to set up the right “business climate” for capital accumulation. Late developers like Japan and South Korea used their state-backed MITIs and Chaebols to hothouse their own industries, protect them and strategically plan their integration into the world market. Capitalists are very good at planning – for their own interests. So why can’t we plan the economy for our own interests?

Government “Can’t Pick Winners”?

Disengenuous capitalist apologists like the Wall Street Journal are quick to condemn any perceived government funded “failures” like the recent bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra Corporation bankrolled by the Obama administration as proof that “government can’t pick winners.” But Solyndra didn’t fail because solar is a losing technology. It failed because, ironically, capitalist Solyndra could not compete against lower-cost, state-owned, state-directed and state-subsidized competitors in China. Besides, since when do capitalists have a crystal ball? CEOs and corporate boards bet on “loser” technologies and products all the time. Look at the recent collapse of electric car startup Fisker Automotive, or Better Place, the Israeli electric vehicle charging/battery swapping stations venture.[42] These join a long list of misplaced private bets from Sony’s Betamax to Polaroid, Ford’s Edsel, Tucker Autonobilie, DeLorean Motor Company and all the way back to White Star Lines Titanic and the Tulip Mania. CEOs and boards not only pick losing technology and products, they also lose money for their shareholders and even drive perfectly successful companies into bankruptcy every day: Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Enron, WorldCom, Pan Am, SwissAir and on and on. Who knows if Facebook or Zipcar or Tesla Motors will ever make money? Government-backed Solyndra lost $500 million. But when Jamie Dimon lost $12 billion for JPMorgan, I don’t recall the Journal howling that capitalists “can’t pick winners.” When Enron collapsed I don’t recall hearing any blanket condemnation of the “inevitable incompetence” of the private sector. Hypocrisy is stock and trade of capitalists, lazy media and fact-averse capitalist economists who want to make the facts fit their simple-minded model no matter the truth. That’s why it’s entirely in character that the Wall Street Journal has never bothered to applaud government when it picked indisputable winners: when government-funded, government-directed applied research produced nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, radar, rockets, the jet engine, the transistor, the microchip, the Internet, GPS, crucial breakthroughs in biotechnology, when government scientists and government industries launched the Apollo spacecrafts that put men on the moon, when government-developed and produced ballistic missiles terrorized the Soviets and government-designed and operated bombers bombed the Reds in Korea and Vietnam to “contain Communism” and secure American dominance of the Free World for corporate subscribers of the Wall Street Journal to exploit – where then was the cri de coeur that “government can’t pick winners”? And what about those government-run drones? Anti-government bigmouth Rand Paul filibustered for a whole day against the threat of swarms of government drones over American cities but I didn’t hear him complain that government drones don’t work. That wasn’t his problem. And when, after an eight-year, mind-bogglingly difficult, complex and risky 150 million-mile journey, NASA’s government-built Curiosity spaceship landed a (government-built) state-of-the art science lab the size of a Mini Cooper within a mile and a half of its target on the surface of Mars – then it immediately set off to explore its new neighborhood – even the Ayn Rand-loving government-hating Republicans in Congress were awed into silence. As David Sirota’s headline in Salon.com read on August 13, 2012, just after Curiosity set down on the red planet: “Lesson from Mars: Government works!” And right now, as I’m writing this in April 2013, most of a year later, that government-run Mars explorer is happily roving around drilling core samples to find out if there is now, or used to be, water and possibly even life on Mars. All this while, back home, Shell Oil’s private capitalist-run arctic drilling platform ran aground in an arctic storm and is now being towed away to Asia for repairs while Shell Oil’s shareholders are having second thoughts about their CEO’s wisdom in “picking winners” by squandering $5 billion on this fools errand of drilling for oil under Artic ice.[43]

One Planet, One People, One Economy for the Common Good

For better or worse we are well into what scientists call the “Anthropocene.” Nature doesn’t run Earth anymore. We do. So if we are, after all, just “one people on one planet,” it’s time we begin to make conscious and collective decisions about how our economic activity affects the natural world – and I don’t mean “geoengineering” the planet by wrapping glaciers in tinfoil to slow their melting while capitalism goes right on cooking and pillaging the planet. Since the rise of capitalism 300 years ago, more and more of the world has come to be run on the principle of market anarchy, on Adam Smith’s maxim that every individual should just maximize his own interest – “look out for No. 1” – and the “public interest,” the “common good” would take care of itself. Well, that hasn’t worked out so well. It was always a dumb theory, but it’s worked OK for the 1% who could mostly manage without the commons. For the rest of us, the more capitalism, the more the common good gets trashed. And now globalized market anarchy is destroying not just humanity and society but even life on Earth.[44] The problem with Smith’s theory is that the aggregate of private interests don’t add up to the public interest. The problems we face with respect to the planetary environment and ecology can’t be solved by individual choice in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society, the environment, other species and future generations. This requires local, national and global economic planning to reorganize the world economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. And it requires an economy of guaranteed full employment because if we would have to shut down ExxonMobil and GM and Monsanto[45] and Walmart and so on to save the world, then we have to provide equal or better jobs for all those laid-off workers because otherwise they won’t support what we all need to do to save ourselves.

Ecosocialism and the Salvation of Small Businesses

This does not at all mean that we would have to nationalize local restaurants, family farms, farmers markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, repair shops, workers co-ops and the like. Small-scale self-managed producers based on simple reproduction are not destroying the world. Large-scale capitalist investor-owned corporations based on insatiable accumulation are destroying the world. So they would have to be nationalized, many closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But an ecosocialist society would rescue and promote small-scale, local, self-managed businesses because we would need them. Indeed, we would want many more of them whereas, today, capitalism is driving them out of business everywhere.

4. RATIONAL PLANNING REQUIRES DEMOCRACY: VOTING THE BIG QUESTIONS

Solar or coal? Frack the planet, or work our way off fossil fuels? Drench the world’s farms in toxic pesticides or return to organic agriculture. Public transportation or private cars as the mainstay? Let’s put the big questions up for a vote. Shouldn’t everyone have a say in decisions that affect them all? Isn’t that the essential idea of democracy? The problem with capitalism is that the economy isn’t up for a vote. But it needs to be. Again, in Adam Smith’s day it mattered less, at least for the environment, because private decisions had so little impact on the planet. But today, huge decisions that affect all of us, other species, and even the fate of life on Earth are all still private decisions, made by corporate boards on behalf of self-interested investors. Polls show that 57 percent of Chinese feel that protecting the environment should be given priority, even at the expense of economic growth, and only 21 percent prioritize the economy over the environment.[46] But, obviously, the Chinese don’t get to vote on that or anything else. Polls show Americans opposed to GMO foods outnumber supporters nearly two to one and 82 percent of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods.[47] But Americans don’t get to vote on whether we get GMOs in our food or get told about it. Well, why not? Corporate boards vote to put GMOs and all kinds of toxic chemicals in our food. We’re the ones who consume this stuff. We can’t avoid GMOs simply by refusing to purchase them – the “market solution” – because they’re everywhere. They’re in 80 percent of the foods we consume, and Monsanto and the rest of the GMO-industrial complex bribe politicians and regulators with campaign contributions and lucrative revolving-door jobs to make sure you don’t know what foods to avoid.[48] Well, why should we accept this? Why shouldn’t we have a say in these decisions? We don’t have to be experts; corporate boards aren’t composed of experts. They’re mainly made up of major investors. They discuss and vote on what they want to do, then hire experts to figure out how to implement their decisions. Why can’t we do that – for humanity’s interests?

Every Cook Can Govern

From Tunisa to Tahir Square; Zuccotti Park to Gezi Park; Madison, Wisconsin, to Kunming Yunnan, Songjian Shanghai, Shifang Sichuan, Guangzhou and thousands of sites and cities and towns all over China, ordinary citizens demonstrate remarkably rational environmental sense against the profit-driven environmental irrationality and irresponsibility of their rulers.[49] In Turkey, “Sultan” Erdogon’s decree to tear up Istanbul’s last major park to replace it with an Ottoman-style shopping mall provoked mass outrage. Protesters complained, as one put it: “When were we asked what we wanted? We have three times as many mosques as we do schools. Yet they are building new mosques. There are eight shopping malls in the vicinity of Taksim, yet they want to build another. … Where are the opera houses? The theaters? The culture and youth centers? What about those? They only choose what will bring them the most profit without considering what we need.”[50] When, in a bid to mollify the protesters, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) floated the excellent idea of a public referendum on the issue saying, “We might put it to a referendum. … In democracies only the will of the people counts,” Erdogon considered this option for a moment. But when protesters doubted his sincerity, he proved them right by calling in his riot squads to crush the protests instead.[51] In Brazil, on the heels of the Turkish protests, mass protests erupted over announced bus fare hikes but soon morphed into more sweeping social protest as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians turned out in cities across the country to denounce the irresponsible waste of public funds on extravagant soccer stadiums in the run-up to the World Cup in 2014, when schools, public transportation, hospitals, health care and other public services are neglected: “People are going hungry, and the government builds stadiums,” said Eleuntina Scuilgaro, a pensioner. “I love soccer, but we need schools,” said Evaldir Cardoso, a firemen at a protest with his 7-month-old son. “These protests are in favor of common sense, argued protester Roberta da Matta. “We pay an absurd amount of taxes in Brazil, and now more people are questioning what they are getting in return.”[52]

If corporations and capitalist governments can’t align production with the common good and ecological rationality, what other choice is there but for society to collectively and democratically organize, plan and manage most production themselves? To do this we would have to establish democratic institutions to plan and manage our social economy. We would have to set up planning boards at local, regional, national/continental and international levels. Those would have to include not just workers, the direct producers, but entire communities, consumers, farmers, peasants, everyone. We have models: the Paris Commune, Russian soviets, Brazil’s participatory planning, La Via Campesina and others. Direct democracy at the base, delegated authority with right of recall for higher-level planning boards. What’s so difficult about that? [53]

As Greg Palast, Jarrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor described in Democracy and Regulation: How the Public Can Govern Essential Services (2003), it is a curious and ironic fact that the United States, foremost protagonist of the free market, possesses a large and indispensable sector of the economy that is not governed by the free market but instead, democratically, by public oversight – and that is utilities: the provision of electricity, heating fuel, water and sewerage, and local telephone service. Not only that but these are the most efficient and cheapest utility systems in the world. The authors note that British residents pay 44 percent more for electricity than do American consumers, 85 percent more for local telephone service and 26 percent more for natural gas. Europeans pay even more, Latin Americans more than Europeans. They write that “Americans pay astonishingly little for high-quality public services, yet low charges do not suppress wages: American utility workers are the nation’s industrial elite, with a higher concentration of union membership than in any other private industry.” Palast, Oppenheim and MacGregor attribute this to the fact that, unlike Britain and most of the rest of the world, utilities are not unregulated free-market corporations like ExxonMobil or Monsanto or Rio Light or British Water. Instead, they are tightly regulated industries, mostly privately owned, but many publicly owned by local municipalities. Yet even when utilities are privately owned like Con Edison in New York or Green Mountain Power in Vermont or Florida Power and Light (to take some East Coast examples), it’s really hard to call this “capitalism.” It’s more like state capitalism, even quasi-socialism. Either way, public- or investor-owned, they are highly regulated, subject to public oversight, involvement and control:

Unique in the world (with the exception of Canada), every aspect of US regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly, to ask questions of government and utilities, to read all financial and operating records in detail. In public forums, with all information open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extra-ordinary exercise in democracy – and it works. … Another little-known fact is that, despite the recent experiments with markets in electricity [the authors published this book in 2003, just three years after the Enron privatization debacle], the US holds to the strictest, most elaborate and detailed system of regulation anywhere: Private utilities’ profits are capped, investments directed or vetoed by public agencies. Privately owned utilities are directed to reduce prices for the poor, fund environmentally friendly physical and financial inspection. … Americans, while strongly attached to private property and ownership, demand stern and exacting government control over vital utility services.[54]

The authors are careful to note that this is “no regulatory Garden of Eden.” It has many failings: regulation is constantly under attack by promoters of market pricing, the public interest and the profit motive of investor-owned utilities often conflict with negative consequences for the public, and so on. [55] But even so, this long-established and indisputably successful example of democratic public regulation of large-scale industries offers us a real-world practical example of something like a “proto-socialism.” I see no obvious reason something like this model of democracy and transparency could not be extended, expanded, fully socialized and replicated to encompass the entire large-scale industrial economy. Of course, as I argued above, to save the humans, we would have to do much more than just “regulate” industries. We would have to completely reorganize and reprioritize the whole economy, indeed the whole global industrial economy. This means not just regulating but retrenching and closing down resource-consuming and polluting industries, shifting resources out of them, starting up new industries and so on. Those are huge tasks, beyond the scope of even the biggest corporations, even many governments. So who else could do this but self-organized masses of citizens, the whole society acting in concert, democratically? Obviously, many issues can be decided at local levels. Others like closing down the coal industry or repurposing the auto industry, require large-scale planning at national if not international levels. Some, like global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, would require extensive international coordination, virtually global planning. I don’t see why that’s not doable. We have the UN Climate Convention, which meets annually and is charged with regulating GHG emissions. It fails to do so only because it lacks enforcement powers. We need to give it enforcement powers.

5. DEMOCRACY CAN WORK ONLY IN CONTEXT OF ROUGH SOCIO-ECONOMIC EQUALITY AND SOCIAL GUARANTEES.

When in the midst of the Great Depression, the great “people’s jurist” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can’t have both.” He was more right than he knew. Today we have by far the greatest concentration of wealth in history. So it’s hardly surprising that we have the weakest and most corrupt democracies since the Gilded Age. If we want democracy, we would have to abolish “the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few.” That means abolishing not just private property in the means of production, but also extremes of income, exorbitant salaries, great property, and inheritance. Because the only way to prevent corruption of democracy is to make it impossible to materially gain by doing so – by creating a society with neither rich nor poor, a society of basic economic equality.

Does that mean we would all have to dress in blue Mao suits and dine in communal mess halls? Hardly. Lots of studies (Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level, the UK’s New Economics Foundation studies, and others) have shown that people are happier, there’s less crime and violence and fewer mental health problems in societies where income differences are small and where concentrated wealth is limited. We don’t have five planets to provide the resources for the whole world to live the “American Dream” of endless consumerism. But we have more than enough wealth to provide every human being on the planet with a basic income, with a good job at pay sufficient to lead a dignified life, with safe water and sanitation, quality food, housing, education and health care, with public transportation – all the authentic necessities we really need. These should all be guaranteed as a matter of right, as indeed most of these already were declared as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary or harmful commodities – the three-quarters of current US production that’s a waste – would free us to shorten the work day, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize our fullest human potential instead of wasting our lives in mindless drudgery and shopping. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.[56]

6. THIS IS CRAZY, UTOPIAN, IMPOSSIBLE, NEVER HAPPEN

Perhaps. But what’s the alternative? The specter of planetwide ecological collapse and the collapse of civilization into some kind of Blade Runner dystopia is not as hypothetical as it once seemed. Ask the Chinese. China’s “capitalist miracle” already has driven that country off the cliff into headlong ecological collapse that threatens to take the whole planet down with it. With virtually all its rivers and lakes polluted and many depleted, with 70 percent of its croplands contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins, with undrinkable water, inedible food, unbreathable air that kills more than a million Chinese a year, with “cancer villages” metastasizing over the rural landscape and cancer the leading cause of death in Beijing,[57] China’s rulers face hundreds of mass protests, often violent, around the country every day, more than 100,000 protest a year. And even with all their police-state instruments of repression, they know they can’t keep the lid on forever (indeed, hundreds of thousands of Communist Party kleptocrats can see the writing on the wall through the smog and are moving their families, their money and themselves out of the country before it’s too late). Today the Chinese and we need a socialist revolution not just to abolish exploitation and alienation but to derail the capitalist train wreck of ecological collapse before it takes us all over the edge. As China itself demonstrates, revolutions come and go. Economic systems come and go. Capitalism has had a 300-year run. The question is, will humanity stand by let the world be destroyed to save the profit system?

The Specter of Eco-Democratic Revolution

That outcome depends to a great extent on whether we, on the left, can answer that question – “What’s your alternative?” – with a compelling and plausible vision of an eco-socialist civilization – and figure out how to get there. We have our work cut out for us. But what gives the growing global eco-socialist movement an edge in this ideological struggle is that capitalism has no solution to the ecological crisis, no way to put the brakes on collapse, because its only answer to every problem is more of the same growth that’s killing us. “History” was supposed to have “ended” with the fall of communism and the triumph of capitalism two decades ago. Yet today, history is very much alive. And it is, ironically, capitalism itself that is being challenged more broadly than ever and found wanting for solutions. Today, we are very much living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history, indeed it is no exaggeration to say that this is the most critical moment in human history. We may be fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, but the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, against pollution, against overdevelopment, against the siting of chemical plants and power plants, against predatory resource extraction, against the imposition of GMOs, against privatization of remaining common lands, water and public services, against capitalist unemployment and precarité are growing and building momentum. Today we’re riding a swelling wave of near-simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” almost global mass uprising. This global insurrection is still in its infancy, still unsure of its future, but its radical democratic instincts are, I believe, humanity’s last best hope. Let’s make history!

The original version of this story appeared in the Real World Economics Review.


[1] Tom Bawden, “Carbon dioxide in atmosphere at highest level for 5 million years,” The Independent, May 10, 2013 .

[2] Justin Gillis, “Heat-trapping gas passes milestone, raising fears,” The New York Times, May 10, 2013. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps News, April 23, 2013 .

[3] Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left (New York: Picador 2012), p. 24 Table 1.1. Jeffrey Sachs calculates that in value terms, between 1950 and 2008 the global human population rose from 2.5 billion to 7 billion, so less than tripled, while global GDP multiplied eight times. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 19.

[4] On Shell’s impact on Africa, see Nimo Bassey, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press 2012).

[5] Delly Mawazo Sesete of Change.org, writing in The Guardian newspaper says, “I am originally from the North Kivu province in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a deadly conflict has been raging for over 15 years. While that conflict began as a war over ethnic tension, land rights and politics, it has increasingly turned to being a war of profit, with various armed groups fighting one another for control of strategic mineral reserves. Near the area where I grew up, there are mines with vast amounts of tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold – minerals that make most consumer electronics in the world function. These minerals are part of your daily life. They keep your computer running so you can surf the Internet. They save your high score on your Playstation. They make your cellphone vibrate when someone calls you. While minerals from the Congo have enriched your life, they have often brought violence, rape and instability to my home country. That’s because those armed groups fighting for control of these mineral resources use murder, extortion and mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, which helps them secure control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas. Living in the Congo, I saw many of these atrocities firsthand. I documented the child slaves who are forced to work in the mines in dangerous conditions. I witnessed the deadly chemicals dumped into the local environment. I saw the use of rape as a weapon. And despite receiving multiple death threats for my work, I’ve continued to call for peace, development and dignity in Congo’s minerals trade.” “Apple: time to make a conflict-free iPhone,” The Guardian, December 30, 2011. For more detail see conflictminerals.org. See also: Peter Eichstaedt, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2011).

[6] Lauren McCauley, “Herbicides for GMOs driving monarch butterfly populations to ‘ominous’ brink,” Common Dreams, March 14, 2013.

[7] James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury 2009), pp. 70, 172-173,

[8] John M. Broder, “Obama readying emissions limits on power plants,” The New York Times, June 20, 2013.

[9] Center for Biological Diversity, “New mileage standards out of step with worsening climate crisis,” press release, August 28, 2012. Also, Common Dreams staff, “New mileage standards encourage more gas-guzzling, not less: report,” Common Dreams, August 28, 2012.

[10] A full-size 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air weighed 3,100 pounds. A ’55 Ford F-100 pickup truck also weighed 3,100 (3,300 with the optional V-8 motor). Even a 1955 Cadillac El Dorado, icon of 1950s conspicuous consumption, weighed only 5,050 pounds – chrome bullets, tailfins and all. By comparison, today even a compact Toyota Prius weighs 3,274 pounds (could it be the batteries?) while your typical full-size Ford Taurus weighs more than 4,300 pounds, pickup trucks and big SUVs start at around 6,000 pounds and go up from there to 7,000 to 8,000 pounds. Even though the occasional honest driver will concede he or she doesn’t really “need” all this bulk and horsepower to load up at the mall, as a cheerful Texas Ford salesman noted, “We haven’t found a ceiling to this luxury truck market.” Joseph B. White, “Luxury pickups stray off the ranch,” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.

[11] Your typical 4,428-pound 1955 Cadillac Coupe DeVille got 12.9 mpg in city driving, according to Motor Trend magazine, whereas your typical 5,963-pound 2013 Cadillac Escalade gets 10 mpg in the city (12 mpg “combined” city and highway). Your typical 2013 Chevrolet Silverado K15 truck gets just 9 mpg hauling those heavy bags of groceries home from the mall. This is after six decades of Detroit fuel economy “improvements” – and Obama says Detroit is going to “double its fleet mileage in 20 years.” Good luck on that. Mileage figures for the Cadillac are from Cadillac History 1955. For the Silverado at www.fuel economy.gov.

[12] For forecasts of China’s vehicle fleet and its implications see Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon (New York: St. Martins Press, 2013), p. 200.

[13] “A new paradigm for climate change,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2 September 2012, pp. 639-640 (my italics).

[14] IEA, World Energy Outlook 2012 Executive Summary (November 12, 2012), p. 3 .

[15] For a recent summary of the peer-reviewed literature see Glenn Scherer and DailyClimate.org, “Climate science predictions prove too conservative,” Scientific American December 6, 2012 . Prominent ex-denier Richard A. Muller published his mea culpa on the op-ed page of The New York Times: “The conversion of a climate-change skeptic,” July 28, 2012.

[16] World Resources Institute, WRI Navigating the Numbers, Table 1. pp. 4-5 .

[18] See my “Green capitalism,” op cit. pp. 131-133.

[19] Eg. David Biello, “The false promise of biofuels,” Scientific American, August 2011, pp. 59-65.

[20] Smith, “Green capitalism,” op cit. pp. 117-122.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] ExxonMobil, The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 (December 2012) . See also, Jon Queally, “BP’s Big Plan: Burn it. Burn it all,” Common Dreams, January 17, 2013.

[24] Eg. John Parnell, “World on course to run out of water, warns Ban Ki-moon,” The Guardian, May 22, 22013. Gaia Vince, “How the world’s oceans could be running out of fish,” BBC News Online, September 12, 2012 . And as tropical forests, biodiversity is being sacrificed even in nominally protected areas at an alarming rate. See William F. Laurance et al. “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas,” Nature, no. 489 September 12, 2012 pp.  290-294. “Widespread local ‘extinctions’ in tropical forest ‘remnants’ ” Also, ScienceDaily, August 14, 2012 .  On minerals and oil, see Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left (New York: Picador 2012).

[25] Ecological “footprint” studies show that today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we have only one. Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources puts us in global ecological “overshoot” depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend. See the Global Footprint Network.

[26] World Bank, 2008 World Development Indicators, p. 4 Table 1J .

[27] Worldwatch Institute, 2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures From Consumerism to Sustainability (New York: Norton, 2010) pp. 3-7ff. Also Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? (New York: Norton 1992). Avatar.

[28] Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left, p. 12. AP, “Tech tycoons in asteroid mining venture,” The Guardian, April 20, 2012.

[29]China’s environmental nightmare,” China Digital Times, March 12, 2012 . Lily Kuo, “China’s nightmare scenario: by 2025 air quality could be much much worse,” posted March 12, 2013 on Quartz.

[30] See eg. Sam Wade, ” ‘Growth first’ mentality undermines war on pollution,” China Digital Times, June 5, 2013 .

[31] Hansen, Storms, chapter 9. Independent Voices: “James Lovelock: Nuclear power is the only green solution,” Independent, May 24, 2004 . George Monbiot, The Guardian columnist, has argued this in many venues but see, in particular, his blog piece: “The moral case for nuclear power,” August 8, 2011 . Also, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Going green? Then go nuclear,” Wall Street Journal op-ed, May 23, 2013.

[32] Keith Johnson and Ben Lefebvre, “U.S. approves expanded gas exports,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2013.

[33] John Vogel, “Methane gas ‘fracking:’ 3 polls show public leaning to toward yes,” American Agriculturalist, April 9, 2013 . Karen DeWitt, “Poll shows increased support for fracking,” North Country Public Radio, September 13, 2012 .

[34] Clothing designer Eliza Starbuck says of ultra -cheap producers like H&M “It’s throwaway fashion or ‘trashion.’ If their prices are that cheap that people are throwing their disposable income at them – only to find that the clothes fall apart on the hangers after a wash or two – they’re just creating garbage. … It takes such a huge amount of human energy and textile fibers, dyes and chemicals to create even poor-quality clothes. They may be offering fashions at a price anyone can afford in an economic crunch, but they’re being irresponsible about what happens to the goods after the consumers purchase them.” Jasmin Malik Chua, “Is H&M’s new lower-priced clothing encouraging disposable fashion?” ecouterre, September 28, 2010 . And H&M takes “disposable” literally. As The New York Times reported in 2012, H&M’s employees systematically slash and rip perfectly good unsold clothes before tossing them in dumpsters at the back of the chain’s 34th Street store in Manhattan – to make sure they can’t be sold but thus adding pointlessly to landfills rather than donating them to charity. It is little remarked that capitalism is the first economic system in which perfectly serviceable, even brand new goods from clothes to automobiles (recall the “cash for clunkers” rebates) are deliberately destroyed so as to promote production of their replacements. I’ll explore this interesting theme further elsewhere. See Jim Dwyer, “A clothing clearance where more than just the prices are slashed,” The New York Times, January 5, 2010. Also, Ann Zimmerman and Neil Shah, “Taste for cheap clothes fed Bangladesh boom,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2013.

[35] Juan O. Tamayo, “STASI records show Cuba deal included IKEA furniture, antiques, rum and guns,” McClatchy Newspapers, May 9, 2012. James Angelos, “IKEA regrets use of East German prisoners,” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012. Kamprad’s soft spot for prison slave labor fits very well with his deep past as a Swedish Nazi recruiter and long-time sympathizer as detailed in a recent book by Elisabeth Asbrink. See “Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad’s Nazi ties ‘went deeper,’ ” BBC News online August 25, 2011 .

[36] I am quoting here from Stephanie Zacharek’s excellent “IKEA is as bad as Wal-Mart,” Salon.com, July 12, 2009: 12:11 PM. Reviewing Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High cost of Discount Culture (New York: Penguin, 2009), chapter 6.

[37] Ida Karisson, “IKEA products made from 600-year old trees,” Inter Press Service, May 29, 2012  Common Dreams.org.

[38] Eg. Fred Pearce, “Ikea – you can’t build a green reputation with a flatpack DIY manual, Guardian, April 2, 2009. Also: Greenpeace, Slaughtering the Amazon, July 2009 . Alfonso Daniels, “Battling Siberia’s devastating illegal logging trade,” BBC news online, November 27, 2009.

[39] Michael Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso 2006).

[40] World Bank Development Indicators 2008, cited in Anup Shah, Poverty and stats, Global Issues, January  7, 2013 . World Institute for Development Economics Research of the UN cited in James Randerson, “World’s richest 1% own 40% of all wealth, UN report discovers,” The Guardian, December 6, 2006. As for trends, in 1979 the richest 1% in the U.S. earned 33.1 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. In 2000 the wealthiest 1% made 88.5 percent more than the poorest 20 percent. In the Third World, polarization has grown even worse, especially in China which in 1978 had the world’s most equal incomes while today, it has the most unequal incomes of any large society. Who says capitalism doesn’t work?!

[41] Adam Nossiter, “For Congo children, food today means none tomorrow,” The New York Times, January 3, 2012.

[42] Isabel Kershner, “Israeli venture meant to serve electric cars ending its run,” The New York Times, May 27, 2013. Ronald D. White, “One owner, low miles, will finance: sellers try to unload Fiskers,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2013. Rachel Feintzeig, “Electric-car maker Coda files for bankruptcy,” Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2013.

[43] Kenneth Chang, “Mars could have supported life long ago, NASA says,” The New York Times, March 12, 2013. And Shell Oil isn’t the only company having second thoughts about what its brilliant CEO thought was a sure thing: Clifford Krauss, “ConocoPhilips suspends its Arctic drilling plans,” The New York Times, April 11, 2013.

[44] Citing a recent study by an international team of researchers in Nature Climate Change in May 2013, the BBC reports that if “rapid action” is not taken to curb greenhouse gases, some 34 percent of animals and 57 percent of plants will lose more than half of their current habitat ranges. Dr. Rachel Warren, the lead scientist of the study said that “our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides. There will also be a knock-on effect for humans because these species are important for things like water and air purification, flood control, nutrient cycling and eco-tourism.” Matt McGrath, ” ‘Dramatic decline’ warning for plants and animals,” BBC News Online, May 12, 2013 .

[45] On the existential threat Monsanto Corporation poses to humanity and the planet, see the Green Shadow Cabinet: “What must be done about Monsanto corporation, and why,” May 23, 2013 .

[46] Gallup, June 8, 2012 .

[47] Huffington Post, “GMO poll finds huge majority say foods should be labeled,” March 4, 2013 .

[48] See again, Green Shadow Cabinet, “What must be done about Monsanto, and why?” op cit.

[49] Eg. Jennifer Duggan, “Kunming pollution is the tip of rising Chinese environmental activism,” The Guardian blog post May 16, 2013.

[50] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Peaceful protest over Istanbul park turns violent as police crack down,” The New York Times, May 31, 2013.

[51]Turkish government moots referendum on Gezi Park,” Deutsche Welle, June 12, 2013 .

[52] Simon Romero, “Protests grow as Brazilians blame leaders,” The New York Times, June 19, 2013.

[53]  For further exploration of these themes see the superb piece by Michael Lowy: “Eco-socialism and democratic planning,” Socialist Register 2007 (New York: Monthly Review 2007), p. 294-309.

[54] Greg Palast, Jerrold Oppenheim, and Theo MacGregor, Democracy and Regulation: How the Public can Govern Essential Services (London: Pluto, 2003) pp. 2-4. The authors point out yet another irony of this system of public regulation, namely that it was created by private companies as the lesser evil to fend off the threat of nationalization: “Modern US utility regulation is pretty much the invention of American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) and the National Electric Light Association (NELA) – the investor-owned telephone and electric industries at the turn of the twentieth century. They saw regulation as protection against Populist and Progressive movements that, since the economic panic of 1873 and later disruptions, had galvanized anti-corporate farmer and labor organizations. By the turn of the twentieth century, these movements had galvanized considerable public support for governmental ownership of utilities. … ” p. 98.

[55] In the case of nuclear power plants, local public regulation often has been subverted and overridden by the federal government in its zealous drive to push nuclear power even against the wishes of the local public. Thus in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, social scientists Raymond Goldsteen and John Schorr interviewed residents around Three Mile Island about the history of the power plant, why it was built, what voice they had in the decision to build it and the decision to restart the plant after the accident. It turns out that, as one resident, a Mrs. Kelsey, put it, they had no choice. They were virtually forced to accept it: “They [Met Ed the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission] keep saying we need this nuclear. They keep pounding that into our heads with the news and everything. We need it. We need it. We can’t do without it.” Residents told Goldstein and Schorr that the surrounding communities petitioned against restarting the plant after the accident but lost again. Another resident, Mrs. Boswell, said, “We don’t want to be guinea pigs. … I still think that we should have a say, too, in what goes on. I really do, because we’re the victims.” Mrs. Brown: “The company just wants [to reopen the plant for] the money. … ” Mrs. Carmen: “No, they’re going to do what they want. … I don’t think [community feelings] would bother them at all.” Mrs. Hemmingway: “I feel very angry about it really, because I just feel that there is so much incompetence on the part of the utility, on the part of the NRC, on the part of the local governments. … ” Residents said that if they had been informed honestly about the risks and if they had had a choice, they would have investigated other technologies and chosen differently. Mrs. Hemingway again: “It just seems to me there are so many alternatives we could explore. … We obviously need alternate energy sources, but solar could provide heating for houses and water [and so on].” Residents said they would have preferred other choices even if it meant giving up certain conveniences: Mrs. Caspar: “I don’t really mind conserving all that much. If people can conserve gas [for cars], why can’t they conserve energy? Now I don’t mean I want to go back to the scrubboard … but I don’t dry my clothes in the dryer. I hang them … on the line … and I do try to conserve as far as that goes.” (pp. 181-183,212).  One of the most interesting results of this study, which is well worth reading in full, is that it illustrates how ordinary citizens, given the chance, would make more rational decisions about technology, safety and the environment than the “experts” at the utility, Met Ed, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s not that they were more knowledgeable about the technology than the experts but that the experts were not impartial. They were representing the industry and profits and the NRC, not the public, so they could not help but systematically make wrong decisions, decisions that in this case not only violated the public trust and but put huge numbers of lives in danger. Raymond L. Goldsteen and John K. Schorr, Demanding Democracy After Three Mile Island (Gainsville: University of Florida Press 1991).

[56] See again, Michael Lowy op. cit.

[57] Edward Wong, “Air pollution linked to 1.2 million premature deaths in China,” The New York Times. April 1, 2013. Johnathan Kaiman, “Inside China’s ‘cancer villages,’ ” The Guardian, June 4, 2012.

Richard Smith is an economic historian. He wrote his UCLA history Ph.D. thesis on the transition to capitalism in China and held post-docs at the East-West Center in Honolulu and Rutgers University. He has written on China, capitalism and the global environment and on related issues for New Left Review, Monthly Review, The Ecologist, the International Journal of Ecological Economics and Statistics, Real-World Economics Review, Adbusters magazine and other publications. He book To Save the Planet, Turn the World Upside Down will be published in 2014.

A False Choice For The Ages – Capitalism Or The Environment: On A Dying Planet You Can’t Have Both

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2013 at 11:40 am

https://theoldspeakjournal.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/698e1-cap_env.jpgOldspeak: “The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species… Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff? Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job…. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex as telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”…some so-called environmentalists look to capitalism for solutions. That’s like asking the fox to fix the hen-house. You can’t be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.” –Gary Engler

“How do we free ourselves from the ruthlessly cannibalistic drives of our hyper-violent, destructive and unsustainable economic system & choose the life of our planet, and by extension, us, over the extractive, exploitative, real cost externalizing, computer generated “profit” generating machine that is Capitalism? A fellow blogger over at Cyber Street Soap Co.  has the idea OSJ has been advocating for years- Withdraw your support for it. When they says “…freedom must be built from the inside out, starting with yourself. It cannot be done by sitting in your comfy home “truthing” about our evil rulers. It can’t even be done by standing around with a sign, after which you will probably return to your comfy home feeling all proud of yourself, then go back to your shit corporate job because you “need the money.” Sorry, but this just won’t work….As long as you keep laboring for their corporations to get some of their money, so you can continue buying their products in their fucking stores… nothing will change. Period. If you continue obeying their laws and seeking their permission, nothing will change. But if enough of us stop playing into their system, real things will happen. Not one shot needs to be fired. Not one fist needs to be raised in violence (or even protest) against our leaders. If you stop watering the plant, the plant will wither away. Simple.” -Bradely Durden. We have no choice. We simply cannot continue to support a system that is slowing and surely destroying us and our planet. Planet must trump “profit” and “growth”. We must make the environment and its continued sustainablility the center of our economic system. “we must hardwire the health of the ecosystem directly to the standard measurements of economic health so that the state of the environment is immediately visible in all economic transactions. Global finance, trade and investment must all be conducted within a system that makes the preservation of the climate, rather than profit, the highest priority. One possible approach is the introduction of a global “eco-currency.” The international community would establish an international currency, an “eco-currency,” whose value is linked directly to the state of the climate (both globally and locally) and that currency would serve either as a universal currency within which international transactions take place, or it could be a factor that significantly impacts all the global currencies.” –Emanuel Pastreich. The end of the world as we know it is the only possible outcome if we continue on this omnicidal course. There is no Capitalism on a dead planet.” -OSJ

By Gary Engler @ Dissident Voice:

If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism may be the best system ever. But if you want to save the planet from environmental catastrophe our current economic system is a dead end.

I remember in my socialist youth often being told: “Your ideas sound good but that’s just not how things work in real life.”

In my socialist sixties these same words seem appropriate as an analysis of mainstream environmentalism today.

Here is the harsh reality:

The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff?

All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period capitalism goes into a crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.

Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines are explicit about this and, in fact, go even further. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex as telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”

If we continue with capitalism, they are correct.

Yet some so-called environmentalists look to capitalism for solutions. That’s like asking the fox to fix the hen house. You can’t be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.

Now that the human population has passed seven billion, it should be obvious that we inhabit a planet of finite resources. But population growth is not the problem. Human energy remains our most precious and underutilized resource. Once basic material needs for food, clothing, housing and health care have been met, human well-being depends less on consumption than on opportunities for education, employment, social participation and social recognition.

Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human life as we know it depends.

Despite the weight of evidence and the urgency of the problem, capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.

Around the planet trillions of dollars are being spent to develop massive deposits of shale oil and gas. In Canada capitalist investment is focused on expanding oil production from tar sands. The promoters claim that these developments will create jobs. But the funds required to develop and transport that fuel will create far fewer jobs than would be produced if equivalent amounts were spent on the development of solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced with investments in domestic employment for domestic markets, in the production and distribution of local agriculture, clothing, shoes and communications products. More jobs would be created by investments in child care, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green infrastructure.

But capitalism prefers investments in fossil fuels because corporate profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be made meeting actual human needs.

So, we have some important choices to make: Support capitalism or support the environment. Build a different sort of economic system that can prosper in harmony with the environment or fiddle with capitalism as our planet burns.

Gary Engler is an elected union officer and co-author of the just released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, an updating of the original designed to provoke discussion about the future of unions and the Left. Read other articles by Gary.

Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Oldspeak: “Can you imagine the uproar, the national panic if 1 in every 78 Americans had cancer? Or was a victim of gun violence? Or if 1 in 78 Americans had AIDS? Why then is it acceptable that 1 in 78 Americans is suffering from severe and disabling mental illness? Why is it acceptable that there has been a 35 FOLD INCREASE in mental illness among children!?!!  Pathology has been normalized. Sociopathy is a key trait in the dominant institutions of our civilization (corporations) and by extension the people who work within them. 70% of Americans hate their jobs.  Lack of empathy and compassion is seen as normal.  You see it every day walking down the street; people looking upon with disdain or just plain actively ignoring the steadily growing number of homeless and mentally ill who populate our streets.  Elder abuse is institutionalized in this time where there our population is the greyest it’s ever been. Youth are increasingly disposable, with children serving as fodder for the burgeoning prison-industrial complex; pumped full of powerful toxic, illness inducing pills that no one has any idea what the long-term health effect will be. While pharmaceutical drug dealers’ profit margins explode.  Whole cities are failing while the banks & other corporations that greatly contributed to their failure are given unlimited resources. Something is terribly terribly wrong. Our society is making us crazy. Destroying our planet. How much longer well we go on without having serious discussion about restructuring our civilization in a way that healthy, beneficial and sustainable for all? ” –OSJ

By Bruce E. Levine @ AlterNet:

In “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why [3]?” (New York Review of Books, 2011), Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discusses over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, pathologizing of normal behaviors, Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, and the adverse effects of psychiatric medications. While diagnostic expansionism and Big Pharma certainly deserve a large share of the blame for this epidemic, there is another reason.

A June 2013 Gallup poll [4] revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.

While historically some Americans have consciously faked mental illness to rebel from oppressive societal demands (e.g., a young Malcolm X acted crazy to successfully avoid military service), today, the vast majority of Americans who are diagnosed and treated for mental illness are in no way proud malingerers in the fashion of Malcolm X. Many of us, sadly, are ashamed of our inefficiency and nonproductivity and desperately try to fit in. However, try as we might to pay attention, adapt, adjust, and comply with our alienating jobs, boring schools, and sterile society, our humanity gets in the way, and we become anxious, depressed and dysfunctional.

The Mental Illness Epidemic

Severe, disabling mental illness has dramatically increased in the Untied States. Marcia Angell, in her 2011 New York Review of Bookspiece, summarizes [3]: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”

Angell also reports that a large survey of adults conducted between 2001 and 2003 sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health found that at some point in their lives, 46% of Americans met the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.

In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke [5] to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”

In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [6] (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. By 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.

The CDC, on May 3, 2013, reported [7] that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010).

The New York Times [8]reported in 2007 that the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder had increased 40-fold between 1994 and 2003. In May 2013, CDC reported in “Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2005–2011 [9],” the following: “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.”

Over-Diagnosis, Pathologizing the Normal and Psychiatric Drug Adverse Effects

Even within mainstream psychiatry, few continue to argue that the increase in mental illness is due to previous under-diagnosis of mental disorders. The most common explanations for the mental illness epidemic include recent over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, diagnoses expansionism, and psychiatry’s pathologizing normal behavior.

The first DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952 and listed 106 disorders (initially called “reactions”). DSM-2 was published in 1968, and the number of disorders increased to 182. DSM-3 was published in 1980, and though homosexuality was dropped from it, diagnoses were expanded to 265, with several child disorders added that would soon become popular, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). DSM-4, published in 1994, contained 365 diagnoses.

DSM-5 was published in May, 2013. The journal PLOS Medicinereported [10] in 2012, “69% of the DSM-5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.” DSM-5 did not add as many new diagnoses [11] as had previous revisions. However, DSM-5 has been criticized even by some mainstream psychiatrists such as Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, for creating more mental patients by making it easier to qualify for a mental illness, especially for depression. (See Frances’ “Last Plea To DSM-5: Save Grief From the Drug Companies [12].”)

In the last two decades, there have been a slew of books written by journalists and mental health professionals about the lack of science behind the DSM, the over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, and the pathologizing of normal behaviors. A sample of these books includes: Paula Caplan’s They Say You’re Crazy (1995), Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk’s Making Us Crazy (1997), Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (2007), Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (2008), Stuart Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen’s Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs (2013), Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (2013), and Allen Frances’ Saving Normal (2013).

Even more remarkable than former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, Allen Frances, jumping on the DSM-trashing bandwagon has been the harsh critique [13] of DSM-5 by Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Insel recently announced that the DSM’s diagnostic categories lack validity, and that “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” And psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, former chair of the DSM-3 task force, wrote the foreword to Horwitz and Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness and is now critical [14] of DSM’s inattention to context in which the symptoms occur which, he points out, can medicalize normal experiences.

So, in just two decades, pointing out the pseudoscience of the DSM has gone from being an “extremist slur of radical anti-psychiatrists” to a mainstream proposition from the former chairs of both the DSM-3 and DSM-4 taskforces and the director of NIMH.

Yet another explanation for the epidemic may also be evolving from radical to mainstream, thanks primarily to the efforts of investigative journalist Robert Whitaker and his book Anatomy of An Epidemic [15] (2010). Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs, for many patients, cause episodic and moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones.

Examining the scientific literature that now extends over 50 years, Whitaker discovered that while some psychiatric medications for some people may be effective over the short term, these drugs increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term. Whitaker reports, “The scientific literature shows that many patients treated for a milder problem will worsen in response to a drug—say have a manic episode after taking an antidepressant—and that can lead to a new and more severe diagnosis like bipolar disorder.”

With respect to the dramatic increase of pediatric bipolar disorder, Whitaker points out that, “Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.” And then these children and teenagers are put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. (See my 2010 interview with him, “Are Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs Causing the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America [16]?”)

Whitaker’s explanation for the epidemic has now, even within mainstream psychiatric institutions, entered into the debate; for example, Whitaker was invited by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to speak at their 2013 annual convention [17] that took place last June While Whitaker concludes that psychiatry’s drug-based paradigm of care is the primary cause of the epidemic, he does not rule out the possibility that various cultural factors may also be contributing to the increase in the number of mentally ill.

Mental Illness as Rebellion Against Society

“The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians.” —Lewis Mumford, 1951

Once it was routine for many respected social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm to express concern about the impact of modern civilization on our mental health. But today the idea that the mental illness epidemic is also being caused by a peculiar rebellion against a dehumanizing society has been, for the most part, removed from the mainstream map. When a societal problem grows to become all encompassing, we often no longer even notice it.

We are today disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, often one which they will have little enthusiasm about. And increasing numbers of us are completely socially isolated, having nobody who cares about us.

Returning to that June 2013 Gallup survey, “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement [18],” only 30% of workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.” In contrast to this “actively engaged group,” 50% were “not engaged,” simply going through the motions to get a paycheck, while 20% were classified as “actively disengaged,” hating going to work and putting energy into undermining their workplace. Those with higher education levels reported more discontent with their workplace.

How engaged are we with our schooling? Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year [19]” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. As the pollsters point out, “If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.”

Life clearly sucks more than it did a generation ago when it comes to student loan debt. According to American Student Assistance’s “Student Debt Loan Statistics [20],” approximately 37 million Americans have student loan debt. The majority of borrowers still paying back their loans are in their 30s or older. Approximately two-thirds of students graduate college with some education debt. Nearly 30% of college students who take out loans drop out of school, and students who drop out of college before earning a degree struggle most with student loans. As of October 2012, the average amount of student loan debt for the Class of 2011 was $26,600, a 5% increase from 2010. Only about 37% of federal student-loan borrowers between 2004 and 2009 managed to make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent.

In addition to the pain of jobs, school, and debt, there is increasingly more pain of social isolation. A major study reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades [21],” examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives we consider close enough to trust with personal information and whom we rely on as a sounding board). Authors reported that in 1985, 10% of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. This study confirmed the continuation of trends that came to public attention in sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Underlying many of psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization—culminating in a loss of autonomy and community-connectedness. Do our societal institutions promote:

  • Enthusiasm—or passivity?
  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?

Research (that I documented in Commonsense Rebellion [22]) shows that those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled; and that ADHD-labeled children are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD.

As I discussed last year in AlterNet in “Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein? How Anti-Authoritarianism Is Deemed a Mental Health Problem [23],” there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities. Thus for many M.D.s and Ph.D.s, people who rebel against this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.

The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive.

When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

For some Americans, no doubt, the conscious goal is to get classified as mentally disabled so as to receive disability payments (averaging $700 to 1,400 per month [24]). But isn’t that too a withdrawal of cooperation with society and a rebellion of sorts, based on the judgment that this is the best paying and least miserable financial option?

Links:
[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/bruce-e-levine
[3] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/?page=1
[4] http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-employee-engagement-gallup-poll-20130617,0,5878658.story
[5] http://www.nonopp.com/ar/Psicologia/00/epidemic_depersion.htm
[6] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
[7] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm?s_cid=mm6217a1_w
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/health/04psych.html?_r=0
[9] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm?s_cid=su6202a1_w
[10] http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001190
[11] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/15-new-mental-illnesses-in-the-dsm-5-2013-05-22
[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allen-frances/saving-grief-from-dsm-5-a_b_2325108.html
[13] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml
[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Spitzer_%28psychiatrist%29
[15] http://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Epidemic-Bullets-Psychiatric-Astonishing/dp/0307452425/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354546881&sr=1-1&keywords=Anatomy+of+an+Epidemic%3A+Magic+Bullets%2C+Psychiatric+Drugs%2C+and+the+Astonishing+Rise+of+Mental+Illness+in+Ame
[16] http://www.alternet.org/story/146659/are_prozac_and_other_psychiatric_drugs_causing_the_astonishing_rise_of_mental_illness_in_america?paging=off
[17] http://www.peteearley.com/2013/07/01/nami-convention-coverage-robert-whitakers-case-against-anti-psychotics/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+peteearley+%28The+Official+Blog+of+Author+Pete+Earley%29
[18] http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/162953/tackle-employees-stagnating-engagement.aspx
[19] http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html
[20] http://www.asa.org/policy/resources/stats/
[21] http://sites.duke.edu/theatrst130s02s2011mg3/files/2011/05/McPherson-et-al-Soc-Isolation-2006.pdf
[22] http://www.amazon.com/Commonsense-Rebellion-Taking-Shrinks-Corporations/dp/0826414508/ref=pd_sim_b_2
[23] http://www.alternet.org/story/154225/would_we_have_drugged_up_einstein_how_anti-authoritarianism_is_deemed_a_mental_health_problem?paging=off
[24] http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/social-security-disability-benefits-29686.html
[25] http://www.alternet.org/tags/mental-illness
[26] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Howl Now: The Beaten Masses & Mass Disaster

In Uncategorized on August 14, 2013 at 3:47 pm
Howl Now: The Beaten Masses & Mass Disaster

Oldspeak: Ginsberg would be proud. 🙂 This brilliant riff mirrors sooo many of my thoughts. Enjoy. Hope it speaks to you as deeply as it did to me. :-)” –OSJ

Related Content:

By David DeGraw @ Daviddegraw.org:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by debt
Struggling to get by, dying to make ends meet
Shopping for an angry fix
Wage slaves burnin’ for the illusion,
a fleeting connection to the celebrity driven machinery of slow death
Assembly line souls who had no choice but to sacrifice themselves
to the false idols
of almighty mass consumerism as their only religion
Illuminated through the church of television
& every medium of ill communication
Force-fed into their head… mind raped, since birth
Overwhelmed, sound bite attention span
Over-prescribed, bi-polar ADD youth
Bred to be numb, a dumbed down mindless consumer drone
No depth of thought, untaught
As they slept walked through universities
Not realizing the cost of it will enslave them
in a never-ending vicious cycle of debt
Naive youth first time away from home, on their own
Targeted by credit cards & loans
& taxes… to pay for endless war… against themselves
Death by a thousand cuts
Nickel & dimed, every second of… all the time
A generation chained to a game not of their making
Rat racing, inner-self repressed, freedom denied
Thinking thoughts of suicide inside sanitized walls
Surrounded by electronic plasma radiating terror, cellular cancer
Diseased souls smoking & drinking & drowning in flashing light
Trying to escape their repetitive life
by popping ecstasy & snorting coke in a paradise of bass beats in the night
Filled with… emptiness
Having random meaningless sex, hoping not to get STDs
Searching… for any hint of love & life
as they go through the motions
Day after day more of the same meaningless game
Monotonous & mundane
Work, shop, TV, sleep
Work, shop, TV, sleep
Routine, repetition
Less than human
Nothing left to believe in…
Praying…
Yearning… for a last minute escape, that never comes, from this madness
Flipping… through channels & tabloids
Vicariously living through the stars
Daydream delusions of fame
While eating… genetically modified, supersized fast food & drinking diet coke
Running on a treadmill in a plastic paradise of silicone & botox
Energy bars & supplements
Downloading / streaming porn & sterile music
Hoping to meet someone, anyone, online
Instant messages from distant “friends”
Like, LOL, OMG
Fractured family, holiday acquaintances, obligations
Travel expenses, gifts, time you don’t have to give
Got to keep hustlin’
Bills to pay, bills to pay, bills to pay
Pills to sleep, pills to take away the pain, pills to lose… weight, wait
Wrapped in a womb of insecurity
Giving off the illusion of prosperity
Fancy car lease, overpriced homes they cannot afford
Overpriced doctor bills, overpriced education, overpriced… everything
Runnin’ w/ the Joneses
White picket fences… & mouths to feed
The fake grass is always greener
There is no other side
Shopping malls & destruction
Chemical pesticide, pissing in the water supply
Gas pump pumping toxins into the sky
Ultra Violet rays shinning through ozone curtains
The shade recedes, the tides rise
Tanning under toxic skies
Human waste penetrates skin
Go take a swim in an ocean of pollution
Bathing in… raw sewage
Change in… the weather
A species with a disease
The pathology of greed
Race to the bottom
lowest common
denominator
Dominated…
Chewed up & spit out
Downsized & outsourced
Head hunting for temp work
Without benefits, no vacation, sickness unpaid, no health care
Home searching, showerless in underwear
Hiding behind a computer screen
Staring blankly, clicking madly
Burning bloodshot aging eyes…
Pounding veins & frying caffeinated brains
Who have ceased asking the big questions
Scampering for small lives
Bread crumbs from the table, circuses of distraction
A generation expelled from freedom, unknowingly
for being passive soldiers in the falling empire
Who know their vote doesn’t count
Disillusioned & marginalized, a systematic farce
Blanketed by lies & a four year dog & pony ritual
Watching plastic puppet politicians spew scripted words from tongues on a teleprompter leash
Watching shocking scandal after scandal
Watching unprecedented crimes go unpunished
Watching our future be sold & auctioned off to the highest bidder
A cancerously corrupted civilization
An entire generation born to conform & be blind to wider reality
& anything not repetitively projected on the TV
Who sit thoughtlessly & apathetically while surroundings burn
The silent & passive desperation of a defeated generation
The beaten masses & mass disaster
Denial & death
with little time left…

HOWL NOW

Survival Of The Nicest? : A New Theory Of Human Origins Says Cooperation—Not Competition—Is Instinctive

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm
Hugging Salt Shakers photo by Harlan Harris

Oldspeak: “Breaking news from the department of “Duh”:  How bout that. Capitalism, the system that fosters competition, separation, inequality, vertical hierarchy, uniformity, conditional profit driven cooperation, alienation, and a variety of other maladaptive behaviors, is actually not the best system ever devised, has Dubuya famously asserted. In fact, the sacred precepts of Capitalism “aren’t in sync with our evolutionary roots and may not be good for our long-term success as humans.” Meanwhile we literally train our young to act in ways that are contrary to our naturally beneficial predispositions.  To serve capitalism. Interesting, isn’t it that currently we’re experiences a whole range of threats to our long-term success as humans. Irreversible environmental destruction, rapid non-replenishable resource  depletion, mass extinctions, global drought, and accelerated decline of food and water production, etc, etc, etc… Until we change this counter productive extraction based system, the threats will continue to grow.” –OSJ

By Eric Michael Johnson @ YES Magazine:

A century ago, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie believed that Darwin’s theories justified an economy of vicious competition and inequality. They left us with an ideological legacy that says the corporate economy, in which wealth concentrates in the hands of a few, produces the best for humanity. This was always a distortion of Darwin’s ideas. His 1871 book The Descent of Man argued that the human species had succeeded because of traits like sharing and compassion. “Those communities,” he wrote, “which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin was no economist, but wealth-sharing and cooperation have always looked more consistent with his observations about human survival than the elitism and hierarchy that dominates contemporary corporate life.

Nearly 150 years later, modern science has verified Darwin’s early insights with direct implications for how we do business in our society. New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn about sharing as a result?

Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner. Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as Homo habilis emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges: Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social selection that favored cooperation: “Individuals who attempted to hog all of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,” writes Tomasello, “and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.”

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This evolutionary legacy can be seen in our behavior today, particularly among children who are too young to have been taught such notions of fairness. For example, in a 2011 study published in the journal Nature, anthropologist Katharina Hamann and her colleagues found that 3-year-old children share food more equitably if they gain it through cooperative effort rather than via individual labor or no work at all. In contrast, chimpanzees showed no difference in how they shared food under these different scenarios; they wouldn’t necessarily hoard the food individually, but they placed no value on cooperative efforts either. The implication, according to Tomasello, is that human evolution has predisposed us to work collaboratively and given us an intuitive sense that cooperation deserves equal rewards.

The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal.
“The result,” says Tomasello, “was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.”

What does this mean for the different forms of business today? Corporate workplaces probably aren’t in sync with our evolutionary roots and may not be good for our long-term success as humans. Corporate culture imposes uniformity, mandated from the top down, throughout the organization. But the cooperative—the financial model in which a group of members owns a business and makes the rules about how to run it—is a modern institution that has much in common with the collective tribal heritage of our species. Worker-owned cooperatives are regionally distinct and organized around their constituent members. As a result, worker co-ops develop unique cultures that, following Tomasello’s theory, would be expected to better promote a shared identity among all members of the group. This shared identity would give rise to greater trust and collaboration without the need for centralized control.

Moreover, the structure of corporations is a recipe for worker alienation and dissatisfaction. Humans have evolved the ability to quickly form collective intentionality that motivates group members to pursue a shared goal. “Once they have formed a joint goal,” Tomasello says, “humans are committed to it.” Corporations, by law, are required to maximize profits for their investors. The shared goal among corporate employees is not to benefit their own community but rather a distant population of financiers who have no personal connection to their lives or labor.

However, because worker-owned cooperatives focus on maximizing value for their members, the cooperative is operated by and for the local community—a goal much more consistent with our evolutionary heritage. As Darwin concluded in The Descent of Man, “The more enduring social instincts conquer the less persistent instincts.” As worker-owned cooperatives continue to gain prominence around the world, we may ultimately witness the downfall of Carnegie’s “law of competition” and a return to the collaborative environments that the human species has long called home.


Eric Michael Johnson wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Eric is a doctoral student in the history of science at the University of British Columbia. His research examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Society of Addiction: Capitalism, Dopamine & The Consumer Junkie

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Oldspeak: “Today everything around us — clothing, apartments, food and technology — is a commodity. We wear commodities. We live inside commodities. We use and eat commodities. All that we need to live is filtered through the market. And if the store shelves are packed with bright colorful things, we feel safe because we have the freedom to choose…. we experience Capitalism as turning our bodies against us. It is a parasitical system that feeds on us. It takes our tongues and blinds us with taste. It floods our unconscious with logos. It takes our desire and puts a price tag on it. And dizzy with sensation and directed by commercials, we work ourselves numb to become landfills for commodities… we bounce like billiard balls between ads showing actors posing with a titanium watch and rappers with liquor bottles and sand-caked, teen bodies next to perfume vials. All the time, I see people waddling out of stores with bulging shopping bags, faces bright with the joy of a new purchase. Flush faces are the tell-tale sign of a dopamine rush. We get high from buying commodities that enhance our status. In this light, we can look at corporate stores and see them as consumer crack houses. If it’s true that billions of people around the world are being addicted to our evolutionary Achille’s heel of salt, sugar, fat and status, then it’s time to ask the question. Are we capitalism junkies?” –Nicolas Powers

“Short answer? Yes. Hyper-consumption is seen as a virtue, something to aspire to,  symbolic of high status.  We are utterly and completely dependent and perpetually desirous of the constellation of commodities provided to us by our vulture capitalist “corporate citizens”. Our entire environment has been comodified and market-valued.  Trinket Capitalism (an economic system that produces junk that people don’t really need.) dominates our existence. We must kick our habit.  We must resist the tyranny of “The Market”.  The latest rebellions are on in Turkey and Brazil. Oh what a wonderful day it will be when we decide to withdraw support for the market totalitarian system that enslaves and addicts us! As Nicolas outlines the first step we can take toward freeing ourselves from capitalist domination is “critiquing capitalism differently. To the older frame of political economy focused on production, distribution and consumption of commodities we must add a new frame. One possibility is thinking in terms of a physiological economy, in which the body is transformed into a consuming machine and directed to the market where it’s a commodity dumping ground, regardless of the health effects on it. Putting the body at the center creates a goal of respecting human potential.” Imagine that! In much the same way as others have suggested we put the environment at the center of our economy, we could put our bodies, and it’s health, at the center of our economy. Our bodies are after all a part of the environment. What a revolutionary and beautifully holistic change in thinking it could be!-OSJ

By Nicolas Powers @ The Indypendent:

I waited three months to eat a Krispy Kreme. I mean I waited. Every week or so, I take the train to Penn Station, quickly zigzagging through crowds. And every time I have the same internal monologue — Don’t stop at the Krispy Kreme. Don’t give yourself diabetes. Seriously, you might as well inject Elmer’s glue straight into your heart. But then I saw the store, bright and beautiful and smelling good. It’s very hard to walk past Krispy Kreme. It’s like those dreams where my legs move but I don’t go forward.

And then I begin the junkie’s debate — C’mon it’s been three months! Besides, one can’t hurt. And didn’t I help that homeless lady get her shit to the shelter last night. That was an Oprah thing to do. And doesn’t Oprah eat donuts? I was drooling before I even turned. Everyone on line had the same wild look. I feared for the servers. If they didn’t get us the donuts quickly we might have smashed the glass. When I got mine and bit into it, sugar and preservatives and trans-fat flooded my body and I lit up like a Christmas tree. It felt like Jesus descended from Heaven and kissed my brain.

Afterwards I felt dirty, guilty. At home, I googled Krispy Kreme and found a YouTube clip of comedian Chris Rock prowling the stage. “Krispy Kreme donuts are so good,” he said, “if I told you it had crack in it you’d go, ‘I knew something was up … got me knocking on the donut window at two in the morning. C’mon man open up, give me one more donut, I’ll do anything. I’ll suck your dick.’”

Rock chuckled maniacally as the audience roared. I paused the clip and let it sink in. How much of what we eat is not really food but a drug designed to addict us with a rush of sugar, salt or fat? McDonald’s, Checkers and the other fried fast-food places line the streets in Bed-Stuy. Neighbors have that addict’s scratch-the-neck gesture at bodegas where they buy sugary drinks or candy. But it wasn’t just food. How many times do I check my cell phone? I get itchy if I don’t send or get a text. How many people do I see on the street, heads down, typing away, swerving around the traffic as if by radar?

In New York, we bounce like billiard balls between ads showing actors posing with a titanium watch and rappers with liquor bottles and sand-caked, teen bodies next to perfume vials. All the time, I see people waddling out of stores with bulging shopping bags, faces bright with the joy of a new purchase. Flush faces are the tell-tale sign of a dopamine rush. We get high from buying commodities that enhance our status. In this light, we can look at corporate stores and see them as consumer crack houses. If it’s true that billions of people around the world are being addicted to our evolutionary Achille’s heel of salt, sugar, fat and status, then it’s time to ask the question. Are we capitalism junkies?

The Commodity

A commodity in classical political economy is any object that can be bought or sold in the marketplace. The market is any institution or place where we can engage in trade, be it Wall Street or the farmer’s stall at Union Square. From the market’s beginning 12,000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, when we first cultivated land, grew crops, and created surplus and trade to the post-industrial digital stock exchange, it has grown to dominate human life.

Today everything around us — clothing, apartments, food and technology — is a commodity. We wear commodities. We live inside commodities. We use and eat commodities. All that we need to live is filtered through the market. And if the store shelves are packed with bright colorful things, we feel safe because we have the freedom to choose.

The commodity has for centuries been the site of critique. In political economy it was an article of trade that satisfies a human need. Later it was reinterpreted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital as a fetish object concealing the exploitative relations of production. More than a century later, post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard redefined it as a sign in a larger social code.

Today, a view emerging from neuroscience understands capitalism as an immersive form of market totalitarianism. We see that advertising and commodities are designed to get us to a “bliss point,” to stoke a chemical blaze in our brains that incrementally robs us of the ability to choose. And this is the paradox; American culture is based on the ideal of freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose — but its economy is increasingly based on targeting the unconscious and addicting our bodies. Corporations use science to ensnare deep evolutionary impulses. We are left with a tragic contradiction; the very act of consumption that we are taught is our freedom is also what most enslaves us.

Behold the iPhone

My cell phone was old. No touch screen. No internet. My friends would whip out smartphones and get precise, Googlemapped directions to the next bar. I took mine out, pretended to type an address and confidently offered random bullshit names like The Thirsty Wolf or Chug.

“Wait why can’t I see those?” one friend asked me. I quickly put my phone away, “Oh damn, battery just ran out. Sorry. So what did you find?” But I was content with my Flintstone-era cell phone until one day it broke. After one hour without a text or the ability to send one, I began to shake and sweat. I sprinted to the Virgin Mobile store, where the staff calmed me down, gave me water, patted my back.

In seconds, I was holding my future phone. But I saw it four different ways. The first was a symbol of the American Dream, a set of ideals that put prosperity and upward mobility at the center of our lives. Smartphone commercials make it into a tool of consumer empowerment. No one and nothing is out of reach.

Through a Marxist lens, I saw the swollen-eyed, arthritic Chinese workers at Foxconn, which if it didn’t make Virgin Mobile smartphones, made them for Apple and made them in the millions. In the Marxist tradition this human labor is eclipsed by the object’s transformation into a commodity through market exchange. We see its price tag or advertisement but not the people who made it or the fact that so many killed themselves by jumping off the roof of Foxconn that the company hung up nets.

Seen through Baurdrillard’s theory, my smartphone was a sign in a larger social code that recreated my identity. It was not simply a way to talk to friends. It was a smartphone. I now had instant access to information and was re-booted as a modern man. No asking directions or standing in line for a ticket at a cinema. Now I could do it all before I got there. Smartphone ads play on the theme of being up to date. One showed a trio of guys at a sports game: the ones with the 4G smartphones knew it was going to rain while the one with the 3G did not; he was doused when thunder broke. Today, commodities come with a story line and are the material anchors for the social roles we play.

Turning my new phone over and over in my hand, I remembered that itchy feeling when my phone ran out of energy or when it was broken. Turning it on, I googled addiction, smartphones and lo and behold, I found a painfully in-your-face article titled “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google.” It spelled out why I slept with my phone at night like a teddy bear. Written by Dr. Susan Weinschenk and based on research by Terrence Robinson and Kent Berridge, the article said our brains squirt dopamine not to make us feel pleasure (a concept still used but debated) but to make us seek it out.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; it carries signals from neurons through synapses to other neurons or cells. Like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, it “makes me feel good.” It lights up the brain. It gets us moving toward satisfying goals. Weinschenk writes, “Dopamine causes you to want, desire and search … From an evolutionary standpoint this is critical. Dopamine keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn and survive. It’s not just about physical needs such as food or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas.”

In the scholarly article “Addiction,” Berridge and Robinson state that there are two systems in the brain, one that involves dopamine based on wanting and the other based on liking, the opioid system, which gives us pleasure. The former says, “Go!” The latter says, “Stop and enjoy.” But with social media, we now live in a culture where the “Go!” light is always green. In seconds we can text, Facebook, Google or call and get rewarded, which incites us to seek again, which rewards us again, causing us to seek again and be trapped in a dopamine loop.

The saddest image of the article was of dying rats. Scientists destroyed the dopamine neurons in rats and they died of starvation, even when food was right in front of them. They lost “the will to live” or the chemical base of “will power,” aka dopamine. In another test, scientists electrically stimulated the brains of lab animals to produce dopamine. Rats furiously, feverishly pressed the lever to tingle themselves more and more, faster and faster, because the dopamine system doesn’t have an off switch.

After reading this I walked around Union Square and studied the consumers flowing in and out of the stores. “Go on you rats,” I thought, “Get your cheese!” And this is what capitalism has made of us. We’re a herd of slightly evolved primates gobbling salt, sugar, fat and status. We buy objects that light up our brains with dopamine even if we throw those same things away or incur debt. Using my new Chinese-made smartphone, I punched up Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin” and bobbed my head, his nasal voice the soundtrack to thousands of New Yorkers shopping. “Big pimpin,” he rapped, “Spending cheese.”

The Cheeto in the Crack Pipe

Going home on the B52 bus, I saw a father feeding his infant daughter bright, yellow, puffy Cheetos. I wanted to smack it out of his hand and yell, “This is crack! Why don’t you just put the Cheetos in a pipe and have her smoke it?” But I closed my mouth and rolled my eyes instead.

The baby grabbed the Cheetos and I imagined the Yellow 6 dye that makes it day-glow food entering her blood. In laboratory tests, it caused kidney tumors and contained carcinogens. Good job, Dad! She licked her lips because the hydrogenated oil makes the Cheetos so tasty. If she grows up eating snacks like these, her heart will eventually become a wheezing accordion.

My stop came and I stepped off the bus, seeing as if for the first time the many fast-food places and bodegas lining Nostrand Avenue. They are the two major institutions in working-class urban neighborhoods. Over 200,000 fast food restaurants open their doors each morning in America. Sometimes it seems all of them are in Bed-Stuy.

Each institution has a goal and the fast food industry is designed not to nourish bodies but to make profits. What was a $6 billion industry in 1970 raked in $160 billion last year. It did this by playing on our evolutionary buttons. Salt, sugar, fat — over the course of millions of years our bodies evolved to crave these tastes because it signaled the presence of much-needed nutrients.

We are physiologically adapted to survive famine. Our primeval ancestors roaming the high grass of the ancient savannah often had to endure hunger. Some hunters did not always have the best aim with the spear. Feast and famine marked us. We inherited a craving for fat, salt or sugar, and when any of them hits our tongues, our brain’s opioid system goes off like fireworks and the dopamine begins to flow. It is our gastronomical weak spot, one that the modern food industry has targeted. Our bodies are garbage cans to dump junk into as long as it makes profit.

This February, the New York Times ran an article with a disturbing scene. Entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food,” it opened with a meeting of the 11 heads of America’s major food corporations. The vice president of Kraft told attendees that the industry had gone too far in producing foods that excite hunger and overwhelm the body’s controls on overeating. He cited statistics showing more than half of Americans were overweight and nearly one-quarter were obese. The head of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, got up and said, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition. Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” The meeting took place in 1999. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7 percent of Americans are overweight, along with one third of our children.

Walking home, I often see obese women like giant water balloons, out of breath just from walking. Children, faces swollen with fat, throw candy on the counter at the local bodega. Every day, thousands of people in my neighborhood get breakfast, lunch and dinner from fast-food places or bodegas. Eating well takes time and money. And when you have neither, you get what you can. And here food is fast. It’s cheap. It’s addictive. And it’s deadly. Not long ago, I saw an ambulance outside the adjacent building; my neighbor said his friend had died. He shook his head and said, “She was 50, only 50, and caught a heart attack.”

The Nag Factor

Capitalism — the private ownership over the means of production. It is the world of labor behind every smartphone, every Cheeto, every commodity. It is the factory and the workers inside. It is the bosses, regional managers and owners rising above the masses of workers in a vast pyramid of power.

Defenders of the system say that it raises incomes and life-spans and serves the needs of consumers. But in a dialectical reversal, we can point at clear evidence that capitalism does not serve our needs but creates consumers to serve its need of making profit. It’s a global conveyor belt where raw material is transformed into commodities, shipped to markets to be sold. But consumers are not born but made.

While waiting for my laundry to dry, I heard a kid screaming at his mother for Lucky Charms. I mean this kid was hollering like an N.F.L. coach. His veins bulged at his neck. “Ma, get me the Charms,” he shouted, “The Charms! The Lucky Charms!” She looked haggard and took him outside and when they came back he was scooping the cereal into his mouth.

The nagging scene struck a memory. Once home, I looked up a documentary called The Corporation; in it, Lucy Hughes, Vice President of Initiative Media and co-creator of the report “The Nag Factor,” said, “We asked parents to keep a diary and to record every time a child nagged them for a product. Anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of purchases would not have occurred unless the child nagged their parents.”

She had the smug smile of someone paid well enough to not care. Later Professor Susan Linn of Baker’s Children Center said the study was done by corporations to get children to nag for their products. Linn was sad eyed. It was like she stared at the face of a juggernaut of money and power that she could analyze but not stop. She said, “Children are not little adults. Marketers are playing into their development vulnerabilities. The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists and enhanced by media technology.”

Later Hughes reappeared, “You can manipulate consumers into wanting and buying your products. It’s a game.” Again that smug smile, she concluded, “They are tomorrow’s adult consumer, so start talking with them now…and you got them as an adult. Someone asked me, ‘Lucy is that ethical? You’re essentially manipulating children.’ Is it ethical, I don’t know but our mission at Initiative is to move product.”

To move product — into the bodies of children even at risk to their health and by targeting their soft minds. How can one talk of freedom of choice when corporations target us before we have the ability to choose at all? The advertising bullseye hovers on us through our lives. As adults, it is our unconscious minds that are hit. Brand names are stitched on clothes, products are placed in movies. Images are slipped under our consciousness and descend into our psychic depths were they grow into decisions that we mistake for our own free will.

Capitalism — this system of private ownership of the means of production rose from the collapse of feudalism, under which armored nobility in castles and cloaked monks in monasteries ruled over ragged peasants. It spread in the artisan towns and city states of the late Middle Ages, it spread with the enclosure of land as serfs, hungry and desperate, moved to factory work in the cities, it spread overseas in the New World conquest, the slave trade and colonization, it spread around the earth in violent racist colonialism. And now it dominates human civilization and has spread into our childhoods, our dreams and seeks to determine the destiny of our species.

The Body versus Capitalism

One of the most famous scenes in recent film history was from The Matrix, when the protagonist Neo is offered a red pill by a terrorist named Morpheus. He takes it and after plunging down a surreal dream wakes up hooked to cables in a gooey pod. He looks around and sees billions of pods with people sleeping inside.

It resonated because we experience Capitalism as turning our bodies against us. It is a parasitical system that feeds on us. It takes our tongues and blinds us with taste. It floods our unconscious with logos. It takes our desire and puts a price tag on it. And dizzy with sensation and directed by commercials, we work ourselves numb to become landfills for commodities.

Is this the destiny of our species? Is this the highest we can imagine, the enslavement of millions to work making products and enslaving millions more to buy them? It seems the tragedy of our civilization is that by being walled in with commodities, we lose sight of how rare and precious we truly are.

Our ability to create, to be conscious, to imagine is a spark of beauty in the void. Humanity is the result of a series of near improbable accidents. It is a sheer accident that we exist at all, that billions of years ago, hot rock formed a planet at this distance from the sun, that ice-loaded meteors hit earth and gave it water, that in the sea microbes ignited into life and plants swept over land.

When visiting the Museum of Natural History, I imagine the T-Rex skeleton chomping up one or two visitors in a swift bite. It’s easy to feel how lucky we got with that comet impact 66 million years ago. And that’s what I mean. It’s an accident we’re here at all.

And yet here we are. The universe may teem with life but most likely it is microbes on rocks or germs in seas. Sentient life that looks up and questions is infinitely rare. Our ability to look far into space and deep into the atom, to follow the trail of elements to the origin of reality and to know its end, is incredibly precious. We, so far as we know, are the only species that is the living memory of the universe.

The human body — lulled into commodity addiction, brainwashed by advertising is itself evidence of the grand-narrative of evolution that surpasses capitalism. Over millions of years, natural selection sculpted us to fit the environment until we began to adapt the environment to fit our needs. Now we are trapped in an economic system that does not serve us but ensnares us to serve it. But the history of revolutions and art and crime show us a truth about ourselves. Our power to imagine is greater than our need to obey.

Neuro-justice

Freedom: 1. The absence of constraint on choice or action. 2. The liberation from slavery or from the power of another.

This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Hey, buddy, it’s a free country, right? In cliché sayings, we’re reminded that freedom is our social ideal. In the iconic scenes of U.S. history we learn that our nation’s flag was planted on the moon by an astronaut, our armies can strike anywhere, anytime, and even a black man can become president of a country that once had slavery.

But the daily evidence of that freedom is on the stacked store shelves and in the advertisements that teach us about the capitalist Good Life. But what if on either side of the commodity existed millions of people who were not free at all?

What if we saw that behind the label is a world of misery? There, suicidal men and women grind their lives against a factory clock to make our low-cost clothing and technology. They see no exit but death and leap from the roof to the only freedom left to claim. There, undocumented workers pick tomatoes and staff the blood-soaked killing floors of meat factories to get us our cheap fast food.

And in front of the label is us — people whose unconscious is shaped by subliminal advertising, our need for intimacy and recognition commodified into market experiences of bought and sold emotional labor. Our bodies are given addictive products that make us crave self-destruction. We who live in a market-dominated world are not free, but are chemically enslaved by the very sophisticated science of corporate America.

A step we can take in freeing ourselves is critiquing capitalism differently. To the older frame of political economy focused on production, distribution and consumption of commodities we must add a new frame. One possibility is thinking in terms of a physiological economy, in which the body is transformed into a consuming machine and directed to the market where it’s a commodity dumping ground, regardless of the health effects on it. Putting the body at the center creates a goal of respecting human potential.

And what might help is the idea of neuro-justice as a New Millennial update on natural rights. We have as human beings a right to develop ourselves. We are inheritors of a cosmic accident that created the earth in the seething, plasma-hot, shooting gallery of space. We are inheritors of millions of years of evolution, and each of us belongs to a thing rare and precious in the universe, sentient life.

Behind our eyes, in our brains is a power greater than reality. It’s the power to imagine. A truly human civilization will move beyond capitalism, beyond addicting our consciousness to demanding space for it, play for it, love and recognition for it — it will demand justice for the imagination. In that world, we can walk home and see no corporate ads or stores with addictive foods or feel itchy for the newest technology or desperate for status. We can be free by simply being ourselves.

Ecocide And The Soul Of A Nation

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Oldspeak: “To turn a blind eye to the natural world, as we have done, translates into psychical ecocide. Perception is degraded. Language truncated. Life becomes dispossessed of purpose and meaning. Apropos, the rise and banal persistence of: The United States of Whatever. Under these circumstances “whatever” translates into, inner and extant, deadly super storms, ecocide and desertification (including and related to the desertification of language). As we decimate the earth’s biodiversity, we diminish our lexicon. Our thoughts cannot take wing; our imaginings cannot take root and flower; our passions cannot flow; our putrefying pathologies cannot be composted.  Divested of an eloquence of thought, expression and action — devoid of a deep connection to and denied of constant dialog with earth, sky, wind and water — we cannot retain enough humanity to remain viable as a species. By evincing a state of mind that is indifferent to the wanton destruction of our planet’s interdependent web of biodiversity, we lay waste, on a personal and collective basis, to the evolving, vital ecosystem of the psyche, thereby creating a bland, dismal, corporate monoculture, that is both manifest and internalized…  The emptiness of life in the neoliberal corporate/consumer state has grown increasingly unbearable; the carnage inflicted on our planet is indefensible; and its present trajectory is tragically untenable….  The catastrophic consequences that the demise of the public commons has on the human personality, in combination with the societal repercussions of a populace that receives the vast majority of information from within the bubble of an enveloping media hologram attendant to a grid of authoritarianism that determines and degrades the criteria of almost all experience in the corporate state. Yet these unhinged conventionalities do not create a catalyst to action, but inflict angst, ennui and anomie. How can this be? By what means does passivity before and complicity in one’s own debasement become normalized? By small bribes as reward for compliance and severe consequences for attempts at defiance … that is how. This state of affairs serves as the sine qua non for any reign of oppression and cultural track towards catastrophe.” – Phil Rockstroh

By what means does passivity before and complicity in one’s own debasement become normalized?” That is the key question for me. Phil is on the right track when he identifies the profit motive and brutal punishment for non-compliance. We’re being socialized to further disconnect from our environment and each other via the seductive ubiquity of our ever dazzling and all-encompassing “convenience” technology. And in truly Orwellian fashion being sold on it by being told that it will connect us in a myriad of new, cool and exciting ways. Our children are being taught that Really Existing Democratic Capitalism is the greatest economic system in the world, that the market knows best, and that the way to success and good standing in the society is to be educated in the best schools and institutions then sell one’s self to the denizens of the market and our richest and most powerful “citizens”: corporations. We’ve internalized the cold, calculating, empathy-devoid, data-driven, metrics based worldview of these “citizens”.  I see it every time  I walk down the street in New York. The aggressive, hurried, oblivious, unfriendly, narcissistic, ill-feeling, actively indifferent and ignorant states that most live their lives in.  Morality, openness, transparency, fairness, honesty, equity, selfless cooperation, are constantly invoked as the democratic ideals they are. But these ideals are but subject to gross and disfiguring interpretation depending on how much profit or power stands to be gained. We cannot continue to act as if our ecosystem will continue to support us indefinitely if we continue on this ecocidal path. ” –OSJ

By Phil Rockstroh @ Consortium News:

The reality of and the outward toll inflicted by greenhouse-gas engendered Climate Change is clearly evident (to all but the corrupt and devoutly ignorant) e.g. increasingly destructive and deadly tornadoes and hurricanes, destruction of marine life, severe droughts and rapacious wild fires — landscapes of death, scattered debris and shattered lives.

But what are the psychical effects of chronic denial, noxious indifference and compulsive prevarication as related to a matter as all-encompassing and crucial as our relationship with the climate of our planet?

A tornado touching down in central Oklahoma on May 3, 1999. (U.S. government photo)

Our current catastrophe of estrangement, termed “our way of life,” we experience as a denuding of resonance, meaning and purpose, as a prevailing sense of emptiness and unease, as a craving for distraction, as an inchoate longing for change and transformation, yet a diffidence to the point of paralysis insofar as any means to expedite longing and libido into societal-altering action.

Estrangement from nature is estrangement from the landscape of the soul. The cosmos and the soul carry the same blueprint; the forces were forged in the same fires of infinity. In matters, galactic and quotidian, there is not a form that rises, waxes and wanes in nature that does not have an analog in our human physicality, faculties and endeavors.

To turn a blind eye to the natural world, as we have done, translates into psychical ecocide. Perception is degraded. Language truncated. Life becomes dispossessed of purpose and meaning. Apropos, the rise and banal persistence of: The United States of Whatever.

Under these circumstances “whatever” translates into, inner and extant, deadly super storms, ecocide and desertification (including and related to the desertification of language). As we decimate the earth’s biodiversity, we diminish our lexicon. Our thoughts cannot take wing; our imaginings cannot take root and flower; our passions cannot flow; our putrefying pathologies cannot be composted.

Divested of an eloquence of thought, expression and action — devoid of a deep connection to and denied of constant dialog with earth, sky, wind and water — we cannot retain enough humanity to remain viable as a species.

By evincing a state of mind that is indifferent to the wanton destruction of our planet’s interdependent web of biodiversity, we lay waste, on a personal and collective basis, to the evolving, vital ecosystem of the psyche, thereby creating a bland, dismal, corporate monoculture, that is both manifest and internalized.

The emptiness of life in the neoliberal corporate/consumer state has grown increasingly unbearable; the carnage inflicted on our planet is indefensible; and its present trajectory is tragically untenable.

Our last, best option is a top-to-bottom re-visioning. In diametric opposition, at paradigm’s end, we are witness to the deranged marriage of the profligate and the parsimonious. The covert offshore bank accounts of the greed-maddened hyper-wealthy and the teeming landfill are dismal emblems of late-capitalist madness.

The moribund mythos (manic in the face of its undoing) of “productivity” exists at the core of the capitalist delusion. Discussing the matter with a capitalist true-believer is like talking to an obsessive lunatic about his vast collection of string and his compulsive hoarding of rubber bands and bread ties.

Behind the situation is the crackpot pragmatism of state capitalism, e.g., that all things must have a practical purpose in order that they be exploited for maximum productivity as a means of generating obscene sums of wealth for a tiny (loose knit) cabal of global economic elite. (Yet the motives driving the mania of a system geared to perpetual growth, conveniently, are omitted from almost all mainstream discussions of the matter.)

One’s humanity is restored by tears and laughter … by the marriage of eros and empathy. We must grieve for the harm we have wrought and guffaw at our egoist folly; we must shed copious tears and be seized by outright, sustained laughter. Self-awareness is tantamount to salvation, and an experience akin to rebirth is bestowed by the apprehension of the ridiculous nature of vanity and empty striving.

Then and only then, do conditions become favorable for restoration and re-visioning. Thus, grace falls as a forgiving rain.

In May of last year, my family laid my father to rest. Shortly after my return to New York City from Georgia, we received the news that my wife, Angela, was pregnant. Thus, fate fitted me with the garments of fatherhood. The clothing of the son sent to the consignment shop, I stood in awe, and with more than a little trepidation, before unfolding circumstance.

Grief and longing mingled and merged within me. At night, I dreamed of friends from my youth who have died over the passing years. With increasing frequency, during this past year, I have had reoccurring dreams involving one post-adolescent friendship, in particular, the period surrounding the dawning of our awkward and painful puberty.

Chuck was redheaded, freckled, bespectacled, bully-bedeviled — a bright, sensitive, wounded soul, who would later succumb to the ravages of alcoholism. We shared an enthusiasm for books. We read Tolkien, of course, but also Camus, Celine, even Cervantes (having an ardor for books was a quixotic propensity in those days in the Deep South, and I suspect it still is).

We collected tropical fish — their bright, color-emblazoned markings stood in vivid contrast to the desolate, laboring-class milieu that was foisted as our fate.

“You two, heads-in-the-clouds, noses-in-books losers will have to face the real world one day, and, I’ll tell you what, that will be one sorry-ass sight,” some figure of grim authority would bandy at us.

“Do you understand what I’m saying, boy?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“You, show some respect for your elders, by answering, ‘Yes, sir.’ Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I replied, earnestly … having grown obtuse by the anxiety inflicted by attempting to appear submissive to the demands of unreasonable power.

“Look here, smart-ass. I’ve about had my fill of your insolence.”

Nonplussed. I would have said anything to end the encounter. But some life-bestowing daemon would stir within … most likely, it was the same inner, trickster entity responsible for occluding my ability to comprehend what this authoritarian jerk-rocket was demanding of me.

“What is your problem, boy? Just what kind of a stupid animal are you?” — an inquiry that provided an opening for the daemon.

“I was raised by raccoons, sir.”

“You … what?”

“My parents were killed by your Klansman relatives. I escaped into the woods. And I was adopted by nocturnal, fur-bearing mammals. I’m untrainable. I scurry through the darkness. I bite when cornered. My destiny has been forged by fate. I am Raccoon Boy, enemy of racists and power mad freaks.

“I have to confess, it is my reverence for my poor, slain parents that will not allow me to address you with deference nor grant you respect, as you have demanded. In short, I can either submit to calling you sir or I can betray my destiny. But I cannot do both.

“Therefore, do with me what you will. But you will never again sleep easy … for my raccoon brothers and sisters will track you down and you will wish we had never met. You will never again hear a rustling in the underbrush and not be stricken with the knowledge that you are in the presence of your doom.”

These sorts of responses would often end such encounters. In the South, in those days, crazy people were given a great deal of latitude.

At present, in my nighttime dreams of the time, I often find myself in the company of Chuck at the intersection of two major streets that cut through the area near our school, North Decatur and Clairmont Road. In waking life, Chuck and I, in order to avoid confrontations with neighborhood boys who viewed us as “hippie faggots” did not venture beyond this demarcation point. The landscape beyond was fraught with peril.

Even in adult life, Chuck never ventured far from home, and when he did, he was fortified with drink. Many times, at transition points in my life, my soul summons dreams of Chuck and me, our hearts … filled with yearning — yet we stand diffident, to the point of paralysis, at the intersection of North Decatur and Clairmont Road.

The world outside of the boundaries decreed by outward circumstance and imposed by one’s fears is fraught with uncertainty to the degree that it is veiled in mystery. There are legions of authoritarian bastards and mindless bullies about. Regardless, one must venture forth. One does have allies — the spirit of departed friends and inner daemons with quicksilver wit et al.

The future is always uncertain. But Raccoon Boy will be there to meet what comes.

Climate Change denial. Political duopoly. The corrosive effect of empire, maintained by militarism, on a foundering republic. The noxious food manufactured and consumed under corporate state oligarchy.

The catastrophic consequences that the demise of the public commons has on the human personality, in combination with the societal repercussions of a populace that receives the vast majority of information from within the bubble of an enveloping media hologram attendant to a grid of authoritarianism that determines and degrades the criteria of almost all experience in the corporate state.

Yet these unhinged conventionalities do not create a catalyst to action, but inflict angst, ennui and anomie. How can this be? By what means does passivity before and complicity in one’s own debasement become normalized? By small bribes as reward for compliance and severe consequences for attempts at defiance … that is how. This state of affairs serves as the sine qua non for any reign of oppression and cultural track towards catastrophe.

If an individual is coerced into conformity by his/her livelihood being threatened, even by implicit means, angst will be experienced. As a result, one will attempt to find a means of relieving the incurred sense of unease. And this is where the small bribes, that serve as palliatives to ease angst, come in.

If challenging (seemingly) implacable power results in a termination of employment or a stint of incarceration, of which, a record will follow one through life, most will find the repercussions of defying authority unbearable. One’s image of oneself would be endangered, or so it seems, by such a circumstance.

Yet what are the consequences of submission, in regard to one’s sense of self? Because, in order to submit, an individual must shunt from consciousness the painful implications of one’s predicament, a general diminution of perception occurs. Thus, for example, Climate Change denial is but part and parcel of a larger, enforced cosmology of deception, both personal and societal in origin.

At our present rate, the oceans and seas of the world will be dead in less than half a century. Humankind has become a mindless, devouring leviathan. Slice open our collective belly and the ill-gotten bounty of our besieged earth will be disgorged.

What is the music of the spheres? asked Schopenhauer. “Munch. Munch. Munch.”

Yet, tone-deaf, and rapacious, we are devouring the world in a manner that is closer in form to a banal pop song; a pestilence of ditties, resonant of the landfill, is descending in the form of consumerist locust.

When our days are denuded of depth, meaning and inspired purpose, we gorge our bellies in an attempt to alleviate the ache of emptiness. The operatives of the corporate/commercial hologram have induced us to devour the planet like a serving of Hot Pockets. Yet the emptiness within only grows.

We have been enticed to believe that remedy will be found in more of what caused our misery in the first place. Relief, even redemption, will be found in yet MORE. Thus, we come upon the insatiable leviathan that glides within. We are lodged in the monster’s belly, wherein we mistake his impersonal appetite for our own. In this way, the consumer is consumed by the collective.

How does one sate a force that is insatiable? By seizing back one’s unique identity. The angel whose name is Enough arrives within one’s reclaimed human voice. It comes down to this: ecology or catastrophe.

Because one’s humanity is formed and rounded by one’s limits, we must be open to the infinity of forms that is the ecosystem of the soul but not allow vanity to attempt to claim dominion over what is ungovernable. Thus, one regains one’s soul by speaking in a human voice.

Yes, it is tinged with universal fire, but, to we human beings, its home is the hearth of the human heart, within which empty appetite is transmuted into the yearnings of the heart; thereby, empty motion becomes emotion; passion deepens into compassion.

The matter does not involve searching for redemption nor striving for perfection; instead, it involves awakening … an awakening to the vast multiverse of the dreaming heart. Therein, the oceans are teeming with vivid life.

And where there exists the implicate order of the soul there exists the wherewithal to rise up and resist the forces that lay siege to one’s innate humanity.

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at: phil@philrockstroh.com/ And at FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/phil.rockstroh