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Stinking Hot Plutocratic Mess

July 4, 2012

This is part of an article by Paul Street re-posted from ZNet.

In a story that hardly captures attention, the planet is on fire. Speaking of hot plutocratic messes, the raging Colorado wildfires are just the latest in a growing list of signs that the threat posed to humans and other living things by global warming is reaching a new stage of lethality (The dominant corporate media has been reluctant to connect the wildfires to the anthropogenic climate change, of course).

According to new research released last month by the science journal Nature, humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction with human-generated climate change in the vanguard of the menace. The report reveals that our planet’s biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a “tipping point.” Earth’s ecosystems are nearing a sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to decent human life. The authors describe a rapid “state shift” once the tipping point is reached – a sharp difference with the mainstream view that environmental decline will take centuries. “It’s a question of whether it is going to be manageable change or abrupt change. And we have reason to believe the change may be abrupt and surprising,” said co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada’s British Columbia.

“The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations,” stated lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried,” he said in a press release. “In fact, some are terrified.”

The report, written by 22 scientists from three continents ahead of this year’s laughably tepid and inconsequential United Nations  Rio+20 climate summit,[11] claims that the “state shift” is likely. They think that humans “may have a small window over the next few decades to redesign their relationships to each other and to nature through international cooperation to avoid extinction.” [12]

“The Great Melt…A Commons-Despoiling Tragedy”

A recent special 14-page cover story in the proudly neoliberal-capitalist Anglo-American weekly magazine The Economist is dedicated to an interesting topic: “The Vanishing North: What the Melting Arctic Means.” The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and at a much quicker rate than the direst predictions expected, Economist researchers found, adding that “The shrinkage of the sea ice is no less a result of human hands than the ploughing of the prairies. It might even turn out as lucrative. But the costs will also be huge. Unique ecosystems, and perhaps many species, will be lost in a tide of environmental change. The cause is global pollution, and the risks it carries are likewise global. The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man.”

Candid acknowledgement of harsh realities is permitted in media venues targeting ideologically safe system coordinators. They should have added: “a powerful symbol of humanity’s self-destruction and murder of other species.”

Torn between thrill over the short-term profit opportunities offered by the retreat of Arctic ice and long-run horror at deepening environmental catastrophe, The Economist notes the reluctance of the world’s multinational petroleum corporations to acknowledge the viciously circular, mutually reinforcing relationship between the vanishing of the North and the extraction of previously un-reachable Arctic oil and gas resources:

“In the long run the unfrozen north could cause devastation. But, paradoxically, in the meantime no Arctic species will profit from it as much as the one causing it: humans…. the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich…The Arctic…has oil and gas, probably lots…Oil companies do not like to talk about it, but this points to another positive feedback from the melt. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels will allow more Arctic hydrocarbons to be extracted and burned.”[13]

The more oil and gas they extract, the more they melt the North. The more they melt the north, the more oil and gas they extract. “Positive feedback” is an interesting term for a process that The Economist calls at the end its report “a textbook illustration of the commons-despoiling tragedy that climate change is.” Serious thinkers and activists might wish to dig a littler deeper on the subjects of which “humans” are going to profit most from “the great melt” in the short-term and whether it is really “a paradox” that a profits system might extract profit (for some “humans” – if that’s how he want to describe the sociopaths who extract personal gain from the ruination of livable ecology) from a process that is certain (there is no reason, really, to use the magazine’s qualifier “could”) to “cause devastation” over “the long run.”

“In a Rational World”

Health care policy is a hot U.S. news item this steamy election summer. The declining environment is not. This is unsettling. With vast parts of the American West in climate-induced flames, with a remarkable climate-driven derecho (straight line wind storm) having just swept from the Midwest to the east coast (devastating the Washington D.C. area, killing more than 20 people, and wiping out electricity for millions), with the melting of the Arctic and yet more record-setting temperatures being registered across the country and in the nation’s capital, Eco-cide really ought to be a bigger story than last week’s Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, which, Dr. Angell notes, “will have little long-term impact on our health care.”[14] It is only what the radical philosopher John Sanbonmatsu calls the as “the #1 issue of our or any time.”

“In a rational world,” Krugman opined (to his credit) in September of 2009, “the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern (emphasis added).”[15] But now as then, global warming registers low on the list of the issues that most worry Americans amidst an ongoing economic crisis that makes the need for more jobs (widely perceived as opposed to environmental regulation in a political climate shaped by petro-corporate propaganda) paramount in the minds of many. American politicians feel little popular pressure to buck the awesome power and influence of leading oil, gas, and utility corporations who spend tens of millions of dollars annually to promote junk science to deny climate change and to smear serious climate scientists as enemies of American prosperity and freedom.

“Physics and Chemistry Don’t Compromise”

A different and related difference between the health care and the climate issues underscores the absurdity of the latter’s secondary status in the ranking of public concerns. It is one thing to speak Barack Obama’s language of incremental change and of not making “the perfect the enemy of the good” when it comes to economic or health care policy. With these and other “normal” policy issues, Bill McKibben noted two years ago,  it is partly acceptable “to split the difference between different positions, make incremental change, and come back in a few years to do some more. It doesn’t get impossibly harder in the meantime – people will suffer for lack of health care, but their suffering won’t make future change impossible.”

Global warming is different. It “is,” McKibben observed, “a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on their other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise. They’ve already laid out their nonnegotiable bottom line: above 350 [carbon] parts per million [ppm in the atmosphere] the planet doesn’t work.” [16]

If we are serious about averting environmental catastrophe in the next generation we cannot take a letter grades approach. We are in pass-fail territory[17] – and failing badly – in that policy realm. And if we continue on our current eco-cidal path, Noam Chomsky noted last year (in a widely read speech to Occupy Boston), then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”[18

The Great Destroyer

Different as they may be in these and other ways, the health care crisis and the ecological crisis share two key similarities. First, on climate change and the broader environmental crisis as with health care, Obama has egregiously betrayed his “progressive base” in accord with his standard accommodation of reigning corporate and financial elites. Among other forms of unfaithfulness to those who value livable ecology, he has repeatedly signed off on the escalation of offshore drilling, most recently on the exploitation of the previously protected Alaskan Arctic.[19] (Those interested in a fuller record of Obama’s environmental perfidy can see two recent ZNet essays of mine:  “Less Than Zero: the 1 Percent and the Fate off the EarthandCranking Up the Heat: On the Chances for a Decent Future.”

Second, the health care and ecological crises find a common taproot in the same basic underlying profits system that Obama likes to praise as the source of “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.”[20]  Much the same can be said for other great underlying developments that poison the current American moment.

  • The rise of a deeply racist mass incarceration and criminal branding and surveillance complex that puts at least 3 million Americans behind bars each day and saddles more than 1 in 3 black adult males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record.
  • The permanent, structural nature of unemployment for millions of Americans – a livable wage employment vacuum so deep that the current economic crisis can seem worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s because this time we sense – all too correctly – that most of the jobs that have been shredded are never coming back.
  • A concentration of wealth and power so great that the top 1 percent now owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s net worth, more than 57 percent of the nation’s financial wealth, and a probably larger share of the nation’s elected officials – this in a country where the bottom 40 percent owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth, essentially nothing.
  • A concentration of wealth so great that six inheritors of the Wal Mart fortune, six Walton heirs, together possess as much wealth as the bottom 30 percent of the country.
  • A de-unionization of the American working class so steep that the percentage of workers enrolled in unions has fallen from more than 40 in the early 1960s to less than 10 percent today.
  • The investment of well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars each year on a globally and historically unmatched military empire than kills and maims with impunity, swallows (and protects U.S. access to) deadly petroleum reserves on an almost unimaginable scale, and maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 supposedly sovereign nations.
  • The eclipse of democracy in a neoliberal state where business power has not merely the dominant political shadow cast across society (as John Dewey put it nearly a century ago) but a dark cloud that envelopes society and pushes both of the reigning political organizations (hardly even real parties anymore) so far to the right of the populace that it becomes hard to see the U.S. as anything but a corporate plutocracy.

With its inherent privileging of private profit and exchange value over the common good and social use value, with its intrinsic insistence on private management, with its inbuilt privileging of the short-term bottom line over the long-term fate of humans and other living things, with its deep sunk cost investment in old and cancerous ways of life and death, with its reliance on endless growth (real and illusory) to keep equality at bay,[21] and with its attachment to the division of the world into competing nations and empires that are incapable of common action for the global good,[22]capitalism is the great destroyer of social, political, and literal biological health at home and abroad. It is socially and institutionally hard-wired kill off the chances for a decent, desirable, and democratic future.

As the environmental tipping point/“state shift” looms ever closer, it is clear that centrist incremental-ism won’t do the job. It’s either the revolutionary reconstitution of society or what two officially unmentionable anti-capitalists called in 1848 the only alternative: “the common ruin of the contending classes.”[23] To prioritize ecology and green issues is not to demote or delay radical democratic transformation and socialism. It means the elevation and escalation of the left historical project,[24] for saving ourselves from environmental ruin poses what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to in 1968 as “the real question to be faced…the radical reconstruction of society itself.” And it poses that question with a strong emphasis on what Dr, King used to call “the fierce urgency of now.”

This latest blistering 4th of July, We the People would do well to get to work drafting and acting on a new Declaration of Independence – one that expresses our deep enmity to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital, empire, and eco-cide. This is our pass-fail moment. We’ve got a generation at most to clean up this hot stinking plutocratic mess and to create a world turned upside down and worth inheriting from a capitalist elite that has nothing left to offer humanity but en ever-deepening descent into death and destruction.

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