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Link: How Much Meat is too Much?

"Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat" by Philip Lymbery, with Isabel Oakeshott Bloomsbury, 426 pp, £12.99, January, ISBN 978-1-4088 4644-5

"Planet Carnivore" by Alex Renton. Guardian, 78 pp, £1.99, August 2013

Vegetarians, we say, are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance?

Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this. But I suspect that the root of our hostility is more basic. It isn’t so much that they remind us of the slaughterhouse – meat itself does a pretty effective job there – as that they make a mockery of our unthinking preferences. What we’re protecting when we ridicule vegetarians isn’t our own ignorance about the way meat is produced – however it’s done, killing animals for food isn’t nice – but our taste for it: the smell of sausages sizzling in a pan, the charred umami crust of a good steak, the pink tender pieces of a rack of lamb. Meat tastes good, ergo vegetarians must be idiots.

It sounds a little selfish, though, to say that we’re prepared to squander the world’s resources and see animals die to satisfy our taste for savoury dinners, so we think up other excuses. We say we eat only small quantities or only free-range and ‘happy meat’ (unless we are buying take-out curry or a sandwich, when different moral rules seem to apply). We talk of ‘cuisine’ or ‘tradition’ or how it’s ‘in our nature’ as human omnivores to eat meat. When all else fails, we invoke what nutritionists call ‘the wisdom of the body’: we’d be happy to go vegetarian, if only our bodies weren’t telling us they needed meaty replenishment.

The prospect of meat as it is produced in the modern farming system, however, is not so appealing. In Farmageddon, Philip Lymbery – chief executive of the charity Compassion in World Farming – suggests that mass market meat is leading to ‘the death of our countryside … and billions starving’. For two years Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, travelled the world to investigate ‘factory farming’. The horrors they witness will come as little surprise to anyone who has read Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence, Eric Schlosser or any of the previous exposés of factory-farmed meat, but they make grim and startling reading even so. If you can get beyond the title, the great virtues of Farmageddon are its global reach and eyewitness accounts of the many grotesque landscapes – seabeds without oxygen, fields without wildlife, chickens without beaks – generated by our love of meat.

In Taiwan, Lymbery and Oakeshott see half-dead chickens being scooped into rubbish bags; in Argentina, they meet tribespeople forced off their land to make way for soya farms growing animal feed; in India, they track the wave of suicides among peasants no longer able to make a living; in California, they hear of children who have asthma because they live near a ‘mega-dairy’ housing around 10,000 cows; in China, they see a village where there is no clean water because of the excess of pig effluent from a nearby farm, run by a company producing a million pigs a year. Near the farm, they notice some strange poplar trees, whose trunks are bare and leaves and branches wilting. ‘We scrambled along the edge of a maize field, and then up a steep bank, and there we saw the source of the problem: a huge lagoon of putrid watery muck.’ This farm, ‘ironically’, had received accreditation from the UN ‘on the basis of its environmental record’.

One of the best, most truly alarming chapters investigates the fishmeal industry in Peru. The lunacy of this business is that it involves taking a valuable protein that very few people eat enough of – oily fish – and turning it into a protein that is less healthy and that we already eat to excess: broiler chicken.

Fishmeal is one of the filthiest secrets of the factory-farming industry, an environmental catastrophe that involves sucking millions of tonnes of small fish out of the sea and crushing them into fish oil and dry feed for farmed fish, pigs and chickens. The process deprives millions of larger wild fish, birds and marine mammals of their natural prey, drastically depleting stocks of important species. It also pumps vile fatty waste into ocean bays, creating ‘dead zones’; pollutes the atmosphere around processing plants, causing widespread human health problems; and diverts what could be a highly valuable source of nutrition for people to industrially farmed animals.

In Chimbote – one of the places where Peruvian fishmeal is fashioned from dried cakes of rotting fish – 20 to 30 per cent of the population suffers high levels of malnutrition. Many of the children have lesions on their skin caused by the fumes the fishmeal factories emit. They are surrounded by oily fish – the stench of it in the air, a slick of grease floating on the water – but few of the locals eat it. ‘As little as 1 per cent of the highly nutritious anchoveta caught off Chimbote is likely to end up on dinner plates’; the remaining 99 per cent goes to feed chickens in faraway countries. Lymbery and Oakshott meet Javier Zabaleta, the secretary of the local fishing union, who wishes Peruvians would eat more of the local fish. ‘Peruvians,’ he says, ‘are not used to eating darker flesh-coloured fish – we prefer white fish, chicken and other meat.’ These Peruvians have every reason to approach meat warily, yet even they – like the rest of us – cannot get enough.

Not all meat is produced in equally vile conditions, but for supermarket meat it is the norm by a colossal margin. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer noted that there wasn’t enough ‘non-factory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island’. Farmageddon states that ‘99 per cent of broiler chickens in America’ are reared in the worst kind of processing plants, where many chickens are diseased and ‘in such poor shape they can barely walk’, while the minimum-wage workers are likely to have hands swollen to double the normal size from being pecked when they catch the birds for slaughter. Even if you can stomach the thought of the way the animals and workers live, there’s still the problem of resources. Nearly ‘a third of the planet’s land surface’ is devoted to ‘rearing farm animals or growing their feed’. If the cereals fed to animals reared for meat went instead directly to humans, an extra three billion people could be fed – roughly the number currently at risk of malnourishment. Yet, for all this, Lymbery is careful not to side with the vegetarians. You ‘don’t have to choose between eating cereals or meat’, we are assured. This book, he insists, is not ‘anti-meat’, though by the time you get to the chapter ‘Bugs’n’Drugs’, tracing the ‘vast tide of disease’ coming from meat – MRSA from antibiotics in pigs, salmonella from broiler chickens – you wonder why it isn’t. If anything, the extent to which meat makes people ill is underplayed. Though only briefly discussed in Farmageddon, a particularly nasty form of food poisoning called campylobacter spreads like wildfire in overcrowded chicken sheds; it infects 65 per cent of all British chickens, yet hardly anyone seems to have heard of it. In 2009, it caused 17,500 hospitalisations in the UK (200,000 across the EU) and it’s the reason you should never order chicken liver paté at a wedding (because the livers are cooked pink).

Farmageddon’s premise is that there are better ways of producing meat. For Lymbery, the evil is not the slaughterhouse itself, but cheap meat like the £2 supermarket chicken whose full cost is not apparent at the point of sale. Chandran Nair, the environmentalist who runs the Global Institute for Tomorrow, ‘argues that the true economic cost of a US$4 burger, if you factor in the externalities (such as the cost of converting grain to meat, water and energy use) is “something like US$100”’. Advocates of mass-produced meat take the view that it offers huge benefits to the poor: once a chicken was a special treat, now it is an everyday staple. ‘They talk as if industrial farming is some kind of driver of equality,’ Lymbery notes. But cheap meat has the unintended consequence of pushing up the price of everything else, disproportionately affecting the poor, who still depend on grain for their calories. Global meat production creates a bloated demand for grain, which exacerbates the effects of inflation when harvests are hit, as they were in 2010-11 thanks to hot dry conditions across Europe, Africa, America and Australia. It is the poor who live with the direct consequences of industrial meat production: they are the ones whose homes are on the banks of pig lagoons, whose babies suffer respiratory disease from pesticide spraying. In Argentina, Lymbery and Oakeshott see what happens when a field with a picturesque duck pond and a fig tree is replaced with a cattle feedlot consisting of thousands of cattle in a sea of mud. ‘Around us was GM soy, interspersed by a lot of weeds and more mosquitoes than any of us had ever seen in one place.’

If this is a picture of the end of the world – Farmageddon – Lymbery finds an alternative future – Farmutopia? – at Highgrove, the organic estate in Gloucestershire owned by the Prince of Wales:

The farm is home to 180 dairy cows, 150 suckler cows, 130 breeding ewes that produce around 200-220 lambs a year, and a few rare-breed pigs. It works on a crop-rotation system, a seven-year cycle designed to maximise the richness of the soil. Organic mutton from Home Farm is sent to Calcot Manor, a luxury hotel near Tetbury, and to the Ritz in London.

Quite apart from his admiration for ‘His Royal Highness’, Highgrove satisfies Lymbery’s criteria for sustainable meat in numerous respects. First, and foremost, it offers a mixed system of agriculture, the ‘happy partnership’ between animal and crop rearing that was the normal way of farming before ‘industrialisation divorced them’ in the postwar era. Second, it is run organically: Lymbery cites calculations by the Soil Association that organic meat production is more ‘energy-efficient’, with organic beef using 35 per cent less fuel than non-organic and organic lamb 20 per cent less. Third, in contrast to the profligacy of the industrial meat system, Highgrove is run with minimal waste: ‘there’s a bespoke reedbed sewage system to process royal excrement.’ Fourth, the produce of Highgrove is nice and expensive, priced too high for the masses to gorge on it: what is not sold to luxury hotels goes under the Duchy Originals label in Waitrose.

If all meat production were more like this the future for meat-eaters would be rosy. Or so Lymbery believes. Farmageddon is a curiously consoling book for a British meat-eater because, once you’ve waded through all the horror, you can think, at least I haven’t forced any tribespeople off their land lately and thank God I’m not buying my chickens in Taiwan. Despite being gluttons for meat, the British have always prided themselves on superior animal husbandry, abhorring the Continental cruelty of eating tiny songbirds or unnaturally white veal, and Farmageddon shares some of this mood of self-congratulation. Thanks in part to the lobbying power of bodies such as Compassion in World Farming, four British supermarkets now stock exclusively free-range eggs and nearly a quarter of the chicken sold is produced to higher welfare standards: ‘free-range, organic or RSPCA Freedom Food Standard’. Compassion in World Farming gives an award for the most compassionate British supermarket every year: it passes ‘back and forth between Waitrose and Marks & Spencer’.

In his final chapter, on ‘consumer power’, Lymbery states that ‘avoiding Farmageddon is easy.’ Which makes you wonder why he chose to call his book that in the first place – if Armageddon is easy to avoid then it can’t be Armageddon. But Lymbery hopes we can shop our way out of it, without doing anything extreme like becoming vegetarian: ‘As long as we buy products from animals reared on the land (free-range, organic), favour local producers or retailers that we trust, eat what we buy and thereby reduce food waste, and avoid overeating meat, we can fill our plates in ways that benefit the countryside, our health and animal welfare.’

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That’s a relief! But the crucial questions are not answered. What would it mean to ‘avoid overeating meat’? How could populations ever be persuaded to do so? I suspect that all meat-eaters claim to ‘avoid overeating meat’, in the same way that all wine drinkers are ‘moderate’. Farmageddon suggests that ‘going meat-free on Mondays’ is ‘a simple step towards avoiding factory-farmed produce’. Yes, it would be simple but it wouldn’t be anything like enough. The true ratio required for a future of sustainable meat-eating would be something more like meat on Mondays only. For a book that paints such horrific pictures of the disease, misery and squalor of factory farming,Farmageddon seems curiously determined to spare our feelings when it comes to the sacrifices that would be required in terms of our meat-eating habits.

If the meat industry looks ugly now, it is nothing to what it might be like if and when India and China catch up with the levels of meat consumption in the West. One of the major consequences of an expanding middle class in Asia has been a huge rise in meat-eating. By 2022, China will be importing more soya for chickenfeed than the whole of Brazil currently produces: 102 million tonnes. One of the surest signs of affluence is and always has been eating more meat. It’s the way you celebrate having risen above the carbohydrate-eating peasant classes. In A Vindication of Natural Diet in 1813, the vegetarian Shelley noted that ‘it is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for dead flesh, and they pay for the greater license of the privilege, by subjection of supernumerary diseases.’ The difference today is that cheap meat means you don’t have to be quite so wealthy to tip over into the carnivorous demographic. Currently, the whole of Asia gets through around 18 billion chickens a year. If consumption continues to rise at current levels, by 2050 this figure will have increased more than tenfold to 200 billion chickens. But China and India will never be able to live like this – ‘simply because there isn’t enough to go around’. Lymbery appears to hope that higher meat prices will force consumption down, but since meat-eating is a consequence of wealth, prices would need to rise astronomically to have an impact. It would be as easy to persuade Americans to take their turn at eating dal and rice for a few centuries – it’s only fair – as it would to tell the new Asian middle classes not to buy meat for their families.

In Planet Carnivore, an excellent short ebook, Alex Renton looks into how much meat we’d have to give up in order to be sustainable. Renton points out that even though eating meat has become more popular in India, ‘the average Indian consumes a thirtieth of the meat that an Australian or an American does – around 4.4 kg in 2009’ whereas in the US it is ‘120 kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone’. To reduce our consumption enough to mean that intensive farming could be abandoned would entail getting much closer to Indian levels, which for many would feel like virtual vegetarianism.

Renton cites Vaclav Smil, an energy expert from Canada, who has calculated that the world could comfortably accommodate a global output of 190 million tonnes of meat per year, two-thirds of current supply, if crop residues could be turned into animal feed and pasture could be used more efficiently. Universal vegetarianism is not necessary or desirable, in Smil’s view: animals are just better at digesting some things than humans, notably grass and food waste. Anyone in the world could eat meat, if they wanted to, on Smil’s model, so long as individual consumption was kept at around 15-30 kg a year: roughly what the average Japanese eats. This sounds good until you realise that average meat consumption in the UK is 89.1 kg a year; to get to Smil’s sustainable levels would involve cutting down to somewhere between a sixth and a third of the meat we now enjoy (15 kg a year works out at just 41 grams a day). A rib-eye steak at Hawksmoor in Covent Garden (400 g) would take you over your weekly limit in a single sitting. To reach Japanese levels of meat consumption, we would have to backtrack on the promise of the postwar years of plenty that meat could be a staple food. This would represent what Smil calls a shift from ‘massive carnivory’ to ‘rational meat-eating’.

Such a turn of events is not very likely, as Renton admits, because in order for the necessary reforms of the farming system to take place, there would need to be some ‘democratic, accountable and supranational body’, similar to the one that John Boyd Orr hoped would be set up by the UN after the war: a World Food Board. This would integrate ‘transport, human and animal health, the environment, agriculture and aquaculture and financial systems’ and guide ‘food production, trade and distribution’, working with the ‘food ministries of every nation’. Only then could the change in meat production happen, with ruminants restored to ‘their original, pre-19th-century … niche where they eat the things humans cannot in places where crops cannot be grown’ and safe food waste fed to ‘pigs, goats and chickens’. Renton does recognise, however, that there is no prospect of such an agency. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in existence since 1945, certainly shows no sign of playing this role. As Renton says, ‘it has no teeth: it is an advisory and research body.’ Moreover, since its main remit is to alleviate malnutrition, its ‘programme in meat and meat products’ currently focuses on increasing meat production in developing countries, especially poultry – the goal is 7.3 kg of animal protein per person per year – rather than decreasing demand or supply in developed countries.

There are few signs that we genuinely want to eat less meat, or enough less to make a difference. Perhaps we could start with a hard-hitting ad campaign, like the ones they run against drink-driving at Christmas, showing what happens when a bad batch of chicken livers collides with a wedding marquee: the vomiting, the misery, the hospitalisations. But who’s going to pay for it?

Link: Who's Afraid of Ruins?

Capitalism is locking-in climate change for centuries, but in the process, making radical social change more realistic than tinkering around the edges.

I : Ruins

There is an oft-quoted passage from the Spanish anarchist militant Buenaventura Durruti. Many readers will know it by heart. It reads:

It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. […] That world is growing in this minute.

Durruti’s quote brims with the optimism of a social revolution in full-flow. The insurgent proletariat and peasantry had met an attempted military coup in the streets, and in response launched a profound social revolution. Land and workplaces were seized and reorganised along collectivised lines, moving as fast as possible towards libertarian communism.

Three months later, Durruti was dead. The revolution was not far behind. Starved of arms and isolated, the movement stalled. Uneasy collaboration with the republican forces put the revolution on hold. Stalinism and the remnants of the republican state put it into reverse. And with the revolution dead and nothing left to fight for, Franco’s forces swept the remnants into prisons and mass graves. Durruti’s optimism gave way to fascism, and the unparalleled destruction of the Second World War.

Eight years, seven months, and twenty-six days after Durruti’s death, the ruins got a lot scarier. The Trinity test, the world’s first atomic bomb, exploded with a yield of 20 kilotons in the desert of New Mexico. Soon after, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, were reduced to ruins in an instant. The mass destruction of World War II could now be visited on cities in a single warhead. The spectre of mutually assured destruction would dominate the remainder of the twentieth century, as warhead yields grew and delivery mechanisms proliferated, with long-range jet bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched nuclear weapons.

II : Climate change

Today, we are facing an arguably graver threat. During the Cold War, the inertial logic of realpolitik, with a few near misses, worked towards survival. Mutual destruction was assured in the case of any state launching a nuclear strike. Survival required, in effect, that states did nothing.

But with climate change, this logic is reversed. Now, it is inaction which assures mutual destruction. The inertia inherent to the states-system has thus far scuppered all attempts at a binding international emissions reduction framework. The already weak Kyoto Protocol expired without replacement, and the professed goal to agree a new protocol by 2015 looks a lot like kicking the can down the road. This time wasted is time we don’t have.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes use of ’Representative Concentration Pathways’. These represent four outcomes for atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and their associated ‘radiative forcings’ in 2100.1 In the most aggressive of the pathways, RCP-2.6 (also known as RCP-3 PD, for peak and decline), atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020 and decline thereafter (atmospheric concentrations lag behind emissions, so the peaks come later).

It is worth noting that RCP-3 PD only gives a 66% chance of avoiding 2 degrees C average global temperature rises (relative to 1750, a.k.a. ‘pre-industrial levels’). 2 degrees C is internationally acknowledged as the ‘danger level’ above which ‘tipping points’ are likely to be reached, activating amplifying feedbacks such as ice-albedo, release of methane from warming ocean clathrate deposits, and release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.

Once such tipping points are reached, climate change becomes irreversible and self-catalysing. This is commonly called ‘runaway climate change’. However some prominent climate scientists, such as James Hansen, believe even this 2 degree target is too high, and reflects more a convenient political sound bite than sound science. The true danger level may be just 1.5 degrees C.

RCP-3 PD is not going to happen, barring immediate, drastic cuts to fossil fuel use. At least 1,199 new coal-fired power plants are currently planned worldwide, which in itself makes a 2020 peak of greenhouse gas emissions impossible. The window for gradual, reformist climate change mitigation may already have closed. The window for revolutionary climate change mitigation is rapidly closing.

III : Disaster communism

To speak of disaster communism is not to express a preference for a post-apocalyptic style. It is a sober realisation of the irreversible climate change which is being locked-in by present day development. Neither is it to claim that disasters are particularly fertile grounds for communist rupture. It is true that property relations do tend to break down in disasters (self-organised mutual aid is usually labelled ‘looting’), and contrary to sensational reports of war of all against all, mutual aid does tend to predominate. But it’s hard to claim devastation as a sufficient, or even desirable, basis for a communising insurrection. That’s the case even if it does draw class lines, and brings looters into conflict with the state (as with Hurricane Katrina), or provides space for self-organised disaster relief (as with Hurricane Sandy).2

Rather, to speak of disaster communism is to recognise the Earth we inherit is one where the ice caps are melting, the glaciers are retreating, the sea levels are rising, the oceans are acidifying, food webs are collapsing, the rate of extinctions is growing, storms are getting stronger, flooding is becoming commonplace, and where agriculture will struggle to adapt to changing climate. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth is driving climate change. But even if it is overthrown, even if that happens soon, we’ll be living with the consequences for centuries, or even millennia. That is, if we’re living at all. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report notes dryly that “unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.”

To take one example, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4-6 metres. Under all but the RCP-3 PD pathway, the eventual loss of the WAIS is likely to be a question of when, not if. Current estimates put the timescale on centuries to millennia. However, the WAIS is theoretically vulnerable to rapid collapse, not just gradual thawing, owing to something called the Marine Ice Sheet Instability (MISI) thesis.3 A recent paper in Nature Climate Change seems to confirm this MISI mechanism, reporting that the important Pine Island Glacier – the most productive in the WAIS in terms of iceberg calving - is “probably engaged in an irreversible retreat.” With a five meter sea level rise, much of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, large parts of the cities of Hull and Portsmouth in the UK, Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, the US Bay Area as far inland as Sacramento, and large parts of New York City are under water.4

To speak of disaster communism is to recognise that if communism is to emerge, it will do so in the anthropocene. As capitalism accelerates climate change, ‘possible’ reforms become utopian and ‘impossible’ revolution becomes realistic. We live in strange times. The bourgeoisie is blasting and ruining not just its world, but the Earth systems which sustain human civilisation. We are going to inherit ruins and abandoned cities, there is only the slightest doubt about that. But we still also know how to build, and to build better.

Link: Kurt Vonnegut: Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088

Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut

Link: The Fire Burns Yet

Native American peoples are still here and still caring for their land. Can their conquerors say the same?

A few years ago, I was invited to attend a traditional Haida memorial ceremony. It was for a prominent community member in Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia. Before the potlatch, a friend casually mentioned a highly unusual event. When the man had died a few months earlier, a school of killer whales came into the harbour, right up close to the shoreline near his house. Killer whales were one of the deceased’s hereditary crests, passed down through the family matriline.

On the Pacific Northwest coast, Haida families inherit rights of association with certain ‘totemic’ species by virtue of legendary events in which their respective ancestors were involved. Stories of one clan descending from a supernatural salmon or another emerging ancestrally from a cedar tree are typical. But such tales do not merely recount legendary events of the past: they shape how people interpret the present. So Raven, the central character of Haida mythology, brought light and fire (by theft) to the world, and enabled the original Haida to emerge from a clamshell. And today, many Haidas continue to interpret the actions of particular living ravens as communicating to them, signalling messages of value from which their human relatives might learn.

I had already heard, and read, many similar accounts of Native relationships with the natural world and witnessed too many unusual events to be wholly sceptical about killer whales coming to pay their respects to a human relative. So I nodded politely, placed the information in a mental compartment not for literal or scientific scrutiny, and gave the matter no further thought at the time.

At a key moment in the ceremony, a cedarwood box containing small amounts of traditional food (salmon, kelp, etc) is placed on a log fire to consume its material form, while the essence, transformed into smoke, carries upwards. In the ceremony I attended after hearing about the visit of the killer whales, the charred box fell perfectly into four neat sections, cleanly releasing the man’s spirit heavenwards. At that moment, I glanced up, and noticed two bald eagles alighting in a nearby pine tree. They remained there, apparently attending to the events below. Haidas noticed this too, though they gave no overt indication until one of the ministers added a prayer to her litany, thanking the Creator for sending them. Bald eagles, it turned out, were another of the deceased’s hereditary crests.

As an anthropologist, I am a scientist, and profess the standard commitment to search for objective truth via observation and reason; I cheerfully accept established scientific laws. Yet this commitment has often been challenged by my experiences among Native communities involving the natural world, which I am unable to explain by scientific reason. I have come to believe that such experiences point towards a different, genuinely sustainable relationship with nature. But taking account of them means listening much more carefully to other people’s world views than we have done to date.

As the world starts to feel the effects of burgeoning human populations, declining biodiversity, climate warming, sea-level rise, and severe weather events, humanity seems helpless. Our global economy is geared to endless growth, and the in-tandem consumption of resources and production of unmanageable waste. Well-meaning initiatives multiply with each passing day, but typically founder against the unthinkable prospect that we might actually change fundamental aspects of our behaviour.

Of course, our cumulative ‘Western’ knowledge, our science, indeed our technology, has produced many wonderful things, not least modern medicine. But the current organisation of our global economy, and its obsession with endless — often trivial — innovation keeps us stuck on a path that might easily lead to the demise of both our species and its habitat. Can we do no better? After 200,000 years ofHomo sapiens, and less than two centuries of living in industrial states geared to exponential technological innovation, must we just shrug in the face of the inevitable? Have another martini and watch our own sunset? Or are there other models from which we might learn?

I am a social anthropologist, British by birth, American by naturalisation. Since the late 1970s, I have spent a fair amount of time residing in and visiting Native communities throughout the US and Canada. Most of my resident fieldwork has been with the Hopi of Arizona, but I have also worked with some of the New Mexico Pueblos, the Hoopa of northern California, the Puget Salish of Washington State, the Cayuga and Mohawk of upstate New York, the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and other peoples of British Columbia, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi and Oklahoma.

As a Briton, I grew up with the idea (shared by many in Americans too) that American Indians had been assimilated, died off or, in all events, lost their traditional culture long ago. My undergraduate education in anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the early 1970s did nothing to correct this mistaken idea. North American Indian studies were almost entirely absent from my course of study, and none of my teachers had any experience of Native North American societies. Indeed, they tended to be disdainful of the very idea: Native Americans were somehow second-class indigenes, mentioned only in connection with ethnographic reconstructions of times long gone. As far as research went, Native American societies were either no longer extant or wholly acculturated and not suitable for anthropological study.

I began to realise how inapt this conception was when I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico. I went on some initial trips to the Rio Grande Pueblos led by Alfonso Ortiz, a Pueblo anthropologist. I learnt not only that Pueblo peoples were still fluent in their languages (six in all — Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keresan, Zuni and Hopi; except for the first three, all completely unrelated to each other), but also that they remained deeply attached to age-old ritual practices and to their subsistence economy. More than anything else, they were jealously protective of their autonomy from the dominant society.

As my experiences expanded, I have been continually astonished at the degree of cultural persistence across Native America. Wandering, with a Hoopa guide, on traditional lands of the Karuk and Yurok in northern California, I ran across preparations for the First Salmon ceremony, and a community life strongly grounded in their aboriginal heritage and the annual World Renewal cycle. On the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on the US-Canadian border, even after 350 years of intensive colonisation (including, in 1710, a visit to London of ‘the four Mohawk kings’ to meet Queen Anne, and, in the mid-1700s, fighting for Sir William Johnson in the Seven Years’ War), despite continuous missionisation since the 1640s, despite relocation and land appropriation, the St Regis Mohawks still conduct business in the Mohawk language. Some Coast Salish people of the Puget Sound still use traditional beliefs in guardian spirits, who are encountered at power spots in their environment, to guide their actions.

Where Native Americans have lost their languages, as for most of the Haida, Hoopa, Chickasaw, or Puget Salish, there remains a palpable sense of continuity with the deep past, especially in the persistent value placed upon the land, its life-forms, and its sustaining force. A striking example of this can be found in Native service in the US military. Native Americans have the highest per‑capita participation in the military of any ethnic group in the US. While the Navajo code‑talkers of the Second World War are well-known, they were preceded in this by Choctaw code-talkers in the First World War, and accompanied in the Second World War by code-talkers from other tribes, including Hopi, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, and Meskwaki. Long before this, in the 18th century, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, having formed an alliance with the British, split in their allegiances to Loyalists and Patriots in the Revolutionary War, with many fighting on both sides. Native Americans fought in large numbers in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, and every major foreign engagement over the past two centuries.

In view of the generally awful treatment they have received at the hands of successive US governments, it seems surprising that so many should continue to enlist. I asked a decorated Hopi Second World War veteran — a man proud of his military service and at the same time strongly committed to Hopi autonomy — about this apparent paradox. He said that Native American patriotism has some different dimensions from that of non-Native compatriots. He pointed out that Natives, as the only class of Americans who are genuinely non-immigrants, fight to defend the land itself, a land for which their ancestors fought and died over countless generations.

This sense of the land has outlasted all the treaties (and their breaches), all its disposition by private cession and government pre-emption, and all its formal alienation to non‑Native hands. Hopis, for example, continue to look to their aboriginal land Hopitutskwa (roughly, the northeastern quarter of Arizona) as both the meaningful landscape of their ritual practices and as their defining territory, even though they have formal control of only a small portion of that (the Hopi Reservation), with the great majority controlled by the federal government and private owners. Native enlistment in military service has a deeper-rooted and more encompassing reality than conventional loyalty to the modern nation-state — it is a commitment to the land and all its life-forms. Of course, many Native Americans are patriotic in the standard sense as well.

Learning from this way of being in the world will require serious attention to Native perspectives: not just as a prop for some Western-conceived environmentalism that marshals the same old metaphysics in new bottles, but with a goal of refiguring the culture-nature, mind-body split that dominates much of Western thought. Such splits tend to reduce nature, including the human body, to physical forms and processes. According to this world-view, only human beings have minds. Nature is thus deprived of intrinsic sentience or conscious intentions: without those, or with only a token acknowledgement of their existence — such as a concern for animal suffering in animal rights ­— there can be no genuine ethics in human relations with other species. And upon our dualist metaphysics is built a whole scheme of global practices — political, economic, medical, even religious — that, notwithstanding its benefits, is the underlying cause of the present global environmental crisis. This is why I believe that refiguring our world-view is a prerequisite to solving, or at least ameliorating that crisis.

The Haida have undergone extensive change since smallpox severely diminished their population and colonial authorities imposed harsh measures of assimilation in the late 19th century. Notoriously the ‘Residential’ schools were designed to detach children from their own culture and language, and from the 1890s to the 1950s the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremony, jailing people for participating in practices that decidedly transgressed against the protestant ethic and the accumulation of surplus. In the 20th century only a few elders continued to speak the language, and with the Canadian government’s suppression of the potlatch, traditional practices ebbed away.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a cultural renaissance in Haida arts, the potlatch has resumed, and totem-pole carving has flourished. Many people continue to collect subsistence foods — berries, greens, tender pine cones, salmon, clams, etc — expressing age-old habits of relationship, and acknowledging their fundamental dependence on the natural environment of Haida Gwaii (‘islands of the Haida people’). The acknowledgement is not just theoretical: it is saturated with the sense of mutual sentience and engagement: matter-of-fact reports of respectful killer whales and solicitous bald eagles are very much part of everyday life.

Some 2,000 miles south of the Haida rainforests and fishing cultures of British Columbia, the Hopi of Arizona’s high desert would have no trouble recognising these beliefs. Hopis are dry-farmers in a land without rivers or streams, and they depend on meagre annual precipitation to raise their principal crops of maize, beans, and squash. Many Hopis still farm subsistence crops, speak their language (although it is under threat), and continue to practise a religion — and a science — that is fundamentally attuned to environmental processes. The ritual enactment of Katsina spirits epitomises this.

Katsinas represent myriad forces of the natural world, ancestral deities, moral principles, and historical events. During the Katsina season (roughly January to July), the spirits still come each year from their homes in the mountains to dwell around the villages. With human individuals as their spiritual vehicles, they manifest themselves in dance performances in the kivas (ritual chambers) and plazas of the dozen Hopi villages. Katsinas also make themselves manifest as clouds rising from the mountaintops, bringing life-giving rain to nourish all life-forms in Hopi country. Hopitutskwa, Hopi land, is a living, breathing landscape. Tuuwaqatsi, the natural world, or specifically its life forms, populates this landscape. Hopis continue to sing to, celebrate, and propitiate both the landscape and its life forms — the stage and its play.

Just like the Haida, Hopis, who depend on the natural world for their spiritual and physical subsistence, look directly to it for guidance. For example, when a woman gathers plants for food or crafts, she typically returns to the places her mothers have been going for generations. More than once, I have heard a woman say that she feels directed by the plants themselves; sometimes, the plants want her to leave them for another time, and go to gather their more vigorous relatives in another patch. Plants, too, are sentient in this world-view, and have supernatural capacities beyond their intrinsic chemical properties. Some are regarded as particularly effective at drawing down clouds. Hopis have always sung to their plants.

The Hopi year is arranged calendrically; seasonal phenomena are anticipated and ensured by ritual practices. For example, in the cold of Powamuy (the purification month of February), Hopis conduct Powamu, the ‘Bean Dance’, planting beans in containers in the kivas, where a hot fire (nowadays in a pot-belly stove) germinates them quickly. On the day of the dance, Katsinas (here meaning the personated spirits) emerge from the kivas to distribute the bean sprouts among village households where they are added to harukwivi (bean-sprout stew) for a feast. The whole sets out in miniature the desired progress of the agricultural season: planting in April, carefully nurturing the crops until the first fruits at Niman (the Home Dance in July), and thereafter gathering and celebrating the harvest.

The Powamuy ceremony is both a prayer for the agricultural cycle and a ritual prefiguring of it. In the ceremony, Hopis express their wish that the season will be successful, recognise their critical dependence on natural forces larger than themselves, and acknowledge that unless they proceed with care and commitment, acting ethically in relation to nature as well as to each other, things could well go wrong. When things do go wrong — a drought, or excessive rainfall that washes away the fields, or a plague of grasshoppers — Hopis typically blame their own failings: they question whether their ‘hearts’ were truly right, whether they have acted thoughtfully, whether their intentions were pure.

Their whole relationship with the natural world is shot through with the same ethical structure in which they frame their relationship with fellow human beings. This does not mean that individual (or collective) actions always follow those ideals: people get jealous, betray each other, become angry, plot against each other, and so on. In this regard, Hopis are no different from the rest of humanity. But their ideals, norms, morals, and virtues — most graphically on display in ritual performances — point to mutual responsibility, and to collective effort for peace and harmony, in both the natural and the social world. There can be no harmonious society if the balance of nature has not been maintained — by the deliberate exercise of human attentions.

I first attended the Hopi Snake Dance in 1978. It was a powerful example of this deliberate strategy to shape natural events through forms of ritual attention. The ceremony (no longer open to outsiders) features the Snake Society dancing with live rattlesnakes and bullsnakes held in their mouths: they dance in a solemn swaying motion, before releasing the snakes into the desert to carry their prayers to the natural forces, especially the sources of rain. In Hopi thought, snakes are especially associated with water, and are the guardians of springs. Lightning and rain are explicitly associated with snakes and their movements. That first year, I staked out my spot in the dusty plaza at dawn, waiting all day through the August heat until the late afternoon ceremony. I was transfixed, not least by the palpable seriousness of the protagonists: this was not some tourist spectacle but a profoundly thought-out ritual engagement, an age-old practice that seemed to go back to the dawn of time. Sure enough, within half an hour of the dance’s ending, rain began to fall, though there had not been a cloud in the sky all day.

Since then, I have seen the Snake Dance on three other occasions: each time rain began falling within a short period after the dance concluded. Under such circumstances, it felt that my scientific world-view, which identifies weather events solely as meteorological phenomena, needed as much defending as Hopi ‘magical’ beliefs in the ritual power of their snake ceremony.

Like the Haida, the Hopi people have experienced much change over the past century. Many younger Hopis no longer understand the language, nor practise subsistence farming, and the communities experience problems typical of the rural West in general and Indian reservations in particular: widespread unemployment, health concerns including a high incidence of diabetes, alcoholism and substance abuse, and poverty. But, again like the Haida, some of the strength of Hopi traditions derives from the fact that they continue to live where they always have, unlike large numbers of American Indians who were forcibly removed from their aboriginal lands by government actions.

Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.

Hopis know that their traditional lifestyle is tough: Màasaw, the earth deity who greeted them upon emergence from the world below, agreed to accept them only if they were prepared to live his hard, simple way of life. While many Hopis are poor and live in what the federal government defines as substandard housing, the older houses are ones they built themselves with sandstone, clay, and logs, and their owners are not indebted to banks or mortgage companies. For a long time, some villages refused to accept water or electricity lines, disliking the spiderweb-like intrusion into the earth (where Muy’ingwu, the germination deity, has his dwelling), and foreseeing also that this would indebt them to non-local companies, and compromise their independence.

In recent years, to gain access to electricity, some Hopis have installed solar panels, which neither interfere with the earth nor are controlled by utility companies. Amid all the changes over the past century, a core feature of Hopi belief is the animacy of the natural world, and the sentience of all its inhabitants. These beliefs underlie a sense of interdependence that is occasionally reflected in actions and events that Western thought treats as impossible. Hopis continue to celebrate and value this world-view, and identify the environmental breakdowns of the world at large as the result of their fellow humans’ failure to follow a similar path.

Link: Green Capitalism: The God That Failed

The results are in: No amount of “green capitalism” will be able to ensure the profound changes we must urgently make to prevent the collapse of civilization from the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

The following is an updated version of an article that originally was published in the Real-World Economics Review. We consider Richard Smith’s article foundational to understanding the world we live in. Given its length, several sittings or a printout may be required to complete reading.

As soaring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drove global CO2 concentrations past 400 parts per million in May 2013, shell-shocked climate scientists warned that unless we urgently adopt “radical” measures to suppress GHG emissions (50 percent cuts in emissions by 2020, 90 percent by 2050) we’re headed for an average temperature rise of 3 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Four degrees might not seem like much, but make no mistake: Such an increase will be catastrophic for our species and most others. Humans have never experienced a rise of 4 degrees in average temperatures. But our ancestors experienced a four-degree cooler world. That was during the last ice age, the Wisconsin Stage (26,000 to 13,300 years ago). At that time, there were two miles of ice on top of where I’m sitting right now in New York City. In a four-degree warmer world “Heat waves of undreamt-of-ferocity will scorch the Earth’s surface as the climate becomes hotter than anything humans have ever experienced. … There will be “no ice at either pole.” “Global warming of this magnitude would leave the whole planet without ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.” Sea levels will rise 25 meters - submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world’s people presently live. Freshwater aquifiers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate - and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California. The “wholesale destruction of ecosystems” will bring on the collapse of agriculture around much of the world. “Russia’s harsh cold will be a distant memory” as “temperatures in Europe will resemble the Middle East. … The Sahara will have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and be working its way north into the heart of Spain and Portugal. … With food supplies crashing, humanity’s grip on its future will become ever more tentative.” Yet long before the temperature increase hits four degrees, the melting will have begun thawing the permafrost of the Arctic, releasing vast quantities of methane buried under the Arctic seas and the Siberian and North American tundra, accelerating GHG concentrations beyond any human power to stop runaway warming and sealing our fate as a species.(1)

Yet paradoxically, most climate scientists and even most climate activists have yet to grapple with the implications of their science: namely that GHG suppression on the order of 90 percent in less than 40 years would require a radical across-the-board economic contraction in the developed industrialized countries, and economic contraction is incompatible with a stable capitalism. On this point, the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers would appear to be right and pro-growth, pro-market environmentalists wrong: Under capitalism, growth and jobs are more often than not at odds with environmental protection. There may be some win-wins here and there. But for the most part, given capitalism, imposing big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means imposing big job cuts across industrialized economies around the world. That’s why, regardless of protests, no capitalist government on the planet will accept mandatory cuts in GHG emissions. Since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, when environmentalists began to turn to the market, “green growth” theorists and proponents have argued au contraire that “jobs and environment are not opposed,” that economic growth is compatible with emissions reduction, that carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade schemes could suppress GHG emissions while “green jobs” in new tech, especially renewable energy, would offset lost jobs in fossil fuel industries. Their strategy has failed completely, yet this remains the dominant view of leading climate scientists, including James Hansen, and of most environmental organizations.

All such market-based efforts are doomed to fail, and a sustainable economy is inconceivable without sweeping systemic economic change. The project of sustainable capitalism based on carbon taxes, green marketing, “dematerialization” and so forth was misconceived and doomed from the start because maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society; they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism so long as this increases profits. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns: For example, the science tells us that to save the humans, we have to drastically suppress fossil fuel consumption, even close down industries like coal. But no corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put themselves out of business, just to save humanity, and no government can suppress fossil fuel industries because to do so would precipitate economic collapse. I claim that profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform - not the other way around, as green capitalism theorists had supposed.

And contrary to green capitalism proponents, across the spectrum from resource extraction to manufacturing, the practical possibilities for “greening” and “dematerializing” production are severely limited. This means the only way to prevent overshoot and collapse is to enforce a massive economic contraction in the industrialized economies, retrenching production across a broad range of unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful and polluting industries, even virtually shutting down the worst. Yet this option is foreclosed under capitalism because this is not socialism: No one is promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched - and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. If they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse. So we’re all on board the TGV of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. As our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOs, capitalist economists, politicians and most labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that, so long as the global economy is based on capitalism and private property and corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to a collective social suicide - and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse. We can’t shop our way to sustainability, because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, reigional, national and international economic planning to reorganize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. I conclude, therefore, that if humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned eco-socialist economy.

I. SAVING THE EARTH FOR FUN AND PROFIT

In rejecting the antigrowth “limits” approach of the first wave of environmentalism in the 1970s, the pro-market theoretical founders of pro-growth “green capitalism” in the 1980s and ’90s, Paul Hawken, Lester Brown and Francis Cairncross, argued that green technology, green taxes, green labeling, eco-conscious shopping and the like could “align” profit-seeking with environmental goals, even “invert many fundamentals” of business practice such that “restoring the environment and making money become one and the same process.”(2) This turn to the market was an expression of broader trends from the 1980s in which activists retreated from collective action to change society in favor of individualist approaches to trying to save the world by embracing market forces - “shopping our way to sustainability.”(3)In the market mania of the Reagan-Clinton era, Herman Daly’s plea for imposing “limits to growth” came to seem dated - like Birkenstocks and Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome houses. Many American environmentalists bought into the “doing well by doing good” message of green capitalism because there had never been much of a left or socialist presence in the American environmental movement beyond a small anarchist fringe, unlike Europe, where many if not most greens were also reds. So it was easy for American environmentalists to go with the market - and there were jobs. Protesting didn’t pay the rent. Some became eco-entrepreneurs or signed on with one or another of the hundreds of new green businesses from organic foods to eco-travel to certifying lumber or fair trade coffee that sprang up in the ’80s and ’90s. Others connected with mainstream environmental NGOs like the Sierra Club to focus on petitioning and lobbying efforts. In these and other ways, through the ’80s and ’90s, protesting gradually gave way to lobbying and promoting green capitalism.

"There is No Polite Way to Say That Business is Destroying the World”  

Of all the eco-futurist writers of the 1980s and ;90s, entrepreneur and “Natural Capitalism” guru Paul Hawken has probably been the most influential voice for eco-capitalism. Hailed by Inc. magazine as “the poet laureate of American capitalism,” Hawken says he was inspired to pen his best seller, Ecology of Commerce (1993), when his company Smith & Hawken won the prestigious Environmental Stewardship Award from the Council on Economic Priorities in 1991. When George Plimpton presented the award to Smith & Hawken at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Hawken says he “looked out over the sea of pearls and black ties, suddenly realizing two things: first, that my company did not deserve the award and, second, that no one else did either. What we had done was scratch the surface of the problem. … But in the end, the impact on the environment was only marginally different than if we had done nothing at all. The recycled toner cartridges, the sustainably harvested woods, the replanted trees, the soy-based inks and the monetary gifts to nonprofits were all well and good, but basically we were in the junk mail business, selling products by catalog. All the recycling in the world would not change the fact that [this] is an energy-intensive endeavor that gulps down resources.” For the reality, Hawken said, was that:

Despite all this good work, we still must face a sobering fact. If every company on the planet were to adopt the best environmental practices of the “leading” companies - say, the Body Shop, Patagonia or 3M - the world would still be moving toward sure degradation and collapse. … Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife preserve, wilderness or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world. (4)

So business is destroying the world. But, for Hawken, the problem wasn’t capitalism as such, but just bad “business practices” of corporations which, he thought, could be fundamentally “inverted” to save the world: “[T]his behavior is not the inherent nature of business, nor the inevitable outcome of a free-market system.” The problem was that “the expense of destroying the earth is largely absent from the prices set in the marketplace. A vital and key piece of information is therefore missing in all levels of the economy.”(5) The key was to get the market to “tell the ecological truth.” In her Harvard Business School manifesto for green capitalism, “Costing the Earth,” the Economist magazine’s environmental editor, Francis Cairncross, said “Governments need to step in to align private costs with social costs … [as] embodied by the ‘polluter pays’ principle.’ “ (6) And in his book Eco-Economy, Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown explained that “Ecologists and economists - working together - can calculate the ecological costs of various economic activities. These costs could then be incorporated into the market price of a product or service in the form of a tax.” So carbon taxes and the like would “discourage such activities as coal burning, … the generation of toxic waste, the use of virgin raw materials … the use of pesticides, and the use of throwaway products.” (7) Paul Hawken even went so far as to claim that “[T]here is no question that we could introduce a steady, incremental phase-in of a carbon tax on coal, one that would eventually tax coal out of business in two decades’ time.” “The whole key to redesigning the economy is to shift incrementally most, if not all, of the taxes presently derived from ‘goods’ to ‘bads,’ from income and payroll taxes to taxes on pollution, environmental degradation and nonrenewable energy consumption. … The resulting changes in the marketplace would be dramatic. Every purchase would become more constructive and less destructive.” Hawken described his vision of “Natural Capitalism” thusly:

The restorative economy described in this book … unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes.

In such an economy … restoring the environment and making money would be the same process. Business … needs a plan, a vision, a basis - a broad social mandate that will turn it away from the linear, addictive, short-term economic activities in which it is enmeshed and trapped. … Rather than argue about where to put our wastes, who will pay for it, and how long it will be before toxins leak out into the groundwater, we should be trying to design systems that are elegantly imitative of climax ecosystems found in nature. Companies must re-envision and re-imagine themselves as cyclical corporations, whose products either literally disappear into harmless components, or … [produce] no waste [at all.]” (8)

NRDC founder and Yale Dean Gus Speth summed up this utopian vision of the market in green capitalism as well as anyone:

The market can be transformed into an instrument for environmental restoration; humanity’s ecological footprint can be reduced to what can be sustained environmentally; the incentives that govern corporate behavior can be rewritten; growth can be focused on things that truly need to grow and consumption on having enough, not always on more; the rights of future generations and other species can be respected. (9)

The “sustainable” “green” “natural” capitalism movement took off in the 1980s and ’90s: Organic farming came into the mainstream, and Whole Foods became the fastest-growing sector of the grocery industry. Green businesses sprouted up in every sector from renewable energy to organic cottons to eco-travel. Stores added green products in every aisle. Hip, eco-conscious businesses like Patagonia gave “1% to nature.” (Ben & Jerry’s gave 7½ percent!) “Sustainable investing” mutual funds looked to fund renewable energy. “Green certification” outfits sprung up to save the tropical forests and the sea turtles. Eventually, even big corporations like 3M and Walmart embraced green “business practices,” cutting waste, recycling, and producing and adopting less toxic products. Europe introduced the first large-scale cap-and-trade system in January 2005. Finland introduced the first carbon tax in 1990, and many other countries followed suit, including Sweden, Germany, Britain, South Korea, South Africa, Korea, some provinces of Canada and even some American states, including Maryland, Colorado and California.

The Green Capitalist God That Failed

There can be no doubt that we are better off for many of these initiatives. But two decades on, for all the organic groceries, the energy-efficient lightbulbs, appliances and buildings, the carbon trading and carbon taxes, the global ecology is collapsing faster than ever. Climate change, as Bill McKibben tells us in his new book, Eaarth, is no longer a distant threat; it’s already upon us. CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are growing at four times the rate they grew in the 1990s. 2010 was the hottest year on record, and the 2000s the hottest decade on record. From peat fires around Moscow to huge floods in Pakistan, super hurricanes, super storms, super winter snowfalls and floods or, alternately, extended drought (even both in Australia) are becoming the norm. Seas are rising and ice is melting faster than scientists imagined possible even as recently as 2007. Tropical forests continue to fall. Glacier melt is accelerating around the world with dire implications for agriculture from India to China, California to Peru. Rivers are drying up. Soil depletion continues unabated. Water tables are falling relentlessly around the world. Drought has become a permanent feature of the American Southwest, of Australia, of regions of Africa and the Middle East, and northern China. Ocean fisheries are collapsing right and left. Coral reefs, scientists now think, could die off in many places by mid-century and over the entire planet by 2100. Penguin colonies are at risk. The collective impact of nearly 7 billion people pumping their emissions into the atmosphere and dumping their excreta and toxics into drains and rivers that eventually issue into the seas is changing the chemical composition of the world’s vast oceans, threatening the future of living creatures in the oceans and those who live off the oceans. We’re destroying life and wiping out species so fast that, in Bill McKibben’s words, “We’re running Genesis backward, decreating.”(10) In short, for all the green initiatives, corporate business practices have changed little - or the little they’ve changed has had no great effect. From Kyoto to Cancun, governments have all made it abundantly clear that they will not accept binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions; they will not sacrifice growth today to save the planet tomorrow. Europe’s cap-and-trade scheme, the first large-scale effort, enriched traders and polluters but failed to put the brakes on the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions. What few carbon taxes governments actually imposed likewise have failed to stem emissions. At the end of the day, the project of green capitalism is in disarray.

II. DELUSIONS OF “NATURAL CAPITALISM”

III. CAPITALISM WITHOUT CONSUMERISM?

IV. CLIMATE CHANGE OR SYSTEM CHANGE?

Link: The New Revolutionaries: Climate Scientists Demand Radical Change

To prevent catastrophic climate change, Britain’s top experts call for emissions cuts that require “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”

“Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”[1] That was in a blog posting last year by Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University. One of Britain’s most eminent climate scientists, Anderson is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Or, we might take this blunt message, from an interview in November: “We need bottom-up and top-down action. We need change at all levels.”[2] Uttering those words was Tyndall Centre senior research fellow and Manchester University reader Alice Bows-Larkin. Anderson and Bows-Larkin are world-leading specialists on the challenges of climate change mitigation.

During December, the two were key players in a Radical Emission Reduction Conference, sponsored by the Tyndall Centre and held in the London premises of Britain’s most prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society. The “radicalism” of the conference title referred to a call by the organisers for annual emissions cuts in Britain of at least 8 per cent – twice the rate commonly cited as possible within today’s economic and political structures.

The conference drew keen attention and wide coverage. In Sydney, the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph described the participants as “unhinged” and “eco-idiots,” going on to quote a “senior climate change adviser” for Shell Oil as stating:

“This was a room of catastrophists (as in ‘catastrophic global warming’), with the prevailing view…that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems…a political ideology conference.”[3]

Indeed. The traditional “reticence” of scientists, which in the past has seen them mostly stick to their specialities and avoid comment on the social and political implications of their work, is no longer what it was.

Angered

Climate scientists have been particularly angered by the refusal of governments to act on repeated warnings about the dangers of climate change. Adding to the researchers’ bitterness, in more than a few cases, have been demands placed on them to soft-pedal their conclusions so as to avoid showing up ministers and policy-makers. Pressures to avoid raising “fundamental and uncomfortable questions” can be strong, Anderson explained to an interviewer last June.

“Scientists are being cajoled into developing increasingly bizarre sets of scenarios…that are able to deliver politically palatable messages. Such scenarios underplay the current emissions growth rate, assume ludicrously early peaks in emissions and translate commitments ‘to stay below [warming of] 2°C’ into a 60 to 70 per cent chance of exceeding 2°C.”[4]

Anderson and Bows-Larkin have been able to defy such pressures to the extent of co-authoring two remarkable, related papers, published by the Royal Society in 2008 and 2011.

In the second of these, the authors draw a distinction between rich and poor countries (technically, the UN’s “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1” categories), while calculating the rates of emissions reduction in each that would be needed to keep average global temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

The embarrassing news for governments is that the rich countries of Annex 1 would need to start immediately to cut their emissions at rates of about 11 per cent per year. That would allow the non-Annex 1 countries to delay their “peak emissions” to 2020, while developing their economies and raising living standards.

But the poor countries too would then have to start cutting their emissions at unprecedented rates – and the chance of exceeding 2 degrees of warming would still be around 36 per cent.[5] Even for a 50 per cent chance of exceeding 2 degrees, the rich countries would need to cut their emissions each year by 8-10 per cent.[6]

As Anderson points out, it is virtually impossible to find a mainstream economist who would see annual emissions reductions of more than 3-4 per cent as compatible with anything except severe recession, given an economy constituted along present lines.[7]

Four degrees?

What if the world kept its market-based economies, and after a peak in 2020, started reducing its emissions by this “allowable” 3-4 per cent? In their 2008 paper, Anderson and Bows-Larkin present figures that suggest a resulting eventual level of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent of 600-650 parts per million.[8] Climate scientist Malte Meinshausen estimates that 650 ppm would yield a 40 per cent chance of exceeding not just two degrees, but four.[9]

Anderson in the past has spoken out on what we might expect a “four-degree” world to be like. In a public lecture in October 2011 he described it as “incompatible with organised global community”, “likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’” and “devastating to the majority of ecosystems”. Moreover, a four-degree world would have “a high probability of not being stable”. That is, four degrees would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level.[10]

Reported in the Scotsman newspaper in 2009, he focused on the human element:

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving.”[11]

No wonder intelligent people are in revolt.

Market methods?

Anderson has also emerged as a powerful critic of the orthodoxy that emissions reduction must be based on market methods if it is to have a chance of working. His views on this point were brought into focus last October in a sharp rejoinder to United Nations climate-change chief – and market enthusiast – Rajendra Pachauri:

“I disagree strongly with Dr Pachauri’s optimism about markets and prices delivering on the international community’s 2°C commitments,” the British Independent quoted Anderson as saying. “I hold that such a market-based approach is doomed to failure and is a dangerous distraction from a comprehensive regulatory and standard-based framework.”[12]

Anderson’s critique of market-led abatement schemes centres on his conclusion that the two-degree threshold “is no longer deliverable through gradual mitigation, but only through deep cuts in emissions, i.e., non-marginal reductions at almost step-change levels.

“By contrast, a fundamental premise of contemporary neo-classical economics is that markets (including carbon markets) are only efficient at allocating scarce resources when the changes being considered are very small – i.e.marginal.

“For a good chance of staying below two degrees Celsius,” Anderson notes, “future emissions from the EU’s energy system … need to reduce at rates of around 10 per cent per annum – mitigation far below what marginal markets can reasonably be expected to deliver.”[13]

If an attempt were made to secure these reductions through cap-and-trade methods, he argues, “the price would almost certainly be beyond anything described as marginal (probably many hundreds of euros per tonne) – hence the great ‘efficiency’ and ‘least-cost’ benefits claimed for markets would no longer apply.”[14]

At the same time, the equity and social justice implications would be devastating. “A carbon price can always be paid by the wealthy,” Anderson points out.

“We may buy a slightly more efficient 4WD/SUV, cut back a little on our frequent flying, consider having a smaller second home…but overall we’d carry on with our business as usual. Meanwhile, the poorer sections of our society…would have to cut back still further in heating their inadequately insulated and badly designed rented properties.”[15]

Energy agenda

In the short-term, Anderson argues, a two-degree energy agenda requires “rapid and deep reductions in energy demand, beginning immediately and continuing for at least two decades.” This could buy time while a low-carbon energy supply system is constructed. A “radical plan” for emissions reduction, he indicates, is among the projects under way within the Tyndall Centre.[16]

The cost of emissions cuts, he insists, needs to fall on “those people primarily responsible for emitting.”[17] As quoted by writer Naomi Klein, Anderson estimates that 1-5 per cent of the population is responsible for 40-60 per cent of carbon pollution.[18]

While not rejecting price mechanisms in a supporting role, Anderson argues that the required volume of emissions cuts can only be achieved through stringent and increasingly demanding regulations. His “provisional and partial list” includes the following:

  •  Strict energy/emission standards for appliances with a clear long-term market signal of the amount by which the standards would annually tighten; e.g. 100gC02/km for all new cars commencing 2015 and reducing at 10 per cent each year through to 2030.
  • Strict energy supply standards; e.g. for electricity 350gCO2/kWh as the mean emissions level of a supplier’s portfolio of power stations; tightened at ~10 per cent per annum.
  • A programme of rolling out stringent energy/emission standards for industry equipment.
  • Stringent minimum efficiency standards for all properties for sale or rent.
  • World leading low-energy standards for all new-build houses, offices etc.

Enforcing these radical standards, he argues, “could be achieved, at least initially, with existing technologies and at little to no additional cost.”[19]

Economic growth

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, Anderson maintains, wealthier countries would need to forgo economic growth for at least ten to twenty years. Here, he bases himself on the conventional wisdom of “integrated assessment modellers”[20] – and arguably gets things quite wrong. Leading American climate blogger Joseph Romm last year came to sharply different conclusions:

“The IPCC’s last review of the mainstream economic literature found that even for stabilization at CO2 levels as low as 350 ppm, ‘global average macro-economic costs’ in 2050 correspond to ‘slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points’.  It should be obvious the net cost is low. Energy use is responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions, and energy costs are typically about 10 percent of GDP.”[21]

At a time when jobless workers abound, and large amounts of industrial capacity lie unused, mobilising resources and labour to replace polluting equipment could sharply increase Gross Domestic Product. Moreover, account needs to be taken of the absurdities of GDP itself – as a measurement tool that counts as useful activity building prisons and developing weapons systems. Anderson senses some of these contradictions when he states:

“Mitigation rates well above the economists’ 3 to 4 per cent per annum range may yet prove compatible with some form of economic prosperity.”[22]

Indeed, reconstructing our inefficient, polluting industrial system could allow the great majority of us to lead richer, more rewarding lives.

Reprisals

Where Anderson is not wrong is in anticipating, at various points in his blogging and interviews, that any serious move to cut emissions at the required rates will encounter fierce resistance. Huge industrial assets, primarily fossil-fuelled generating plant, would be “stranded”. Already-proven reserves of coal, oil and gas would need to be left in the ground.

Like the scientists accused in 2009 in the spurious “Climategate” affair, the people who spoke out at the Radical Emission Reduction Conference can now expect to feel the blow-torch of conservative reprisals.

Along with Anderson and Bows-Larkin, a particular target is likely to be Tyndall Centre Director Professor Corinne Le Quéré, who presented the scientific case for rapid emissions reduction. Four Australian academics who contributed via weblink, including noted climate scientist Mark Diesendorf, have already come under venomous personal attack in the Daily Telegraph.[23]

The “offence” committed by the Tyndall researchers is much greater than the loosely phrased e-mails that were seized on as the pretext for “Climategate.” With others in the climate-science community, these courageous people have shredded the pretence that polluter corporations and their supporting-act governments care a damn about preserving nature, civilisation, and human life.

Link: Climate Change, Resistance, and the Need for a Revolution

The numbers on climate change are so daunting, the only thing that might save us now is worldwide revolution.

So it’s come to this.

Last year, a researcher presented a paper on climate change at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting entitled ”Is Earth F**ked?” which advocated “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.”

Last month, the Philippines climate commissioner and self-styled revolutionary Naderev “Yeb” Saño held a 13-day fast in the midst of an international climate summit, just hours after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged his home country. In a tearful speech quoting Gandhi, he said: “We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway.”

And only last week, a conference of climate scientists in London explored the themeof “radical emissions reduction” after noting that “nothing that we’ve said or done to date about climate change has made any detectable dip whatsoever”. Via a weblink, author Naomi Klein compared the fight against climate change with the struggle against South African apartheid, and said, “an agenda capable of delivering radical emissions reductions will only advance if accompanied by a radical movement.”

Fed up with slow (or in some cases, backwards) progress on climate change, environmental advocates are mulling desperate measures. Emerging at the head of this pack is arguably the world’s most prominent climate scientist: James Hansen, a former NASA researcher turned activist.

In a provocative study published earlier this month, Hansen and a group of colleagues make the case for why radical action is needed. The now commonly embraced international target of keeping global warming at a maximum of 2°Cabove pre-industrial levels—a hard-won, but politically negotiated goal—is actually much too high, Hansen says, and we should instead aim for 1°C. That would be barely a blip higher than current levels of global warming (around 0.8°C), but still the highest level ever experienced over the 10,000-year course of human civilization. ”Our objective is to define what the science indicates is needed, not to assess political feasibility,” the paper says.

Hansen’s main point is simple: If the Earth hasn’t experienced temperatures warmer than 1°C as a result of natural climate variability for at least the last 100,000 years, that’s probably about where we should draw our human-caused global warming line-in-the-sand. Beyond that point, things start to unravel pretty quickly. Environmentalists have dubbed this acceleration of warming “the wheelchair curve“:

As warming crosses 1°C, Hansen and his colleagues’ research shows that additional heat is stored mostly in the deep ocean, where it can remain locked away for hundreds or thousands of years. (Water circulates very slowly down there). That essentially locks in further climate change, even if emissions are drastically reduced later on, because that circulating water will continually replenish the surface with relative warmth from below. Additional warming will also begin to trigger feedbacks (melting permafrost, thawing methane) that will unleash additional greenhouse gases and drive further warming.

As warming approaches 2°C, it locks in an additional 10-20 meters of sea level rise over the next few hundred years—enough to flood every coastal city in the world. Ecosystem collapse would be virtually assured, as plants and animals that have evolved into precise niches over hundreds of thousands of years are forced to adapt to new conditions in just a decade or two. Even assuming we eventually stop emitting CO2 completely, reaching 2°C could, the study shows, mean we remain above 1°C for hundreds of years or more.

And if warming goes over 2°C, Hansen and his colleagues present a familiar litany of climate impacts: mass extinctions, stronger storms, and increasingly severe effects for human health, along with “major dislocations for civilization.”

The study’s key takeaway is that unless CO2 emissions peak right about now—which they are clearly not doing—in just a few more years we will lock in a 2°C rather than a 1°C temperature riseThat will set climate impacts in motion for the next thousand years or so, barring advances in technology that are currently largely discredited as either too expensive or too impractical on the scale necessary to reverse the warming that’s already baked into the system.

Why emissions need to start falling now

As we reported recently, the UN has endorsed a carbon “budget”—a maximum of one trillion tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere to keep warming below 2°C. To stay below 1°C, Hansen et al argue that the world can burn only half this amount.

To achieve this, they say, global CO2 emissions would need to peak immediately and decline three times faster than the rate currently being discussed for inclusion into the next global climate treaty—a 90% reduction by 2030. The current UN plan (dotted line in the chart on the left below) won’t even be implemented until 2020 at the earliest. Even if by some miracle Hansen’s plan (the solid line in the chart on the left) took effect this week, he says we’d still have only a 50/50 shot at staying under 1°C.

But the cost of waiting is enormous. If global CO2 peaks in 2013—that is, sometime in the next week or so—followed by drastic reductions, we’re still locked in to climate change of 1°C or so until about 2100. If we delay this peak until 2030 (the green line in the chart on the right above), Hansen projects extensive climate-change impacts will continue for a further two centuries. If we delay until 2050 (the red line), dangerous climate change will be locked in until past the year 3000.

Basically, if we wait even a few years to implement anything less than a fossil-fuel starvation diet, momentum already built into the system nearly guarantees the climate is toast. To quote the study:

The inertia of energy system infrastructure, (i.e., the time required to replace fossil fuel energy systems) will make it exceedingly difficult to avoid a level of CO2 that would have highly undesirable consequences.

Why revolution is the only way

Hansen and his associates admonish the environmental community for doing the same things over and over again—advocating for renewable energy, recycling, and hybrid cars—and expecting different results. The change that is produced in this way is much, much too slow, they say. Their study concludes with what can only be characterized as a call to arms: a global challenge akin to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, begging the world’s young people to disrupt their governments and demand immediate action on climate change.

In short, we’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution—or in the words of the paper, “a human ‘tipping point’.”

Are there no other options? Hansen and his co-authors argue there is a sliver of hope the world could stay near a 1°C goal if there were a bilateral agreement between the US and China—the world’s two biggest carbon emitters. Such a deal would need to immediately implement a gradually escalating carbon tax, rebate the revenue to its citizens equally per person, and place trade duties on any other country not willing to join in. That could quickly shift the world to a low-carbon economy, perhaps with enough cushion to prevent the most dangerous aspects of climate change. However, the authors dismiss this possibility as extremely unlikely.

Another possible silver bullet, trusting technology to zap climate change via geoengineering (like sucking carbon dioxide directly from the air) is also a non-starter. Hansen et al calculate that the cost of immediately implementing free-air carbon capture, an unproven technology at large scale, would be around $50 trillion, though they admit that cost could come down a bit with future advances.

In Hansen’s view, young people have the best reason to fight the system. He has said he quit his job at NASA so he could more fully embrace climate activism, including a plan to sue the government on behalf of younger generations for failing to act on climate change in time. (At least in the United States, trying to sue corporations would probably fail). He explained his strategy of helping youth fight climate change through the court system in a recent op-ed for CNN.

And indeed, the US military already seems to be preparing for climate-induced mass protests, the Guardian reported in June, based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But as with all revolutions, the fight for the climate will need a catalyst. It’s unclear what that might be, especially when the very consumption culture that forms the bedrock of the present-day economic system is so ubiquitous—and also at the root of the climate problem itself. Young people growing up now contemplating their futures may have the biggest reason for alarm, but with a problem like climate change that feels complex, distant and abstract, it may be hard to make the urgency that Hansen expresses resonate broadly.

And even if a “human tipping point” comes—an Arab Spring for the climate—will it sustain its momentum or, like most of the recent uprisings, burn out or collapse into factional bickering?

Excerpt from “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life” by Kari Marie Norgaard

Introduction: The Failure to Act, Denial versus Indifference, Apathy, and Ignorance.

Environmental and social scientific communities alike have identified the failure of public response to global warming as a significant quandary. Most existing explanations emphasize lack of information (people don’t know enough information; climate science is too complex to follow; or corporate media and climate skeptic campaigns have misled them) or lack of concern (people are just greedy and self-interested or focused on more immediate problems). Such work emphasizes either explicitly or implicitly the notion that information is the limiting factor in public nonresponse to this issue, an approach that is often called the “informa- tion deficit model” (see, e.g., Bulkeley 2000). There is the sense that “if people only knew,” they would act differently: that is, drive less, “rise up,” and put pressure on the government. For example, psychologists Grame Halford and Peter Sheehan write, “With better mental models and more appropriate analogies for global change issues, it is likely that more people, including more opinion leaders, will make the decision to implement some positive coping action of a precautionary nature” (1991, 606). Researchers have lamented the confusion between global warming and the ozone hole (e.g., Bell 1994; Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994; Read, Bostrom, Morgan, et al. 1994), investigated the role of media framing (Bell 1994; Ungar 1992; Grundmann 2006, 2007), and described how understanding global warming requires a complex grasp of scientific knowledge in many fields. Also in this vein, John Sterman and Linda Sweeney examine public misperceptions of climate models as a cause for inaction. The authors conclude that “low public support for mitigation policies may arise from misconceptions of climate dynamics rather than [from] high discount rates or uncertainty about the impact of climate change” (2007, 606). Furthermore, they link this misunder- standing to the failure of response by U.S. policymakers. Yet as Daniel Read and his colleagues (1994) pointed out more than a decade ago, only two simple facts are essential to understanding climate change. If significant global warming occurs, it will be the result primarily of an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmo- sphere. And the single most important source of carbon dioxide is the combustion of fossil fuels, most notably coal and oil. How can it be that people don’t know these basic facts?

Finally, the information deficit approach cannot explain a para- doxical phenomenon: as evidence for climate change pours in, and as predictions become more and more alarming and scientific consensus increases, interest in the issue in Norway and elsewhere is declining. Biannual national surveys find a significant and steady downward trend in Norwegian interest and concern in the issue, with the percentage of respondents who replied that they were “very much worried” about climate change declining steadily from 40 percent in 1989 to less than 10 percent in 2001 (Hellevik 2002, 13; Barstad and Hellevik 2004).Hellevik’s explanation for declining concern is interesting: “A decline from such a high level of anxiety is to be expected. There are limits to how long it is possible for individuals to live with the extremely pessimistic environmental perspectives reflected in the 1989 results. Anxiety reduction mechanisms make people look for brighter aspects of development” (2002, 13). Although the situation is more complicated in the United States, we can see evidence of the same pattern here. For example, Paul Kellstedt, Sammy Zahran, and Arnold Vedlitz have found that increased levels of information about global warming have a negative effect on concern and sense of personal responsibility. In par- ticular, respondents who are better informed about climate change feel less rather than more responsible for it: “in sharp contrast with the knowledge-deficit hypothesis, respondents with higher levels of informa- tion about global warming show less concern” (2008, 120). Similarly, Jon Krosnic and his colleagues (2006) observed that people stopped paying attention to global climate change when they realized that there is no easy solution for it. They note that many people instead judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be taken.

In the United States, there is also the phenomenon of outright climate skepticism, in which 26 percent of the population does not believe there is scientific consensus that climate change is occurring (Krosnic 2009). Is this phenomenon at all linked with the larger majorities of the U.S. public who find global warming alarming, but who fail to take action? If so, how?

Existing studies of how people process information on climate change have focused largely on either the individual level, examining “mental models” and cognitive schemas (e.g., Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994), or the national level, carrying out large-scale cross-national surveys (e.g., Dunlap 1998; Saad 2002, 2007 Nisbet and Meyers 2007; Newport 2008; Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf 2008, 2010). No sociological work to date has taken an open-ended, ethnographic approach to the question of how people experience climate change. Results from the few studies that use interview data do not support the information deficit model. Instead, their results describe a complexity of response, situations of knowing and not knowing, and emotional ambivalence. Perhaps more significant, although information deficit explanations are indispensable, they do not account for the behavior of the large number of people who do know about global warming, believe it is happening, and express concern. Outright climate skepticism is flashy and attention grabbing, but survey data make clear that a much larger percentage of the Norwegian (not to mention U.S. and world) population is not skeptical (Hellevik and Høie 1999). If we look closely, these people’s inaction becomes an interesting, complex, and, I suggest, important barrier to social change.

Double Realities: Climate Change and Everyday Life

It was not long after my arrival in Bygdaby that I began to sense a paradox. Norwegians are among the most highly educated people in the world. Global warming was frequently mentioned during my time in Bygdaby, and community members seemed to be both informed and concerned about it. Yet at the same time it was an uncomfortable issue. People were aware that climate change could radically alter life within the next decades, yet they did not go about their days wondering what life would be like for their children, whether farming practices would change in Bygdaby, or whether their grandchildren would be able to ski on real snow. They spent their days thinking about more local, manageable topics. Ingrid, a local high school student, described how “you have the knowledge, but you live in a completely different world.” Vigdis told me that she was afraid of global warming, but that it didn’t enter her everyday life: “I often get afraid, like—it goes very much up and down, then, with how much I think about it. But if I sit myself down and think about it, it could actually happen; I thought about how if this here continues, we could come to have no difference between winter and spring and summer, like—and lots of stuff about the ice that is melting and that there will be flooding, like, and that is depressing, the way I see it.”

In the words of one person who held his hands in front of his eyes as he spoke, “People want to protect themselves a bit.” These voices are echoed in the United States. One of my female environmental studies students described how “solving global warming seems like such a daunt- ing task, and even I know that it can seem too overwhelming.” Another student observed, “Despite my knowledge of the wider climate issues, I am still living the same life.”

Community members in Bygdaby described this sense of knowing and not knowing, of having information but not thinking about it in their everyday lives. As one young woman told me, “In the everyday I don’t think so much about it, but I know that environmental protection is very important.” As a topic that was troubling, it was an issue that many people preferred to avoid. Or as Ingrid put it, “I think that there are lots of people who think, ‘I don’t have that problem myself; I can’t do any- thing about it anyway.’”

Community members describe climate change as an issue that they have to “sit themselves down and think about,” “don’t think about in the everyday,” “but that in between is discouraging and an emotional weight.” People in Bygdaby did know about global warming, but they did not integrate this knowledge into everyday life.

This state of affairs brings to mind the work of historical psychologist Robert J. Lifton. Lifton’s (1982) research on Hiroshima survivors describes people in states of shock, unable to respond rationally to the world around them. He calls this condition “psychic numbing.” Follow- ing his initial studies in Japan, much of Lifton’s work has been devoted to describing the effect of nuclear weapons on human psychology, par- ticularly for Americans (see, for example, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial [1995]). Out of this project, Lifton describes people today as living in an “age of numbing” (1993, 210) due to their aware- ness of the possibility of extinction (from the presence of both nuclear weapons and the capacity for environmental degradation). In this usage, numbing comes not from a traumatic event, but from a crisis of meaning. Lifton says that all of us who live in the nuclear age experience some degree of psychic numbing. We know that our lives can end at any moment, yet we live as though we do not know this. Lifton calls this condition the “absurdity of the double life.” We live with “the knowl- edge on the one hand that we, each of us, could be consumed in a moment together with everyone and everything we have touched or loved, and on the other our tendency to go about business as usual— continue with our routines as though no such threat existed” (1982, 4–5). According to Lifton, the absurdity of the double life profoundly affects our thinking, feeling, identity, sense of empowerment, political imagination, and morality. He writes, “If at any moment nothing might matter, who is to say that nothing matters now?” (1993, 23).

I adapt Lifton’s phrase “absurdity of the double life” in coining the term double reality to describe the disjuncture I observed that winter in Bygdaby. In one reality was the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life. In the other reality existed the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future weather scenarios. In the words of Kjersti, a teacher in her thirties at the local agricultural school: “We live in one way, and we think in another. We learn to think in parallel. It’s a skill, an art of living.” This disconnect between abstract information and everyday life is also reported by Norwegian sociologist Ketil Skogen, who finds that for young people in a rural Norwegian community, “environmental issues in general and global threats like the greenhouse effect in particular, are seen as abstract and irrelevant, and are generally not something young people think about” (1993, 232).

It can be easy to take such statements at face value, and most people do. But through his work on the sociology of cognition, Eviatar Zerubavel reminds us that society teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We learn “cognitive traditions” through a process of socializa- tion. Deciding whether to pay attention to a given idea or event in a given moment or not is a learned process that Zerubavel calls “optical socialization”: “Separating the relevant from the irrelevant is for the most part a social act performed by members of particular ‘optical’ com- munities who have been specifically socialized to disattend certain things as part of the process of adopting the distinctive ‘outlook’ of their com- munity. In other words, we learn what to ignore, and only then does its irrelevance strike us as natural or ‘logical’” (1997, 47).

Zerubavel tells us that rather than taking thinking as matter of fact, we need to realize that notions of what to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed. We learn what to see and think about from the people around us. Zerubavel’s work tells us that whether people notice information about climate change is related to socially shaped systems of perception and attention, whether they remember what they hear is a function of social systems of memory, whether it is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern; and the relevance of climate change to daily life is a function of socially shaped systems of cognitive organiza- tion (see Zerubavel 1997). “Cognitive traditions” or collective patterns of thinking differ from one “thought community” to another. How we think is part of culture and marks our participation in community. Cog- nitive traditions and thought communities thus shape how and whether groups of people think about climate change and whether they perceive the topic as relevant for everyday life. From the inside, boundaries of thought appear “natural,” and “commonsense” decisions about what to pay attention to or ignore appear strange only when we are outside a given cognitive tradition. Zerubavel (2002, 2006) calls this social shaping of our awareness, memories, and thought patterns the “social organiza- tion of denial.” Most research to date has examined denial on the level of individual psychology. Yet what individuals choose to pay attention to or to ignore must be understood within the context of both social norms shaping interpersonal interaction and the broader political eco- nomic context. Thus, Zerubavel argues, and I agree, that we need both psychology and sociology to study “the mental processes of attending and ignoring” (1997, 11). From the former perspective of individual psychology, people block information on their own as individuals, but from the latter perspective denial occurs through a process of social interaction.

Zerubavel also calls our attention to the normative aspect of how we direct our awareness. Indeed, in every community there are social rules for focusing attention, including rules of etiquette that involve tact- related ethical obligations to “look the other way” and ignore things we most likely would have noticed about others around us. “Not only does our social environment provide us with a general idea of what we can disattend, it very often also tells us what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore. In other words, there is an important (though relatively unexplored) normative dimension to relevance and irrelevance. Indeed, probably the main reason that our own focusing patterns seem so natural or ‘logical’ to us is that they are usually normatively binding” (Zerubavel 1997, 50).

But why would thought communities be normative? And if they are, then how are the boundaries enforced? Questions about whether people pay attention to climate change can suddenly start to look much like theoretical questions about the nature of power. In the midst of whether climate change is defined as near or far, relevant or irrelevant, we find entree into the heart of concepts such as hegemony and ideology and into the role of culture in the reproduction of power.

Ann Swidler’s Cultural Tool Kit and the Production of Culture

One of Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) key contributions to social theory is his emphasis on how social control is enacted through the acceptance of ideas that prevent social change and on the important role of culture in legitimating those ideas. If we entertain for the moment the notion that power may be located in the realm of culture, then we must next ask both how and why particular systems of memory or cognition concern- ing climate change are enforced. How exactly does power operate through culture? Up until the mid-1980s, many social scientists under- stood culture to shape human activity in a fairly static manner, through providing values that direct actions.

Then in 1986 Ann Swidler’s work described an alternative framework for a causal role of culture in social action. In a groundbreaking essay, Swidler describes how “culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a rep- ertoire or ‘tool kit’” (1986, 273). In her view, culture shapes social action not by providing guiding values, but by providing cultural components or “chunks of culture” (283) that can be used as tools by individuals to construct “strategies of action” (273). Such a “tool kit” may contain “symbols, stories, rituals and world-views which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems” (273). For example, “Publicly available meanings facilitate certain patterns of action, making them readily available, while discouraging others” (283). For Swidler, “This revised imagery—culture as a ‘tool kit’ for construct- ing ‘strategies of action,’ rather than a switchman directing an engine propelled by interests—turns our attention toward different causal issues than do traditional perspectives in the sociology of culture” (271). I build on Swidler’s tool kit concept in chapters 4 and 5.

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Link: Interview with Derrick Jensen

We speak with Derrick Jensen, who has been called the poet-philosopher of the ecological movement. He has written some 15 books critiquing contemporary society and the destruction of the environment. His many books include A Language Older than WordsEndgameWhat We Left BehindResistance against Empire, and Deep Green Resistance. “I think a lot of us are increasingly recognizing that the dominant culture is killing the planet,” Jensen says. “I think it’s very important for us to start to build a culture of resistance, because what we’re doing isn’t working, clearly.” 

Amy Goodman: We turn now to Derrick Jensen. He’s been described as the poet-philosopher of the ecology movement. Derrick Jensen has written some 15 books critiquing contemporary society and the destruction of the environment. In 2008 he was named one of Utne Reader magazine’s 50 visionaries who are changing the world. Among his books, A Language Older than WordsEndgameWhat We Left Behind, and Resistance against Empire. Derrick Jensen lives in northern California. I had an extended conversation with him in San Francisco and began by asking him to explain the title of his latest book, what he means by Deep Green Resistance.

Derrick Jensen: I think a lot of us are increasingly recognizing that the dominant culture is killing the planet. And we can argue about whether, you know, there will be a few bacteria left or whatever, but when 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, when there’s six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in parts of the ocean, when there’s dioxin in every mother’s breast milk, when background rates — or rates of extinction are a thousand to ten thousand times background rates, you know, it’s sort of just playing with numbers to talk about whether it’s killing the planet or simply mortally wounding it. And I think it’s very important for us to start to build a culture of resistance, because what we’re doing isn’t working, clearly.

I ask a lot of times why it is that environmentalists, as environmentalists — I include myself as a front line activist — I ask why it is that we lose so often. And there’s a couple of answers that really speak to me. One of them is that I think a lot of us don’t really know what it is we want, and we don’t think strategically very much. It’s like, so what do you want?

So, I don’t think that a lot of us think very clearly about what it is exactly we want. And, I mean, I do know what I want, which is I want to live in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before, and I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in every mother’s breast milk every year than the year before, and a world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before. And that’s part of — part of — one of the reasons I think that a lot of times we don’t win is, once again, I’m not sure that a lot of us know what we want.

And then another problem is that — there’s this absolutely extraordinary book called The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton, and in this book he describes how it was that men — people, but men in this case — who had taken the Hippocratic Oath could work in Nazi death camps. And what he found was that many of the doctors who worked in the death camps actually cared very deeply for the health of the inmates. And, you know, Mengele was, you know, horrible. But a lot of the sort of straight-line doctors were just — they would do whatever they could. They would give them an extra scrap of potato to eat or —- the inmates. Or they would hide them from the selection officers who were going to kill them. Or they would -—

Amy Goodman: To keep their experiments going?

Derrick Jensen: No, no, no. They would hide them from the selection officers who were going to kill them. They would do this to protect the inmate for that day. They would put them to bed, you know. They would actually do everything — if they were in pain, they would give them aspirin to lick. They would do what they could to help, except for the most important thing of all, which is they wouldn’t question the existence of the entire death camp itself. So they would find themselves working within the rules, however they could, to try to improve conditions marginally. And in retrospect, of course, that’s just not sufficient. And as a longtime activist, I see myself and other activists doing the same thing, that what we do is we do everything that is allowed by those in power to attempt to stop their destruction. But the problem is, whenever we figure out a way to use their rules to actually stop them, they change the rules.

Amy Goodman: Derrick Jensen, deep green resistance, what form should it take?

Derrick Jensen: Sometimes I get accused of being the violence guy, because I talk about capital of fighting back. But I don’t ever think that’s really fair, because I really consider myself the everything guy, that I want to put everything on the table and talk about, you know, all forms of resistance, and decide whether they’re appropriate or inappropriate for use. I don’t want to go in prejudging.

I think, for example, one man, all by himself, almost stopped World War II: Georg Elser. He was a trade unionist who didn’t like what Hitler was doing to the trade unions. So he got a job in a mine, stole some explosives, and he knew every year, on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, that Hitler would give a speech, and from 7:30 to 8:30, so he set a bomb to go off at 8:20, 1939. And unfortunately, because of the weather, Hitler gave his speech from 7:00 to 8:00 and left twenty minutes early. And so, my point is, I think that, in that case — you know, and we can certainly parse out cases where we think it’s appropriate to have militant response or non-militant response, but something I want to say about all that is that that’s not the real question for me. The real question is the distinction between those people who do something and those people who do nothing.

And I want to emphasize, too, that, for example, even the IRA at its strongest, or the U.S. military, for that matter, only about two percent of the people ever pick up weapons. Most of the people are doing support work. I mean, Maud Gonne was — excuse me, Maud Gonne was central to the Gaelic literature revival. She wrote plays, and she sang. And her son became the chief of staff of the IRA and later formed Amnesty International. And there’s this — I guess all I’m trying to say is that we need to ask ourselves, what do we want, and then to ask ourselves, how are we going to get there? And those are not rhetorical questions.

Amy Goodman: I mean, there is an easy resorting to violence. I think it’s the — comes from the model of the establishment. They like to say war is the last resort, but so often it is the first approach that the establishment takes, led by the military — and sometimes not led by. They’re the ones that know the suffering the most, so it’ll just be the civilian government. But do you want to take that model of violence as a way — even a way to deal? I mean, imagine if you took violence off the table, you didn’t justify the violence the establishment was doing by saying — or you didn’t answer by saying they’re doing violence, so it has to be met with violence. I mean, from your life, you talk a great deal about your own growing up and the role that violence played and how incredibly destructive it was. Why don’t we go there? Why don’t you talk about how you came to be Derrick Jensen? What has shaped you, influenced you, both negatively and positively? But this issue of violence that is so real, unfortunately not a metaphor in your life.

Derrick Jensen: Well, yeah. My father’s extremely violent — was, presumably still is. I haven’t talked to him for years. And he broke my sister’s arm. My brother has epilepsy from blows to the head. He raped my mother, my sister and me. And that — one of the things that that — and we can talk about the negative effects of that. You know, many years of therapy. And we can talk about, you know, the years of insomnia and the night terrors and all that. But I think the central way — there are a few people — I know you’re not saying this — there are a few people who say, “Gosh, he just wants to fight back because he’s projecting his own, you know, helplessness as a child onto larger culture. You know, he hates the big daddy now, you know, the Uncle Sam daddy.” And once again, I’m not suggesting you were suggesting that —- and that’s always been sort of a kind of a ridiculous critique, I’ve thought, because if my father would have been perfect, 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans would still be gone, and Coca-Cola would still be destroying aquifers in India, and 25 percent of all women in this culture would still be getting raped. And, you know, we could go all down the list, that -—

But one of the things that he — that that did do is it helped me understand — it helped me get a framework on which I could start to understand the larger movements of power in the culture and also the larger ways that discourse supports power.

Amy Goodman: What is the influence of Native Americans in your writing, in your work, in your activism?

Derrick Jensen: It’s another great question. And I have tried not to romanticize them, which is another form of objectification. And what I do know is I know that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live up in way northern California, they lived there for at least 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they lived there since the beginning of time, using a myth as stories that we tell ourselves that make the world fit together. So, in any case, the Tolowa lived there for at least 12,500 years. And when the dominant culture got there 180 years ago, the place was a paradise. I mean, salmon runs so thick that you could hear them for miles before you’d see them. Just — I learned this recently, that one of the — up in Canada, one of the things that people would do for fun when the salmon runs came in is they would throw a little pebble into the water, and they would see how long it would float on the backs of fish before it would hit the ground, because there were so many fish that the rock couldn’t make its way down. And, you know, I’m lucky if I see a half-dozen salmon in a year at this point.

So my point is that they do offer a model for — one of the things that abusers constantly want us to do is to believe that there is only one way to be, which is theirs. And this is true — you know, there’s the great line — I think it was Václav Havel — the struggle against oppression is a struggle of memory against forgetting. And one of the things we need to remember is that there have been other ways of living that have been sustainable. You know, the Tolowa lived there for 12,500 years, which is sustainable by any realistic measurement. And they didn’t do it because they were too stupid to invent backhoes. You know, why? Why? How did they look at the world differently that allowed them to live? It wasn’t because they were primitives. It wasn’t because they were savages. What did they have? They had social strictures in place.

Amy Goodman: Derrick, you’ve written, “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable.”

Derrick Jensen: Yeah. Several years ago, I was riding around in a car with a friend of mine, George Draffan, with whom I’ve written a couple books. And I was just making conversation. I said, “So, George, if you could live at any level of technology that you want to, what would it be?” And he was not in a very good mood that day, and he said, “That’s a really stupid question, Derrick, because we can fantasize whatever we want, but the truth is there’s only one level of technology that’s sustainable. And that’s the Stone Age. And we’ll be there again some day. And the only question really is, what’s left of the world when we get there?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any way of living that’s based on the use of non-renewable resources won’t last. In fact, I would say it takes anybody but a rocket scientist to figure that out. And likewise, it doesn’t take someone who’s very smart to figure out that if every year there are — fewer salmon return than the year before, that eventually there won’t be any left. I mean, there were so many passenger pigeons that they would darken the sky for days at a time. There were six times as many passenger pigeons than all the birds in the northern — in North America. Do we know why there aren’t any penguins in the northern hemisphere? The Great Auks? They were destroyed. And my point is that any way of life that’s based on the hyper-exploitation of renewable resources won’t last. You have to basically — in the book, What We Leave Behind, what we came to for a definition of “sustainability” is leaving the physical world in a better place than when you were born, that the world is actually a better place because you were born.

A lot of definitions of “civilization” that we see are not really very specific, and the definition I like the most, which is defensible both linguistically and historically, is civilization is a way of life characterized by the growth of cities — once again, defensible both linguistically and historically. And a couple things happen as soon as you — well, wait. Back up. So that’s great, Derrick, but what’s a city? A city, I’ve defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. And what this means, that the Tolowa didn’t live in cities, because they didn’t require the importation of resources. They didn’t live in cities; they lived in villages, camps, and they ate salmon. They ate what the land gave willingly.

And two things happen as soon as you require the importation of resources. One is that your way of living can never be sustainable, because if you require the importation of resources, it means you denuded the land base of that particular resource, and as your city grows, you’ll need an ever larger area. And the other thing it means is that your way of life must be based on violence, because if you require the importation of resources, trade will never be sufficiently reliable, because if you require the importation of resources and the people in the next watershed over aren’t going to trade you for it, you’re going to take it. And one of the problems with this whole system is that destroying your land base gives you a competitive advantage over the other cultures who don’t. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Phoenician and Egyptian navies. And if you destroy your land base, if you don’t care about the future, you can turn this into immediate power and then use it to conquer, and which is something you have to do, because you’ve destroyed your own land base. And as time goes on, you have to keep expanding. And that’s not a very good idea on a finite planet.

Amy Goodman: You’re a critic of environmental groups, a range of them, in terms of how we get to solutions around issues like global warming, groups like 350.org, for example, who on 10/10/10, October 10th, had something like 7,000 actions around the world, trying to put into people’s consciousness the idea that, you know, we have to change the way we do things, we’re heating up the globe. What is the problem with this, for you?

Derrick Jensen: Well, first I want to say that I have tremendous respect for Bill McKibben and for his tireless efforts to raise awareness about global warming, and so I don’t want to come across as criticizing him, because I think he’s doing very important work.

That said, one of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the planet which must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around. And that’s literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality, because without a real world, you don’t have any social system. You don’t have any social system at all. You don’t have life. You know, we’ve come to believe that our food comes from the grocery store and that our water comes from the tap, and that’s because it does. And that’s an extraordinary thing that the system has done, has been to interpose itself in between us and the real world, because if your experience is that your water comes from the tap and your food comes from the grocery store, you’re going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you, because your life depends on it. If, on the other hand, your water comes from a river and your food comes from a land base, you will defend to the death the river and the land base, because that’s what your life depends on. And so, that’s part of the difficulty, is this culture has inserted itself between, and it’s done that for us and then also happens all over the world. And that’s part of — it’s like, I have a friend whose ex-husband is Bangladeshi, and even 20 years ago, his mother would say to him, you know, “Go catch a fish for lunch from the river.” And now they can’t do that, because the river is so polluted by industries nearby that there’s no fish, and they now get their fish from Iceland. And that separation is part and parcel of how the system works.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.
— Friedrich Engels

Link: Marxism & the Environment: Excerpt from "Ecology & Socialism" by Chris Williams

“The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms—these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.” —Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

There is a widespread assumption among environmentalists that Marxism, as a “productivist” ideology, has little to say, and little concern, for the fate of the environment. Contrary to a common perception—much of it understandably based on the diabolical environmental depredations carried out in the name of socialism by the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and China—Marx and Engels had a much more holistic view of humankind’s place in the environment.

The idea that Marx and Engels were obsessed only with the conditions of workers comes from all quarters, right and left. They are often portrayed as writers who, it is conceded, may have been ahead of their times with their insightful economic analysis of capitalism but were typical of nineteenth century men enamored of the wonderful powers of technology to solve all of society’s ills. Their only contention, it is argued, was that technology should be owned and controlled by the workers, not the capitalists. Thenceforth, it could be unleashed upon the planet for the furthering of the interests of the entire human race without a thought to natural limits.

According to this view attributed to Marx, through control of the means of production and mastery of nature mankind would be set free. Most often Marx’s ideas are described as “productivist” or Promethean after the Greek god Prometheus, who stole the technology of fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. The Promethean view is shown to be true by selected excerpts from the writings of Marx and Engels and the evidence of “actually existing socialism” as it used to be in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and as it still exists in China and other “socialist” countries not known for their ecological stewardship, such as North Korea and Vietnam. Marxist scholars John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett have done much to refute this version of Marxism and the presumptive original sin of Marx and Engels with which all past and future socialist projects are taken to be tainted.2

This topic is important because we need not just a critique of the past but also a vision for the future, one that is rooted in historical experience and theoretical cogency that we can build on and develop. Just as socialism needs to be rescued from the distortions of some of its supposed practitioners, so the writings of Marx and Engels should be recognized for their usefulness in examining the natural world and human relationships to it. This is not to take every word of Marx and Engels as the gospel truth more than a hundred years after they wrote them. Rather it is to argue that the methodology of Marxism holds key insights into our relationship to nature that are extremely useful for understanding our place in the biosphere and interaction with it.

The language of socialism and the mantle of Marx and Engels were adopted by Stalin in the USSR, Mao in China, and other “socialist” societies not to further the course of socialism but to derail it. While going into detail on the nature of these regimes is beyond the scope of this book, it should be clear that if socialism means anything, it is the free association of the people who do the work raising themselves into power to collectively and democratically decide the future course of society.3 The workers and peasants who make the revolution should bear its fruits. That is, they democratically decide the direction of the economy and society in the interests of the vast majority; a society where production of goods is based on human need, not profit.

After the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, nowhere has this been true of any society claiming to be socialist. Each society is run from the top down in the interests of a bureaucratic ruling elite who run the state as a one-party fiefdom. The interests of the ruling Soviet elite became associated with the interests of a state in economic and military competition with the West.

In other words, the same factors that propel capitalist production—the need to compete and drive out the competition—reigned within these regimes. Flowing directly from this came the need of each of these one-party states to constantly raise productivity and dispense with any environmental, democratic, or labor concerns in the manic drive toward economic and technological parity with the Western powers. It was the severe lack of power of the working class in the “socialist” countries, not its untrammeled freedom, which created the conditions for the extreme ecological vandalism seen there. As Stalin commented, what took the West one hundred years to accomplish, the Soviet Union would do in ten.4 This chapter will therefore explore the real legacy of Marx and Engels and subsequent Marxist thinkers as it relates to enhancing our understanding of the human social relationship to the natural world.

While life will evolve and biodiversity will eventually be reestablished on a planet that is 60ºC warmer than today, it will do so on a timescale vastly greater than human planning and life spans could possibly contemplate. It took fifty million years for biodiversity to recover from the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. In the interim period, 50 to 90 percent of species currently extant will die out as they will be unable to adapt fast enough to such rapid changes and the resulting breakdown in ecosystems within which these species are embedded. It is not just the overall amount of climatic change that will be so devastating to ecosystems, but just as importantly, the rate at which that change occurs. Alongside such drastic reductions in biodiversity, human misery will multiply. Mass migration, droughts, floods, wars, and famine will be endemic rather than periodic features of a greatly constrained human society.

Frederick Engels outlined over one hundred years ago the contradictions between an exploitative, short-term relationship of humanity to nature and the long-term problems that would inevitably engender:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season… Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.5

This failure to take into account the long-term, unintended consequences of human actions reaches its height of contradiction under capitalism where both the scale of the destructive impact of these unintended consequences, as well as the scientific and material means to overcome them, develop in tandem. Writes Engels:

Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organization of which it is the theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.6

Today, all the solutions to climate change are already technologically feasible, and we have the means to implement them on a global scale, as well as the knowledge of what will happen if we don’t. We are being held back not because solutions don’t exist or money is not available, but because current social relations will not allow for them. As Leon Trotsky wrote in 1926:

I remember the time when men wrote that the development of aircraft would put an end to war, because it would draw the whole population into military operations, would bring to ruin the economic and cultural life of entire countries, etc. In fact, however, the invention of the flying machine heavier than air opened a new and crueler chapter in the history of militarism. There is no doubt now, too, we are approaching the beginning of a still more frightful and bloody chapter. Technology and science have their own logic—the logic of the cognition of nature and the mastering of it in the interests of man. But technology in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technology is in the service of militarism.7

Today, we clearly have governments overtly committed to militarism to extend the economic reach of their own national group of capitalists. As all mainstream predictions by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency point toward growing worldwide use of fossil fuel energy, waiting for real and meaningful solutions to emerge from governments guarantees humanity a desperate future and many species a short one. The raison d’être of capitalism is profit based on continual economic expansion. Capitalism has, in effect and in practice, alienated humanity from nature by privatizing the land and making all things into commodities—even pollution itself. On this alienation from nature, Marx explains, “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product.”8

Capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding. According to a 2000 study carried out by five major European and U.S. research centers:

Industrial economies are becoming more efficient in their use of materials, but waste generation continues to increase…Even as decoupling between economic growth and resource throughput occurred on a per capita and per unit of GDP basis, overall resource use and waste flows to the environment continued to grow. We found no evidence of an absolute reduction in resource throughput. One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year.9

Let’s dwell on that last sentence for a second: One-half to three-quarters of industrial inputs returned to the environment as wastes within a year!

Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. Philosophically, the approach that capitalism takes to the environment, and the attitude it forces us to adopt, is one of separation and alienation. As a species we are forcibly cut off from the land, separated from nature, and alienated from coevolving with it. It’s an attitude amply summed up by Marx in volume 1 of Capital:

Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…. The social combination and organization of the labor processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.… Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.10

Marx and Engels viewed humans not as something separate from the environment, as capitalist ideological orthodoxy does, but dialectically interconnected. Writes Marx on the relationship between nature and humanity:

Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.11

The organism interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on the organism. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be shaped at will by whatever life-form comes along, but plays a role in making the organism what it is. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed with each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction and transformation. Environmental niches don’t just pre-exist so that some happy organism that just happens to wander by at the right time can slot itself in. The very idea of an environment has no meaning unless we are talking about an organism’s relationship to it. For Marx and Engels, writing in The German Ideology, human activity had the potential to alienate all creatures from their environments:

The “essence” of the fish is its “being,” water… The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence.12

Climate, and the earth’s ecosystem more generally, is dynamic and complex; it is best viewed as a process of many interacting factors. Every change feeds back and creates new effects on all actors. This leads to the concepts of tipping points and holism—both central within Marxism. Violent shocks to the system over relatively brief timescales have dominated previous climate swings, as have the revolutionary social changes that ushered capitalism onto the world historic stage. Rapid changes to natural and social systems can be seen to operate in analogous ways. Stresses that accumulate in climate systems and human societies often do so without much outward sign until rapid and extreme changes seem to burst forth almost out of nowhere. Under the surface however, what seem like small, inconsequential “molecular” changes were taking place that eventually led to the radical and abrupt shifts to entirely new systems. In regard to climate change, this is the thesis of Fred Pearce’s book With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.

In this sense, rapid climate change and revolutionary social change are analogous because they both exemplify the sudden transformation of quantity into quality. The great concern among scientists is that we are fast approaching just such a tipping point with regard to global climate. In the social realm, the great concern among many other people is that we are not approaching just such a corresponding social upheaval fast enough to prevent us from going beyond a systemic breakdown in a stable global climate.

To end the contradiction between humanity and nature requires “something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”13 To truly end the exploitation of nature in the service of profit requires that the profit motive be excised from society in a revolutionary reconstitution by the majority on whose labor the system depends. The right to privately own the land and the means of production, which lies at the very root of capitalist economics and forces the population at large to work for a living at the behest of private capital, must be abolished. Only by holding land, along with the instruments of production, in common and producing to meet social need will the simultaneous exploitation of nature and humanity end. Only then can we interact with nature according to a conscious plan, utilizing the scientific knowledge and technique that we already possess to organize production and distribution on a completely new footing that thus establishes a more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature. The methodology developed and used by Marx and Engels offers insightful clues as to how to do that.

Link: Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene

… The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.

Geological time scales, civilizational collapse and species extinction give rise to profound problems that humanities scholars and academic philosophers, with their taste for fine-grained analysis, esoteric debates and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and contemporary metaphysicians going to keep Bangladesh from being inundated by rising oceans?

Of course not. But the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to live?” In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?

These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

Learning how to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed incredibly dangerous, even though statistically I was pretty safe. We got shot at and mortared, and I.E.D.’s laced every highway, but I had good armor, we had a great medic, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. The odds were good I would come home. Maybe wounded, but probably alive. Every day I went out on mission, though, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole.

“For the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him,” wrote  Simone Weil in her remarkable meditation on war, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” “Yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” That was the face I saw in the mirror, and its gaze nearly paralyzed me.

I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”

I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end. When I left Iraq and came back stateside, I thought I’d left that future behind. Then I saw it come home in the chaos that was unleashed after Katrina hit New Orleans. And then I saw it again when Sandy battered New York and New Jersey: Government agencies failed to move quickly enough, andvolunteer groups like Team Rubicon had to step in to manage disaster relief.

Now, when I look into our future — into the Anthropocene — I see water rising up to wash out lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see 82nd Airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste, and plagues. I see Baghdad. I see the Rockaways. I see a strange, precarious world.

Our new home.

The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization isalready dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

Link: Ecological Sociology: Foucault, Power, Truth and Ecology

Understanding the interplay of power[i],[ii] identity, and social change is critical to those who recognize that modern societies are at the limits to growth, in ecological overshoot[iii] and undergoing a first phase reaction of economic contraction;[iv] disintegration of modern finance, as evidenced by massive corruption and wealth destruction;[v] and political upheaval[vi]. While responses to these dilemmas can take the form of involvement in community localization, disengagement from modernism, studying yoga and Zen Buddhism, shrugged shoulders, political activism, or focusing on one institution –like health care, education, transportation, public banking, or the food supply, they all contain layers of nuance involving the relationships among power, identity (personal and collective) and social change.   

I want to speak to those who feel, as the cultural, thermodynamic and biophysical clocks enter the eleventh[vii] hour,[viii] either confounded or bludgeoned and “powerless” facing the deep-seated cruelty, incapability and intransigence of modern civilization to recognize overshoot and the limits to growth. I speak also to those who have a seemingly contrary reaction: flickers of intrepidness and hope despite recognition of enormous obstacles and dilemmas. This essay in addition is addressed to health professionals, most of whom do not comprehend overshoot and the limits to growth but find themselves in hierarchical bureaucratic systems that will increasingly malfunction and are susceptible to punctuated collapse[ix] or “failure cascade”[x] –which will present the best opening for fundamental change- as the world lunges into degrowth.

Almost all contemporary governments are ignoring or misinterpreting economic contraction, resource scarcities and biophysical crises and dilemmas by intensifying their servility to the neoliberal[xi] model of society, which operates in terms of debt-based economic growth; class exploitation; and fundamentalist faith in “The Market,” where individuals are told “there’s no such thing as society” and, therefore, they are free to be “entrepreneurs of [themselves]”[xii][xiii] –and are personally to blame if they fail to climb an economic ladder of  opportunity[xiv]. Those cognizant of ecological dilemmas realize this system cannot be resuscitated and is in fact beginning to break apart. They realize that modern culture remains captive to the neoliberal[xv]political/economic/cultural paradigm as it produces further ecological destruction, increasing socioeconomic inequality – allegedly to revive the economy, a side “benefit” is the spoils of class warfare- and proceeds with the temporarily successful privatization of public goods and services, social control measures of secrecy in government policy[xvi] making[xvii] and embracing embryonic[xviii] totalitarianism[xix] in the guise[xx] of protecting[xxi] the homeland.[xxii]

Simultaneously, neoliberal governments delude themselves[xxiii] and propagandize their citizens that this corporatocracy[xxiv] is not just the best option, but also the only feasible model of governance in the modern world. Since they believe the status quo offers the only way forward, corporatocracy members regard themselves[xxv] as the select evolutionary elite[xxvi] to manage[xxvii] 21st century society.[xxviii] The opposite is the case;[xxix] and this will become manifest even to them as, for example, the power of climate change, water scarcity, ocean acidification, nuclear disaster[xxx], bee population die-off, peak oil (immediately and directly through its impact on the economy and finance), etc. mounts and proceeds to undermine neoliberal shibboleths –as well as the neoliberal “Masters of the Universe” collective identity- about how the world works.

Neoliberal ideological hubris is built upon the modernist mythology that human’s ability to fashion the social world is infinite, the earth’s resources are essentially limitless and its biophysical systems are passive and resilient vassals absorbing industrial society’s wastes and toxins. This is a colossal conceit as the further we go into overshoot and hit against resource limitations the more inept, desperate and downright socially and ecologically destructive neoliberal policies become[xxxi] and the fewer options modern culture has to reconcile its practices with ecological realities.

As things look, neoliberal governments will continue to do their utmost[xxxii] –that is, use their waning but still potent power- to preserve the current political/economic hierarchy and ecologically destructive social order.[xxxiii]However, their power is not stable, nor is it insurmountable and -this must be stressed- it does not derive exclusively or primarily from cultural and historical phenomena, such as media propaganda and other forms of rhetoric and symbol manipulation, institutional inertia, incentives and rewards, tradition, appeals to fear and xenophobia, vested interests, and the implicit threats of surveillance and state sanctioned violence.

To make my argument requires a brief tour of how social science has reflected cultural ideas about power and how Michel Foucault, in his mid to late career writings, challenged the conventional view, arguing “power is everywhere,”[xxxiv] regarding the location and function of power in society. Foucault’s concept of power is then synthesized with ecological theory to recognize resource scarcity and biophysical forces as agents (of power) shaping personal and collective identity and proscribing the possibilities for social change.

From the conventional behavioral viewpoint, Max Weber[xxxv] writes, “Power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance…” from another actor. Simply put, power is the ability of actor A to compel actor B to do something actor B would prefer not to do, all things being equal. “Authority” connotes legitimate power; “coercion” indicates the illegitimate use of power, ultimately through the threat or application of harm or violence.[xxxvi] In Weber’s view power is a force that actors and institutions possess and at times use to assert their will upon others with less or no power. The implication is that power is a tool or resource, not a constitutive feature of all interaction.

Foucault challenges the received understanding of power, where it exists and how it functions. He writes,

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production[xxxvii].

Cole summarizes in plain English Foucault’s  “power is everywhere” thesis:

Foucault explains that all social relations -between persons and between people and institutions- are imbued with power relations. Wherever there are points of contact between persons, or between persons and institutions, power relations -which is to say, force relations -exist. Power exists in the spaces between us. It is present in all our interactions. Power, as it exists in power relations, is dynamic. Power is not permanently possessed by any one actor or institution. It cannot be protected or guarded. Rather, power is constantly in circulation -always in adjustment, as our interactions with one another take place in time. [xxxviii]

Critically, in this conception power is unstable and is –theoretically- up for grabs whenever people interact. Social reality is, after all, merely a contingent human arrangement; that is, socially shared definitions of situations where people are expected to behave in terms of the established “rules of the game” of social organization and human interaction.[xxxix] In short, an actor’s sense of power -or powerlessness- and, also, the individual’s identity –identity motivates people[xl]- rests upon the rules she believes to be governing social interaction. Change the rules[xli] and you change the power relations and identities among actors. Admittedly, changing the rules that define the situation is in many social interactions not at all easy, and in any given instance it may prove all but impossible to do. Nonetheless, Foucault’s point is that the essence of power is a socially constructed definition of the situation with –again, simplified- negotiable and unstable rules.[xlii]

Link: Sleepwalking to Extinction

Super Typhoon Haiyan has sent a chill through the global nervous system. Thousands dead. Weather scientists in shock. Lives destroyed. The greatest typhoon to touch land in recorded history brings with it more than total destruction. It ups the level of urgency for a new economic paradigm … one that puts the planet first. Radical economist Richard Smith shows us a way out of the “climate madness” about to descend everywhere.

When, on May 10th, 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 (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and 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 315 ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been rising ever since and have recently passed a dangerous tipping point: 400ppm.

For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.

Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3˚C or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada; Florida, meanwhile, was under water along with other coastal locations we now call New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others. Crossing this threshold has fuelled fears that we are fast approaching converging “tipping points” — melting of the subarctic tundra or the thawing and releasing of 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, son of Charles Keeling.

“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.

Why are we marching toward 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 requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that 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 eco-socialist civilization.

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 — from Tahir Square to Zucotti 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, are 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; in this lies our hope.

Capitalism is, overwhelmingly, the main driver of planetary ecological collapse

From climate change to natural 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, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible natural resources to turn them into “product,” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons of time. Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 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. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that “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, though 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. 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% of Australia’s GDP and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the single worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building their 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. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds, small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet in their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids.

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 today, when 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 80-90% 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 and, 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.” 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.

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop over-consuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the earth, waters, and 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.

Link: The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear

ON the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.

“It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College.

It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.

Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.

That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.

“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”

A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.

Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.

As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. Onestudy showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.

The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.

Farm fields are not the only problem. Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.

Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.

Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”

There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.

When the Florida Department of Transportation last year mowed down roadside wildflowers where monarch butterflies fed on their epic migratory journey, “there was a huge outcry,” said Eleanor Dietrich, a wildflower activist in Florida. So much so, transportation officials created a new policy that left critical insect habitat un-mowed.

That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”

First and foremost, said Dr. Tallamy, a home for bugs is a matter of food security. “If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants,” he said. “That is not an option. That’s a huge problem for mankind.”