Tag: Capitalism

Climate Change and Humanity

A powerful essay by Tom Engelhardt from his blogsite TomDispatch.

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs know that essays from TomDispatch often find their way onto these pages.  They are republished with the generous permission of Tom and I endeavour to select those essays that shine a new light on a current issue.   No less so than with today’s essay, first published over on TomDispatch on May 22nd, 2014.

Just a note before you start reading Tom’s very important essay.  That there are many links to papers, articles and other references throughout the essay.  (I know, they took me a couple of hours to set up!)  Could I recommend strongly that you ‘click’ on each link and make a note of the references you wish to read at a later time.  I shall be referring to some of them next week when I comment more generally on this fabulous essay.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?

The 95% Doctrine

Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction 

By Tom Engelhardt

Who could forget? At the time, in the fall of 2002, there was such a drumbeat of “information” from top figures in the Bush administration about the secret Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so endanger the United States. And who — other than a few suckers — could have doubted that Saddam Hussein was eventually going to get a nuclear weapon? The only question, as our vice president suggested on “Meet the Press,” was: Would it take one year or five? And he wasn’t alone in his fears, since there was plenty of proof of what was going on. For starters, there were those “specially designed aluminum tubes” that the Iraqi autocrat had ordered as components for centrifuges to enrich uranium in his thriving nuclear weapons program. Reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon hit the front page of the New York Times with that story on September 8, 2002.

Then there were those “mushroom clouds” that Condoleezza Rice, our national security advisor, was so publicly worried about — the ones destined to rise over American cities if we didn’t do something to stop Saddam. As she fretted in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on that same September 8th, “[W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No, indeed, and nor, it turned out, did Congress!

And just in case you weren’t anxious enough about the looming Iraqi threat, there were those unmanned aerial vehicles — Saddam’s drones! — that could be armed with chemical or biological WMD from his arsenal and flown over America’s East Coast cities with unimaginable results. President George W. Bush went on TV to talk about them and congressional votes were changed in favor of war thanks to hair-raising secret administration briefings about them on Capitol Hill.

In the end, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons program, no nuclear bomb in the offing, no centrifuges for those aluminum pipes, no biological or chemical weapons caches, and no drone aircraft to deliver his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (nor any ships capable of putting those nonexistent robotic planes in the vicinity of the U.S. coast). But what if he had? Who wanted to take that chance? Not Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly. Inside the Bush administration he propounded something that journalist Ron Suskind later dubbed the “one percent doctrine.” Its essence was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty.

Here’s the curious thing: if you look back on America’s apocalyptic fears of destruction during the first 14 years of this century, they largely involved three city-busting weapons that were fantasies of Washington’s fertile imperial imagination. There was that “bomb” of Saddam’s, which provided part of the pretext for a much-desired invasion of Iraq. There was the “bomb” of the mullahs, the Iranian fundamentalist regime that we’ve just loved to hate ever since they repaid us, in 1979, for the CIA’s overthrow of an elected government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah by taking the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage. If you believed the news from Washington and Tel Aviv, the Iranians, too, were perilously close to producing a nuclear weapon or at least repeatedly on the verge of the verge of doing so. The production of that “Iranian bomb” has, for years, been a focus of American policy in the Middle East, the “brink” beyond which war has endlessly loomed. And yet there was and is no Iranian bomb, nor evidence that the Iranians were or are on the verge of producing one.

Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s bomb, the “dirty bomb” that organization might somehow assemble, transport to the U.S., and set off in an American city, or the “loose nuke,” maybe from the Pakistani arsenal, with which it might do the same. This is the third fantasy bomb that has riveted American attention in these last years, even though there is less evidence for or likelihood of its imminent existence than of the Iraqi and Iranian ones.

To sum up, the strange thing about end-of-the-world-as-we’ve-known-it scenarios from Washington, post-9/11, is this: with a single exception, they involved only non-existent weapons of mass destruction. A fourth weapon — one that existed but played a more modest role in Washington’s fantasies — was North Korea’s perfectly real bomb, which in these years the North Koreans were incapable of delivering to American shores.

The “Good News” About Climate Change

In a world in which nuclear weapons remain a crucial coin of the realm when it comes to global power, none of these examples could quite be classified as 0% dangers. Saddam had once had a nuclear program, just not in 2002-2003, and also chemical weapons, which he used against Iranian troops in his 1980s war with their country (with the help of targeting information from the U.S. military) and against his own Kurdish population. The Iranians might (or might not) have been preparing their nuclear program for a possible weapons breakout capability, and al-Qaeda certainly would not have rejected a loose nuke, if one were available (though that organization’s ability to use it would still have been questionable).

In the meantime, the giant arsenals of WMD in existence, the American, Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian ones that might actually have left a crippled or devastated planet behind, remained largely off the American radar screen. In the case of the Indian arsenal, the Bush administration actually lent an indirect hand to its expansion. So it was twenty-first-century typical when President Obama, trying to put Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine in perspective, said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Once again, an American president was focused on a bomb that would raise a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. And which bomb, exactly, was that, Mr. President?

Of course, there was a weapon of mass destruction that could indeed do staggering damage to or someday simply drown New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, and other East coast cities. It had its own efficient delivery systems — no nonexistent drones or Islamic fanatics needed. And unlike the Iraqi, Iranian, or al-Qaeda bombs, it was guaranteed to be delivered to our shores unless preventive action was taken soon. No one needed to hunt for its secret facilities. It was a weapons system whose production plants sat in full view right here in the United States, as well as in Europe, China, and India, as well as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other energy states.

So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.

After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95%-100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95%-100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.

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From two scientific studies just released, for example, comes the news that the West Antarctic ice sheet, one of the great ice accumulations on the planet, has now begun a process of melting and collapse that could, centuries from now, raise world sea levels by a nightmarish 10 to 13 feet. That mass of ice is, according to the lead authors of one of the studies, already in “irreversible retreat,” which means — no matter what acts are taken from now on — a future death sentence for some of the world’s great cities. (And that’s without even the melting of the Greenland ice shield, not to speak of the rest of the ice in Antarctica.)

All of this, of course, will happen mainly because we humans continue to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate and so annually deposit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at record levels. In other words, we’re talking about weapons of mass destruction of a new kind. While some of their effects are already in play, the planetary destruction that nuclear weapons could cause almost instantaneously, or at least (given “nuclear winter” scenarios) within months, will, with climate change, take decades, if not centuries, to deliver its full, devastating planetary impact.

When we speak of WMD, we usually think of weapons — nuclear, biological, or chemical — that are delivered in a measurable moment in time. Consider climate change, then, a WMD on a particularly long fuse, already lit and there for any of us to see. Unlike the feared Iranian bomb or the Pakistani arsenal, you don’t need the CIA or the NSA to ferret such “weaponry” out. From oil wells to fracking structures, deep sea drilling rigs to platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the machinery that produces this kind of WMD and ensures that it is continuously delivered to its planetary targets is in plain sight. Powerful as it may be, destructive as it will be, those who control it have faith that, being so long developing, it can remain in the open without panicking populations or calling any kind of destruction down on them.

The companies and energy states that produce such WMD remain remarkably open about what they’re doing. Generally speaking, they don’t hesitate to make public, or even boast about, their plans for the wholesale destruction of the planet, though of course they are never described that way. Nonetheless, if an Iraqi autocrat or Iranian mullahs spoke in similar fashion about producing nuclear weapons and how they were to be used, they would be toast.

Take ExxonMobil, one of the most profitable corporations in history. In early April, it released two reports that focused on how the company, as Bill McKibben has written, “planned to deal with the fact that [it] and other oil giants have many times more carbon in their collective reserves than scientists say we can safely burn.” He went on:

The company said that government restrictions that would force it to keep its [fossil fuel] reserves in the ground were ‘highly unlikely,’ and that they would not only dig them all up and burn them, but would continue to search for more gas and oil — a search that currently consumes about $100 million of its investors’ money every single day. ‘Based on this analysis, we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become “stranded.”‘

In other words, Exxon plans to exploit whatever fossil fuel reserves it possesses to their fullest extent. Government leaders involved in supporting the production of such weapons of mass destruction and their use are often similarly open about it, even while also discussing steps to mitigate their destructive effects. Take the White House, for instance. Here was a statement President Obama proudly made in Oklahoma in March 2012 on his energy policy:

Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

Similarly, on May 5th, just before the White House was to reveal that grim report on climate change in America, and with a Congress incapable of passing even the most rudimentary climate legislation aimed at making the country modestly more energy efficient, senior Obama adviser John Podesta appeared in the White House briefing room to brag about the administration’s “green” energy policy. “The United States,” he said, “is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world. It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas. So that’s all a good-news story.”

Good news indeed, and from Vladmir Putin’s Russia, which just expanded its vast oil and gas holdings by a Maine-sized chunk of the Black Sea off Crimea, to Chinese “carbon bombs,” to Saudi Arabian production guarantees, similar “good-news stories” are similarly promoted. In essence, the creation of ever more greenhouse gases — of, that is, the engine of our future destruction — remains a “good news” story for ruling elites on planet Earth.

Weapons of Planetary Destruction

We know exactly what Dick Cheney — ready to go to war on a 1% possibility that some country might mean us harm — would answer, if asked about acting on the 95% doctrine. Who can doubt that his response would be similar to those of the giant energy companies, which have funded so much climate-change denialism and false science over the years? He would claim that the science simply isn’t “certain” enough (though “uncertainty” can, in fact, cut two ways), that before we commit vast sums to taking on the phenomenon, we need to know far more, and that, in any case, climate-change science is driven by a political agenda.

For Cheney & Co., it seemed obvious that acting on a 1% possibility was a sensible way to go in America’s “defense” and it’s no less gospel for them that acting on at least a 95% possibility isn’t. For the Republican Party as a whole, climate-change denial is by now nothing less than a litmus test of loyalty, and so even a 101% doctrine wouldn’t do when it comes to fossil fuels and this planet.

No point, of course, in blaming this on fossil fuels or even the carbon dioxide they give off when burned. These are no more weapons of mass destruction than are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. In this case, the weaponry is the production system that’s been set up to find, extract, sell at staggering profits, and burn those fossil fuels, and so create a greenhouse-gas planet. With climate change, there is no “Little Boy” or “Fat Man” equivalent, no simple weapon to focus on. In this sense, fracking is the weapons system, as is deep-sea drilling, as are those pipelines, and the gas stations, and the coal-fueled power plants, and the millions of cars filling global roads, and the accountants of the most profitable corporations in history.

All of it — everything that brings endless fossil fuels to market, makes those fuels eminently burnable, and helps suppress the development of non-fossil fuel alternatives — is the WMD. The CEOs of the planet’s giant energy corporations are the dangerous mullahs, the true fundamentalists, of planet Earth, since they are promoting a faith in fossil fuels which is guaranteed to lead us to some version of End Times.

Perhaps we need a new category of weapons with a new acronym to focus us on the nature of our present 95%-100% circumstances. Call them weapons of planetary destruction (WPD) or weapons of planetary harm (WPH). Only two weapons systems would clearly fit such categories. One would be nuclear weapons which, even in a localized war between Pakistan and India, could create some version of “nuclear winter” in which the planet was cut off from the sun by so much smoke and soot that it would grow colder fast, experience a massive loss of crops, of growing seasons, and of life. In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.

Though on a different and harder to grasp time-scale, the burning of fossil fuels could end in a similar fashion — with a series of “irreversible” disasters that could essentially burn us and much other life off the Earth. This system of destruction on a planetary scale, facilitated by most of the ruling and corporate elites on the planet, is becoming (to bring into play another category not usually used in connection with climate change) the ultimate “crime against humanity” and, in fact, against most living things. It is becoming a “terracide.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (from which some of this essay has been adapted). He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

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There are so many strong and fundamental points raised in this essay from Tom that I am going to return to them next week.  (Will give it a rest for July 4th!)

Are you grounded?

Or just away with the fairies!

Sorry, just kidding: Couldn’t resist!

I have just finished reading a book with the title of Earthing.

english2ndbkcover

It has been an absolutely fascinating read and one, I’m bound to say, that seems entirely plausible.

That is that our modern lifestyle that has us disconnected from Mother Earth for much of our time is the cause of many ailments. As the associated website explains:

CONNECT TO THE EARTH AND FEEL BETTER!

Just as the sun gives us warmth and vitamin D, the Earth underfoot gives us food and water, a surface to walk, sit, stand, play, and build on, and something you never, ever thought about—an eternal, natural, and gentle energy. Think of it perhaps as vitamin G: G for ground. What does that mean to you? Maybe the difference between feeling good and not so good, of having little or a lot of energy, or sleeping well or not so well.

You can’t see the Earth’s energy but some people can feel it as a warm, tingling, and pleasant sensation when they are out walking barefoot along the water’s edge at the beach or on a stretch of dew-moistened grass.

Throughout history humans walked barefoot and slept on the ground. But modern lifestyle, including the widespread use of insulative rubber, or plastic-soled shoes, has disconnected us from the Earth’s energy and, of course, we no longer sleep on the ground. Fascinating new research has raised the possibility that this disconnect may actually contribute to chronic pain, fatigue, and poor sleep that plague so many people.

The remedy for the disconnect is simple. Walk barefoot outdoors whenever possible and/or sleep, work, or relax indoors in contact with conductive sheets or mats that transfer the energy to your body. People who do so on a regular basis say they sleep better, feel better, and have more energy during the day. This simple practice is called Earthing, also known as grounding, and it is both a technology and a movement which is transforming lives across the planet.

Were you aware, for example, that the sole of our foot has more nerve endings per square inch than any other part of our body! And more sweat glands! All from thousands of years of being connected to the Earth.

Curious?

Then watch Part One of a conference video by Dr. Stephen Sinatra, one of the authors of the book:

(The remaining parts of Dr. Sinatra’s talk will be presented in a post on Monday!)

Jean and I have just ordered the half-sheet and I shall be delighted to write more of our experiences over the coming weeks.

And I don’t need to remind you that dogs have been in bare-foot contact with Planet Earth for some time now!

Stay healthy!

 

Market forces.

A powerful essay from Paul Gilding.

Having our good friends, Andy and Trish, with us for a few days means, quite rightly, that time with them is top of our list; so to speak.

Thus I want to republish a recent post from Paul Gilding that seems to me to be right on the mark.

But first an apology.  About 10 minutes ago (07:40 US PDT yesterday) I pressed the ‘reblog’ key over on Paul Gilding’s posting in error.  Subscribers to Learning from Dogs will have been sent an email to that reblog and then discovered that I had deleted it, in favour of this approach!

Mr Paul Gilding.
Mr Paul Gilding.

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THE GLOBAL ENERGY MARKET’S MOMENT OF TRUTH

If you want to know what addressing climate change will really be like for business and investors, then take a look at today’s electricity and energy markets. Driven by climate policy, technology development, business innovation, NGO campaigns and investment risk analysis, creative destruction is inflicting itself upon the sector with a vengeance – and the process has just begun.

Value is being destroyed at an incredible scale with just one example being European utilities losing $750 billion in market cap in recent years. Another is the huge losses in value for coal companies and the cancellation of a large number of new coal mining projects around the world as the forecast growth in China and India evaporates. As I argued in my last Chronicle, Carbon Crash Solar Dawn, this is not a temporary market blip but a fundamental shift. Company strategies and business models that have been working for generations are collapsing. In parallel we see the creative side of the process, with new industries being built, entrepreneurs flourishing and massive wealth being created. Now the market is working, as it should, allocating capital to the places where risk and return are best aligned. It is at once a beautiful and brutal process to observe.

This is an important inflection point to acknowledge, with significant implications that should reframe our thinking about these issues.

For a start it means, climate policy and its economic consequences have now shifted from future forecasts to present reality. This reality, with all its brutality for existing businesses, give us important insights into what to expect as the world wakes up to climate change. Business is already waking up to what that means in a market economy – creative destruction unleashed to destroy slow responders.

This suggests that traditional corporate responsibility, which argued sustainability was good for all businesses, is outmoded and not helpful. We have moved into an era of win/lose rather than win/win, and with that, sustainability is shifting from ‘environmentalists vs business’ to ‘business vs business’ as I covered in this earlier Chronicle.

Taken together this means we need to change the way we talk and think about climate change and business. Sustainability is not good for many businesses – in fact it means they’ll have to go out of business. This is what sustainability at its core is all about – things that are unsustainable will stop.

While on the one hand this is blindingly obvious, it is a conversation many in business and politics don’t want to acknowledge. So when the previous Australian government brought in its carbon pricing scheme, it went to great lengths to argue that Australia would still have a healthy coal industry. And President Obama’s new regulations on CO2 emissions in the US power industry are likewise being positioned as being as much about health and air pollution as climate policy.

But as Michael Grunwald argues in this Time Magazine piece on “Obama’s War on Coal” – a phrase used by the coal industry to suggest this is unfair and unreasonable – it’s time to face up to the reality of climate action. It is a war on coal, pure and simple. Grunwald calls it the “just but undeclared war ”. But rather than “just” with its moral overtones, we could simply argue it is “necessary” based on any objective analysis of what’s good for the economy and for society. What is necessary is to move a range of companies out of the economy and replace them.

Coal is first in the firing line. As a major cause of CO2 emissions and with the lack of market support for Carbon Capture and Storage suggesting “clean coal” is either a delusion or at best an expensive PR campaign, coal simply has to go. That means coal companies will go out of business, and then oil companies and gas companies will follow them.

This is not a problem at all for the economy, as they will be replaced with new companies and new industries, which will create new jobs, new wealth and new innovations. But it is a major problem for the incumbents who will cease to exist and for their owners who will lose their money. Unless we have that conversation honestly and openly, we are setting ourselves up for pain and suffering we can easily avoid or at least minimise by thinking through the consequences and being better prepared for their departure.

Of course the best way to minimise the pain would be for fossil fuel companies to transition to new areas of business, to use the great wealth they have created to diversify into sustainable sources of profit. But most of them won’t. It’s not that they couldn’t – it’s just that they won’t. And it’s not just coal but also oil and gas who are, for the most part, in strong denial about what’s coming and so won’t be prepared, as well explained in this article by Giles Parkinson at RenewEconomy.

We shouldn’t be surprised. History shows how rare it is for companies to transform and survive major market and technology shifts. That’s why the average life expectancy of a successful multinational is only 40-50 years. And that’s why the financial markets – who act without ideology based on looking at the data – are rapidly responding. They are stripping value from fossil fuel exposed utilities and the resource companies that provide their fuel. They are also downgrading credit risk, with Barclays recently issuing a warning the investors should no longer see utilities as a “sturdy and defensive subset of the investment grade universe”. The report concluded: “We see near-term risks to credit from regulators and utilities falling behind the solar plus storage adoption curve.” No doubt Deutche Bank considered these risks when they recently announced they wouldn’t consider funding a major new coal port next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

So while the idea of “war on coal” is in some ways an accurate summary of the momentous threats the industry faces from a range of forces that are consciously and deliberately coming after them, we could also just see this as how markets work.

Fossil fuels provide us with energy, but they also destroy value across the economy – by driving climate change, damaging health and increasing costs for taxpayers while imposing unmanageable risks on other companies who rely on a stable climate for their business success. So the market is simply doing its job, pricing in some of these costs using the proxies of regulatory, credit and technology risk.

The market is working …. and fossil fuels are losing.

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Hope you agree with me that it’s a great essay and, also, I hope you followed the links – they are all very interesting.

Those of you who are not familiar with Paul Gilding can find out more about him here.  Plus the following TED Talk by Paul is highly recommended viewing.

D-Day anniversary muse.

Just a personal reflection.

American paratroopers, heavily armed, sit inside a military plane as they soar over the English Channel en route to the Normandy French coast for the Allied D-Day invasion of the German stronghold during World War II, June 6, 1944. (AP Photo)
American paratroopers, heavily armed, sit inside a military plane as they soar over the English Channel en route to the Normandy French coast for the Allied D-Day invasion of the German stronghold during World War II, June 6, 1944. (AP Photo)

Seventy years ago, to this day, as the whole world now knows, the start of the end of World War II swung into action.  As this website put it (from where this photograph came),

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied troops departed England on planes and ships, made the trip across the English Channel and attacked the beaches of Normandy in an attempt to break through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” and break his grip on Europe. Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as many Germans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing nearly three months it took to secure the Allied capture of Normandy.

On this day, seventy years ago, my mother was living in London four months pregnant with yours truly. I was born in November, 1944.

The USA frequently gets a hammering in the media, including blog sites, for a whole range of activities.

But the 6th June, 1944 reminds me that when the American people turn their hand to helping others across the world, they can be a most powerful force for good.

That I have lived my almost seventy years in an environment that has allowed me freedom and opportunity and that I write this as a relatively new resident of the United States of America, living happily in rural Oregon, is a testament to that force for good.

Thank you Yankees!

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The loss of democracy, Part One

Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs! (read to the end!)

I have frequently written about the many growing stresses in societies so, in a sense, today’s post is nothing new.  But the power of a recent essay over on TomDispatch was such that I couldn’t ignore it.  Especially as Tom Engelhardt has given me permission to republish it. I’m referring to the essay by Peter Van Buren under the title of Regime Change in America.

However, while that essay is published wholly as one by Tom, I’m going to break it down into two posts; today and next Monday.  Simply because it resonates so strongly with other items that I want to refer to.

But let me get started by offering you Tom’s introduction to Peter Van Buren’s essay.

The old words are on the rebound, the ones that went out in the last century when the very idea of a Gilded Age, and the plutocrats and oligarchy of wealth that went with it, left the scene in the Great Depression. Now, those three classic terms that were never to return (or so it once seemed) are back in our vocabularies. They’ve been green-lighted by society. (If they’re not on SAT tests in the coming years, I’ll eat my top hat.)

Of course, an inequality gap has been widening into an abyss for decades now, but when it comes to the present boom in old-fashioned words that once went with being really, really, obscenely wealthy and powerful, give the Occupy movement of 2011 credit. After all, they were the ones who took what should already have been on everyone’s lips — the raging inequality in American society — out of the closet and made it part of the national conversation. 1%! 99%!

Now, the stats on national and global inequality are everyday fare (and looking worse all the time). Meanwhile, the book of a French (French!) economist about how the U.S. is leading the way when it comes to inequality and possibly creating the basis for a future… yes!… oligarchy of inherited wealth is on the bestseller list and the talk of the town. And if that weren’t enough, a new study out of Princeton University suggests that, as Talking Points Memo put it, “Over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.” As the two authors of the study write, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

In an America where, when it comes to the political system, the Supreme Court has now granted the dollar the full right to speak its mind, and ever more of those dollars can be found in the pockets of… well, not to put a fine point on it, plutocrats, we need a new (that is, old) vocabulary to fit our changing circumstances.

In all of this, one thing missing has been the classic American observer, the keen reporter setting out on the road to catch the new look of a land in pain and misery. Today, TomDispatch aims to remedy that. Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower and author of a new book on American inequality, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has been traveling the ever-expanding, ever-rustier Rust Belt taking the temperature of a land with a significant fever. Here’s his account. Tom

But if you think this is an American problem, let me take you back a couple of days to my post that reflected the feeling that it was all getting too much: I just want to throw up! Reason? Because in that post I referred to a recent essay by George Monbiot called The Shooting Party.  Here are the opening chapters (and you will have to go here to read the numbered references):

As the food queues lengthen, the government is giving our money to the super-rich.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th April 2014

So now you might have to buy your own crutches, but you’ll get your shotgun subsidised by the state. A few days after False Economy revealed that an NHS group is considering charging patients for the crutches, walking sticks and neck braces it issues (1), we discovered that David Cameron has intervened to keep the cost of gun licences frozen at £50: a price which hasn’t changed since 2001 (2).

The police are furious: it costs them £196 to conduct the background checks required to ensure that shotguns are issued only to the kind of dangerous lunatics who use them for mowing down pheasants, rather than to the common or garden variety. As a result they – sorry we – lose £17m a year, by subsidizing the pursuits of the exceedingly rich (3). The Country Land and Business Association – the armed wing of the Conservative party – complains that it’s simply not fair to pass on the full cost of the licence to the owners of shotguns (4); unlike, say, the owners of passports or driving licences, who are charged on the basis of full cost recovery.

Three days later – on Friday – the government announced that it will raise the subsidy it provides for grouse moors from £30 per hectare to £56 (5). Yes, you read that right: the British government subsidises grouse moors, which are owned by 1% of the 1% and used by people who are scarcely less rich. While the poor are being forced out of their homes through government cuts, it is raising the payments – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – that some owners use to burn and cut the land (helping to cause floods downstream), shoot or poison hen harriers and other predators, and scar the hills with roads and shooting butts (6). While the rest of us can go to the devil, the interests of the very rich are ringfenced.

So with no further ado, back to the first half of Peter Van Buren’s essay.

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This Land Isn’t Your Land, This Land Is Their Land

An Empire in Decline (City by City, Town by Town)
By Peter Van Buren

As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.

Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still a developing nation — in the best sense of that word.

Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count, from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized, money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

Visit Atlantic City in 2014 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

Trump Plaza, a monument to excess and hubris created by a man once admired as a business magician and talked about as a possible presidential candidate, is now a catalog of decay. The pillows in the rooms smell of sweat, the corners of doors are chipped, many areas need a new coat of paint, and most of the bars and restaurants resemble the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People covered with the street gravy that marks the homeless wander the casino, itself tawdry and too dimly lit to inspire fun. There were just too many people who were clearly carrying everything they owned around in a backpack.

Outside, along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over the summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

The drive into Weirton from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

tomjoadAt its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gambling revenues now top $92.27 billion a year.)

Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest private employer.

In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage or unionization.

Copyright 2014 Peter Van Buren

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OK, I opened today’s post with the sub-heading “Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs!” Let me expand on that.

Dogs, like many other ‘pack’ animals, have a relatively flat hierarchy across their group.  Typically, a wild dog pack numbered upwards of 30 animals although in modern times we have only the African Wild dog left to study.  Nevertheless, the African Wild dog offers mankind the key lesson about cooperation and social equality.  Here’s an extract from a National Geographic article [my emphasis]:

African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure. Photograph by Chris Johns
Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure.
Photograph by Chris Johns

The African wild dog, also called Cape hunting dog or painted dog, typically roams the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

These long-legged canines have only four toes per foot, unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet. The dog’s Latin name means “painted wolf,” referring to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have big, rounded ears.

African wild dogs live in packs that are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. The female has a litter of 2 to 20 pups, which are cared for by the entire pack. These dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations.

African wild dogs hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of 6 to 20 (or more) animals. Larger packs were more common before the dogs became endangered.

So back to the domesticated dog.  There are just three ‘roles’ to be found: the female alpha dog, the male beta dog and the omega dog that can be of either gender. Even though in a group of dogs (we have eight here at home) the alpha and beta dogs are dominant and will eat first, there is no question of denying the other dogs in the group access to food, water and love from us humans.

The lesson we must learn from dogs is obvious and there’s no need for me to spell it out!

The second half of Peter Van Buren’s essay will be published here on Monday.

 

Trust, truth and community, Pt. 3.

How a very ancient concept has modern attributes.

One might be forgiven for thinking that community is an odd bed-fellow with trust and truth.  Many might think that faith would be a more logical third leg, so to speak.

However, I hope to show that in today’s world where trust and truth are beleaguered qualities a rethinking of community is critically vital for the long-term health of mankind.

Community

Can’t resist a third look-up in Roget’s Thesaurus.

community noun

Persons as an organised body: people, public, society.

For me two words jump out from that definition: persons; organised.

The challenge is that the word organised is easily interpreted as an organisation with leaders and followers.  But that’s not how community is regarded in the context of this third essay.

“No man is an island”, John Donne wrote in 1624.

This is a quotation from John Donne (1572-1631). It appears in Devotions upon emergent occasions and seuerall steps in my sicknes – Meditation XVII, 1624:

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Thus for the vast majority of people on the face of this planet, we are linked to others and how we live our lives is fundamentally influenced by those others about us.  In a past life, I lived in the village of Harberton in South Devon.  The population of Harberton was 300 persons.

An E. M. Morison (Totnes) postcard, bearing a 3p stamp, which gives a sending date between Feb 1971 and Sept 1973.
An E. M. Morison (Totnes) postcard, bearing a 3p stamp, which gives a sending date between Feb 1971 and Sept 1973.

Now I was lucky when I moved into Harberton because my two sisters, Rhona and Corinne, had lived in the area for many years and it was easy for me to be positioned as ‘the brother’.  Nevertheless, the way that the village embraced all newcomers was wonderful and within a very short time one felt a settled member of the community.

Same for Jean and me as relative newcomers to our property just 4 miles from Merlin, Oregon. All of our neighbours have embraced us and helped us understand this new rural life that we have embarked on.  We feel part of the local community.

Yet it doesn’t stop there.

Obviously, I’m a WordPress user!  Learning from Dogs is a WordPress blog!  But were you aware of the size of the WordPress community? (As of now!)

How many posts are being published?

Users produce about 44.5 million new posts and 56.7 million new comments each month.

How many people are reading blogs?

Over 409 million people view more than 14.7 billion pages each month.

Even my funny little blog has 959 followers!

What that figure doesn’t reveal is how many of my followers have offered support, openness and real loving friendship. None better demonstrated than by the comments left by readers when I announced the recent death of Dhalia.

Think of the way that untold numbers of internet users rely on that ‘worldwide web’ for referrals, opinions or knowledge about anything ‘under the sun’.

So while there might be many aspects of our new technological world that create unease, the opportunities for having ‘virtual’ friends to complement our social friends make this era unprecedented.

I would go so far as to say this. That the way that knowledge and information can be shared around the world in no time at all may be our ultimate protection against those who would seek to harm us and this planet.

How to close these essays? Perhaps no better than as follows:

On Wednesday evening we were joined by neighbours, Dordie and Bill.  My post on truth came up in discussion. Bill mentioned that he had read about a person who had spent many years studying the texts of all the world’s major religions.  What had emerged was that across all those great religions there was a common view as to what the long-term health and survival of societies requires.

It is this: the telling of truth and the keeping of promises!

 

Once again – the need for integrity.

No apologies for another banging of this drum!

Last Friday’s post Has it always been like this? was comprised mainly of a republication of a recent George Monbiot essay.  The closing paragraph of that essay read:

Stories like this remind me that much of life is a struggle against disappointment. Perhaps I’m an idiot, but I expected a world that was so much better. I still believe it’s possible. But getting there requires a daily struggle against those who would mislead us.

George is certainly no idiot for expecting a better world, or to put it another way, if George is an idiot for such an expectation then there are millions of fellow idiots out there.

That essay from George Monbiot opened, thus:

Almost everything is fake. The brave proverbs with which we were brought up – the truth will out, cheats never prosper, virtue will triumph – turn out to be unfounded. For the most part, our lives are run and our views are formed by chancers, cheats and charlatans. [Ed. my emphasis!]

They construct a labyrinth of falsehoods from which it is almost impossible to emerge without the help of people who devote their lives to navigating it. This is the role of the media. But the media drags us deeper into the labyrinth.

So with those words still ringing in your ears, settle down for just sixteen minutes and watch anti-corruption activist, Charmian Gooch‘s recent TED Talk.

Anonymous companies protect corrupt individuals – from notorious drug cartel leaders to nefarious arms dealers – behind a shroud of mystery that makes it almost impossible to find and hold them responsible. But anti-corruption activist Charmian Gooch hopes to change all that. At TED2014, she shares her brave TED Prize wish: to know who owns and controls companies, to change the law, and to launch a new era of openness in business.

And if, having watched Charmian’s very compelling talk, you want to support her, then go to the Global Witness website.

Real democracy.

This news really brightened my day!

Or, perhaps I should have written that sub-heading, “Adding a gloss to what are mostly bright days!”.

What on earth am I rabbeting on about?

From time to time on Learning from Dogs I have touched on the topic of democracy.  The most recent post of any relevance was on the 27th January this year in a post called Unconditional love.  In essence that blog post was recording an email exchange between Martin Lack, Chris Snuggs and Patrice Ayme. Let me reproduce a part of that ‘discussion’:

Paul: Chris/Martin, To my way of thinking, there is a more fundamental issue at work. That is the corrupting effect of power. I’m certain you know the famous saying. Thus whatever fine motives propel a person to enter politics, that person seems unable to avoid the call of power and its corrupting effect. The only hope is that key countries, and none so key as the USA, evolve a better, more representative, political process. Otherwise, I fear for the coming years.

Patrice: I agree with Paul 100%. I saw the call of power. Unimaginable. People just get insane. There are also filtering systems to insure they get that way (it starts right away with one week retreats in extremely posh resorts; does not matter if you are capitalist, socialist, blueist, reddist, ecologist, independentist, etc.).

Chris: Agreed. It has been clear time and time again throughout history. Well, so much is obvious, but WHAT TO DO about it?

A) We must end the practice of having career politicians: you serve a maximum of TEN years, at the end of which you go.

B) Inherited wealth allowing the building up of immensely powerful family dynasties over generations must be ended. It is simply untenable. The rich-poor gap is getting obscene everywhere, and money is of course power. My “Abolish inheritance” idea will be wildly unpopular because we are naturally acquisitive and “greedy” and of course would hit those with most to lose who also therefore have the most power.

Patrice:  With all due respect, Chris and Martin sound rather naïve… Huge wealth and power is where it’s at. And it attracts to politics first, foremost, and soon uniquely, those it attracts most, namely the basest sort.

Without in any way of knowing in a reliable manner, as in statistically reliable, the attitudes of folk, nonetheless there is no question that a huge number of the ordinary folk that live around us here in Merlin, Joesephine County, Oregon and others that one meets in the course of being ‘out and about’ are worried; frequently deeply worried.

Worried about the “Huge wealth and power ..” and the gross inequalities that flow from that.

So with that in mind, consider the pleasant surprise offered me when I read the day’s roundup from the Permaculture Research Institute email distribution and it included:

The Missing Part of the Internet – Collaborative Decision-Making Made Easy with Loomio

The world needs a better way to make decisions together

“The new era of digital democracy is one source of hope. New formats for web-based participation, like Loomio, and enablers of grassroots engagement… are flourishing.” —The Huffington Post

Democracy isn’t just about politics — it’s people getting together and deciding how things should be. It’s a skill we can practice with people wherever we are: in our workplaces, our schools, and our communities.

Loomio is a user-friendly tool for collaborative decision-making: not majority-rules polling, but actually coming up with solutions that work for everyone. We’re a small team in New Zealand, and we’ve built a prototype that people are already doing great things with. Now we’re crowdfunding so we can build the real thing: a new tool for truly inclusive decision-making.

It was but a hop and a skip to go to the Loomio website and read:

The world needs a better way to make decisions together.

Help us build it.

Loomio is free and open software for anyone, anywhere, to participate in decisions that affect them

and then with a further mouse-click on the Crowdfunding link to read:

THE WORLD NEEDS A BETTER WAY TO MAKE DECISIONS TOGETHER.

Democracy isn’t just about politics – it’s people getting together and deciding how things should be. It’s a skill we can practice with people wherever we are: in our workplaces, our schools, and our communities.

Loomio is a user-friendly tool for collaborative decision-making: not majority-rules polling, but actually coming up with solutions that work for everyone. We’re a small team in New Zealand, and we’ve built a prototype that people are already doing great things with. Now we’re crowdfunding so we can build the real thing: a new tool for truly inclusive decision-making.

At this point, I should declare an involvement.  Jean and I decided to donate a modest amount.  Thus it is not from an impartial position that I close today’s post with the following video.  Bet you will be impressed!

If you enjoyed that video then do watch the following TED Talk.

Published on Aug 4, 2013

Ben Knight is part of a cooperative social enterprise building Loomio, an online tool for collaborative decision-making being used by thousands of people in more than 20 countries. Ben will be picking through ideas around how technology can enable everyday democracy.

This could be a most interesting development!

Sometimes one just has to wonder ….

…. about the most peculiar species of all: man!

A number of essays and items from a variety of sources have passed my screen in recent times that ….. well, you complete the sentence! Let me illustrate; in no particular order.

I have long been a follower of the writings of George Monbiot.  Those who haven’t come across Mr. Monbiot before can avail themselves of his background and dip into his articles, many of which underscore my proposition that we really are a peculiar race.  For example, just three days ago George Monbiot published an article under the title of The Benefits Claimants the Government Loves.  It highlights one mad aspect of UK Policy.

Corrupt, irrational, destructive, counter-productive: this scarcely begins to describe our farming policy.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th March 2014

Just as mad cow disease exposed us to horrors – feeding cattle on the carcasses of infected cattle – previously hidden in plain sight, so the recent floods have lifted the lid on the equally irrational treatment of the land. Just as BSE exposed dangerous levels of collusion between government and industry, so the floods have begun to expose similar cases of complicity and corruption. But we’ve heard so far just a fraction of the story.

You really do need to read the article in full to get your arms around the terrible state of affairs of the UK benefits scandal.  But try this:

As a result of these multiple failures by the government, even Farmers’ Weekly warns that “British soils are reaching crisis point” (16). Last week a farmer sent me photos of his neighbours’ fields, where “the soil is so eroded it is like a rockery. I have the adjoining field … my soil is now at least 20 cm deeper than his.” In the catchment of the River Tamar in Devon, one study suggests, soil is being lost at the rate of five tonnes per hectare per year (17).

I could go on. I could describe the complete absence of enforceable regulations on the phosphates farmers spread on their fields, which cause eutrophication (blooms of algae which end up suffocating much of the freshwater ecosystem) when they run into the rivers. I could discuss the poorly-regulated use of metaldehyde, a pesticide that is impossible to remove from drinking water (18). I could expand on the way in which governments all over Europe have – while imposing a temporary ban for flowering crops – permitted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides for all other purposes, without any idea of what their impact might be on animals in the soil and the rivers into which they wash. The research so far suggests it is devastating, but they were licensed before any such investigation was conducted (19).

There is just one set of rules which are effective and widely deployed: those which enforce the destruction of the natural world. Buried in the cross-compliance regulations is a measure called GAEC 12 (20). This insists that, to receive their money, farmers must prevent “unwanted vegetation” from growing on their land. (The rest of us call it wildlife habitat). Even if their land is producing nothing, they must cut, graze or spray it with herbicides to get their money. Unlike soil erosion, compaction and pollution, breaches of this rule are easy to detect and enforce: if the inspectors see trees returning to the land, the subsidy can be cut off altogether.

Perhaps a clue to the extreme unfairness of who is in receipt of UK benefits can be explained by the fact expressed by George Monbiot above, “The biggest 174 landowners in England take £120m between them.

With that in mind, let’s move on.  Move on to a recent essay from Patrice Ayme: WAR MAKES HISTORY! To say it makes disturbing reading is, trust me, an understatement.  But in the context of the UK’s rich landowners, as George Monbiot explained above, try this closing extract from Patrice’s essay:

We are a deeply equalitarian species. Out of equality rises our superior cultural performance. Plutocracy, the rule of the Dark Side, denies giving, love, and the equality which make us possible. Thus plutocracy is a denial of our species. Only an anger great enough to destroy it, will save us, and the biosphere. And there is hope: greed is neither as natural, nor as strong as anger.

It’s time to get angry against dictator Putin. Angry now is better than very sorry tomorrow.

War makes history. Of this we must think, if we want to make history better.

Patrice Aymé

Frankly, my own knowledge of these ‘dark forces’, of the influence of money and power, is practically zero. But the more that one looks at the madness of so many aspects of mankind’s existence, the more one thinks the truth, as Patrice writes it, is the real truth.  Indeed, here’s how Patrice opens his essay:

WAR MAKES HISTORY

HERE WE GO AGAIN

The earlier unjustifiable, unprovoked fascism, greedy plutocracy, imperial overstretch, murderous paranoia and other aspects of the Dark Side get smashed, the better.

Such is the most basic lesson of the 1930s.

For the millions of us that live relatively comfortable lives, it’s easy to read this stuff, nod sagely, and wonder if the heating needs to be left on this coming night.  But, pardon the pun, wake-up calls as to the approaching nightmares (sorry!) are not hard to find.

Try this from an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, as recently published on Grist:

In “The Sixth Extinction,” Elizabeth Kolbert reports from the frontlines of a dying world

By 

betsy-kolbert-cropped
University of Montana

The New Yorker writer and acclaimed author Elizabeth Kolbert has a penchant for depressing topics. Her 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, helped push climate change into the mainstream (with bonus points for not mincing words in the title).

Now that climate change is safely keeping most of us up at night, Kolbert turned her pen to another big bummer: the sixth extinction. We’re currently losing species at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than unassisted nature wiping out the occasional newt. While humans weren’t responsible for the last five mass extinctions, our fingerprints are all over this one. Yep: We collectively have the force of an asteroid when it comes to erasing species (high five, guys!) and for the most part, our response has been classic Urkel.

That interview concludes:

Q. You also write about some efforts to save species. Could you share some of those?

A. I happened to go to the San Diego Zoo, where they have a very impressive conservation program. I was there to see something called the “frozen zoo.” It’s just a bunch of vats of liquid nitrogen with cell lines from, in many cases, highly endangered animals and, in one case, an animal that doesn’t exist anymore, a Hawaiian bird. The idea is pretty much what it sounds like: You have these cell lines, you’re going to keep them alive forever, and eventually people are going to figure out how to resurrect some of these species. Or maybe if you don’t want to go quite that sci-fi, we’ll take the cell lines, we’ll do a DNA analysis, we’ll try to figure out why this population is having trouble.

They took me to see this bird named Kinohi, one of the last Hawaiian crows. He’s “reluctant to part with his genetic material,” let’s put it that way. He had been taken from this breeding facility on Maui to San Diego, and he is ministered to by a PhD physiologist who is trying to, let’s say, pleasure this bird, so that he will give up some sperm, so she can artificially inseminate a bird back in Maui. When I visited he had not yet, you know, come through. She was literally preparing to try again — I don’t know if it has ever worked, I should call her.

That was really, to me, emblematic of this crazy situation we find ourselves in. We’re incredibly smart, we’ve figured out how to freeze cell lines and quite possibly bring back extinct animals — we’re willing to pleasure crows. And yet, the Hawaiian Islands are called the extinction capital of the planet — it’s an absolutely devastated ecosystem. Many, many birds are extinct already; those that aren’t are just clinging to existence. Those forces are not changing and, in fact, things are getting worse. There used to be no mosquitoes in Hawaii; there are now mosquitoes. They carry avian malaria, and as the climate warms, avian malaria is moving up the slopes so that even these refugees species that are high on the mountains are increasingly not there. A lot of birds are in terrible trouble there.

All of these things are happening at once and, once again, they’re all true. People are devoting a lot of time and energy and love to trying to preserve these species, and meanwhile the world is increasingly screwed up. So that is how I end the book: They can both be true; it’s not one or the other.

Did you notice the reference to yet another example of mankind’s madness? “That was really, to me, emblematic of this crazy situation we find ourselves in. We’re incredibly smart, we’ve figured out how to freeze cell lines and quite possibly bring back extinct animals — we’re willing to pleasure crows. And yet, the Hawaiian Islands are called the extinction capital of the planet — it’s an absolutely devastated ecosystem.

I believe inherently that the great majority of individuals are good people.  Take Kevin Richardson for instance. Not for him money and power.  Just a passion to save lions.  Oh, and hugging them!  Just watch, and be moved.

Don’t know how to close this? Maybe using a quotation from Ernest Hemingway:

The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

So in these broken times, let all the good people come out strong – stronger than those who are corrupt, irrational, destructive and counter-productive!

It is the ultimate time for hope and faith in the power of goodness!

From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part Three.

The concluding Part Three of Martin Lack’s guest essay.

Part One is here: Part Two is here.

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Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 3)

Therefore, having now surveyed all the relevant “territory”, we shall now consider the third and final part of the answer to the question as proposed in the Introduction.

Ecologism – Neither left nor right, but out in front?

According to Philip Shabecoff, it was members of the European Green parties that were the first to assert that they are “neither left nor right but out in front” (2000: 109).

For this to be true, ecologism would have to represent a new paradigm that rejects (or at least challenges) beliefs central to conventional politics (of any orientation). This, it is here argued, is indeed the case: In a discussion of the libertarian ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, William Ophuls observed that they “…have not gone unchallenged, but with very few exceptions, liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, and other modern ideologies have taken abundance for granted and assumed the necessity of further growth” (Ophuls 1977: 145).

What is the problem with modernity?

As suggested by Anthony Giddens, modernity encompasses “…modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence” (Giddens 1991: 1).

The problem is that the accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it.

Karl Marx (as cited by Jon Elster) coined the term “money fetishism” to describe the belief that money (and/or precious metals) have intrinsic (use) value rather than just instrumental (exchange) value, which Marx felt was as misguided as the religious practice of endowing inanimate objects with supernatural powers (Elster 1986: 56-7).

However, whereas Karl Marx saw capitalism as the problem, the ideology that he gave his name to is just as guilty of Daly’s “growthmania”. For example, whereas Jack Goody accepts that capitalism has been “…connected with the growth of rationality and of secularisation; more recently with urbanisation and industrialisation”, he also notes that for Marxist regimes “…modern meant industrialisation without capitalism” (Goody 2004: 6).

The terms “use value” and “exchange value” were first put forward by Aristotle (384-322 BC) who, according to Daly, also recognised the danger of focusing on the latter (i.e. whereby the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself) and, alluding to Marx’s criticism, Daly suggested that the paperless economy (where no useable commodities actually change hands) is the logical end-point for money fetishism (Daly 1992: 186).

Finally, on the subject of the consequences of “the problem”, although the centrally-planned economies of the former USSR and China would appear to have had their day, the flaws of the capitalist system they seem so keen to embrace have also revealed themselves in recent time. For example, when John Gray came to write the introduction to the second edition of his book “False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism”, he included the following comment:

In the first edition of this book, published in March 1998, I wrote: ‘Today’s regime of global laissez-faire will be briefer than even the belle époque of 1870 to 1914, which ended in the trenches of the first world war’… Not much more than a decade ago this seemed outlandish, but there have since been many signs that global capitalism was heading for a fall (Gray 2009: xii).

Does ecologism provide the answers?

The starting point for ecologism is the concept of carrying capacity (the maximum population of a species) that an ecosystem can support in perpetuity (Dryzek 2005: 27). In this instance, the species is Homo sapiens and the ecosystem is the planet Earth. Therefore, in 1968, Hardin suggested that these limits exist and must be faced. In 1993, frustrated by the absence of discussion on population growth in international politics, he pointed out that:

Two centuries of intermittent wrestling with population problems have produced useful insights about the reality and nature of limits… Four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric… From this it must be inferred that someday political conservatism will once again be defined as contented living within limits. The limitless world view will have to be abandoned (Hardin 1993: 5-6).

In 1968, his solution had been “...mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (Hardin 1968: 1247). However, in an apparent reference to the work of an array of scholars including Malthus, Hardin, Meadows, Ehrlich and others, Daly lamented that:

Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done… Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract. (Daly 1992: 185-186).

Much more recently, Daly has reminded us that, “Ecological limits are rapidly converting ‘economic growth’ into ‘uneconomic growth’-that is throughput growth that increases costs by more than it increases benefits, thus making us poorer not richer” (Daly 2007: 39).

So, it would seem that the challenge of living “within our planet’s means” remains significant; one that few politicians are willing to discuss (because there are no votes to be gained in doing so). It is this fact that the environment cannot speak for itself (i.e. it is disenfranchised) that led Goodin to the conclusion that “nature has interests… as deserving of protection as anyone else’s, which must be ‘encapsulated’ as part of a discursive participatory democracy” (Goodin 1996: 835).

Similarly, whereas Goodin used the term “encapsulated interests” (to describe how one party’s interests are incorporated in those of another), Dobson suggested that non-human animals and future generations of humans (and maybe even other species) are “new environmental constituencies” requiring human representatives to look after their interests (Dobson 1996: 125).

All that needs to be decided is who we shall admit into the “community of justice” (i.e. how radical you want to be).

Citing Low and Gleeson (1998) and Baxter (1999), Derek Bell therefore distinguishes environmental and ecological justice as follows: Environmental justice concerns the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among human beings. Whereas ecological justice is concerned with justice between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Bell 2006: 208). Furthermore, Bell also spells out the importance of this distinction (just in case any reader has not appreciated it yet) as follows:

Advocates of environmental justice merely insist that the instrumental value of the environment to humans should be recognised in a theory of social justice or justice among humans. Ecological justice makes the much more radical claim that justice extends beyond relations among humans so that we can talk about ‘justice to nature’ (Bell 2006: 208).

Conclusions

The question that has been addressed herein is whether or not ecologism can or should be regarded as a political ideology in its own right given that both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to some aspects of ecological politics.

In order to provide a defensible answer to this question, it was necessary to define what is meant by ecological politics (i.e. the pursuit of policies that are concerned with the environment; but which are not merely or predominantly anthropocentric) and ecologism (i.e. the pursuit of environmental policies that are biocentric or ecocentric). This therefore highlighted the fact that the two are not the same thing; and that ecological politics also includes anthropocentric environmentalism.

However, it has been demonstrated that, rather than being a simple dividing line within the field of ecological politics, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism represent opposite ends of a spectrum along which it is possible to adopt a variety of philosophical positions. Furthermore, although it has also been demonstrated that it is very difficult to be entirely one thing or the other, when faced with difficult policy decisions, almost everyone (both socialists and conservatives included), tends to favour self-preservation. Therefore, the default position of all humans tends to be towards the anthropocentric end of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, to avoid the tautological response to the question (“ecologism must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right because it is!”), it was deemed necessary to demonstrate how and why both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics (although the majority of both socialists and conservatives do not do so) and, therefore, how and why the ecologism that both find so challenging must be regarded as a political ideology in its own right.

In so doing, it has been shown that some socialists find common cause with those that seek equal rights for the environment; whereas some conservatives may do so in pursuit of maintaining the status quo. However, both generally assume the necessity of further growth (Ophuls); what Daly called ‘growthmania’. Furthermore, capitalism is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may consume; whereas Marxism (an extreme form of socialism) is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may produce. However, ecologism insists that nature has inherent – if not intrinsic – value in and of itself; independent of our finding a use for it.

Ecologically-minded scientists and economists have pointed out that the Earth is finite and its capacity to accommodate humans is finite; whereas the evidence of at least the last 40 years is that many prefer to refuse to accept this reality and, as Schumacher pointed out, are spending environmental capital as if it were income. Therefore, because ecologism demands justice that is ecological (ecocentric) – not just environmental (anthropocentric), it represents a fundamental challenge to conventional politics and, as such, must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.

References

Baxter, B. (1999), Ecologism: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bell, D. (2006), ‘Political Liberalism and Ecological Justice’ [online], Analyse & Kritik 28, pp.206-22. [Paper originally presented at ECPR General Conference, Marburg, 18–21 September 2003]. Available at <http://analyse-und-kritik.net/2006-2/AK_Bell_2006.pdf> [accessed 18 April 2011].

Daly, H. (1992), Steady State Economics (2nd edition). London: Earthscan.

Daly, H. (2007), Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Dobson, A. (1996), ‘Representative democracy and the environment’, in Lafferty, W. and Meadowcroft, J (eds), Democracy and the Environment: Problems and Prospects. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.124-39.

Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Environment (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ehrlich, P & Ehrlich, A. (1996), Betrayal of Science and Reason. New York: Island Press.

Elster, J. (1986), An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, A. (1991), The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goodin, R. (1996), ‘Enfranchising the earth, and its alternatives’, Political Studies, 44, pp.835-49.

Goody, J. (2004), Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gray, J. (2009), False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism, 2nd edition. London: Granta.

Hardin, G. (1993), Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Low, N. and Gleeson, B. (1998), Justice, Society and Nature: An Exploration of Political Ecology. London: Routledge.

Malthus, T. (1798), An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J Johnson.

Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco: Freeman & Co..

Shabecoff, P., (2000), Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century, Washington DC: Island Press.

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I know a good number of readers have followed Martin’s essay since Tuesday and I would like to thank Martin, on my own account and on behalf of all LfD readers, for giving me the opportunity to republish the essay.