Cradle to Grave, Grave to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle. This is a sustainability model popularized by William McDonough. But he isn’t the originator of this line of thought. The basic sustainability ideas he argues for have been around for a while. Even the phrase “cradle to cradle” was used by others before him, which makes it irritating that he tried to trademark it. He has a habit, as some have noted, of stealing ideas and claiming them as his own while demanding high fees. So, maybe he is a bit of a self-promoting egotist or maybe he is simply greedily self-interested. His being a thought leader might be equal parts real influence and aspirational fantasy, whether or not that is problematic to the sustainability movement. It sometimes takes big egos to push big ideas, as long as a personality cult doesn’t get in the way.

Whatever the case, he could still be right about what he (and many others) have advocated. The moral merit and practical value of those ideas is a separate issue from what some deem to be his personal weaknesses or failings. The point is that I wouldn’t argue that there are necessarily problems in the ideas themselves, but underlying motives are always of concern in what they point toward. It’s a question of ascertaining and assessing what is behind the rhetoric and to what end that rhetoric might be used. It’s the same issue that motivated my writing about Foster Gamble (Thrive: Libertarian Wolf in Progressive Clothing) — and I might note that it was the same friend that brought them both to my attention, a very good friend I might add whose opinion I respect, but he admits to being drawn into and sometimes misled by libertarianism (something I can empathize with, considering my own libertarian inclinations).

My doubts began when I read an article about McDonough (the one specifically recommended by my friend): Industrial Revolution, Take Two by Matt Tyrnauer. As often is the case, I had a mixed response. It is one of the many nice-sounding libertarian dreams and not one that easily fits into the left-right spectrum. The problem is, even when well intentioned, these dreams are too often used to rationalize nightmares or else the resulting obfuscation (intended or not) makes it hard to tell the difference.

What stands out to me is that McDonough doesn’t seem to discuss democracy at length or at the very least he doesn’t clearly prioritize it, which opens the door for anti-democratic opportunists and reactionaries. To be fair, he does occasionally, albeit briefly, mention democracy. On his official website, in talking about one of his projects and the principles its based upon, he explains that, “In essence, they will extend the rights and responsibilities of a democratic government and its citizens into the realm of nature and design.” He rightly worries about “the fundamental challenge to democracy,” that “If our actions today rob our children of their right to choose, we are practicing intergenerational tyranny, an affront to democratic traditions.” And about regulations, he writes that they:

…are a legitimate transitional response. And when technologies such as nuclear energy and genetic engineering threaten to generate irreversible environmental changes, perhaps more urgent action is called for. Addressing the possible impacts of these industries would be an expression of democracy, for irreversible ecological change robs future generations of the right to choose: Once you’ve altered the genetic code there’s no turning back; once a species is lost, it is lost forever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “life is for the living,” and diminishing the life and the choices of our children and grandchildren is a kind of remote tyranny. Regulations that preserve choice and environmental health preserve democracy.

This Jeffersonian idealism is a major strain in American thought. And it resonates deeply.  I might add that this was the basis of the early notion that constitutions, patents, and corporate charters should never last longer than a single generation — that is to say no generation, once dead, has the natural right and moral justification to (immortally and in perpetuity) impose anything onto following generations, be it constraints or costs. McDonough also is able to put democracy into a larger global context:

Today, we might try waging peace on the scale of the Marshall Plan with the widespread application of intelligent design, a concerted international effort to develop products, industrial processes and social systems that support sustainable economic strength, cultural diversity and environmental health. From this perspective, sustainable design can be seen as one of the essential paths to peace and security. Consider resource dependency. From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, we see oil generate wealthy elites but no democratic institutions and no emerging intellectual infrastructure to support long-term social well-being or economic growth. In America, there are strong democratic traditions, but today the U.S. spends up to $50 billion annually, as well as lots of international good will, to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. South America is now emerging as the new, unstable oil arena.

But strangely democracy only comes up once in his book, Cradle to Cradle (p. 23), and even then only in the context of industrial capitalism:

The advantages of standardized, centralized production were manifold. Obviously, it could bring greater, quicker affluence to industrialists. On another front, manufacturing was viewed as what Winston Churchill referred to as “the arsenal of democracy,” because the productive capacity was so huge, it could (as in two world wars) produce an undeniably potent response to war conditions. Mass production had another democratizing aspect: as the Model T demonstrated, when prices of a previously unattainable item or service plummeted, more people had access to it.

I give him some credit for discussing democracy at all. But the above commentary of his from various sources is about a page worth in total and, as far as I can tell, it is about all he has ever written on the topic. It’s merely something about which to make a rare point in passing. But it’s not central to his argument or, if it is in the background of his thought, it isn’t a rhetorical frame overtly used to construct his worldview. Even when democracy does come up, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it in relation to self-governance, political process, anarchosyndicalism, etc. At most, McDonough’s view of democracy appears to be as a general concept of a democratic society and a broad tradition of Western civilization, in the mainstream sense and not with clear radical and revolutionary implications.

Maybe this is unsurprising. He argues against any ‘ism’ for, in his mind, ideology inevitably means extremism. This indicates that he considers the radical and revolutionary to be a bad thing. He wants moderate and gradualist reform within the system, not wholesale transformation of the system. And so he argues for a balanced approach that doesn’t go too far in any direction, which obviously means some kind of claim for centrism (a position that puts me on guard). The problem is that the denouncing of ideology is an old strategy for smuggling in an unstated ideology. This was powerfully used by Southerners before the Civil War in attacking supposedly radical ideologies of the Northern states such as abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, red republicanism, etc. Anyway, it’s clear that McDonough does have an ideology, something along the lines of mildly progressive soft neoliberalism leaning toward social semi-libertarianism. On the positive side, he seems to be a pragmatist of sorts (self-perceived pragmatism, after all, is a core neoliberal justification) and so maybe open to persuasion… or else just ideologically confused.

There is no doubt that cradle to cradle is a beautiful dream. But it won’t be primarily created through technology and industry but through democratic revolution that helps create a democratic political and economic system. Otherwise, such technology and industry will lead to yet another authoritarian social order. Libertarian (or pseudo-libertarian) techno-utopias won’t save us from the more fundamental problem of anti-democratic corporatism with its concentrated wealth and power, no matter how paternalistically it is wielded. Change will have to come from the bottom up, which is problematic that McDonough directs his arguments toward those at the top.

To my mind, this seems part of an old game… no matter if McDonough understands his own part in it. It has been played well by right-wing libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists for generations, co-opting rhetoric as necessary. There is always a beautiful dream involved. It’s hard to argue against it on its own terms. If the rhetoric matched reality, I’d be on board with almost every beautiful dream that came down the pipeline. But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. The political right loves to complain that liberal and leftist reality is inferior to right-wing fantasies. Yet they feel no responsibility to ever concretely prove their fantasies should be taken seriously. Neither neoliberalism nor neoconservatism, much less libertarianism, have spread freedom around the world. The wealth has not trickled down and all boats have not been lifted. We are still waiting on the promises of prior utopian visions. Repackaging old rhetoric is the opposite of helpful, if that is all this amounts to (and I hope not).

To continue, here is something else from Tyrnauer’s piece:

“How many environmentalists do you know who say growth is good?,” McDonough asks. “We celebrate growth. Abundance is something we want. Our idea is to make production so clean there’s nothing left to regulate.” This, he notes, is extremely appealing to people of all political persuasions, from those who love the environment to those who want commerce free of regulation.

I can guarantee you this much. Such rhetoric will be used to attack environmental regulations and regulatory agencies by right-wing think tanks and media, lobbyists and politicians. As Chomsky advises, we the public need to develop some serious intellectual defenses against the power of rhetoric, especially when it becomes mass-produced and widely circulated propaganda. Millions, if not trillions of dollars, are spent every year in researching, developing, and implementing more effective ways to monopolize the public mind, manipulate public perception, and manage public opinion.

The fact that corporations and corporate media have already latched onto this “cradle to cradle” rhetoric should greatly worry us all. It maybe already has been turned into yet one more ideology of technocratic paternalism, the reason the investor class and the creative class love it so much. It portrays a world led and ruled by the tech industry and its pseudo-libertarian visionaries. Denying its status as an ideological ‘ism’ makes it even easier to be co-opted for nefarious ends. Such sustainability visioneering is an answer coming from on up high, not being developed from below among the democratic masses. If failed government is eliminated without filling the void with democracy, all that would happen is for corporate bureaucracy and privatized authoritarianism to take its place. Tech and industry is a means, not an end. Only democratic process can lead to democratic results.

Give the lower classes ability and freedom to solve their own problems — some possibilities: community self-governance, direct vote determining government budgets, corporate charters determined by and limited to the public good, tax free co-operatives, employee-owned factories, locally-operated municipalities, every neighborhood with a creativity lab, tools and machinery made affordable to the lower classes, public education and professional training provided as a right, educational and research resources freely available to all citizens, all or nearly all scientific research and academic books openly accessible to the public, a publicly-maintained internet system of knowledge and ideas, strong platforms of public media and public debate, and whatever else along these lines.

I’m thinking of examples like the young guy in an isolated poor village who was able to build a windmill to pump water for his community and he did so by using knowledge from the internet and spare parts nearby. And I’m thinking about the experiment involving computer terminals that were put into poor neighborhoods that allowed uneducated kids to educate themselves (English, mathematics, etc), even though no one was telling them that is what they should do. I bet, if given the resources and opportunity, the poorest of minorities out of necessity would be more likely to come up with brilliantly innovative ideas than rich white guys like William McDonough and Foster Gamble.

If there is an environmentally sustainable societal and economic ecosystem to be developed, it will come from the common folk because they have the strongest incentive for improving society. It won’t come from the world of transnational corporations nor from corporate media and corporatist government. Big biz is a threat to our survival, not our savior. All that big biz and its cronies will do is use the techno-libertarian rhetoric to dismantle environmental regulations and protections while they spin some PR and throw out a few token efforts and symbolic actions. They will enact their ultimate capitalist dream of endless guilt-free hyper-individualistic consumerism that replaces community and civil society, the commons and the public good.

But it will sound great in theory. The corporatist media will push the propaganda model so as to make these rhetorical schemes into some variety of ideological realism. The pundits will preach it with such inspiration. The thought leaders will give their TED talks. The Koch-funded academics will indoctrinate the young. The think tank intellectuals will spread the word. And the professional politicians will halfheartedly repeat the talking points. Any alternative will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.

Let me finish with one last quote by Tyrnauer:

One of the things that is holding back the environmental movement and its proponents, says McDonough, is the collective burden of guilt about the ills of our society. “They say they want durable products that last a long time. Like a 25-year car. I’ll tell you why that’s not good. That car will still be made with toxins in the adhesives, compound epoxies. O.K., it amortizes its damage over a longer period of time, but it’s still a car that is damaging. You also lose jobs, because people don’t buy enough cars. You are using outdated technology on the roads for a longer time.” The solution that he and Braungart suggest is a five-year car that allows for industry to “transform the technology at high speed toward the Cradle to Cradle concept. The five-year car is a car whose materials are all coherent and tagged. In fact, all materials in the car have ‘passports.’ So we know where they come from, and we know where they’re going”—back to the auto-makers—“after five years of utility, so the car could be recycled and updated with the latest in safety and efficiency. All done with the same materials that you—in effect—lease from the auto company. They keep making the cars out of the same stuff.”

Meanwhile, one of the things holding back actual environmental sustainability, protection, and thriving is corporatist power and rhetoric. The ruling elite force guilt onto us about our demands for a political and economic system that serves we the public of this society and we the inhabitants of the living biosphere, calling us such names as ‘takers’ and ‘welfare queens’. They shift the guilt onto us in order to avoid the legal and moral guilt of those who have created the mess and made government seem dysfunctional, even as government serves their every need and demand — like Reagan complaining about big government as he grew the military and created the permanent debt. If guilt really were so powerless to influence change, it wouldn’t be a target of those most guilty. Social science research shows that guilt is quite powerful, such that people will punish the perceived guilty even at high costs to themselves. That enforcement of public morality is what the powerful fear, as it is the fuel of populist outrage that has forced major changes throughout history.

Besides, environmental regulations won’t ever be eliminated. In any society, there will always be public policy about how natural resources are used, how costs and benefits are allocated, how social norms are enforced, how wrongdoing is punished or compensated. etc. The issue isn’t for or against government, as long as we want to maintain a complex society. Rather, what we must choose is a free society of self-governance or an authoritarian regime of self-destruction. Government regulations are most dangerous when there is regulatory capture. Eliminating the power of government doesn’t eliminate the dangers of the very corporations that took control. That would simply lead to privatized authoritarianism, corporate bureaucracy, and plutocratic monopolization.

Simply put, I don’t trust sirens of laissez-faire salvation and plutocratic paternalism, even when dressed up with environmentalist buzz words and social democratic pleadings. It doesn’t matter how enticing is the futuristic utopia they promise. The challenge before us is the sifting out the good from the bad, the intentions from the results, the rhetoric from the reality. We should dream big, but we must guard those dreams jealously. We must defend them against those who would co-opt and abuse them, turning the radical and revolutionary into the reactionary and regressive. The solution isn’t to curtail big dreams but to unleash them from the forces of small-minded dreamers. If these dreams are to serve the public good, the public must claim them.

I’ll leave it to others to judge the likes of William McDonough, one of the glittering gods on Mount Olympus. It is ultimately irrelevant. He doesn’t own any of these ideas, despite his attempts to do so. If he helps give voice to what needs to be heard, well then good for him. But he better get out of the way for those who will need to do the hard work. And so I’ll look to the ground for what will be emerging next in the world. The much needed radical revolution will come in unexpected forms, like a god in the gutter. A new living generation will inherit the earth and they will do what must be done. Cradle to grave, grave to cradle.

* * *

Untying Cradle to Cradle
by Aetzel Griffioen

Closed Loop, Cradle to Cradle, Circular Economy & the New Naturephilia
by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Walter Stahel, an architect, economist, and one of the founding fathers of industrial sustainability is credited with having coined the expression “cradle to cradle” in the late 1970s [8]; even though Braungart and McDonough claimed to have invented it [9]. Stahel intended to reverse the crude and wasteful linear industrial system the world has inherited from the industrial revolution, which depletes finite resources, creating toxic products that largely end up in landfills to poison the environment. Stahel developed a “closed loop” approach to production and founded the Product Life Institute in Geneva with the main goals of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention. Kodak, DuPont, the BBC and Bosch are among its clients.

“Cradle to cradle” as propounded by Braungart and McDonough means to go one step further; they want industry not only to close the loop by recycling, but to redesign the industrial processes altogether. Instead of concentrating on making the current system more efficient (less bad), we can redesign the system to be thoroughly good. Recycling and reuse is not a solution if the product or material is toxic in the first place, it will inevitably end up in the environment to poison us more slowly, but still surely.

So, we must eliminate toxic materials and processes altogether, to make products that can be safely recycled and reused or else composted to support plant growth. There are already impressive successes (but also notable failures that critics accuse McDonough of ignoring, or still claiming as successes [9]).

If, like me, you expected to find a coherent theory behind the cradle to cradle approach, then you’d be disappointed and frustrated as I was, until I learned of the successful actual implementations (see Box), which serve to remind us that good intentions can often work. On the other hand, a coherent theory may improve the success rate, and at least, provide criteria for judging success.

Cradle to Cradle
by David Swanson

Three comments. First, this book does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader. (Have lots of kids, drive lots of cars, buy lots of stuff – what a break through!) This book is, rather, advice for architects, corporations, and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demanding of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be taken advantage of. All the descriptions in this book of common household objects, such as sofas, “off-gasing” toxic particles makes me want to take action to change things or at least buy a mask, not go shopping.

Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McD and B so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a “new paradigm” from reducing pollution to a teeny bit – it’s just better.

Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McD and B would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything – more humans than under current practices, yes — an infinite number, no. But let’s remember that most of the people now on the planet do not do nearly as much damage as we do in this country. How many billion Americans the Earth can hold has not been answered.

There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. The authors repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”) between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:

“Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”

Is this a joke? Do these guys believe press releases they read from, say, Enron? (Apparently so, because later in the book they write: “…the summer of 2001, when unusually high energy demand in California led to rolling blackouts, skyrocketing prices, even accusations of profiteering….” Accusations! High demand or restrained supply? What rock have these intelligent authors been naturally cooling themselves under? Well, at least they recognize the concept of profiteering, even though it fits poorly with the inherent honesty of commerce.)

Immediately following the “inherently honest” comment (page 60) Mc D and B go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible). Later the authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent “eliminated the need for regulation.” This should at the very least have been stated more clearly: it eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior “voluntary” would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.

The Lies and Fraud of My Hero William McDonough
by Derek Christensen

What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.

The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.

Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough
by Danielle Sacks

As someone who believes that “commerce is the engine of change,” as he puts it, McDonough has never confined his ambition to the high plains of principle. The virtue of his cradle-to-cradle idea is that it offers a virtuous result — infinite abundance with no waste — through an unabashedly commercial channel, namely manufacturing. If he could establish himself in that chain as the arbiter of clean products, there is no limit to what it might yield — for everyone. “The faster and larger our business grows,” he told me, “the better the world gets.” […]

McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the first green office in the U.S.,” he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: “Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office… . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done… . I hate to see false myths perpetuated.” Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.” […]

The Oberlin case is part of a larger pattern, some of his former colleagues say. “McDonough doesn’t care if the facts are wrong,” one told me, “because he’s a self-mythologizer. His job in the world is to convince people that a positive future is possible, and it doesn’t help his cause to admit there are hiccups and failures along the way.”

Inscribed near the entrance of McDonough’s architecture firm in Charlottesville is a favorite mantra: design is the first signal of human intention. He repeats it religiously, and for him it means that every object contains clues to whether it was created with the earth in mind. It is one’s intention, McDonough believes, that one is judged on.

McDonough’s willingness to let good intentions obscure very mixed results appears to have sometimes clouded his own — and others’ — view of his abilities. […]

Critics argue that McDonough’s work is not transparent or consensus based, and that because he sometimes consults for companies whose products he’s also certifying, the whole endeavor is conflicted, if not unethical.

Bill McDonough Gets Trashed in Fast Company
by Lloyd Alter

K • 9 years ago
I too was there at UVA school of architecture when McDonough was there and was unimpressed. Sure, he’s an amazing motivational speaker, who regurgitates the same speech over and over. Then, if you get to meet any of the people he champions (as I did, when I took his class, ‘Environmental Choices’) what you really learn is that what he’s doing is taking the messages of people who are really ‘doing the work’ and ‘breaking ground’ and making like they were his own.

Now sure, not everyone is a good salesman, and I do think there’s a niche for someone to ‘get the word out’. But there is no good reason to make yourself look amazing on the backs of others and not really give them credit. Also, once you heard the people speak he was ‘borrowing’ from, you realized how great they were and how vacant some of the stuff he was saying was- because he wasn’t a specialist, just a salesman.

And a somewhat overinflated one at that. Champion people for the right reasons I say. McDonough has an amazing flair for the pitch, but you really can’t count on him for substance (from experience).

Anonymous • 9 years ago
I was at UVA’s school of architecture when McDonough was there. My former classmates and I, including people who have worked for him and his firm, have been telling anyone who will listen that he is not all that he seems for almost 10 years. Funny how long it’s taken for word to get around.

Cradle to Cradle as Conventional Right-Wing Anti-Government Ideology
by Dale Carrico

To denigrate the “cradle to grave” tyranny of social democracy and public welfare has, of course, been a staple of reactionary right-wing political invective for generations. But I want to direct attention to a variation of this same polemic at the heart of what is often peddled as a progressive, environmentalist discourse — the so-called “cradle to cradle” design ethos.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has come to be a sort of bible (together with Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and Bruce Sterling’s periodic papal-imperial declarations about blobjects and spimes and whatnot) for the so-called “Bright Greens” and the whole green design crowd more generally that more or less arose out of or together with Stewart Brand’s California libertopian retro-futurology-qua-ecology.

In a characteristic passage (pp. 59-61) from Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart summarize a formulation from the great Jane Jacobs that they take up and divert to their own ends, describing “two syndromes of human civilzations: what [Jacobs] calls guardian and commerce”:

The guardian is the government, the agency whose primary purpose is to preserve and protect the public. This syndrome is slow and serious. It reserves the right to kill — that is, it will go to war. It represents the public interest, and it is meant to shun commerce (witness conflicts over campaign contributions from vested interests).

Commerce, on the other hand, is day-to-day, instant exchange of value. The name of its primary tool, currency, denotes its urgency. Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.

Notice that the attribution of slowness and violence as definitive of government, and then of efficiency and creativity to commerce are very straightforward Anglo-American right-wing Movement Conservative pieties (an assimilation to neoliberal discourse I think Jacobs herself resists better herself, if not enough).

One need not pretend that all representative politics and social administration are transparent, efficient, fleet-footed, and fair to feel hesitant about declaring governance as inevitably and exhaustively and quintessentially bloated and jackbooted as conservatives nowadays are so often keen to do, usually all the while singing arias to celebrity CEOs and commercial culture as though corporations and salesmen are gloriously immune to bureaucracy, dysfunction, conformism, cronyism, fraud, aggression, and waste.

Although it might seem the authors are somewhat evenhanded in a characterization noting the indispensability of government to the “public interest,” they undermine this apparent balance when they go on thereupon to depict government action exclusively in terms of war-making and then stealthfully re-attribute public interestedness to the commercial sphere declaring commerce, astonishingly, as inherently concerned with long-term interests and trustworthiness.

Notice, by the way, the authors’ rather typical handwaving away of the well-known critique that a focus on short-term profit-taking tends to happen at the expense of thinking about longer term consequences with their chirpy collapse of this conflict into a seamless “seeking [of] short- and long-term advantage,” a phrasing that refuses to concede such a problem even exists. Also, notice that the authors seem to consider trustworthiness logically entailed by the structure of enterprise and that the endless empirical instances to the contrary anybody can effortlessly call upon are apparently irrelevant to their abstract celebratory point. It is also intriguing to say the least to note that fairly widespread concerns about the impact of corporate money in the United States’ flabbergastingly corrupt and wasteful campaign finance system are regarded by the authors as straightforward expressions of hostility to free enterprise, as if innovation and fair trade somehow require a “democracy” controlled by millionaires instead of majorities.

Waste is Food (review of Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart)
by Tom Lambert

As a historian, I often think about how the carrying capacity of the planet has changed. Six hundred years ago, it would be unimaginable to think that we could live in a society of plenty where nobody had to die of famine and where we would see life expectancies of 70 years and more. Medieval Europeans believed that only in Eden had such a state existed and, furthermore, there was no reason for man to live hundreds of years like Noah and Methuselah. A short life sufficed to find salvation and a long life only served to encourage vice. As it turns out, they may have been right about that one – a long lifespan has given us the chance to use up a lot more resources per person, but hasn’t necessarily made us into better human being. In any case, though, we forget that at one time the wheeled plow was high tech and it created the possibility of feeding far more people. Similarly, changes in land tenure, the increased use of horses and so forth, made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people.

So I believe that McDonough is right. Faced with the alternatives, we can come up with products that are non-toxic. They will be infinitely upcycled if industrial products and just simply thrown “away” if they are biological products that can be simply composted. Under such conditions, what is to stop infinite growth? In a word: energy. Thus far, almost every shortage we have faced on the planet has been solved by throwing more energy at the problem. As we see the looming problem of climate change, though, we see that using more energy in the forms we currently use it is, in itself a problem. I have no doubt that if we can solve the energy question, we can shift to a planet of plenty where every necessary product is produced safely and sustainably. Some products, it’s true, might get prohibitively expensive, but for the most part we will see those as unnecessary. There is a limit to planetary population, certainly, but history has shown that we have no idea what that number is (and to some extent that’s a value judgement – can we plow up all wilderness in order to grow food?). But the energy question is one that is looming imminently. That’s the one part of the puzzle that McDonough doesn’t really address and that may be the fundamental problem. As he says, efficiency is not enough. A more efficient system just runs out of resources more slowly. Granted, energy is not on McDonough’s agenda – he designs products and buildings and does his best to make them energy efficient (that bad word again), but leaves it up to others to find sources of energy that are as eco-effective as McDonough’s designs.

Anthropocene Politics I
(from Environments, Natures and Social Theory)
by Damian White, Alan Rudy, & Brian Gareau

The fusion of transhumanist and neoliberal ideas has played an important cultural role in Right libertarian digital utopianism that has emanated out of Silicon Valley, and through Wired  magazine. End Times Ecology provides the backdrop narrative informing all kinds of different modes of environmental activism. In some senses they can be seen as reinstating in new ways the catastrophe/cornucopia binary that has run through environmental politics since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, a great deal of contemporary science fiction, from the work of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to films such as Gattica (1997) and Elysium (2013), are attempts to grapple with worlds confronting both neoliberal hybridities and ecological collapse. Much of this literature thus unsettlingly suggests that these two discourses could in fact be different sides of the same coin. […]

It is interesting to note that bright green literatures often work with multiple political narratives. Some of the less compelling interventions are directed at business leaders who, it is believed, will act out of enlightened self-interest to implement forms of eco-innovation (see McDonough and Braungart, 2013). However, other currents (see Mostafavi and Doherty, 2010) provide more layered accounts of multiple possible entry points available for the dispersal of such innovations well beyond the conventional “entrepreneur/CEO as hero” model: from forms of industrial redesign that are promoted by local, municipal, regional or national governments to full scale public urban planning, from firm-based innovation to innovation driven by government regulation or social movements. Reading beneath the green business uplift narrative, many bright green authors acknowledge that much more radical regime change will be required to make their visions possible. This observation is rarely made explicit in this literature, but it outlines the necessary terrain of engagement that must take place between the critical environmental social sciences and Bright green sensibilities (see White and Wilbert, 2009; Hess 2012, 2014). […]

Given the technocentric and power-free nature of much post- environmentalist analysis, it is easy to see how the post-environmentalist vision of a “good anthropocene” could converge and merge with the hybrid neoliberal vision. A post-environmentalist ecomodernist future can be envisaged where the affluent live in high security, Dubai-style dense, green “smart cities.” Such forms of fortress urbanism could be underpinned by corporatist public-private governance structures, mega-energy technologies, hyper-industrial agriculture and global industrial supply chains that are all serviced by dispossessed classes living densely and eco-efficiently in the urban periphery. This decoupled, carbon- constrained, ecomodern world would, of course, exist within a broader “re-wilded” planet where perhaps “non-moderns” and those who have refused to be “modern” or those who have escaped from the neo-corporatist ecomodern smart city live off their wits, taking their chances while plotting different futures. […]

If end times ecology looks upon our unfolding hybrid worlds with horror and resignation, we have also seen that diverse hybrid neoliberals, bright green and post-environmental currents – whatever their differences – have sought to reframe the environmental debate as questions of technological innovation and inventiveness. All these dis-courses present technological innovation as defining
invention. As a result of this, there are strong tendencies to present social life and politics as the realm of inertia. More generally, it could be observed that the primary voices that are seen as drivers of change are “entrepreneurs,” policy makers, technocratic experts and design professionals. The public, or publics, as potentially sentient, creative, informed and knowledgeable political actors with their own insights, are absent.

Andrew Barry (2002) has observed quite usefully that this conceit, that we live in technological societies that are driven by technologies, has become central to the understanding of many people in the affluent world. Barry suggests that “technological societies” are not necessarily any more technological than past societies, but they are societies that take technological change as the model of invention. The irony here, Barry suggests, is that the endless technological churn that contemporary “technological” economies generate do not necessarily give rise to particularly inventive worlds. Barry indeed observes that periods of rapid technological change can drive anti-inventive forms and behavior. Patenting knowledge or making endless upgrades of software or hardware packages can merely facilitate forms of defensive innovation generating technological changes that are conservative in their implications, “maintaining or rigidifying existing arrangements between persons, activities, devices, and habits of thought; they may restrict and displace the possibility of alternative developments” (Barry, 2002:212). We should not then simply equate technological novelty with inventiveness. Rather, Barry suggests:

Inventiveness should not be equated with the development of novel artifacts, or indeed with novelty or innovation in general. Rather, inventiveness can be viewed as an index of the degree to which an object or practice is associated with opening up possibilities. In this view, scientific and technical objects and practices are inventive precisely in so far as they are aligned with inventive ways of thinking and doing and configuring and reconfiguring relations with other actors. From this perspective it is possible to identify forms of invention that are not technical but rather involve the use of a device in more creative ways. In short, just because an object or device is new does not make it an invention. What is inventive is not the novelty of artifacts and devices in themselves, but the novelty of the arrangements with other objects and activities within which artifacts and instruments are situ-ated and might be situated in the future. (Barry, 2002:211–212)

Barry’s observations prompt the question as to whether there are ways of thinking about an inventive politics, an experimental environmentalism and a public ecology (Luke, 2009) which could open up the making of our hybrid worlds to many more perspectives and voices.

Redefining Sustainability
by Ramesh Bjonnes

Progressive Utilization Theory, also known by the acronym PROUT, is a collection of socioeconomic and political ideas created by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, envisioning “a decentralized, community-based world economy of self-sufficiency; economic democracy; small business; and limits on the accumulation of wealth.” From a PROUT perspective even the most idealistic sustainable models will inevitably confront capitalism’s inherent contradiction: that self-interest and profit are the main drives of the economy and also the main causes of economic exploitation and environmental degradation.

Sarkar explains: “The contradictions in capitalism are due to the self-centered profit motivated psychology and the accumulation of wealth for the benefit of a few rather than for the welfare of all. Hence, capitalism is not congenial to the integrated growth of human progress.” In other words, in a capitalist economy, no matter how green, there will always be a tug of war between the bottom line (profit) and the second bottom line (sustainability). And the bottom line will always win.

Sarkar’s keen insight into this fundamental flaw of capitalism is the reason why PROUT advocates a radical restructuring of the entire economy. PROUT’s alternative to capitalist reform is its three-tiered structure—small private enterprises, worker owned cooperatives and enterprises owned by state, regional or municipal boards. The inherent problems of profit-motivated greed can thus be checked and balanced by limiting capitalism itself. In other words, without curbing the growth of private capitalism—which is driven by its profit motivation– it will be impossible to maintain social, economic and environmental balance, no matter how “sustainable,” “green” or “natural” the economy is.

What We Must Do (Part 2)
by Peter Montague

As we have seen, the main enemy of democracy is inequality of wealth (and therefore power). When Big Money calls the shots, most people are disenfranchised like cattle. There is no evidence that wealthy elites make better decisions than the American people as a whole would make if the institutions of our democracy were working properly (media, schools, courts, legislatures, labor unions, law-making and policy bodies, local businesses and local economies, plus electoral systems for judges, legislatures, governors, and presidents).

If inequalities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy — and are the hallmark of an unsustainable society — then we could protect democracy and promote sustainability by protecting the institutions that reduce inequalities of wealth.

 

 

Advertisements

Environmentalist Majority

I keep coming back to corporatist politics, centered in Washington and Wall Street, and the corporate media that reports on it. This is what gets called ‘mainstream’. But the reality is that the ideological worldview of concentrated wealth and power is skewed far right compared to the general public, AKA the citizenry… ya know, We the People.

Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.

Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.

Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.

The environmental issues we are facing are larger than any problems Americans have ever before faced. The reality of it hasn’t fully set in, but that will likely change quickly. It appears to have already changed in the younger generations. Still, you don’t even need to look to the younger generations to realize how much has changed. Trump voters are perceived as being among the most right-wing of Americans. Yet on many issues these political right demographics hold rather leftist views and support rather leftist policies. This shows how the entire American public is far to the left of the entire bi-partisan political establishment.

When even Trump voters support these environmental policies, why aren’t Democratic politicians pushing for what is supported by the majority across the political spectrum? Could it be because those Democratic politicians, like Republican politicians, are dependent on the backing and funding of big biz? Related to this, the data shows Americans are confused about climate change. Could that be because corporate propaganda and public relations campaigns, corporate lies and obfuscation, and corporate media has created this confusion?

It is quite telling that, despite all of this confusion and despite not thinking it will personally harm them, most Americans still support taking major actions to deal with the problem — such as more regulations, controls and taxes, along with also greater use of renewable energy. The corporate media seems to be catching on and news reporting is starting to do better coverage, probably because of the corporate media simultaneously being challenged by alternative media that threatens their profit model and being attacked as ‘fake news’ by those like Trump. The conflict is forcing the issue to the surface.

This growing concern among the majority isn’t being primarily driven by self-interest, demographics, ideological worldview, political rhetoric, etc. False equivalency has long dominated public debate, in corporatist politics and corporate media. This is changing. Maybe enough people, including those in power, are realizing that this is not merely a political issue, that there is a real problem that we have to face as a society.

* * *

The ‘Spiral of Silence’ Theory Explains Why People Don’t Speak Up on Things That Matter
By Olga Mecking
New York Magazine

The Spiral Of Silence Keeps People From Speaking Out On The Issues That Matter Most
Curiosity

‘Global warming’ vs ‘climate change’
socomm@cornell

Climate Change
Gallup

Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016
by Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer Marlon, & Anthony Leiserowitz
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Voters Favor Climate-Friendly Candidates
by Geoff Feinberg
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Most Clinton, Sanders, Kasich, and Trump Supporters–but not Cruz Supporters–Think Global Warming Is Happening
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

More than Six in Ten Trump Voters Support Taxing and/or Regulating the Pollution that Causes Global Warming
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Matthew Cutler , & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Sanders Supporters Are the Most Likely to Say “Global Warming” Is a Very Important Issue When Deciding Whom to Vote For
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, & Seth Rosenthal
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Say Schools Should Teach Children About the Causes, Consequences, and Potential Solutions to Global Warming
by Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Seth Rosenthal, & Matthew Cutler
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Relatively Few Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Think It is a Hoax
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Are Concerned Range of Energy and Environmental Issues
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Americans Who Think Global Warming Is Not Happening Favor or Do Not Oppose Policies
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

2016 Election Memo: It’s The Climate, Stupid!
by Elliott Negin
Moyers & Company

Politicians at Sea
by Marina Schauffler
Natural Choices

70 Percent of Americans Have This Surp
rising View of Global Warming

by Sean Breslin
The Weather Channel

Ready and Organizing: Scientists, and Most Americans, Have Climate Change on Their Minds
by Astrid Caldas
Union of Concerned Scientists

Maps Show Where Americans Care about Climate Change
by Erika Bolstad
Scientific American

Many More Republicans Now Believe in Climate Change
Poll shows a big leap from two years ago
by Evan Lehmann
Scientific American

Half of U.S. Conservatives Say Climate Change Is Real
Trump and Cruz reject global warming, while more Republicans see it as a threat.
by Eric Roston
Bloomberg

Trump doesn’t represent American views on climate change: a visual guide
by John D. Sutter
CNN

Trump supporters don’t like his climate policies
by Dana Nuccitelli
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Did The Pope Change Catholics’ Minds On Climate Change?
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
FiveThirtyEight

Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change
by Jonathon P. Schuldt, Adam R. Pearson, Rainer Romero-Canyas, & Dylan Larson-Konar
Pomona College

New poll shows Exxon CEO is closer to public opinion on climate than Trump
by Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps
by Nadja Popovich, John Schwartz, & Tatiana Schlossberg
The New York Times

Climate change is a threat – but it won’t hurt me, Americans say
by J.D. Capelouto
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Americans are confused on climate, but support cutting carbon pollution
by Dana Nuccitelli
The Guardian

Well Lookie Here, a Majority of Americans Support Restricting Carbon Pollution from Coal Plants
by Ellie Shechet
Jezebel

Surveys Show Major Gap Between Voters and Their Representatives On Global Warming
by Noa Banayan
Earthjustice

Climate Change Denial ‘a Problem’ for Republicans
by Steve Baragona
VOA News

Climate of Capitulation
by Vivian Thomson
The MIT Press

Conservatives can lead the charge to deal with climate change
by Susan Atkinson
The Pueblo Chieftan

Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Externalized costs have been on my mind for a very long time. Ours is a self-enclosed biosphere. All costs are ultimately internal, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

My sense of the political has been rooted in environmentalism, from early on in my life. This worldview has been informed by a larger environmental sense of the world, including the social and economic environment. It’s always been how I experience reality, as something far beyond the false divisions we create and reify—between individual and collective, self and world, society and nature.

My young political sensibility was expressed in school papers I wrote about externalized costs, a gut level intuition about what was being lost. These papers were about overpopulation and pollution. Now here I am as an adult and everything has gotten far worse, some might say beyond the point of no return.

Pollution and environmental destruction knows no boundary. The natural world cares not about our ideological beliefs. It doesn’t matter who is fault when the costs come due. The free market is and always was bullshit. Nothing is free, even if we don’t see the price tag. In fact, capitalism is rather costly. The ultimate cost might be greater than we can afford.

These costs are highly personal. I’ve talked many times about lead toxicity, the costs of which are numerous and yet still measurable. For every IQ point lost to lead toxicity, it is a specific amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. Multiply that by many IQ points lost for untold millions of people. The costs are devastating and that is considering just one of many costs.

Considering all pollution and environmental degradation, that is the cause of 40% of the deaths worldwide. Those deaths include working men and women who were helping care for family members. Those deaths represent human potential thrown away. Those deaths didn’t just happen instantly but followed years or even decades of illnesses, suffering, and healthcare costs.

Other costs are also economic on the larger scale, which also can be measured. For a long time, I’ve suspected that many corporations would go bankrupt if they were ever forced to pay for their externalized costs. This was shown to be the case with a recent UN report:

“The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.”

This means these industries are environmentally a net loss to the global society. They aren’t contributing more to society than they are taking away. All the rhetoric of capitalism, meritocracy, and progress is lies built upon lies.

We obsess about individual problems when that isn’t the real danger we face. We make people feel guilty about recycling at home while corporations throw out so much potential recyclables as to make all the rest look minuscule. Similarly, almost all the pollution comes from big biz, not from people driving their cars too much or whatever. If we wanted to make a dent in these problems, we’d tackle it at the largest level of the most major contributors to these problems, instead of tinkering around the edges.

Meanwhile, these companies that profit from human misery, from the forced sacrifice of present and future generations lobby the world’s governments so that they’ll make even greater profit. They get tax breaks and subsidies. They hide their profits in fake businesses and secret overseas accounts. We debate about whether taxes are too high when any rational and moral person is forced to admit that taxes don’t come close to offsetting all the costs these filthy rich corporations force onto the rest of society.

Why do we tolerate this? Are we mentally deranged? Are we suicidal?

If the unsustainable costs of industrial externalities doesn’t incite mass outrage and force systemic global reform, then there is no hope left for humanity. We are doomed. Saving capitalism from communism will be the least of anyone’s worries.

Is anyone paying attention? It’s only the survival of civilization as we know it. No biggie. Have we grown so cynical and fearful that we can’t even face reality barreling down on us like a freight train? We are looking at a nightmare scenario.

Costs can be externalized and deferred. But costs can’t be denied.
Even if we are lucky enough to die before costs become due, do we really want to be such sociopathic assholes in the legacy we leave for the coming generations, for our children and grandchildren? They will curse us for what we did and failed to do.

We will be among the most hated generations ever born. There will be no forgiveness for us. Memorials will be built in memory of the evil we committed and the destruction we caused.

Of course, we could in this moment begin to lessen some of this harm. We could prepare for the consequences we’ve unleashed. We could give these next generations a fighting chance. Will we?

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

Iowa State Parks: Past and Present

Here is the sad result of living in a farming state with the richest soil in the world. I can only assume that this is mostly a result of the transition from small family farms to big agribusiness. The following is from “State Park Paths 2013” by Mark S. Edwards, formerly for 30 years the Trails Coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources:

Iowa started our state park system around the early 1900’s because there was so little left undisturbed. Even before we could designate these areas as parks they had been clear-cut, mined, plowed and heavily grazed. Iowa struggled through the 1930’s Great Depression, along with dust bowl days, unimaginable droughts and economic collapse to expand a state park system for all Iowans.

“By 1937 we lead the nation in the establishment of state parks. Today we compete with one other state for the very bottom in state parks and public lands. We are the most biologically changed place in North America. Roughly 98% of Iowa’s 36 million acres have been altered for agricultural use, cities, and roads.

“There are no old growth forests left to study or enjoy. We drained 98% of our wetlands, cut 80% of the trees, and plowed up 99.9% of our prairies. We have the most polluted surface water, the least species diversity and are at the bottom in environmental spending in the nation. This makes these parks very, very special not only for people but for the remaining critters.

“If we combined all our state parks together in one place we have 55,871 acres or a square just over nine miles on a side, a short day’s walk. The city of Des Moines covers 71,000 acres or a square about ten10 and half miles on a side.Urban sprawl in Iowa alone has increased 50,000 acres in the last ten years. Farmers converted around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrubland and wetlands from 2008 to 2011.”

Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.

Man vs Nature, Man vs Man (part 2)

This post is in response to comments that can be found at my last post.
 – – –
I don’t know your exact position on this issue, but let me clear about mine. It’s obvious that American society doesn’t offer an equality of opportunity, much less equality of results. Just look at the enduring systemic and institutionalized racism in all parts of our society.
The invocation of the ideology of equal opportunity is too often used as a magical incantation to dispel fear of a world with real equality. It’s not about perfect results, but it’s a sad state of affairs when abstract ideology is used to rationalize away real problems. I noticed this dichotomy within libertarianism. There are deontological libertarians who argue on moral grounds and there are consequentialist libertarians who supposedly argue based on results. The tricky part is that the results argued for are to varying degrees hypothetical since there has never been a libertarian country as far as I know, at least not in the modern era. So, in reality, the consequentialist libertarians are just deontological libertarians who defer into the future the obligation of moral justification. They get to argue for equality of opportunity without having to show any real world results that their ideology leads to even a semblance of equality for actual people living here and now.

You ask “Equality OF WHAT!!” I can respond with Equal Opportunity OF WHAT!! This is the difference. Equality of opportunity is too often an abstraction whereas equality of results can be concretely measured. Equality is something we aspire to even though it is never achieved absolutely. Also, to the extent that equal opportunity is more than mere abstract ideology, it can only be proven by its results. If an abstract ideology never leads to results, it is a less than worthless and possibly dangerous ideology. I think that it would be naive at best to think that most inequality we see today is ‘natural’ in any sense of that word.

Let me speak about Jefferson and Paine.

Jefferson may never have used the word democracy, but at least early in his life he definitely believed in a radical version of direct democracy in terms of direct civic participation and direct political action. As far as I understand it, his vision of democracy was one of an agrarian society which in today’s terms simply means a society of small business owners who simultaneously are producers. Yes, he believed in equality before the law, but his egalitarian vision went beyond that. He helped create a free public university which goes beyond mere opportunity because it is actively redistributing wealth to ensure public education. There is no way to have a govt without redistributing wealth. It’s just in authoritarian govts the wealth is distributed upwards to a minority elite and in democratic governments the wealth is distributed more evenly among the entire population.

However, Paine is more central to my argument, especially considering he was the first to refer to America as a united country and the first to formulate a version of Bill of Rights. Paine didn’t deny we are born with various inequalities, but he observed that most of the major inequalities in modern civilization are created by modern civilization. I’d suggest you read Paine in more detail to understand this position. He describes it in great detail in ‘Agrarian Justice’.

I’d go so far as to argue that the ideas and policies of the Populist and Progressive Eras were rooted in the thinking of the founding fathers.

For example, in ‘Agrarian Justice’, Paine formulated an early version of social security among other proposals of a what right-wingers would call a “welfare state”. Or take the Civil War as another example. Lincoln admired Paine and was inspired by Paine’s advocation of universal suffrage. Paine wanted literal freedom for all to be written into the constitution. Having failed that, it was left to Lincoln to finish the American Revolution that Paine originally inspired. In the terms of our disccusion, I think it’s hard to argue that the federal government enforcing equal rights (beginning with the Civil War and being furthered with the Civil Rights movement) is merely establishing equal opportunity. The government was, in fact, demanding basic results of equality in the real world. The government didn’t just offer slaves the opportunity to work themselves out of slavery.

I also mentioned earlier about some of the policies of the founding fathers. Besides creating public schools, I pointed out the issue of protectionism and subsidies.

The founding fathers weren’t worried about free market rhetoric because they understood on the global scale there was no free market. It wasn’t enough to say businesses had the opportunity to try to succeed. The founders protected American businesses against transnationals, enforcing an opposing unfair advantage to American businesses to counter the unfair advantage foreign businesses had from foreign governments.

Subsidies were another way they manipulated markets. In the case of subsidies for presses, they were manipulating markets for the public good. They didn’t merely offer the equal opportunity of a free press determined by a free market. They guaranteed (or at least strongly encouraged) equal results of having newspapers and other published works widely and cheaply available to average Americans.

You pointed out that the idea of an equal society has been portrayed as a dystopia in many movies. That isn’t much of an argument. Any idea can be portrayed dystopically when pushed to its most imbalanced extreme. I demonstrated this principle by dystopically portraying equal opportunity in terms of slavery. Imagine a society where some people are born free and some people are born into slavery. In this imagined society, some slaves do manage to work hard and buy their freedom. The fact that a few escape freedom doesn’t mean a whole lot for those who remain enslaved. Telling the slaves they have an equal opportunity wouldn’t comfort them.

Here is the crux of our discussion. I don’t know to what extent I do or do not understand your position, but your view as communicated here seems to be a fairly standard and mainstream understanding (actually, a bit right-leaning I must point out; conservatives tend to emphasize equal opportunity – or rather the rhetoric of equal opportunity – over equal results). As for my position, I don’t get the sense that you understand where I’m coming from (which is less standard and mainstream). We apparently have neither a shared based of knowledge nor a common understanding of terms. I realize I read widely at the fringes and so there is no reason I should assume most people would understand where I’m coming from. However, if you do want to understand where I’m coming from (specifically in terms of having a fruitful discussion about the above post), then I’d advise at least perusing some of the following (in particular, be sure to read ‘Agrarian Justice’). Otherwise, I doubt our discussion can go on much further.

– – –

The following include two of my YouTube playlists, some of my previous blog posts, and various stuff found around the web:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PL288BB2A3BB6F2FDD

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PLC463021B7E9402AD

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/us-republic-dem­ocracy/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/is-classical-li­beralism-liberal/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/thomas-paine-an­d-the-promise-of-america/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/founding-father­s-and-the-christian-nation/

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.­com/2010/10/14/protectionist-a­merica/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrarian_Justice

http://cbelan.free.fr/documents/david_robinson_paper.pdf

http://www.conlaw.org/Intergenerational-II-2-5.htm

http://ijdb.auzigog.com/concept/locke%E2%80%99s-proviso

http://currencycommonsvt.org/2010/08/magna-carta-on-the-commons/

http://books.google.com/books?id=2kx7KiTEZCsC

http://www.ied.info/articles/my-eureka-moment/the-feudal-origins-of-land-titles

http://www.schumachersociety.org/publications/barnes_03.html

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/01/31-6

http://www.enn.com/top_stories/article/9010

http://www.politicususa.com/en/founding-fathers-liberal

http://www.punkerslut.com/critiques/let_freedom_ring/the_socialism_of_thomas_paine_contrasted_with_the_traditional_values_of_american_conservatives.html

http://preesi.lefora.com/2010/04/14/our-socialist-founding-fathers/

http://www.peoplevstate.com/?p=780

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffrep.html

http://www.educationnews.org/articles/13663/1/Jefferson-on-Public-Education-Defying-Conventional-Wisdom/Page1.html

http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html

http://leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com/2007/10/john-woolmans-plea-for-poor-chapter-13.html

http://leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com/2007/10/politics-as-extension-of-war-by-other.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_George

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgism

http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/davis_caspar_henry_george_and_geonomics.html

http://commonground-usa.net/kyri7802.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geolibertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributism

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/toward-a-truly-free-market-w-author-john-medaille/

http://www.desarrollo.net/2010/09/distributist-john-medaille-on-the-role-of-cooperatives/

http://www.medaille.com/distributivism.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleoliberalism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-libertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_libertarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Democrat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheldon_Richman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Marxism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_socialism

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc16

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc22

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc28

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/The_Anarchist_FAQ_Editorial_Collective__An_Anarchist_FAQ__03_17_.html#toc29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Nozick

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker%27s_self_management

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Joseph_Proudhon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutualism_(economic_theory)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchist_communism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bookchin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_municipalism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communalism_(Political_Philosophy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_societarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communitarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kropotkin

Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

This post is about some related thoughts: bias in media, the relationship of society and nature, and the issue of democracy in terms of our present capitalism.

– – –

Based on my experience and research, I think it’s fair to state that NPR isn’t liberally biased… or, at least, not in any clear sense… but  such assessments, of course, depend on how one defines/perceives ‘liberalism’. I’d argue NPR is as mainstream as can be found in that they mostly present a status quo view of the world. I suspect if you were to ask most people seen in the mainstream media (reporters, pundits, politicians, talking heads, etc) and they gave you an honest answer, most of them probably would agree with the types of views that are regularly presented on NPR.

(This ‘mainstream’, however, isn’t the same as the everyday experience and values of the average person. If you want to find something closer to a liberal bias, look at the stated opinions of the majority of Americans.)

Here is an example from NPR. The other day, there was a panel discussion. It was about business use of and government management of public land. As I recall, there were three guests, all mainstream types including someone defending the interests of big business and criticizing too much regulation. They had the typical disagreements one often hears in the mainstream, but they were all basically on the same page about the terms and focus of discussion. For certain, it wasn’t a liberal panel. It was just the old school journalism where two sides of an issue are ‘neutrally’ presented by the host, although done in the non-antagonistic ‘let’s all get along’ style typical of NPR.

Most interesting is what was lacking, specifically in terms of those who claim a liberal bias. Among the guests, there was no left-winger of any variety nor anyone who might agree with left-wing positions; no communists, socialists, Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-primitivists, left-libertarians, hippy environmentalists, deep ecologists, Goddess-loving pagans, social justice Christians, indigenous people, community activists, etc. Among the guests invited, there was no discussion of the poor and minorities most impacted by pollution and environmental destruction, no discussion about the alternatives to our present capitalist system, no discussion about how our society is turning into inverted totalitarianism. The officials/experts who were invited as guests framed the discussion narrowly. It was mostly framed as government regulation vs private profit. there was also some slight secondary framing of local people vs non-local corporations. Framings that were mostly or entirely ignored included: communities vs globalism, public good vs individual good, living ecosystems vs natural resources, humans as part of nature vs humans as separate from nature, etc.

The basic discussion was about how to maximize resource procurement while minimizing environmental destruction. And the basic assumption was of opposition and conflict, of win/lose scenarios where those who lose the most are ignored or rationalized away. There was neither an environmentalist conception of the human species living sustainably balanced within the earth’s biosphere nor a religious belief of humanty as caretaker of God’s Creation. The focus of the discussion was ‘management’ and so the implication was how do we best control and manipulate nature toward our desired ends. What was missing was the possibility of humans not creating problems in the first place that need to be managed.

– – –

I was thinking about how this opposition attitude is common in American society right now. There is the idea that for one person or group to win that others must lose. And there is is the idea that society can only be run well through hierarchies with the only disagreement being which system the hierarchy is organized according to. All of this depresses me.

My friend and I went to see the new X-Men: First Class movie. We were discussing the view portrayed of human evolution and change. It was mostly a view of Social Darwinism (by the way, I’ve always thought it odd how many right-wingers will dismiss Darwinian evolution while promoting Social Darwinism). I mentioned to my friend the thoughts I wrote about above. As a liberal, he of course agreed with me about NPR being a mainstream establishment voice. And we had a discussion on our walk home about the relationship of society and nature.

I told him about some thoughts I’ve had while working at the city parking ramp. In particular, I brought up my wonderings about what kind of vision of the world is implied by the building of large concrete structures in which to store large hunks of mobile metal.

I noticed a pigeon nesting in the ramp and I knew its days were numbered. Management seeks to block all possible nesting sites within the ramp and some of the maintenance workers find great pleasure in ‘hunting’ the pigeons who do manage to find a roost. This mentality is repugnant to me. I understand that animals and humans don’t always cohabitate well, but this situation isn’t ‘natural’ or inevitable. Parking ramps are designed to be ecosystem deserts, to be utterly opposed to all that is natural. But there is no reason to do this other than an ideological paradigm, a worldview that disallows people to envision any other possibility.

A parking ramp could be designed that gave pigeons nesting areas that would keep their poop away from cars and walkways. It could even be designed so that the pigeon poop could be collected and used as it traditionally was used (and still is used in many places) as fertilizer. This pigeon fertilizer could be used as free fertilizer for city gardens or it could be sold in order to make additional profit. That would be a win-win solution. To take this a step further, ramps (or any other structures for that matter) could be designed with habitation for all kinds of animals. Downtowns could be as beautiful to look at as parks filled with trees. And the habitat could help ease some of the environmental destruction that are causing many species to become endangered and go extinct.

What is the advantage of seeing nature as the enemy? There is no practical advantage. It actually goes against the practical benefit of the continued survival of the human species. Yes, we’re talented at ‘managing’ nature, but too often this just means destroying nature. My friend pointed out the conservative position that it shouldn’t be the role of government to spend taxpayers’ money on the liberal agenda of saving nature. My response was that neither should it be the role of government to ensure the private profit agenda of destroying of nature.

– – –

This problem extends beyond just nature. If we perceive nature as lesser than us, then our treatment of nature demonstrates how we wish to treat humans that are considered as lesser than other humans (poor, minorities, indigenous, etc) and how we wish to treat communities that are considered lesser (in terms of legal rights and political influence) than big business. To treat nature fairly is akin to the democratic ideal of treating all people fairly.

The reason I was thinking about democracy was because of an article on The Nation. Here is the article:

Reimagining Capitalism: Bold Ideas for a New Economy
William Greider

And following it is my response:

Our societal problems are caused and contributed to by a lack of democracy. A functioning democracy isn’t just about votes but about participation. In all aspects of society (politics, media, business, etc), power and wealth have become concentrated while wealth disparity and political disenfranchisement grows. Early great thinkers warned against such concentration, but in recent history many wrongly thought such warnings no longer mattered.

A political democracy is meaningless without social democracy (i.e., democratic values such as in the constitution). I don’t know if capitalism’s problems can be solved or if capitalism must be replaced. If there is any hope for capitalism in a democratic society, it will be by capitalism becoming a part of democracy rather than in opposition.

The founders and other early Americans were careful about regulating capitalism. They created protectionism to defend the local economy against transnationals, subsidized presses ensuring a functioning free press available to all citizens, and defined corporations narrowly. The last may be most important. Corporations:

– were only allowed to serve a single project or product, large conglomerate corporations having been illegal.

– could only exist as temporary entities so as to not outlive the people who are responsible for creating them.

– weren’t allowed to participate in politics.

Free market is just another way of saying democratic market. A system, political or economic, can only be free to the extent people involved in the system are free. As some early Americans (Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, etc) realized, freedom can’t exist without equality (of power and wealth, and of opportunities to fairly earn power and wealth).

Democracy only functions well on the local level where people know the people they are impacting by their decisions and actions. A market can’t be considered free when it impacts people who can’t influence or protect themselves against those (e.g., transnationals) who seek to profit at their expense (including local communities and environments). The more localized democracy becomes the more it becomes direct democracy. Elites mistrust the people, but we the majority need to stop being subservient to the elites in politics and business. The problem is that the system we have now is designed by and for the upper class.

We need a government and an economy that is literally by and for the people:

1) a modernized version of Jefferson’s agrarian democracy (meaning an economy run mostly by small businesses and a society where most people are small business owners);

2) something like what Chomsky describes with anarcho-syndicalism (where businesses are owned, controlled and/or otherwise greatly influenced by the workers and by the members of the community in which the business is located); or

3) a system closer to Germany’s model with strong unions, a publicly trained workforce, high levels of civic participation, well-funded social safety net, community banks, and protected manufacturing.

– – –

Obviously, we live in a messed up society with messed up priorities. We are still operating society according to some very old ideas about human nature, but we are facing very new problems.

True Costs are ‘Punitive’

I was listening to Coast to Coast AM tonight.

http://www.coasttocoastam.com/show/2011/01/15

The second guest was Eduardo Porter.

http://eduardoporter.com/

He was discussing his book, The Price of Everything.

The price of gas came up. Eduardo Porter mentioned data about the actual cost of gasoline versus the lower price we pay for it. The host, Ian Punnett, said he didn’t like such ‘punitive’ pricing. I’m not sure what Punnett believes about global warming, but I suspect he doesn’t believe in it. Anyway, his reaction annoyed me.

We know we aren’t paying the full cost of the pollution we create through such things as gasoline. This is true in terms of future costs, but the costs of pollution have direct impact on our lives in the present. For example, gas used to have high levels of lead. When the government regulated gas to lower lead levels the violent crime rates decreased. In order to implement such regulation, it does cost us money, but ‘punitive’ is such an odd way to label the attempt to improve the world and avoid negative consequences.

So, it’s ‘punitive’ to pay the costs of the environmental destruction we cause? I suspect future generations will feel our present actions were rather ‘punitive’ towards them if we don’t change our ways. This attitude of socializing costs is just bizarre. Private corporations socialize their costs and losses so that the rest of us have to pay for the economic and environmental problems they cause. In return, we the taxpayers want to socialize the costs toward future generations. It’s a constant shifting of costs that no one wants to take responsibility for. I find such an attitude to be depressing to say the least.

There is only one way I can see that this attitude can be rationalized. Someone like Punnett must believe there never will be any costs or at least nothing we need to worry about. I don’t know if Punnett is a fiscal conservative, but it would seem probable. Fiscal conservatives love laissez-faire ideology and believe that free markets can solve all problems. Such a belief is naive. Maybe future ‘free markets’ will solve the problems we cause in the present, but then again maybe not. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not create the problems in the first place? What advantage is there to destroying the environment only to later on trying to figure out how to fix it again?

Ian Punnett doesn’t seem like a bad guy nor does he seem stupid, but his opinion implies a profound disconnection from reality. He told the author that we can’t know what the true costs are. By doing so, he was dismissing what data we do know. Yes, the data is imperfect, but denying inconvenient data is even worse. How does it make sense to base one’s opinions on an anti-intellectual denial of all known data because one doesn’t like the data? If Punnett had other data that contradicted what the author presented, that would be different. But he offered no data. He just criticized. Punnett apparently was making the argument that, by basing our public policies on the known data, it would be punitive to make people pay for the problems they help cause. Huh!?!

If I was more cynical than I already am, I’d start thinking people like Punnett actually want to destroy the world. Such a disconnection from reality almost seems psychotic. No amount of facts can change this view because this view is based on a mistrust of the facts. It’s a self-enclosed worldview.

It makes me sad.