Friday, August 12, 2011

This Crisis Can't Be "Solved"

I don't know where this little audio clip is from, it sounds like a speakerphone, but it's clear Al has had enough of denialism and its cost.  It's going to sound hysterical to denialists but those who are equally frustrated with the pernicious effects of the heavy financed denialist campaign (carried out by the same people who ran the tobacco companies' campaign denying that smoking was bad for you, using the same methods--which is what Gore is talking about as this clip begins) can only identify with his anger.

Al Gore has done a lot to spotlight this crucial issue, and his Climate Reality Project kicks off in September.  He also did a lot to re-name this the Climate Crisis, which better communicates the urgency than the less than riveting "global warming," "greenhouse effect" or "climate change."  But he's also behind what I consider an unfortunate and inaccurate description of the task at hand.  He calls it "solving the Climate Crisis."  He started it, and even Bill McKibben has adopted it.  But it's wrong.

First of all, there's a category error.  You don't solve a crisis.  You address or confront a crisis.  You solve a problem.  This is more than just jarring to the ear.  It suggests that this crisis is just one problem.  It's much more than that.  Plus it suggests that it can be solved--that is, that it is a solution that will make it all go away.  There is no such solution.  There are problems responsible for the crisis that can be addressed, and some problems that can be solved.  But we are experiencing the Climate Crisis now, in its early stages.  We are going to be experiencing the acceleration of the Climate Crisis for years, and nothing will prevent it.  We must address the problems that arise because of it--the effects in the present and near future.  We must confront the worsening crisis in the farther future by solving the problems of how to maintain a civilization while radically reducing greenhouse gases emissions, and restoring the environment that sustains life on land and in the water, and perhaps even our atmosphere.

I call it dealing with effects and with causes.  Mark Hertsgaard calls it playing defense (in the short-term) and offense (for the long-term.)  The tonedeaf call it adaptation and mitigation.  But together they are the zones of activity to confront the Climate Crisis for the next century or likely more.  The problems involved in confronting this crisis are in such areas as flood control, public health, clean energy technology, economic reorganization--well, eventually just about everything.  Not exactly a range that makes "solution" or "solve" a very meaningful term. 

Those are multiple problems that can be addressed with varying degrees of success--with smaller problems "solved" along the way--by many people doing different things.  (If you're looking for good news, this is probably it--a lot of people will have something truly meaningful to do with their lives, and many kinds of talent will be needed.)  But we begin by recognizing, confronting and addressing the Climate Crisis.  While it's true that much can be done without even mentioning the Climate Crisis, it's unlikely we're going to be able to avoid confronting it for long.         

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In Bad Times

Two observations about economic Bad Times.  The first is that for a lot of employers, bad times are good times.  When it comes to paying workers very little, and other forms of exploitation, they can get away with almost anything without worrying too much that either employees or government will object.  Maybe a union would, which is another reason that employers would like to destroy them all.  But employers can get around unions pretty easily, by employing part-time and freelance labor not covered by union contracts, and who don't get benefits.

This freedom to do what they want when people with any kind of job are afraid to lose it can easily lead to sadism in the workplace, as well as virtual slavery.  Especially since it cuts costs and adds to profits.  Even when employers must hire to replace workers who can't take it anymore, they get to cut more corners.  They are able to discriminate according to age, race, gender, or just arbitrarily in order to winnow down the pool and cut recruitment costs, and nobody is likely to do much about it.

On a more macro level,  Bad Times add a lot of loose emotion and power to the usual projections, denial etc. with more pressure from the unconscious, as anxieties, fears, resentments,etc. bubble up.  So you get violence, as in England now (although there are other factors involved.)  Or you get politics that's violently split.  That was clearly the situation in the Great Depression era.  There was a lot of support and agitation for real socialism and communism, on local and state levels as well as national.  FDR was to the right of all that, but he wasn't far enough to the right to satisfy a lot of other people.  American fascism was on the rise, especially among the corporate and monied elite.  Some were openly pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic.  There is even evidence of a high level conspiracy to stage a coup against President Roosevelt and take over the U.S. government, which involved a direct ancestor to the current Bushes.  So in Bad Times, a President doesn't have to be black to be hated by the Rabid Right.  And the extremes we're experiencing now aren't unprecedented. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Great Disruption

It was the melting of Arctic sea ice--much faster than predicted--that seemed to begin the change in what the writers on the Climate Crisis were saying, and how they were saying it.  The sense of urgency--we've only got 15 years, or 10 years, or 5 years left to act or a catastrophic Climate Crisis will be upon us!--faded, and was replaced by a more somber and careful tone.  Not because the predictions had been alarmist or wrong.  But because they had come true, a little faster than they hoped.

Probably the first signals came from one of the oldest and most eminent of the elders, James Lovelock in his 2009 book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, which said the Climate Crisis was inevitably escalating to such a proportion that human civilization was finished.  The only hope was reconstituting it from remnant populations huddled in the Arctic.  The book was mostly ignored as mad prophesy, though informed observers like Bill McKibben critiqued it carefully, and seemed relieved to find some of its assertions based on faulty or not provable science.

But it wasn't long before analyzes with almost as dour outcomes were becoming more typical than not.  Though couched in more careful language, inevitable catastrophe and challenge to the very existence of human civilization were the themes in David W. Orr's Down to the Wire (2009) and McKibben's own Eaarth (2010.)

Now this year there's The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding (Bloomsbury Press.) His point of view is similar: Our first truly human evolutionary test was whether we could anticipate the future catastrophe we were blindly causing, and act effectively in time to prevent it. Well, we flunked that one. Like other recent books on the climate crisis, this one asserts that the global catastrophe is unstoppable.

Gilding, an Australian former human rights and environmental activist as well as a businessman and corporate advisor, is forthright on the irrefutable factors besides the climate crisis that are converging: unsustainable population and economic growth outrunning and crashing resources. He says straight out what others have avoided for years: “I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

Yet the buzz about this book is that it’s optimistic.

Gilding asserts that there will come a point, perhaps an event, when the crisis will be really obvious, and humanity will respond in its characteristic “slow but not stupid, late but dramatic” way, as for example when the West geared up to defeat Hitler.

There will be what he calls the Great Awakening: “an exciting and ultimately positive transformation, with great innovation and change in technology, business and economic models alongside a parallel shift in human development. It could well be, in a nonbiological sense, a move to a higher state of evolution and consciousness.” (Presumably that’s if you’re not one of the lost billions.) It’s humanity’s second evolutionary test—and if we blow this one, it’s pretty much over for civilization, because we will have kept on doing what will make the farther future even worse. This event and this transformation, he writes, could begin in this decade.

At least half the book is devoted to Gilding’s ideas of what must be done over the next 40 years to create a sustainable no-growth economy and the values that go with it--ideas tested so far in his speeches and peer-reviewed papers, but now available for wider scrutiny and participation. Though he uses big labels and inspirational generalities, he’s practical and subtle on the process and on as many details as he musters.

Gilding acknowledges the emotional impact of a future of earthquake-like disruptions, and a transition that “will shake us to the core, forcing a substantial rearrangement of human values, political systems, and our physical lives.” This has happened before, but perhaps never so intentionally. He writes that “Grieving is an appropriate response” for the world we’ve destroyed and the resulting pain, “but sustained despair is not.” Any chance for civilization surviving depends on “active, engaged and strategic hope.” Hope is not a response but a commitment. Optimism is “the most important and political choice an individual can make.”

This hope must be enacted partly by working to define the plans necessary to meet this crisis, so when society demands them, they’ll be ready. That makes this a book to keep. It takes awhile to absorb its information and the emotions it evokes. But there’s getting to be a consensus that the catastrophe “that will shake us to the core” is coming. It’s time to choose this way to be human, face the grief and think hard about the future.

Combining a brief sketch of the depth and extent of catastrophe with a brief sketch of a program to get through it and make things better seems a proper enterprise, but it makes for a very weird book. The implications of living through the death of millions--as we're seeing right now in the climate-related starvation in the Horn of Africa--as well as the chaos, the fear, uncertainty (is this intractable recession the beginning of the permanent economic growth collapse?) and denial--seem to need more than a simple acknowledgement they are coming. A little reflection makes the rest of the book seem like whistling in the dark, and the occasional inspirational self-help book tone doesn't help. That's not to say that his program isn't a useful one, or that it won't work. It just makes for a schizoid reading experience. Also, its subtitle is so silly I can't even bring myself to use it. But all of that just has to be acknowledged--then the content of the book worked with and absorbed.

How far we are from engaging with these issues, let alone accepting and confronting them, can be gauged by how little influence on the public dialogue these books are having.  But for the relative few who are engaged, this book should remain of considerable interest for some time to come.

(By the way, the latest studies--despite some of the media reports--support and extend the notion that Arctic ice is melting very rapidly--and may be virtually gone by 2050 or sooner.)

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Will to Act

President Obama spoke about the S&P credit rating downgrade, and what needs to be done to get the U.S. fiscal house in order and to create jobs and economic growth.  After describing again the steps Congress can take immediately, he concluded: "Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country... What sets us apart is that we’ve always not just had the capacity, but also the will to act -- the determination to shape our future; the willingness in our democracy to work out our differences in a sensible way and to move forward, not just for this generation but for the next generation.

And we’re going to need to summon that spirit today. The American people have been through so much over the last few years, dealing with the worst recession, the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, and they’ve done it with grace. And they’re working so hard to raise their families, and all they ask is that we work just as hard, here in this town, to make their lives a little easier. That’s not too much to ask. And ultimately, the reason I am so hopeful about our future -- the reason I have faith in these United States of America -- is because of the American people. It’s because of their perseverance, and their courage, and their willingness to shoulder the burdens we face -– together, as one nation."

I might mention here that there's also been a flurry of political punditry about what President Obama must do immediately.  One prominent oped revived the oldest cry in the book: that President Obama has to make impassioned speeches promoting a new political narrative.  Maybe so.  But the same was said of President Kennedy (he needed to make "fireside chats") and President Clinton.  But here's the deal: the media spends more prominent time and space complaining about what President Obama doesn't say that presenting what he actually does say--which is one important reason that the strategy they demand probably wouldn't work as easily as they seem to believe.  The remarks above are a good example--covered live in the afternoon, but never heard from again.   Plus good proportion of stuff these bloviators complain that Obama isn't saying is stuff that he actually has said, but they weren't listening.  They were too busy listening to themselves, and each other.

Blue Monday

Rachel gave a graphic portrait of Monday's stock market meltdown.  She pointed out that while S&P downgraded the U.S. as a credit risk, most of the money in the market fled private companies and went into U.S. government securities, the very T-bills that were downgraded, because they are the safest investment in the world.  She also pointed out that the S&P action was roundly criticized, and based on political, not financial considerations.  But she made the case that this political punditry had some basis in reality--that not only had the Tea Party insisted they were ready and eager to default, but all the R presidential candidates save one are saying the same thing, and the GOPer Senate leader promised that holding the debt ceiling as hostage (which were his words) created a "new template" for future debt ceiling debates.  So the Republican establishment as well as its radical faction has promised to do what S&P said they feared would happen.  Rachel's analogy was that the U.S. must pay more for its fire insurance because it has an arsonist in the family.  That arsonist is the GOP. She closes this opening segment with the reason the market sold off private companies stock as fear that nobody seems capable of reviving the U.S. economy, of creating jobs for Americans.    

Earlier on MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell gave a spirited analysis of why the S&P action was wrong, the product of a "Confederacy of Dunces that is S&P," and was proven wrong by the market moving to Treasury bills as the safest investment.  Unfortunately, the complete video of this opening isn't posted at MSNBC and the transcript isn't available yet.  But it's worth a look and/or a read when it is available.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Fantasy is the dominant force in a life."
James Hillman
The Tea Party Downgrade