Archive for Setembro, 2015

Pray for Calamity

Human civilization is making a desert of the planet.  As the population grows and the western “standard of living” itself balloons while also spreading to more people around the world, the ecology of the planet is being devastated.  From mountain top removal coal mining, to deforestation, tar sands extraction, mega dam projects all the way down to suburban sprawl, lawn after lawn of Kentucky Blue Grass, and your local strip of parking lots and big box stores, the natural world is being killed.  It is being ripped up, burned, and paved over.  Scientists are declaring that right now, life on Earth is undergoing a period of mass extinction unlike anything seen since the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed upwards of ninety-five percent of all life.

Any sane, rational culture, would upon coming to a realization such as this – that their mode of being is self destructive – decide that their activities should be halted and rethought immediately.  Of course, the dominant culture under which we are subjugated is neither sane nor rational.  The dominant culture barely acknowledges the horrors it is leveling on the living beings of this world, and when it does acknowledge them, it both minimizes them and declares the solution to be more of its methodologies applied, not less.  Examples of this are claims that “green capitalism” or technology or geo-engineering will save us.  Somehow, more extraction, more consumption, and more domination are supposed to undo the damage done by extraction, consumption, and domination.

I agree with the thinkers who have laid the blame for this rapacious omnicide beyond the feet of capitalism, calling out the organizing structure of civilization itself which begat capitalism.  I agree also with those who indict the modes of thinking and views of the human self that begat civilization.  While these modes of thinking, which become cultures, and ultimately became the dominant culture have led to much to be woeful about, including patriarchy and racism, they also have manifested as a social, economic, and legal framework that is institutionalizing the desertification of the planet.

One of the manifestations of this flawed way of thinking and flawed understanding of ourselves, is the concept of private property.  Private property is the idea that one human can deprive all other humans of access to a particular tract of the Earth, that this human can enforce this deprivation with lethal force — whether self applied or called down from the hierarchy in the form of police and courts — and that this particular human not only has sole access to this tract of land and what it contains, but that the land and all that lives upon it can be destroyed at the whim of this person.

There are no limits to private property accumulation under the dominant culture.  The logic behind private property is merely that land can be purchased from a previous title holder with currency.  Thus, a person’s “holdings” are limited only by their accumulated wealth, and desire to own.  According to this logic, should one person accumulate enough currency to purchase all of the land everywhere, they would not be forbidden from doing so.  While this seems unlikely due to the cost in currency involved in this example, it is still within the logical framework of private property, acceptable.  Perhaps we’ll never see one person owning all of the land everywhere, but with a population of seven billion people on the Earth, would it be acceptable to have even one million people, or one billion people owning “everywhere?”  Do we find it ethically acceptable that a minority of the human population should have a protected right to deprive the majority of access to land, as well as a protected right to destroy living ecosystems?  Is it ethical — or sane — to allow the minority of the population this protected right because they have been skilled at playing the game of capitalism (or are the offspring of people who were?)

Land is often dubbed by those utilizing academic language as “natural capital,” as opposed to manufactured or physical capital (e.g. a factory or a tool.)  Land is obviously the most important form of “capital,” as it is the source of all raw materials, and is the source of all things necessary for life.  By allowing land to be owned, the culture allows owners to have controlling access to the resources all people and non-humans need to survive.  This subjugates all non-owners into a state of dependence upon the owners.  This dependence is then channeled into wage labor, rent, and other methods by which owners exploit non-owners, siphoning away any meager wealth the non-owner class ever comes to possess.  Of course, this only further enriches the owner class, who then can acquire further land holdings, and escalate the rate at which they can exploit non-owners to create for themselves a comfortable life devoid of labor.

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4 x R.E.M.

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Kurt Cobb

The characteristic feeling of the post-2008 world has been one of anxiety. Occasionally, that anxiety breaks out into fear as it did in the last two weeks when stock markets around the world swooned and middle class and wealthy investors had a sudden visitation from Pan, the god from whose name we get the word “panic.” Pan’s appearance is yet another reminder that the relative stability of the globe from the end of World War II right up until 2008 is over. We are in uncharted waters.

Here is the crux of the matter as expressed in a piece which I wrote last year:

The relentless, if zigzag, rise in financial markets for the past 150 years has been sustained by cheap fossil fuels and a benign climate. We cannot count on either from here on out….

Another thing we cannot necessarily count on is the remarkable geopolitical stability that the world experienced for two long stretches during the fossil fuel age. The first one lasted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the beginning of World War I in 1914 (interrupted only by the brief Franco-Prussian War). The second lasted from the end of World War II in 1945 until now.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, the Middle East has experienced increasing chaos devolving into a civil war in Syria; the rapid success of forces calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which are busily reshaping the borders of those two countries; and now the renewed chaos in Libya. We must add to this the Russian-Ukranian conflict. It is no accident that all of these conflicts are related to oil and natural gas.

As I view the current world landscape, I am reminded of two movies (which I’ve written about before) that I think capture the Zeitgeist: Melancholia and Take Shelter. In both the protagonists increasingly sense that something is terribly wrong, but can’t quite put their finger on it. Everyone around them thinks they are ill or crazy. But for both protagonists, their anxiety comes from an inner vision that stems not from mere psychic disturbances, but rather from alarming real-world circumstances that are about to break into the open.

In a sense, these two characters represent those of us who cannot repress the pervasive anxiety of our times and who seek not merely to alleviate it, but rather to face it–to find out its origins and address its causes.

And here we return to the god Pan, mentioned at the outset. It is fitting that this god of nature–of shepherds, flocks, and wild places–should also in our age be associated with the panic we feel. For it is nature itself which is weighing on our economy in the form of climate change and fossil fuel depletion. As California–the seventh largest economy in the world behind France–burns in the heat of a multi-year drought, the grim consequences of our poor stewardship are becoming apparent. The images of fiery forests and dust-dry fields command our attention.

But hidden from the view of most is the role that increasingly expensive energy has played since the beginning of this century in slowing economic growth. The shorthand way of understanding this is that in the last century we extracted all the easy-to-get fossil fuels. Now we are going after the hard-to-get remainder which are costly to extract. That takes resources away from the energy-consuming part of the economy and creates a drag on economic growth. Hence, a dramatically slower economy in 2015 after four years of record or near record average daily prices for the most critical fossil fuel, oil. (The recent drop in oil prices is primarily a reflection of slowing demand that comes from a slowing economy.)

The financial industry through the media has intervened forcefully during the recent stock market sell-off to tell us all not to panic. These corrections are normal, they say, and long-term investors–that is, virtually everyone except Wall Street–should ignore them. What the industry and the media do not tell us is that these are not normal times.

Circumstances have changed dramatically. The evidence is there if only we have eyes to see it. Interest rates in much of the world are still stuck at or near zero seven years after the last worldwide downturn. How will the world’s central banks stimulate the economy after the next inevitable recession? By lowering interests that are already at zero? In the post-World War II paradigm, rates would be at much higher levels today, say four or five percent, and economic growth would be much faster.

Annual world economic growth from 1961 through 2000 according to the World Bank was 3.8 percent per year. From 2000 to 2013, an era of increasingly expensive energy, it slowed to 2.4 percent. From the initial spurt of 4.1 percent growth in 2010 (after a contraction of 2.1 percent in 2009), growth settled down to 2.3 percent in 2012 and 2013, slightly below the recent average. This is despite unprecedented efforts to stimulate the world economy through large increases in government spending and record low interest rates.

And, as mentioned above, the geopolitical stability that has been the backdrop to the pervasive buy-and-hold investment mentality has disappeared. Like the protagonists of Melancholia and Take Shelter, we anxiously await we-know-not-what.

As we do, Pan makes his ever-more-frequent appearances. Franklin Roosevelt is famous for saying: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But fear is a protective mechanism. We are right to fear things that can hurt us and to act accordingly. We cannot solve our problems if we refuse to accept that we have them.

Sometimes Pan is trying to help us by warning us. Sometimes it is possible to hear him playing his flute long before he arrives on the scene. But can we listen and act in some way other than panic?

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