Saturday, October 31, 2015

Uneven Development

National Geographic has taken up the cause of confronting climate change and the latest "special" issue is devoted entirely to the subject. This is commendable and probably risky from a profit stand-point. Unfortunately they have partnered with Shell Oil and so their "solutions" are all market based techno-fixes and quite a bit of ink is spilt on mitigation techniques, including geo-engineering. What strikes me right away is the window into the "less-developed" nations that the magazine provides (and always has) , stark evidence that capitalism as a global system is brutally unjust and that uneven development is an intrinsic aspect of its logic. Although much of the rhetoric in the "Special Climate Issue" promotes the familiar "lift-all-boats" developmentalist theory, one can't help but be struck by the disparity, after two hundred years of industrialization and fabulous wealth production in the global North, that still exists in those regions where dark-skinned people live. The grinding poverty and lack of basic human necessities in one sphere and the obscene opulence and waste in the other. And the burden that women in these grim places disproportionally bear. And of course climate change highlights and exacerbates this gross injustice, as those who have done the least to cause the problem, those in the "periphery", suffer the most. And they will continue to feel the brunt, despite National Geographic/ Shell's heartwarming stories of innovation and charity and plucky native resilience and ingenuity. Here in the West, we are able to purchase our salvation with every cup of Starbucks frappacino, knowing a few cents goes to help the "less fortunate". Thank our Lucky Stars! (and the military, and World Bank, and IMF and WTO)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Culture of Disavowal

The state of Montana, backed by fossil fuel companies and the Crow Indian tribe, has joined a lawsuit challenging the Clean Power Plan rules. Along with 23 other states, our Attorney General and Governor ( a Democrat) make the case that it is "federal over-reach" and that the states can make their own plans, very similar to the latest decision over sage-grouse listing. This is made more pertinent as the US heads into the latest round of climate negotiations in Paris this December (COP 21) because this Plan is the only emission cutting proposal the US has come up with. The Crow Indians have a great deal of coal under their land, they are very poor, and they see the export of this coal to China and south Asia as their only economic opportunity, or to use an economic term, their only "comparative advantage". It is symbolic of the whole global economy under capitalism whereby scarcity, in this case atmospheric space in which to dump CO2, becomes a valuable commodity, incentivizing a rush to destroy the ecosystem. As author Naomi Klein puts it : "Ours is a culture of disavowal, of knowing and not-knowing." In this psychological sense, we are dealing with a sub-conscious ability to repress what we "know". I'm sure the Indians know how horrifically tragic their position is, given the history, but they can repress it and use terms like "self-sufficiency" or "economic development" because like all of us, they are locked into a Market ideology and discourse that limits not only options but imagination. The word "tragic" cannot be applied to the Governor in the same way. The word coward would be better because, in his privilege, he has far more opportunity/power to break the Knows/Not-Knows deadlock and act with agency. This is the counter-vailing movement of history, the one of courage and refusal.It is in short supply at the moment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Saw the new Klein/Lewis film This Changes Everything last night which was followed by a discussion at the local coffee shop. The group that gathered was mostly my comrades but there were a few other "progressives" and as usual the tension rose when the subject of capitalism came up. One gal who is involved with Transition Towns tried her hardest to divert our attention to their project of small, local, incremental "real things we could do" and away from the more radical notion of struggle which the film promotes. Another gal from the faith community pointed to an oil sands worker quoted in the film as being for clean energy but also a gradual transition away from tar sands extraction. The other liberals were excited by this emphasis on slow transition and were clearly nervous about our talk of system change. They can only stretch as far as Bernie Sanders social democracy and even there they warned us to be cautious with our language, to avoid "ideology" because " for most people capitalism is a religion". But of course religion is ideology par excellence and the film we had all just viewed stressed the fact that ideology is a main field of struggle. This was so reminiscent of our Occupy Missoula experience that I feared a psychotic episode. The nations gathered in Bonn for climate talks have so far agreed to emissions cuts that leave global temperature rise at 3.5C, which means the "transition" we can plan for is a quick one and leads to eco-cide and crisis. But the fear to dream, to "go deep" as Naomi Klein puts it, is a crisis in it's own right.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Sychophants and Coordinators

For a real glimpse into industrial propaganda machine you can try the American Coal Council and it's organ American Coal Magazine. They find people with academic credentials and set up some fancy sounding organization for them to represent like the "Property and Environment Research Center" or the "Free market Law Clinic". They then have these stooges write articles blending libertarian economics, patriotism and pseudo-populist techno-faith in service to coal corporation profits. What is striking, when you start to dig deeper, is just how many of these industry front groups there are, Councils and associations and Institutes all lobbying and think-tanking and spinning away as they defend the American Way of Life from enviros and liberals and other subversive types. In each article they make the same arguments based on "cost" and "price", insisting coal is "cheap" and soon, with future technological breakthroughs, clean. Well, coal is not cheap if we consider the cost to the earths ecosystems, a cost not represented by the price. The future technology argument ranges from the nutball to the prosaic. Remember Foster "chemtrail" Gamble and his free energy machine which would allow us all to Thrive! (He is still around!) Then there is ex-Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, out selling the promise of next generation batteries and the benefits of Keystone XL. We are just waiting for the Market to determine they are "cheaper". Some of these types are hucksters, some ideologues. But some are trained academics prostituting themselves by cherry picking data, creating specious, deceptive arguments, all while stirring up a dangerous nationalist/populist resentment. For these devils I have no sympathy.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


This manifesto by a diverse group of intellectuals is a perfect example of the Faustian drive toward development, modernity and progress based on a an exuberant belief, dare I say faith, in technology. What it lacks is Goethe's nuanced realization that development has a flip side, a tragic side filled with tension, duality, and ambiguity. The authors of this document ask us to embrace a form of "moral reasoning" ,intoning that a "good anthropocene means "intensifying many human activities- particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry and settlement- so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world,(this) is the key to de-coupling human development from environmental impacts." In a sort of anti-perma-culture approach they hope to separate, rather than harmonize, the human, mostly urban world, from the "natural world". Enamored with the Promethian promise of nuclear power and industrial food production, I wonder what they would think of this Cuban model, as explained by the University of British Colombia?: "In 2006, the WWF declared Cuba to be the only sustainable nation based on ecological footprint and human development index. The majority of food grown in Cuba is produced without chemicals. Good bugs fight bad bugs in the fields. Their soils – like their communities – are teeming with life….Today, Cuba’s agricultural cooperatives provide 80 percent of the food produced in Cuba and her system of urban agriculture is a model for the world." These "modernists" of the Breakthrough Institute see a world held back only by technical issues, they don't see class conflict, alienation, or injustice and their view of history is a simple rising arc of progress and development. In other words, what they miss entirely is the sphere of the Political. In this sense they are more post-modern. What they might want to consider is the technical prowess of Nazi Germany as it industrialized mass slaughter. Technology might be neutral, but human culture is not.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Skeptical or Paranoid?

Anyone perusing the comments thread of an article on global warming/climate change will discover that the hard-core denier crowd has not diminished, despite the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community around AGW (anthropogenic global warming). In fact the fierce, heroic intensity of the deniers only grows in proportion to their increasing isolation. In the first chapter of her book, This Changes Everything, author Naomi Klein speaks to the motivations behind ideologues such as those at the Heartland Institute and identifies the free market/ libertarian fundamentalism which drives most of this effort. For them, the political-economic ramifications of climate change are so terrifying that they can rationalize a fantastic conspiracy of left-wing scientists using this "Trojan horse" to bring about their socialist utopia. One strategy of the deniers is to adopt a "skeptical" attitude towards the modeling, the data, the analysis etc..and cite Galileo, imagining themselves as valiant outliers. Another, as I mentioned in my post about the Great Falls demonstration, is to simply deny that science has any value as a source of explanation about the natural world. What I find fascinating is the ability of the human psyche to repress trauma and have it manifest as cognitive dissonance. Too often, when the human discovers her/himself to be wrong, the strategy is to double-down, to then insist even more forcefully that no, we are correct and have always been correct. The classic example is German society, convinced of it's genetic superiority.But how many people do you know who have been wrong about virtually everything; inter-racial mixing, weapons of mass destruction, the domino theory, Obamacare, three-strikes-you're-out, etc,etc, still have supreme confidence in their ability to form valid opinions?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nature vs Humans or Human Nature?

This talk by Jeff Purdy titled After Nature; Living in the Anthropocene delves into our relationship to the culturally constructed concept of "(N)ature", primarily in the spheres of politics and law, but the mention of economics is noticeable by its absence. He talks about "food systems" but not the profit motive which drives industrial agriculture, he talks mountain top removal but not commodification or competitive markets. Meanwhile South Carolina just received 14 inches of rain in what many are calling an unprecedented deluge. Clarencetown Long Island in the Bahamas, my old bonefishing stomping ground, is "obliterated" according to some reports. How will the energy Market respond? Why, by ignoring the storm damage, that's how. Those costs are external to the price of fossil fuels. Most South Carolinians will see it as an act of God. Insurance companies will raise rates We camped this weekend on the banks of the Clark Fork river with lots of old friends, enjoying a picturesque version of Montana "Nature", while every few hours a half-mile long train loaded with coal or oil roared by. Our world is one of such disconnect and cognitive dissonance that the only real conversation was how to get some sleep amid the noise!

A "Bi-Partisan" Approach

A group calling itself the Citizens Climate Lobby proposes a mechanism termed "tax and dividend" to sell carbon pricing to a more general audience, including conservatives. Under this scheme, a steadily increasing tax (starting at $15 per ton CO2 emitted)is placed on carbon production at the source and the "rebates" distributed equally back to consumers rather than the State. This can be sold as a "free market" solution which "unleashes entrepreneurs and investors" a particular fetish among conservatives, enabling it to gain backing from classical economists like Nordhaus and Mankiw and a few moderate Republicans in the Senate. The takeaway message here is: Don't be spooked by radicals like Naomi Klein or the Pope, there is no cataclysmic Market failure or critique of capitalism, just a few incremental tweaks and Market Magic will fix everything and everything will be fine. Of course true free market fundamentalists will see the price controls and tariffs and scream Trojan Horse! Beware! But the problem I have with this scheme is it leads to exactly what Rising Tide warns us of; "solar heated sweat shops". In other words, it leaves in place a system which by its very nature produces inequality and class conflict, imperialism and exploitation and a commodified lifestyle devoid of meaning or meaningful social relations. It does nothing to change the destructive relationship between humanity and nature and pushes off the agenda a real opportunity to change society in a profound, and much better, way. Still, it might be the only possible approach with a chance to slow climate chaos.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Went Down to the Demonstration

Eight climate activists gathered in front of the Calumet Refinery in Great Falls Montana last weekend as part of the Flood the System escalation. Calumet refines Alberta tar sands "bitumen", and the signs held by the protesters demanded "clean energy jobs" and a recognition that climate change was a threat to our collective future. The good citizens of Great Falls that drove by our intersection mostly appeared...anxious. They generally avoided meeting our eyes or rolled theirs and snickered, half embarrassed at such a public display and half put out at being "confronted" by something political. There were a noticeable number of older cars and hard looking people, the kind who have worked their lives away and scraped by in a harsh, windy environment. The only person who actually engaged me in conversation was a security guard who didn't know what "tar sands" were and confused weather with climate (believed in was "cyclical") When I said there was consensus among climate scientists that warming was real he said "if you believe scientists, you would have to believe in evolution." End of conversation, but at least he was curious. To affect public opinion on this issue is to go head to head with many dominant ideological narratives, such as religion, nationalism and "democratic capitalism". On a less abstract level, one also goes up against well funded trade lobbies, "free market" councils, foundations, and associations including the Chambers of Commerce. Then there are the libertarian "think tanks" and the corporate media. All quite aware of the threat climate change poses to their carefully constructed cultural apparatus. But hey, no one said it was going to be easy! It will require strategy and smarts and IMO this means giving up on small street-corners in the outlying periphery and concentrating/consolidating in places where direct action can have a real, movement-building impact.