Installment Four – Environmental Crisis
Nuclear weapons are one of the two compelling life-or-death threats demanding that homo sapiens evolve from a bunch of competitive winners into a cooperative family of decent human beings. The Earth is the other. The Earth is a threat because it presents us with certain hard, physical limits that we either respect or die. (At the moment, we are not respecting them.)
Human beings need food. Most food comes directly or indirectly from plants that need a certain amount of heat, cold, sun and rain. If we change the Earth’s climate too quickly, our farmers and our essential plants will fail to adjust. Moreover, most food plants need to be pollinated by bees and butterflies. As we fill the Earth’s soil, water and air with pesticides, we are killing the bees and butterflies. We are also killing bacteria, fungi, and worms the plants need. We are actually diminishing our ability to produce food on this planet, and as we do, more people will starve. When people in advanced nations begin starving, global society will collapse into chaos. No police force, no matter how brutal, will control millions of starving people who know that life can and should be better. As civilization collapses, we will enter a dark and desperate struggle for physical survival leading, possibly, to an exchange of nuclear weapons that will take us right out.
Human beings need fresh, clean water. If we fill our water with chemicals, poisons, and radioactive substances, the water we can’t live without will make us sick or even kill us. We can make fresh, clean water even from dirty seawater, but that requires enormous energy, which will, under present conditions, contribute to climate change. As a result of the climate change we have already caused, some of us live in areas that receive far less than normal, necessary amounts of rain, while others of us receive far more rain than we can safely and effectively handle. Flooding in one area does not make up for a drought elsewhere. Both are devastating, and both will increase as we increase the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, we need a certain percentage of oxygen in our air to stay alive. Fifty percent of that oxygen comes from the oceans. The oceans can absorb only so much carbon dioxide before becoming too acid to support normal sea life. When a living thing in the ocean dies, it falls to the bottom where it is decomposed by bacteria. This decomposition process uses oxygen. Thus, if too much ocean life dies all at once due to acidification, the oceans will stop releasing the oxygen we need, and we will all die.
We have known about the greenhouse gas effect since 1859. In 1896, Svante Arrhenius published the first calculation of global warming from human emissions of CO2. In 1960, Charles David Keeling accurately measured CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere and detected an annual rise. The first big conference on climate change took place in Boulder, Colorado in 1965. Today, scientists are routinely presenting the rest of us with increasingly dire warnings about the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions as much and as soon as possible. And what have we done to solve this problem? Nothing or, at least, nothing that will have a significant effect on the outcome. We are still doing all the things we know perfectly well will make the Earth uninhabitable in a matter of decades.
The reason we have done nothing to solve the above serious environmental problems is because our leaders are not decent human beings. They are winners. Wall Street winners know we have serious environmental problems, but are institutionally incapable of quitting their mad competition for money. Oil company winners know their industry is driving nail after nail into our collective coffin, but they, too, are unable to escape the hyper-competitive system that guides their decisions. Political winners are unable to win without money from the business winners whose competition is the driving force in our global economy, so they do what they’re told by the business winners.
All of these winners compete for control of governments, politicians, laws and regulations, markets, labor, resources, and money because that is what they have been trained and hired to do. If they were suddenly to think about the Earth and take their eye off the prize (winning and profits), they would quickly be replaced by some winner who won’t. And who is it that controls this system? We do, the 99%.
You have been carefully taught to think it’s the winners at the top, the 0.01% who actually make the decisions. The winners who control the boards of directors of the banks, energy companies, insurance companies, and all the major corporations that control the politicians and, through them, the militaries and police that control the people. It does, at first glance, appear that these hyper-ultra-winners are managing the world. But that’s what they want us to think—that and we’d be lost without them. Actually, we’re lost if we let them keep control.
Dangerously few of the people at the top are decent human beings. We know this because they keep fighting to win instead of working decently to solve our climate and pollution problems. We know it because the meetings of global leaders that should be solving these problems (Davos, G7, G8, G20, COP, UNGA, etc.) inevitably end in abject failure to do anything meaningful. The smartest, most powerful leaders in the world content themselves with blaming each other or touting some carbon-trading fix that is too token to qualify even as symbolic. Time after time the winners who appear to be in control say clearly by their actions that continued competition and continued winning (by them) is more important than solving the problems that threaten to take their own species right off this planet.
In this blog series about winners and decent human beings, I have been asserting that, instead of fighting, stakeholders should sit down and talk. But when it comes to climate change and environmental disaster, we ARE talking and yet, nothing is happening. After all, we had the much-maligned and ignored Kyoto Protocol. We’ve had COP meetings (Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) every year since 2007, and the next one will be in Paris this December. Many climate activists are hopeful that Paris will be different, that this time our world leaders will finally come to grips with the problem. I doubt it.
The problem is, our leaders talk the way winners talk. Winners get together and pretend to negotiate toward a solution, but actually, they go into the talks absolutely determined not to give up anything of value. They go in with strategies and tactics designed to win. “Winning” means appearing to do something about the crisis without actually taking any steps that might reduce the profits of an oil company or a major political donor. They want to solve the problem, but any solution has to let the winners keep winning.
Most tellingly, our winner leaders are not talking enough. The problem they face is maintaining an ecosystem that supports human life on Earth, and the COP meetings are about 6 to 15 days a year. In Paris, the schedule calls for solving the world’s most urgent and difficult problem in 10 days (Nov. 30 to Dec. 11). I realize that lower level staff work on the problem before and after the conferences, but whatever they’re doing, it’s not enough.
If a group of people were in a raft floating down the Niagara River toward the falls, they would spend more than a few minutes now and then talking about what to do. Of course, if these people were winners, they would be shooting and throwing each other out of the raft, but if they were decent human beings, they would be talking continually, focused intently on all paddling together to get the raft to one side of the river and onto a rock or something.
A problem with the depth and complexity of climate change takes more than a few days a year, and a problem of this life-threatening urgency should receive continual high level, high profile discussion until a reasonable solution has been achieved. The current negotiation pretense is worse than nothing. The winners meet just enough to convince the rest of us that adults are in charge and a solution is just around the corner. If they simply did nothing, we would all see clearly that the ’toons have taken over the asylum, which might inspire more decent human beings to run for office.
Regardless of the reasons and the deep flaws in my analysis, the fact is, our world is ending if we fail to act, and our leaders are failing to act except in their own interests as winners.
So here is where I get radical, so radical I have trouble following my own advice. First, environmental issues are the perfect context in which to demonstrate that the winners are not really in charge. The billionaires and generals who appear to rule the world are 100% dependent on the power we, the 99%, give them. Rich people need poor people, but poor people do not need rich people. History has repeatedly demonstrated that when poor people are frustrated and angry enough to unify, they easily eliminate their rich rulers, replacing them with new rulers who gradually get richer and crueler until they, too, have to be eliminated. Thus, we poor people get the rich people we deserve or are willing to put up with.
Next, the only way any of us are going to get out of our environmental predicament alive is to stop trying to be winners and start being decent human beings. And, we have to make this transition as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
If we want the winners among us to stop winning for themselves at the expense of the 99% and our ecosystem, we have to stop playing their game. We have to stop competing for money and start living in a way that removes the incentives that drive winners to compete. We also have to take from them the tools they are using to kill us.
So what does this mean? At the easiest level, it means ceasing all efforts to become or appear rich. In fact, it means withdrawing our respect and admiration from people who are rich and not devoting their wealth to protecting the Earth. It means not buying a big car or house or fancy clothes or doing anything to appear successful in material terms. It means buying as small and efficient a house and car as you can possibly live with. It means boycotting Monsanto and Wal-Mart, of course, but really, it means boycotting everything, that is, buying as little of everything as possible. If we stop buying what the winners are selling, they will soon understand where the real power lies.
At a more difficult level, it means drastically reducing our use of energy and resources. If we want the winners to stop warring over oil, we have to stop using so much of it. If we want to stop the proxy wars in Africa over precious metals, diamonds and other valuable resources, we have to stop buying them. One thing we’ve learned from the decades long, totally ineffective war on drugs is that demand will be met. The only way to weaken gangsters or banksters is to weaken demand.
At an even more difficult level, we have to stop working for and cooperating with winners. We have to take our money out of stocks, bonds and big banks. We have to put whatever we have into small community banks or credit unions. We have to stop working for any company that does not in some way ensure that workers have significant influence over all corporate decisions. We have to stop working for companies run by a board of directors that serves only the interests of shareholders. In fact, we have to stop buying from such companies, paying more if necessary to buy from worker coops, local businesses and any decent human beings we have the opportunity to support.
At the most difficult level, we have to get out of cities and move back to the countryside. There, we have to make ourselves useful in some way until we can learn to grow our own food, make our own tools, and greatly increase our level of self-sufficiency. One day, it may be possible to build cities that don’t destroy our ecosystem, but today, cities are utterly dependent on exploiting the hinterlands and mistreating the Earth. Cities are energy sinks and heat islands. Relatively wealthy consumers in cities who want cheap food make it impossible for farmers to survive. They hand all their power over to trading companies that impoverish farmers. By blindly buying cruelty- and chemical-based food substitutes, city consumers with no idea what they’re eating, empower Monsanto, Cargill, ADM and the other industrial giants that destroy our soil, our water, our seeds, our plants, our food, and our bodies, while making it impossible for decent human farmers to grow decent natural crops to be served as real food.
If we would like to see winners weakened and decent human beings strengthened, we need to strengthen the countryside, restore our land and water, grow our own food, and learn to live as much as possible without petroleum and without cities.
Cities are full of winners. These winners look down on the rest of us because they have great penthouses, lots of servants, lots of gadgets, and lots of parasites telling them how great they are. But if people in the countryside began growing food for themselves, making clothes and tools for each other, and dramatically reducing what they buy from corporations and ship to cities, those citified winners would soon learn the value of food and the great out of doors.
Most cities have only about three days of food on hand. If shipments fall dramatically, cities will empty out quickly. True, the winners in the highest penthouses will be the last ones to feel the pinch, but the systems on which their obscene winnings depend will collapse long before they actually get hungry. The pleasure of living in a penthouse will fade considerably when the rest of the building is empty.
Are you crazy? What planet are you living on? We can’t change the system by recycling and changing to LED light bulbs. Me using less oil will make no difference at all if everyone else is using it. I’ll just suffer for nothing.
All of these objections are legitimate. I certainly admit the possibility that I am crazy, but it seems to me that decent human beings will never defeat the winners and save the Earth through marches, vigils, demonstrations or even violent revolution. The winners are ready for this. More importantly, making demands of winners leaves them in charge. And if decent human beings turn to violence, we are no longer decent human beings. A new world order established by violence will be unable to make any of the needed changes because it will be led by winners. We decent human beings need to take over and do something better, which we will find through decent human problem solving.
Sadly or luckily, we can’t defeat the winners by defeating them. We have to convert them, and we can only do that by quietly, politely but firmly withdrawing our cooperation, money and power, and by demonstrating a viable, more enjoyable alternative way of life. We have to stop competing, stop pursuing money, stop buying what they are selling, stop being violent, and stop accepting violence of any kind against anyone for any reason. If we can do this, we may earn a few more centuries on Earth, and an Earth full of decent human beings would be a peaceful, sustainable, warm, loving and beautiful place to live.
Next week, I will address violence, the problem of poverty, and the gap between the rich and poor, I mean, winners and losers.