Sunday, February 24, 2008

American Disenlightenment


A well-informed, useful, and enlightening publication is Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy (London, 2007), 464 pp. It came out in 2006; this is an update. The subtitle says: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

The author's blurb says, "Phillips, a former Republican strategist, has been a political and economic commentator for more than three decades." He dedicated American Theocracy "to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2000 and 2004 elections."

"Disenlightenment" is not a common term, but it's a fair characterization for the vector of US policy of the past decade. American Theocracy addresses a key question in environmental studies: Why US resistance to climate policies? This is the biggest puzzle there is. It arises at the crazy juncture of several insane trends: First, anthropogenic climate change became measurable in 1971 and has worsened ever since, with atmospheric CO2 now at 384 ppm. Second, the US is the perpetrator of climate change; its 4 % of world population create 30 % of world carbon emissions. While China is pulling even with the US in terms of annual per-nation carbon emissions, the US is five times more responsible for what's happening in terms of annual per-capita carbon emissions. Third, the facts have been in since Hansen et al.'s 1981 "Climate Impact of Increasing Carbon Dioxide" Science 213 (1981): 957-966 (pdf here). Science is top-notch; faulty research stands little chance of getting published. Hansen's logic was bullet-proof then, and it's bullet-proof now. "Now" and "then" are separated by a quarter-century. For more than twenty-five years, the facts are on the table. The "table" is a US journal, not a newsletter from Mongolia. The author is employed by NASA, not by a basket weaver. And yet, as recently as 2007, corporate media such as Newsweek pretended that climate change is, as they put it, "controversial."

Add the three items up and you get a crazy sum. Something bad's happening. It's the fault of the US. The nexus has been known for a quarter century. And in the past decade, the US has been in overdrive to make everything worse -- rejecting emission caps; seizing Iraq oil, boycotting Kyoto; sabotaging Bali; relentless consumerism; deregulating industries; and contributing the SUV, as the new American icon, to world culture. As Phillipps notes (p. 33):

Against a backdrop of declining national oil and gas output, Americans consume 25 percent of world energy while holding just 5 percent of its energy resources. As the new century began, Americans enjoyed a lifestyle roughly twice as energy intensive as those in Europe and Japan, some ten times the global average. Of the world's 520 million automobiles, unsurprisingly, more than 200 million were driven in the United States, and the U.S. car population was increasing at five times the rate of the human population.
Even more puzzling, the US hurts not only the Global Village but also itself. The US is too far south to enjoy any hope for beneficial effects of climate change; odds are its coasts will flood and the inland will dry out. Thus the puzzle. Why US perpetration of a blistered orb? Whence US resistance to climate management?

American Theocracy is a data bank for anyone who, like me, is confused by the madness informing (or desinforming) American environmental policies. One third of this madness comes from what can be called Petro-Imperialism (p.67). Another third comes from the prevailing American faith, the evangelical strand of protestant monotheism, and is guided, so the technical term, by Pre-Millennial Dispensationalism, the belief in the end times (p. xl). The final third comes from a "reckless credit-feeding financial complex" (p. xii); a trust in Adam Smith turned into Financialization: "a sign of late-stage debilitation [of world economic powers], marked by excessive debt, great disparity between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline." (p 268)

Phillips paints a fine-grained picture and seeks patterns, consistently comparing the US today with 4th century Rome, 17th century Hapsburg Spain, the 18th century Dutch Republic, and 20th century Britain. In doing so, he identifies five "critical symptoms of decline" (p. 220):

One symptom is widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay, with its many corollaries. The second is a growing religious fervor, church-state relationship, or crusading insistence. Next comes a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science. Fourth, we often find a considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame: an epochal battle, emergence of the antichrist, or belief in an imminent second coming or Armageddon. Last, empires are prone to a hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach, often pursuing abstract international missions that the nation can no longer afford, economically or politically.
He adds (ibid.):
I have not included high debt levels in this set of symptoms, partly because it seems a familiar facet of great-power economic aging .... in its most deadly form, debt accompanies corrupt politics, hubris, and international overreach and then -- as we shall see -- becomes crippling in its own right.
In sum, Phillips' study helps to explain US resistance to climate management. The US is ruled by oil politicians, and hence by the enemies of climate management; it is hampered by skepticism, partly Christian, partly Humean, about human-nature interplays and biospherical dynamics; and it is fueled by debts, due partly to imperial hubris, partly to a millennialist hatred of the future.

Phillips' answer ties in with what I've called elsewhere in this blog The Gringo Square, whose four angles are David Hume's reservations about causal influence and preferences for empirical particulars (thus skepticism about the "hockey-stick" of climate forcing, and rejection of "climate" as a rational gestalt); Adam Smith's trust in the invisible hand of the free market (thus deregulation and externalization of emissions); Ayn Rand's virtue of selfishness (and thus the US conduct as a free-rider in world climate management), and Jesus of Nazareth, Bush's Philosopher, about whose Gringo perversion Phillips notes (pp. 365-366):

By 2005 Bush's broad job approval had dissipated, but the biblical and evangelical influence over American foreign policy remained in place. It was visible not only in the Middle East but in the extraordinary, conjoined global posture of the United States on a half-dozen other fronts. One was the so-called Mexico City policy of denying U.S. financial assistance (through funding by the Agency for International Development or the State Department) to any international organizations extending support to abortion, even if the activity objected to had non-U.S. funding ... Different, but also biblically connected, was unwillingness to take part in international climate-change convocations or the implementation of treaties that recognized global warming -- supposedly incompatible with the Book of Genesis -- as a human-caused atmospheric problem.


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