Sunday, October 30, 2011

seven billion now

The United Nations tells us that the world population will reach seven billion on Halloween.  A few months ago, the date of this milestone was not yet clear; it then seemed the crossing would occur sometime after this summer and before the next.  A bit more number-crunching put the event in focus (see pdf) and pins the milestone crossing to October 31 or thereabouts.

This makes 2011 a significant year.  It is on par with 1999, when we reached six billion; 1987, when we reached five; 1974 (four); 1959 (three); 1927 (two), and 1804, when, for the first time in history, our numbers reached one billion.  Last month, there were 37 million people living in Australia and on the islands of Oceania; 740 million in Europe; 942 million across the Americas; 1051 million in Africa; and 4,216 million people, sixty percent of the total, in Asia, with 1,350 million of them in China  and 1,240 million in India.

A Time article spun the event in the usual even-handed mainstream fashion, to please breeders and environmentalists alike, wow, will you look at that, we're lots and lots of people now, which is entertaining in a scary sort of way.  On the one hand, the poor environment will be trampled underfoot (sigh), but then again, it's nothing really to worry about, for (I cite)
Is there room on the planet to support 7 billion-plus people?  Take a deep breath.  The answer is yes--and not just because you could fit 7 billion people in the state of Texas and it would only have the population density of New York City, which I can tell you from personal experience isn't that bad.  We're a long way from Soylent Green territory here.  As Joel Cohen of Rockerfeller University pointed out ... we have more than enough food, water, and other essentials to keep every one of the 7 billion -- and far more -- perfectly healthy.
That's nice to hear, no?  In fact, there are three reasons that should make your BS-detectors go off.  Yes, there are enough "food, water, and other essentials" to go around for everyone -- but only if we lived in a communist world with precise equality.  We don't. 

The second reason is climate change.  The powersurge that accompanies global warming is  the worst possible news for farmers.  Climate change is downsizing carrying capacity at the precise moment we are supersizing our numbers.

The third and most important reason is that the question of whether there's enough room for this many people is the wrong question to ask.  We are immature to think about this like the little engine that could.  Thinking about population growth in terms of capacity makes us miss a deeper dimension.  It tempts us to keep doing business as usual and to endorse reproductive values and sexual mores that have outlived their utility.

What we are missing here is the question of whether we actually should be so many.  It does not matter whether we can.  It matters whether being this many is good.  Don't think about the environment now -- going that route is obvious, and it can make you fall into the corporate trap of thinking that it is all about "us" versus "them"; culture versus nature; economy versus ecology; people versus the environment; and since we're people, of course we'll have to come out as winners and then feel sorry for the environment, the poor loser.

Neither is it necessary to think about the future, that we are the locust generation of history, eating everything up in narcissist bliss, and that the children will pay the price.  Just think about people.  Not people in the past, not people in the future, no; people right here, right now.  Think about people of some number living at a fixed space.  The space is the planetary surface, with all its land, mountains, forests, deserts, islands, and seas.  Given this space, is seven billion good for us?
That's the question to ask. 

Look around and consider what being-in-the-world means then.  Imagine what life could be for everyone if we left the space unchanged but altered the number.  Imagine we lived on this surface with one percent of the lot; 70,000,000 instead of 7,000,000,000, and not because of some terrible tragedy or horrible catastrophe.  Suppose we would enjoy normalcy, but at seventy million.  Imagine the return of a stable climate.

Imagine the biotic abundance.

Imagine the relief.

Sixty-two months left.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

wall street and climate change

but what do they want? (full comic here)

Occupy Wall Street has spread to all major cities in the U.S. and is now in the second month.  A friend of mine complained that the message of the movement is too one-dimensional and too clear-cut.  There are other things, next to economic injustice, that are also important, arguably even more so, such as climate change.  The irony, of course, is that the capitalistic media have tried for the longest to maintain the precise opposite, as if the message of the protesters were not sufficiently clear.  The complaint touches a nerve, because there are so many things to engage with, so many things to worry about.  Thus, indeed: where should we start, and what should come first?

Here's a leaflet from the Occupy Tampa folks (I quote):
The top ten percent own more than the bottom ninety percent put together.  Lobbyists pour money into the government to get whatever the corporations want.  Wars are fought while we can't feed our children and can't keep our homes.  Most of us can't afford insurance.  Schooling no longer assures employment, trapping our new graduates in burger-flipping positions and saying, 'would you like fries with that?'  Our 'duly elected representatives'  listen to money instead of the people's cries of anguish ... No longer can we close our eyes and believe in the fairy tales of benevolent powers that be.  No longer can we hide the growing number of homeless in jail cells and junk yards.  Peaceful resistance is the only way to save our country.
The remarkable thing about this statement is that it is a set of truisms.  Every single sentence is true, in a humble, erring-on-the-safe-side way (in one case by one order of magnitude; see below).  Paul Krugman calls the Republican agenda that exacerbates this crisis rabbit-hole economics.  Current rightist proposals, such as Cain's 9-9-9 plan, are barely veiled deceptions serving the oligarchy, and any quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows how bad such a plan would be for people with college loans or medical bills.  Even a columnist as conservative as Nicholas Kristof points out three factoids that underscore the demands for economic justice, namely that the 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans; that the top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and that 65 percent of economic gains in the Bush expansion had gone to the richest 1 percent. 

So how does climate fit in all this?  Or, why would the blistered orb blog, whose Notes on the Looming Darwin Award concern climate change, problematize economic injustice?  Well, for the mystic, everything is connected, including economic injustice and climate change.  But that's of course shallow.  As a matter of fact, the economy and the environment are intertwined; the condition of the one affects the condition of the other.  The economic-environmental connection is particularly close between economic injustice and climate change.  Here the links are strong and direct.  Economic injustice is the cause; climate change is the effect. Moreover: just as economic injustice worsens climate change, climate change worsens economic injustice.  And finally: the mitigation of climate change is not merely a technological challenge; on the structural level, mitigating climate change presupposes stopping environmental injustice.

Chris Hedges puts it succinctly:
Tinkering with the corporate state will not work.  We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands.
The capitalist oligarchy perpetrates climate change.  The exceptional capitalist control of the U.S. society is the essence of economic injustice.  It manifests itself in all the known ills the Occupy Wall Streeters are fighting against.  It shows itself in the environmental deregulation that has made the U.S. into the world's climate fiend.   And it drives the exceptional climate denial of the U.S. society.  This is the world we are living in now: the German railways recently announced that all of its bullet trains will run on carbon-free electricity in the near future, while on the other side of the Atlantic, scientifically illiterate Texas politicians drive in oversize gas guzzlers to prayer meetings to ask their Lord for the drought to end--with the support of the public.  This denial happens not because Americans, or Texans, are stupid or evil; they are neither.  It happens because U.S. citizens are at the mercy of a media juggernaut pounding home a message of doubt.  This is reminiscent of the rise of antisemitism in Nazi Germany that led to the Holocaust.  A decade-long mass media pounding from 1933, when Hitler seized power, to 1942, when the Final Solution was launched, eroded common sense, subverted decency, and fueled collective madness.  Anyone hearing lies long enough may eventually become insecure, feel tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and adapt to the new norms, thereby aiding and abetting the perpetration of lies.  And all the individuals doing so become, in Goldhagen's polemic terms, 'willing executioners'.  Then it was the Nazis murdering the Jews.  Now it is U.S. oligarchs and their dark Republican helpers who devastate the world's climate and who steal the future from the children.

That's how this is connected.

Sixty-two months left.

Monday, October 10, 2011

progress, in an absolute sense

The great difference between this century and the twentieth century concerns the way we look at progress.  If there is one idea that serves as a point of reference for the paradigm shift, then it's this one.  About this idea, we can identify 'before' and 'after,' just as we can distinguish 'then' from 'now'.

The transformation of the progressive idea coincides with the turn of the millennium but was spread out over a longer period, from the nineties to the noughts.  What we mean by progress in 2011 is not what was meant by it in 1989.

For one thing, there is now actually a 'we' about progress.  In this century we enjoy a science-based consensus.  But prior to the transformation, there was no single and coherent way of viewing the idea.  Opinions differed on both what progress is supposed to mean, and whatever its merit or value may be.

In 1989, Reagan left office, Gorbachev ruled, the Wall came down, the Iron Curtain fell, the Soviets lost the Baltic, Chinese police massacred protesters on Tiananmen Square, Deng stepped down after telling China there is nothing wrong with money, and the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, with Gecko's line "greed is good," was two years old.  Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature came out.  So did Stephen Schneider's Global Warming, with the subtitle Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?  The WMO published proceedings of a Toronto conference on The Changing Atmosphere in Geneva. The volume's subtitle was Implications for Global Security.  That was 1989.

And in that roiling, eventful and ominous year, the sense of progress had effectively fragmented.  There was no single unifying perspective anymore.  Instead there were three.  The Left had anchored progress on the foundation of the German Enlightenment and given it a blue-collar twist.  Here, progress meant advancing on the historic path of humankind toward the steady state of social justice, collective security and classless harmony otherwise known as socialism.  Progress consisted of scientific advances, technological innovations, social welfare, and moral progressions.  Moral progressions were step-by-step realizations of the French Revolutionary parole liberté, egalité, fraternité.  Problem was that this leftist idea of progress started looking partly obsolete, partly plain wrongAfter all, socialist systems were being swept away by a global uprising.

Enter the Right.  It also anchored progress on the basis on the Enlightenment, but did so on the Scottish variant, stressing individualism, skepticism, and empiricism.  Individualism expressed itself in the notion that government is the problem and free market the solution.  Skepticism led to doubt about science, especially about any finding at odds with moral conservativism, yet another element of the Right.  Empiricism came into play as a short-sighted focus on the bottom line and as a disdain for social ideas, environmentalist idealism, and utopian ideologies, in short for anything visionary and altruistic.  Moral conservativism, finally, included a celebration of Christian faith, not the communist spirituality taught by Jesus, preached by Master Eckhart, and lived by St Francis, but instead the puritanical and narcissist faith of personal success & screw everyone else, spread by rich white homophobic Americans with toothy smiles--Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and today's Prosperity Gospel ministers. 

The Right measured progress in technological innovations, just as the Left did, but was uneasy about scientific advances, experiencing them more as a threat than as steps forward.  The Right did not measure progress on either social welfare or moral progressions.  The liberty of the market always trumped the rights of labor.  Morality was eternal and fixed; from a rightist point of view, moral progress was a contradiction in terms.  Morality meant regress: a return to traditions of the past.

The third perspective on progress fashionable then was that of Postmodernity.  Postmoderns rejected the Enlightenment, distrusted science and technology, and had grave doubts about the concept of progress as such.  The belief that progress is good, and that it would be the same for everyone, struck them as naive.  In a way, the Postmoderns, or Liberals, as they called themselves, were the children of the aging Left; they belonged to what Chinese today call the "golden spoon generation".  Postmodern Liberals cared little about the struggles of labor, worked in white collar professions, and aspired to be well-adjusted members of the bourgeoisie or what was called "upper middle class" in pre-downturn America.  The Liberals took social sensitivity from the Left, joined it to anti-ideological skepticism from the Right, and added as marks of their own easygoing relativism and ironic disdain for universals.
The Postmodern position was the final consequence of the fragmentation of views on progress, because it internalized the split.  The Postmodern attitude to Nature illustrates this incoherence.  Yes, Nature was good and deserving of protection; but no, bearers of information on its staggering systemic decline, the scientists, were not really to be trusted.  Yes, environmentalism, at least of the type Arne Naess called Shallow Ecology, was good; but no, climate change was probably not happening, and climatologists could well be cheaters.  So yes, let's save the planet, but please not at the price of sacrificing our self-infatuation and reality-denial. 

That was then.  In 2011, the situation has turned upside down.  Paradoxically, it did so because the Right and the Postmoderns had won, with the biospherical and climatic consequences of this victory that are evident now.  The subsequent reality-check ended the fragmentation.  Now, having sobered up from the consumerist and relativist binge, we all discover anew what progress really means.  The biospherical destabilization serves as a double falsification; it reveals the unsustainability of the conservative view, on the Right, as well as the incoherence of the postmodern view, on the side of the Liberals.  Ironically, the lone remaining survivor is the very perspective that had looked like a total loser in 1989, the old-fashioned viewpoint of the Left.

Climate change confirms the leftist faith in universality, that all humans are basically the same, with similar needs and vulnerabilities.  It also underscores the leftist fondness for technological innovations and scientific advances.  Moving away from fossil fuels towards a postcarbon world is a oneway street called progress; advancing on it depends on technology.  Mitigating climate change, moreover, and resisting the causal cascades that had been set off, are progressive stances whose success depends on appropriating scientific know-how.  Finally, the leftist principles of secular humanism and social justice constitute the moral compass for shepherding as many humans as possible through the tightening bottleneck of looming food insecurity, water scarcity, and land loss, so as to keep dieback and collapse to a minimum.  Waiting for the Rapture and embracing the Apocalypse may work for the aging American Right, but is not in the interest of the children of the world.  When it comes to confronting climate change, we are, like the Parisians storming the Bastille, all equal now.  When it comes to suffering the environmental consequences, we are all brothers and sisters now.  When it comes to renouncing the shackles of consumerism and leaping towards civil evolution, we all exist in freedom now.  Once again liberté, egalité, fraternité is the parole of universal progress.  Only this time around the planet has given us fair notice that there are no other options left.

Sixty-two months.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

occupy tampa

Four hundred people own half the wealth of this country.  All empirical studies show that trickle down Reaganomics is a lie. (And if you don't believe it, just take a look around).  The overclass sucks wealth out of the work done by the rest of us, the ninety-nine percent of wage earners, and this wealth is NOT coming back to the society.  The tax rate for the rich is a fraction of what it used to be under Eisenhower.

Meanwhile students pay more tuition year after year -- for education that, rightfully, should be free.  Seekers of degrees do society a service, because prosperity in an era of civil evolution lies squarely with information-based economies.  College kids and grad students are thus patriots: their learning helps the country.  Why, then, must they pay?

Add to this that students -- and not only students! -- pay when they need to see a doctor.  But why on Earth should they?  Are Americans inferior to the citizens of nations with healthcare?  Why do Japanese, German, Swiss, French, Korean, Taiwanese students (etc.) have free healthcare, but American students do not?  What makes U.S. kids unworthy?  Why must they pay?

Just as there is a minimum wage (albeit one that's far too low), there ought to be a maximum wage.  Currently, of course, there is none; in fact the mere demand sounds insane.  And if the liberal bourgeois pundits in their good suits and red ties would talk about it, they'd call it 'communism' and add eerie sounds to frighten you, so that your brain freezes and you stop asking taboo questions.  Well: don't stop.  So let's ask communist questions to the authorities anyway.  Where should we set the maximum wage?  At 100 million a year?  At 10 million a year?  At 1 million year?  At 500 k per year?  At 250 k per year? Still too high?  Well then, just for kicks, consider a maximum annual after-tax income of 100 k. Take it further: let's assume 100 k is the cap for joint household incomes.

Should that not be enough for any family to live on, and live really well?  Why would you need more?  For sending the kids to college?  But college can be free.  For seeing the doctor?  But physicians can be civil servants.  So imagine: the cap is 100 k; anything more is taken by a strong central government, to make education and healthcare free to all, and to transform the tar-pit motorvating culture into a  sustainable society.  That way America would have a fighting chance to weather the climate crunch and to make it safely through the century.

Would this be so bad?

Occupy Wall Street.

Better yet (mind your carbon footprint): Occupy Tampa.

There is only sixty-two months left.