Monday, May 12, 2014

Capitalism is Killing the Planet

The White House released its most comprehensive global warming report to date last week, warning of increased sea-level rise, flooding, drought, heat-waves and other ominous forms of climate disruption. The National Climate Assessment report urges lawmakers and policymakers to take meaningful action now to halt the most destructive effects of climate change.

The report, which comes on the heels of a similarly bleak summary by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released earlier this year, is notable for being one of the first to dispel the widely believed myth that climate change is a "future threat," the effects of which will not be seen for decades to come. Global warming, the authors note candidly, is not a "looming threat." It is happening right now.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future," they write, "has moved firmly into the present."

This, of course, is hardly news to those of us who are paying attention. One need only glance at the morning headlines to understand we are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

California is experiencing the worst drought in decades. Over half of the Arctic sea ice has melted. The previous decade was the warmest on record, while 2012--the year "Superstorm" Sandy wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey coastlines--was the warmest in history. And last year, the overall concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a dangerous 400 parts per million (ppm)--an amount not seen since prehistoric periods. According to esteemed climatologist and former Goddard Institute for Space Studies chief, James Hansen, any CO2 level above 350 ppm is not compatible with a "planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted."

The planet is hurtling toward a two-four degree rise in temperature. While that may not seem like a lot, given the Earth's delicate natural balance any rise in temperature, no matter how modest, can have devastating repercussions for the climate. The Washington Post, meanwhile, puts the overall temperature rise at an unfathomable 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Maine and the rest of the Northeast can expect to see more flooding from sea-level rise; greater damage to coastal homes and communities; increased threats to fisheries; and a greater prevalence of Lyme disease-carrying ticks.

Yet Congress is all but incapable of meaningfully responding to climate change. Our lawmakers have been bought-off by the very coal, oil, and gas companies responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The best "solution" Congress can offer is a woefully inadequate cap-and-trade bill, which basically allows corporations to pay to continue polluting the atmosphere. Not only does cap-and-trade do nothing to lower greenhouse gas emissions but, like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations, it puts the very corporations that created the climate crisis in charge of "fixing" it.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the corporate press (indeed, a failure of design) when it comes to global warming is its inability to clearly and frankly denounce the root cause: Capitalism.

"[U]nfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force," writes Chris Hedges in his book, Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books, 2010), "that consumes greater and greater numbers of human lives until it finally consumes itself" (17).

It is not just the supposed "excesses" of the system that are to blame, as many liberals would have us believe. It is the system itself. Capitalism is predicated on the concept of unceasing, infinite growth on a planet of finite resources--one with tangible physical limits.

Not only is such a concept unrealistic, it borders on the psychotic. When energy companies view the newly opened land in the rapidly melting Arctic as another business opportunity rather than a frightening sign of environmental destruction, something is horribly wrong. Little wonder then that the directors of the 2003 documentary film, The Corporation, using the physicians' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), determine a corporation is essentially a psychopath.

Like a psychopath, a corporation--a legally defined "person"--displays a callous disregard for the feelings of others, an inability to make and sustain enduring relationships, and an incapacity to experience guilt among other characteristics. (In fact, new research confirms something I have long suspected: The majority of successful bosses, managers, and CEOs routinely display more than a few psychopathic tendencies.)

In essence, the business model of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and B.P.--whether or not their executives realize it--is to literally destroy the planet. The profit-motive of capitalism necessitates that they do no less.

And contrary to the claims of current "Go Green" campaigns, climate change cannot be solved by individuals alone. Even if every single American got rid of her car tomorrow and committed to walking or biking everywhere, the effect, in terms of reducing global CO2 emissions, would be negligible. Like the hippie counterculture and punk-rock before it, the current phase of "green" marketing merely represents the latest corporate co-option of what was originally a genuine grassroots artistic movement.

"We have to do away with the word 'environment' itself," writes Stefanie Krasnow in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine ("Blueprint for a New World, Part II: Eco," May/June 2014),

along with all the campaigny phrases--"reduce your footprint," "care for the planet," "live sustainably" and "go eco-friendly"--they're all just a cheap ticket to a clear conscience. This language has convinced a whole generation that you can 'buy into' saving the world, as if you can consume your way to sustainability.

As author and philosophy professor Clive Hamilton notes in his sobering book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010), responding to climate change will not only require collective, rather than individual, action. It will also necessitate forming a radically new relationship with the natural world.

Invoking the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, Hamilton writes:

Climate change is intimately linked not just to the transformative powers of the scientific-industrial revolution, or even the political and cultural forces of growth fetishism and consumerism; it arises from the reshaping of human consciousness. Disconnection from Nature led inexorably to a stronger orientation towards the personal self. The shift is by no means complete and has met resistance along the way, but its extent renders an adequate response to climate disruption much more difficult. For if we are mired in an existential crisis because Prometheus was unbound, salvation requires the shackling of Prometheus once more (158). 
No, Congress and "enlightened" consumer-spending cannot solve the climate crisis.

And, while many of the Big Environmental organizations--Greenpeace,, The Sierra Club, etc.--are made-up of well-meaning, environmentally-conscious activists, their questionable sources of funding and refusal to operate outside the corporate two-party duopoly (routinely supporting Democratic candidates that share none of their environmental concerns), render them virtually impotent as well. When it is impossible to tell a Keystone XL Pipeline protest from an Obama campaign rally, it is worth asking if this is, indeed, the best use of environmentalists' resources.

Rebellion is our only hope. Only through mass acts of peaceful yet defiant civil disobedience can we hope to fend off the worst aspects of climate change. And it is going to take more than merely getting arrested outside the White House lawn. Ultimately, if we are to maintain a planet that is habitable for human life, capitalism must go. It really is as simple as that.

Fawzi Ibrahim, author of the eco-socialist book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict, sums it up best:

"Today, humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism or save capitalism and ditch the planet."

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