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“People Forget,” the Earth Does Not


“The Good News”

Last weekend I happened to be glance at CNN long enough to hear a beautiful newscaster ask an airline industry expert if the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people aboard would hurt that airline’s profitability.  

“I hope not,” the industry analyst answered. “The good news,” he observed, “is that people forget.” Since Malaysian Airlines has no real competition in Malaysia, he added, all the company needed to do was cut prices for a while and customers will return.

How’s that for bottom-line bluntness in the wake of horrific calamity?

Now, forget for a moment the crassness of going on television to say that you look forward to the forgetting of an accident or crime that killed 239 human beings – this even before the bodies have been found. The notion that mass forgetting is good news because it’s good for business is a longstanding capitalist sentiment. The business elite and its agents and allies always want capital’s transgressions thrown down Orwell’s “memory hole.”

 

Nothing Happening

And it isn’t just past business crimes – say, their profits from slavery or from dealings with the Nazis or from the theft of Native American lands (or…fill in the blank) – that they want us to overlook. We are also and above all supposed to forget present-day corporate and financial abuses and transgressions even as they (supposedly don’t) happen.

In his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, the British playwright Harold Pinter notes how Western cultural authorities were intensely conscious of the “systematic brutality” and “the widespread atrocities” of Stalinist Russia. When it came to the numerous governments subverted and the millions maimed, displaced, and murdered by the U.S. capitalist empire, however, Pinter observed that “you wouldn’t know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”[1]

That’s how U.S. big business wants its constant transgressions against democracy, justice, and the common good to be received today – as not mattering, as being of no interest and even as not really happening at all. Thus, for example, we are expected to understand that the Boeing Corporation is a noble and caring world citizen even as its cost-plus products help United States and its clients and allies inflict murder, mayhem, and terror across the world; and that Exxon-Mobil is a great friend of the environment as it wreaks regular havoc on livable ecology at home and abroad.. The “business community” boasts of its commitment to (the falsely conflated virtues of) democracy and the so-called free market even as it works around the clock to rig the games of politics and policy in their favor with giant campaign contributions, a vast army of highly-paid lobbyists (many of them former public officials), lucrative job offers to public officials eager to “monetize” their years in “government service,” the placement of industry agents in key government posts, and a vast private public relations, marketing, and propaganda empire that includes the “reality”-shaping mass media on which the population relies for public information.

 

Erasing the Authoritarian Absurdity of “Too Big to Fail”

Remember how the nation’s giant “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions precipitated the collapse of the national and global economy in 2007 and 2008 – this after many years of bribing, bullying, propagandizing, and infiltrating the federal government to win the sweeping deregulation of their conduct? When their reckless investment gambles finally and inevitably collapsed, they were rewarded for their epic irresponsibility by getting bailed out with trillions of dollars in taxpayer dollars – this even as tens of millions of ordinary Americans faced destitution without a hint of government assistance. As the incisive liberal-left journalist and author William Greider observed in the spring of 2009:

 

“People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”[2]

 

“The idea” behind the bailout of Wall Street behemoths, the left economist Richard Wolff has observed, “seemed to be that letting them collapse or default would have such devastating consequences for the larger economy that the government had to help them ‘in the national interest.’” But this idea was fraught with two dangerous and radical “implications that had to be blocked from public discussion, let alone action” as far as Wall Street was concerned. As Wolff explains:

“The first implication was that such larger enterprises should be broken up into smaller enterprises so that the failure of any one would not effectively blackmail the government into costly support….The second implication…was this: if big banks and other financial enterprises are too big to fail, then perhaps the solution was to nationalize them. Making their assets and liabilities fully transparent and publicly available would minimize the chance of behaviors that placed society at risk.”[3]

Both implications were kept safely forgotten by corporate media and the investor-beholden political class. The fundamental, underlying contradiction between the scale and power of the nation’s leading financial firms on one hand and democracy and the common good on the other hand was erased from “public discussion” so that (to quote Pinter) “it didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

Meanwhile the “moral hazard” of “too-big-to-fail” (the problem that a guaranteed government bailout of giant financial institutions encourages those institutions to persist in undertaking excessive risks in the blind pursuit of profit) has only increased: many of the leading U.S. banks are now significantly bigger than they were in 2007.

Business-as-usual must go on, unencumbered by dysfunctional popular memory of past capitalist transgressions and “mistakes” – until the next crisis permitted by the reigning amnesia.

 

“A Choice Between the Bottom Line and the Fate of the Earth”

Another and even more terrible problem we are supposed to forget about as it happens so that business can proceed and rule as usual is anthropogenic climate change (ACC), aptly described by the left philosopher John Sonbanmatsu as “the biggest issue of our or any time.” For many years now, the preponderant majority of earth and climate scientists have been telling us that the planet we all share is being made progressively uninhabitable for human and countless other sentient beings (and other living things) by global capitalism’s relentlessly wasteful, growth-addicted burning of fossil fuels. For just as many years, big U.S. coal, gas, and oil corporations and other parts of the carbon-industrial complex have waged a giant propaganda and “public relations” campaign dedicated to discrediting those warnings and the consensus science on which they are based. Big Carbon has taken a page out of Big Tobacco’s onetime war on the medical science that linked cigarette sales and smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, and other deadly ailments.

This time, however, it isn’t merely the health of just one segment of humanity (e.g. smokers and those who breathe in their vicinity) that is primarily at stake. ACC is slowly but surely and ever more rapidly undermining the fragile fabric of life on Earth. As we approach critical catastrophic tipping points in a dramatically warning planet being cooked to the limits of livability by ever-escalating greenhouse gas emissions, it is no exaggeration to say that a decent future depends on humanity moving quickly to get off fossil fuels. This is something that Big Carbon is determined to prevent, seeking to convince us that ACC either doesn’t exist or that if it does it doesn’t really matter all that much. As Rebecca Solnit notes in a widely circulated essay titled “By the Way, You’re Home is on Fire”:

 

“As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves — those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be — have no intention of letting that happen….Given a choice between the bottom line and the fate of the Earth, the corporations have chosen to deny the scientific facts (at least publicly), avoid the conversation, or insist that retrenching is so onerous as to be impossible. At the same time, they have been up-armoring political action committees, funding climate change disinformation campaigns, paying off politicians, and, in many cases, simply manipulating governments to serve the corporations and their shareholders rather than humanity or even voters. It’s been a largely one-sided war for a long time.”[4]

 

Thanks to that “one-sided war,” a recent Gallup report shows that the percentage of Americans who feel that the seriousness of the threat posed to humans by global warming is “exaggerated” has risen over the last sixteen years (from 31% in 1998 to 48% in 2010 and 42% this March) of record-setting extreme weather and planetary ice loss. A different Gallup reports shows that Americans placed “climate change” next to last (right after “quality of environment” and above “race relations”) when asked to rank fifteen issue areas that cause them to “worry a great deal.” Most Americans doubt that global warming will have any significant impact on their lives.

These are victories for the great capitalist Denial, and Distraction Industry. The victory is not complete. A majority of Americans (56%) still think that the threat posed by global warming is either “as serious as reported” (23%) or “underestimated” (33%). A similar majority (57%) thinks that increases in Earth’s temperature over the last century are “due to pollution from human activities.” The Pew Center finds that two-thirds of the U.S. population thinks there is solid scientific evidence that the earth’s temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades. Even after the onset of the Great Recession, more Americans (50%) still think that protection of the environment should be given priority over economic growth than those who think the opposite (41%).[5] And 64% of Americans favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions.[6] Future extreme weather and related developments seem likely to fuel (no pun intended) popular ecological awareness.

 

The Earth Does Not Forget

We shall see. In the meantime, just as the human body never really forgets unresolved trauma, the Earth does not forget the pollutants that have been poured into it under the direction of concentrated power structures, including 81 corporations (50 investor-owned and 31 state-owned) that have combined with 9 “nation state producers” to generate nearly two-thirds of all carbon emissions since 1751. Horrifyingly enough, Solnit notes that 63% of those emissions have been sent into the atmosphere over the last 25 years, meaning that “nearly two-thirds have been emitted since the first warnings were sounded about what was then called ‘global warming’ and the need to stop or scale back. We on Earth now, we who have been adults for at least 25 years, are the ones who have done more than all earlier human beings combined to unbalance the atmosphere of the planet, and thus its weather systems, oceans, and so much more.” [7]

Forget that.

The bad news is that carbon collects in the air, water, ice, and soil to transform this beautiful planet’s delicately balanced ecosystems in ways that promise to make life ever more difficult and very possibly impossible in the not-so distant future.

The Nazis gassed millions to death in genocidal extermination camps, but even that monumental crime promises to pale before the toll taken by those working to destroy life on Earth through Greenhouse Gassing in the names of the “free market” and the holy capitalist grail of endless Growth. We the people have a generation at most to wake up and remember what these corporate exterminists are doing to our precious blue “spaceship Earth,” giving dark meaning to the “End of History” that Western ideologues trumpeted after the collapse of the Stalinist, state-capitalist (“socialist”) regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe[8]. That’s something worth keeping in mind as corporate-captive U.S. planners seek to exploit the current, significantly U.S.-instigated Ukraine-Russian crisis so that American producers of surplus, carbon-rich natural gas extracted from U.S. soil through the militantly eco-cidal practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) can increase their sales to Western Europe and remove government controls on the export of domestically produced gas.. As the left economist Jack Rasmus explains:

 

“The long term objective is to have Germany and Europe dependent on US natural gas, at the expense of Russian gas. The USA now has a surplus of natural gas as a result of ‘fracking’ and new exploration. That surplus is reducing the price of natural gas in the US, and therefore profits. It wants to export the gas, which will raise prices and profits in the US while increasing profits from sales abroad. However, current legislation prevents the export of that gas. A crisis in Europe and the latter’s need for natural gas provides the perfect excuse for lifting US gas export controls. Oil and energy companies, facing lower demand for oil, want to boosts profits by increased production of natural gas both domestically and to Europe.”[9]

 

Down the memory hole with that!

Such terrible details aside, there won’t be much worth remembering in future centuries unless we more deeply recover our capacity to process, feel, integrate, understand and act on our social and material reality past, present, and future. Nature bats last and Earth does not forget.

Paul Street is the author of many books. His latest is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, (Paradigm Publishers, 2014), which can be ordered at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

 

References

1. Quoted in John Pilger, Freedom Next Time (New York: Nation Books, 2007), 4.

2. William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009.

3. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 76.

4. Rebecca Solnit, “By the Way Your Home is on Fire,” TomDispatch (March 11, 2014), http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175817/

5.Except for the Pew Center poll, all opinion data in the previous paragraph and this paragraph up to this sentence can be viewed at Gallup, “Climate Change” (March 12-March 20, 2014), http://www.gallup.com/tag/Climate%2bChange.aspx. The Pew survey: http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/15/more-say-there-is-solid-evidence-of-global-warming/

6. Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, “Poll: Americans Back Climate Change Regulation, Not Taxes.” February 7, 2013, http://news.sanford.duke.edu/news-type/news/2013/poll-americans-back-climate-change-regulation-not-taxes

7. Solnit, “By the Way.” Solnit takes her data from an important new study: Richard Heede, “Tracing Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide and Methane Emissions to Fossil Fuel and Cement Producers, 1854-2010,” http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-013-0986-y, full paper at http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/371/art%253A10.1007%252Fs10584-013-0986-y.pdf?auth66=1395598806_2fc2756722b91e509cdf8dba957a147b&ext=.pdf

8. On the Soviet bloc as state-capitalist, see Wolff, Democracy at Work, 81-82.

9. Jack Rasmus,, “Ukraine Economic Crisis: Who Benefits, Who Pays?” ZNet (March 19, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/ukraine-economic-crisis-who-benefits-who-pays/

 

8 Comments

  1. Sebastian Touffy March 22, 2014 7:37 pm 

    A good article, again. (I read many of yours on znet. Quite depressing. No, you are not depressing. But the facts/matters/moods (of articles) are quite.)

    However, stressing on other damages on (this) Earth with other pollutants,–say, chemicals (pesticides, others chemicals processing products…); and the destruction and extinctions–or rather exterminations–of numerous living beings are vital to avoid… specie-ism.

    No, it’s not that hard to notice your worries to the survival of the human specie. Who cares about the survival of a destructive specie that would end up… destructing itself or its means of survival? And it’s not fatalism. Surely pessimism. I share the same pessimism as Joseph Val because I do not see anything happening. “Nothing happen”, anyway. And knowing the price of trying to make something happen… in the western democratic countries or in the “international community” (Chomsky) territories… (THE fate seems to be decided there).

    Many human beings struggle to have a living (including myself because I am literally trapped in this era–I don’t see how to nourish myself but the industrial junk, vegetables junk etc.). Although many will never, to not say ever, think by themselves nor ever see and feel what’s happening around them. Yes, I know a very few does. But “nothing (ever) happen(ed).” To shake the iron cast about everything somebody knows and/or believe in is not easily done. And many human beings never tackle such difficult course. Freedom is not free (as free Coca-cola). But the price is affordable. And nor the path to it easy, quite the contrary.

    • avatar
      Paul Street March 24, 2014 8:20 pm 

      The corporate-neoliberal eco-cidalist editorial board at the supposedly left Washington Post makes their fake-democratic case for using the Ukraine crisis to lift restrictions on the export of US natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) – this without so much as a side glance at the environmentally disastrous consequences http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/using-us-natural-gas-as-an-energy-wedge-against-russia/2014/03/22/634ae586-b13b-11e3-95e8-39bef8e9a48b_story.html

    • avatar
      Paul Street March 24, 2014 8:24 pm 

      Well, the final chapter of my new book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy is titled “No Crystal Ball.” Here are some concluding lines:

      ‘There are no guarantees of success, of course. But, picking up on the examples of Occupy and its many predecessors (socialist, populist, communist, anarchist, syndicalist, and laborite), we have to try. “We are moving right now,” Mario Savio said in late 1994, nearly two years before his death, “in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism. We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight, to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.”’

      ‘Perhaps we have only a 20 percent, or worse, a 1 percent chance of success, of creating a better and democratic nation and world that is no longer lethally occupied by John Carpenter’s “They”—by the “unelected dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero. ‘

      ‘We lose nothing by believing. We lose everything by not believing—quite literally everything given current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing the prospect of species destruction for the first time in human history.” As the great Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put things in 2001, “Many of the problems we have to confront—from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts . . . as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere—require concerted action in the very near future. . . . We are running out of time. . . . The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.” ‘

      ‘The stakes could hardly be higher. It’s not about the crystal ball. ‘

  2. avatar
    Paul Street March 22, 2014 5:33 pm 

    This fatalism, while perfectly understandable, God knows (and no, I am not a theist), does not serve us well in my humble opinion.The good news is that we can in fact save livable ecology by acting both individually and collectively to advance a participatory eco-socialist revolution. I happen to think that working towards that revolution is a matter of personal responsibility and often think that we on the left should never give the right a monopoly on the concept of personal responsibility. I don’t doubt that significant personal sacrifice is involved. I can report that my carbon footprint is capped to some degree by the restrictions on my “earning” and hence consuming power imposed by employers’ hostility to those who are publicly opposed to the frankly exterminist profits system….Of course we should do our best as individuals and consumers to minimize our damage to Earth, but we must not be naïve about the primary culpability of concentrated power structures like Exxon-Mobil and the Carbon Lobby and the corporate media and so on…..those 90 entities that Solnit mentions (citing the study I put in the endnotes) that have produced nearly two thirds of carbon emissions since the mid-18th century

  3. Joseph Val March 22, 2014 3:27 pm 

    again, this passing the buck of blame onto energy companies, big business, big banks, usw is shirking the culpability of every individual who utillises the services these behemoths offer; if one were truly abhorred by the actions/practices perpetrated by said ogres, one would refuse to financially aid and abet them., or have anything whatsoever to do with them. But that would entail some degree of personal sacrifice, which in this age of unbridled chutzpa is unimaginable. That the ‘sacrifice’ is more imagined than real is beside the point.
    Seeing as how we live in a system that values the abstract–$$–over the real–the world around us, inc us–it is not surprising that our institutions should behave in a way congruent with such values. As a whole, and as individuals, we preach one thing, and do another. Like any addict, we know we should stop killing ourselves, but we can’t kick the habitual practice of ingesting poisons daily. We all agree that something must be done, but we continue to consume fossil fuels and their ubiquitous chemical spawn in ever greater quantities each and every year. This Animal, western civilisation, is wildly caught up in the dizzying spirals of its own intoxicating death danse. I see no signs of any desire to end such a state. Hence, we won’t. Hence, by the end of this century, western civilisation, soi-disant, will have entered the halls where the dodo is king. And so will end the system whose values, as practiced, have nothing to do with reality. Could we ever have expected any other outcome for such an obviously insane approach to living on this planet? The insanity is collective, and individual. The change required, is likewise collective, and individual. If we each continue on as such, the end has already been seen and reported. If we stop, we can then proceed in whatever manner we choose.

    • Peter Warner March 23, 2014 5:42 am 

      Joseph, Your response is a lot of contrived nonsense. Who, at least in North America and Europe, really has a choice but to participate in the global cataclysm that is capitalism? You make our choices sound completely selfish, as if we hadn’t lost any semblance of choice through the wholesale theft of all vestiges of representative government. The insanity is NOT collective, but practiced by the powerful and wealthy to control everyday and every-hour decisions made by humans without the power, wealth, or authority to do other than what is prescribed to keep the ongoing ecological and cultural bludgeoning going at warp speed. Tell me, how many Americans do you think have a real choice about fossil fuel use? How about buying food free from chemical contamination? How about how our savings are invested or spent? How about where our tax dollars go? Your words are those of a simpleton!

      • Sebastian Touffy March 23, 2014 11:41 am 

        I am not defending J.V. at all. He can do it himself.
        It’s just, you miss the point of its post. P. Street see fatalism and you see a simpleton. Others will see cynicism.

        Well I am not aware that he is insinuating that the choice to not back up States/Corporations is easy, quite the contrary: he call it “sacrifices”.

        The point is: people back up States/Corporations. Be it by their passivity or be it by their actual support or passive participation (both are the same for me).

        See, every new Chinese made (or even EU/US/South East Asian for that matter) gadget is sold, maybe with little or big marketing campaign. The most obvious (campaign) are the “blockbusters” ones. (God) money is everything it seems.

        See, again, he’s stressing on people contradictions between their sayings/doings. Nothing new.
        People cry all the time, with reason, about their privacy and many use Google/Facebook.
        (The NSA and other agencies couldn’t be more than happy with such social phenomenon.)

        Enough with the hypocrisy. Many people seems to be satisfied with the course of their lives. At least that’s what their acts show. Or else, there will be many dissent out there. I know that many wishes better salaries/wages (to be able to consume more junk) and work conditions. At least that’s their saying. So people will silently/passively wait for a better future. (I’m not sure there will be any better, though.)

        Enough with the hypocrisy and contradictions. People participate in reproducing their shitty world and wait for a better future. If they really wanted better lives they should act and not merely talking (nothing happen by merely talking anyway).

        True people talk, participate, consume more junk (if they can) and wait better skies. (With more and more greenhouse gasses, as P.S. is stressing in his article, and other pollutants, you better get what you can (to not say everything) here and now. Nothing can assure you there will be any better sky, nor a better feature for that matter, especially with the actual course of the world.)

  4. Richard Bluhm March 22, 2014 1:33 pm 

    “Requiem”
    by Kurt Vonnegut

    The crucified planet Earth,
    Should it find a voice
    And a sense of irony,
    Might now well say
    Of our abuse of it,
    “Forgive them, Father,
    They know not what they do.”

    The irony would be
    That we know what
    We are doing.

    When the last living thing
    Has died on account of us,
    How poetical it would be
    If Earth could say,
    In a voice floating up
    Perhaps
    From the floor
    Of the Grand Canyon,
    “It is done.”
    People did not like it here.

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