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Climate of Corporate-Orwellian Absurdity


The corporate-Orwellian absurdity of the Barack Obama administration never ceases to inspire awe. In recent years, Obama has tried to rally the Democratic Party base by claiming that he is a friend of working people in their struggle for higher wages and benefits. He has also worked to position himself as a friend of a natural environment endangered by climate change resulting from excessive carbon emissions.

 

Never Mind

Never mind that Obama has never lifted a finger for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in this country, or for other measures desperately needed by the nation’s working class majority – like single-payer national health insurance.

Never mind that Obama’s “biggest climate legacy” so far is “the U.S. passing Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil and gas production” (environmentalist Bill McKibben[1]).

Forget Obama’s almost singlehanded undermining of binding global carbon emission limits at the 2009 global climate summit in Copenhagen.[2]

Obama is no “green president,” unless we take “green” to mean corporate cash. His “all of the above” energy policy takes state-capitalist green-washing to a new level. It includes eager support for the militantly eco-cidal practice of hydraulic fracturing, which significantly increases the extraction of fossil fuels while polluting and otherwise endangering the nation’s fresh water supplies.

 

Wal-Mart, of All Places

But I digress. Last week, right after the White House released its latest quadrennial National Climate Assessment, Obama spoke on behalf of clean energy in front of a Wal-Mart supercenter that recently added some solar panels in Mountain View, California.

It was a fascinating choice of venues in light of the president’s pro-worker and pro-ecology pretenses.

Walmart has a long and notorious record as a low-wage and anti-union employer. It has played a critical leading role in the destruction of US manufacturing jobs by serving as a giant sales platform for goods produced in China and other cheap-labor zones of the world capitalist system.

At the same time, as environmental and economic researcher Stacy Mitchell noted at Huffington Post, Walmart is “one of the biggest and fastest-growing climate polluters on the planet.” It ranks behind only Chevron as Earth’s leading carbon-emitter. To make matters worse, the “big-box retailing revolution led by Walmart and other big chains has dramatically increased the amount of energy we’re using to schlep consumer goods across the country and into our homes.” Over the last four decades, Mitchell reports, citing the latest academic research, the amount of energy spent in the circulation of American retail commodities has risen more than 400 percent (overall US energy use rose just 45 percent during the same period). Why this remarkable increase in the carbon footprint of retail goods movement? Mitchell explains:

Aided by government subsidies and favorable zoning policies, the explosive growth of [Walmart] and other [chains] like it has radically transformed retailing, changing both how goods are distributed and how people shop for them….One of the biggest changes has been a sharp increase in the number of miles Americans drive for shopping. Growth in shopping-related driving has far outpaced increases in driving for all other purposes. “The retail industry has consolidated, going from about nine stores per thousand residents in 1970 to less than four per thousand residents in 2009,” [one recent] study explains. “This phenomenon … began with the rise of the department store and concluded with the widespread presence of Big Box retail.” Fewer stores per capita means most people have to drive…further to get what they need. U.S. households now log an average of 2,200 miles more a year to shop than they did in 1969.’

‘Another big change has to do with how much further our stuff is trucked within the U.S. The growth in “stuff miles” is likely a result of the fact that Walmart and other large chains have driven manufacturing overseas.” “Imported goods arrive in the U.S. at ports, which may be further from their final destination than were the domestic production facilities of earlier decades”…Some 40 percent of the goods that arrive by ship in Southern California, where Walmart is by far the largest importer, are bound for stores east of the Rocky Mountains. Thanks to the deregulation of trucking and the just-in-time delivery model Walmart pioneered, most of these goods will be shipped by truck, rather than train, even though rail is far less energy-intensive.’[3]

Walmart hardly makes up for this terrible climate record by adding some solar panels to some of its stores.

 

“To Destroy the Prospects for Decent Existence”

Speaking about the new Climate Assessment on the “Public” Broadcasting System’s Newshour last week, Obama’s science adviser John Holdren ruefully observed that while most US citizens now understand that climate change is real and human-generated, they do not see reducing it as a top priority compared to other issues that are more pressing in their view: jobs, “the economy,” crime and immigration.[4] The polling data shows that’s he’s correct[5], no small problem given the fact that climate change is “the number one issue of our or any time” (philosopher John Sonbanmatsu).

Holdren is right to be concerned. If global warming isn’t properly addressed within the next generation, then very little else is going to matter. To quote some of the environmentalist posters that have bobbed outside the doomed global climate summits of recent years: “There’s No Economy on a Dead Planet; There is No Planet B.”

Still, the White House’s climate report contributes to the opinion problem that Holdren bemoans in two key ways. First, it drastically understates the threat posed by anthropogenic global warming (AGW).Here’s the boldest statement I could find in the document’s “overview” – the National Climate Assessment’s key document for public consumption:

“Climate change is already affecting the American people in far-reaching ways. Certain types of extreme weather events with links to climate change have become more frequent and/or intense, including prolonged periods of heat, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. In addition, warming is causing sea level to rise and glaciers and Arctic sea ice to melt, and oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon dioxide. These and other aspects of climate change are disrupting people’s lives and damaging some sectors of our economy.”[6]

All true, but “disrupting people’s lives [with nasty weather] and damaging some sectors of the economy” isn’t even in the ballpark when it comes to capturing the depth and degree of the environmental crisis, led by AGW. In a recent essay expressing horror at Obama’s call for the endless of expansion of oil and gas production, Noam Chomsky observes that “for the first time in history, human beings are now poised to destroy the prospects for decent existence and much of life.” Further:

“The rate of species destruction today is at about the level of 65 million years ago, when a major catastrophe, probably a huge asteroid, ended the age of the dinosaurs, opening the way for mammals to proliferate. The difference is that today we are the asteroid, and the way will very likely be opened to beetles and bacteria when we have done our work…. Today, many geologists add a new epoch [of Earth history] the Anthropocene, beginning with the industrial revolution, which has radically changed the natural world. ..One effect of the Anthropocene is the extraordinary rate of species extinction. Another is the threat to ourselves. No literate person can fail to be aware that we are facing a prospect of severe environmental disaster, with effects that are already detectable and that might become dire within a few generations if current tendencies are not reversed.”[7]

This judgment might sound extreme but it is well-supported in a growing mountain Earth and life science data that raises the very real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway global warming”) are passed. Ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s rising seas. All indications are that three-fourths of the planet’s existing stock of fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we going to avert catastrophe.

 

Correction…No Policy Recommendations”

Second, Obama’s National Climate Assessment makes no policy recommendations whatsoever on how to stop Homo sapiens from exterminating itself and other life forms in the not-so distant historical future. Behold this bracing correction that “liberal” Democratic cable network MSNBC had to make at the bottom of a Web report bearing the misleading title “The Loudest Climate Change Wake-Up Call”:

“CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the 2014 climate assessment report includes policy recommendations for how to mitigate climate change. It does include data on climate change mitigation, but makes no policy recommendations.”[8]

No policy recommendations. Zero. The silence is unsurprising given the president’s fierce commitment to expanded Greenhouse gassing in the highly deceptive name of “national energy independence.”

 

Solutions

Whatever could we do? Chomsky is right to note that “While indigenous people are trying to avert the disaster…the race toward the cliff is led by the most advanced, educated, wealthy, and privileged societies of the world, primarily North America.”[9] Still, two highly educated Euro-North Americans – Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi – have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030 calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”[10]

Holdren, Obama, and others who worry about the conflict between concern for jobs and concern for the environment in public opinion might want to reflect on the fact the many millions of workers would be employed in the socially and ecologically useful (indeed necessary) work of manufacturing, operating, and maintaining “millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations” – along with numerous other tasks related to the environmental reconversion of the US and global economy that “much of life” (including humanity) requires. Some may recall that simultaneously advancing the “two-fer” goals of (a) environmental reconversion and (b) massive job creation was the core policy project of Van Jones – Obama’s early “Special Adviser for Green Jobs.” What kinds of jobs? Jones described the remarkable employment opportunities in his bestselling 2007 book The Green Collar Economy:

‘When you think about the…green economy, don’t think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and a lunch bucket, sleeves rolled up, going off to fix America. Think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines…If we are going to beat global warming, we are going to have to weatherize millions of buildings. Install millions of solar panels, manufacture millions of wind turbine parts, plant and care for millions of trees, build millions of plug-in hybrid vehicles, and construct thousands of solar farms, wind farms, and wave farms. This will require…millions of jobs… And don’t think of green collar workers as laboring only in the energy sector…we will also need workers in a range of green industries: materials reuse and recycling, water management, local and organic food production, mass transportation and more.’

Much of the work involved in seriously “greening” economy and society can’t be out-sourced (ala Walmart) since, as Jones noted “it involves making over the sites where we work and live and altering how we move around. That sort of work is difficult or impossible to send abroad.” You can’t pick up an office building, send it to China to have solar panels installed, and have it shipped back.[11]

Jones was kicked out of the “green” (-washed) Obama administration in September of 2009 after the FOX News crowd made bizarre neo-McCarthyite accusations that he was some kind of Communist-Black Nationalist-9/11 conspiracy theorist.

 

Eco-Cidal Times

Corporate media functionaries deserve part of the credit for climate change’s deadly status as a low priority in U.S. public opinion. They cite polling data on environmental indifference again and again but never stop to examine their own central roles in pushing the issue to the margins. What if “mainstream” talking media heads, pundits, and everyday reporters (including weather reporters) regularly and relentlessly told the full story on the risks posed by AGW? What if they also reported the real and do-able policy alternatives to fossil fuel exterminism and the many benefits – including the creation of millions of socially useful (to say the least) jobs – of acting to rescue the ecological commons for future generations ?

In one of his regular appearances on the Big Carbon-funded “P”BS’ Newshour last week, the insufferable Republican super-pundit and New York Times columnist David Brooks visibly sneered at the notion that anything might come from government reports on climate change. Since “the political process is not even close to getting at this,” Brooks announced, “we have to wait for some technological advance, some scientific advance, some innovation.” The recently divorced Brooks quickly moved on to a topic he found more inviting and relevant – National Basketball Association MVP Kevin Durant’s recent public homage to his mother and what the athlete’s comments said about the importance of family values.[12]

Has Brooks (an abject lapdog of corporate and imperial power) ever done a column or made a media appearance in which he honestly discussed the seriousness of the threat posed by AGW and the existence of solutions like the one proposed by Jacobson and Delucchi? Of course he hasn’t – he’s a lapdog of corporate and imperial power (I just wanted to say that a second time).

Even his liberal Times counterpart columnist Paul Krugman has little to say about the matter anymore, after writing more than four years ago that “In a rational world, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern.” [13]

Serious media minds know when to move on.

Last week, the “liberal” Times last week ran an 8-page “energy supplement” that waxed euphoric about the magnificent prospects Americans can expect to enjoy as the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels. The nation’s “newspaper of record” did so with barely a passing grunt of alarm for what expanded US greenhouse gas production might mean for the fate of livable ecology.

 

“Cast Your Vote”

Still, it doesn’t get much more pathetic than the following poll question that the Obama fans and de facto Democratic Party media operatives at MSNBC put at the bottom of their aforementioned Web report:

 

‘How Should We Address Climate Change?’

* ‘By taking an everything at once approach’

* ‘Doing a cost-benefit analysis of business regulations’

* ‘It’s not clear that we should act on climate change’

*  ‘Not sure.’

‘ Cast Your Vote’ [14]

 

Seriously? That’s the full spectrum of “voting” options on climate change? No way to vote for “undertake giant public program to move completely off fossil fuels and on to renewable sources by 2030”?

Is it really that bad over at the cable network that poses as the “left” wing of US “mainstream” (corporate) media?

Yes, it is.

 

Invisible Candidates with Actual Solutions

Speaking of casting votes, the last presidential election included a candidate – the officially semi-anonymous Jill Stein of the Green Party – who advocated a “Green New Deal” that “would end both the economic crisis and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.” As Stein elaborated last year, the Green New Deal:

‘would create 25 million jobs in green energy, sustainable agriculture, public transportation and infrastructure improvements—as well as jobs that meet our social needs, including teachers, nurses, day care, affordable housing, drug abuse and violence prevention and rehabilitation. It would be funded by scaling back the oversized military budget to year 2000 levels, adopting a Medicare-for-All insurance system that would save trillions of dollars, requiring Wall Street gamblers to pay a small (0.5 percent) sales tax, taxing capital gains as income, and taxing income more progressively. These key provisions of the Green New Deal enjoy majority public support in poll after poll….The Green New Deal addresses the concocted deficit/debt problems by solving the bigger, underlying crises of an unraveling economy and accelerating climate catastrophe.’ [14]

Imagine that. If Americans voted on policy alone – without all the private election funding and advertisements, major party machinations, highly personalized candidate marketing, and corporate media filtering – I have the distinct impression that the Green Party would sweep the polls. Under the currently reigning unelected dictatorship of corporate and financial money, the only candidate and party that were actually serious about saving society and ecology might as well not have run. Stein got 0.36% of the vote.

Such is the harsh plutocratic reality of “corporate-managed democracy” (Alex Carey) in the United States, once described by former US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (during a speech endorsing George W. Bush’s right to invade Iraq if God wanted him to) as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.”

Paul Street is author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” in Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, eds., Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014).

 

 

Selected Endnotes

1. Quoted in Neil Resnikoff and Jane Timm, “The Loudest Climate Change Wake-Up Call,” MSNBC (May 5, 014),

http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/obama-unveils-major-climate-change-report

2. Sources include George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian, December 21, 2009; Peter Brown, “Obama: Washington Liberal, Copenhagen Conservative,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2009; Christian Schwagerl, “Obama Has Failed the World on Climate Change,” Spiegel Online, November 17, 2009, at www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,661678,00.html

3. Stacy Mitchell, “Wal-Mart is the Last Place Obama Should Be Making a Clean Energy Speech,” Huffington Post, May 9, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stacy-mitchell/walmart-is-the-last-place_b_5294305.htm

4. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white-house-report-warns-climate-change-will-directly-influence-lives-americans/

5. Rebecca Rifkin, “Climate Change Not a Top Worry in the U.S.,” Gallup Politics, March 12, 2014, http://www.gallup.com/poll/167843/climate-change-not-top-worry.aspx

6. http://www.globalchange.gov/

7. Noam Chomsky, “On the Edge,” ZNet, May 11, 2014 http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/on-the-edge/

8. Resnikoff and Timm, “The Loudest Climate Change Wake-Up Call.”

9. Chomsky, “On the Edge.”

10. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Plan for a Sustainable Future,” Scientific American(November 2009), http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf)

11. Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (New York: Harper, 2009), 10-11.

12. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/shields-brooks-primary-points-mainstream-gop-politics-climate-policy/

13. Paul Krugman, “Cassandras of Climate,” New York Times, September 27, 2009. The science-fiction fan Krugman has in recent years half-jokingly proposed an interesting idea for pulling the US economy out of stagnation: prepare for an alien invasion. “If you actually look at what took us out of the Great Depression,” Krugman told MSNBC in 2012, “it was Europe’s entry into World War II and the US buildup that began in advance. . . . So if we could get something that could cause the government to say, ‘Oh, never mind those budget things; let’s just spend and do a bunch of stuff.’. . . My fake threat from space aliens is the other route,” Krugman said before a laughing crowd. “I’ve been proposing that.” In 2011 he told CNN about a Twilight Zone episode in which “scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace,” adding that “this time. . . we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus.” It is curious that Krugman felt compelled to humorously concoct the fantastic and futuristic imagery of an alien space invasion to make the case for replicating the governmental stimulus that World War II military spending provided to end the Great Depression. Home- and human-made existential threats to survival seem sufficient to the stimulatory task. How about saving the planet for livable habitation by putting millions to work on ecological retrofitting and clean energy? Tackling climate change and other environmental ills in a meaningful way means putting many millions of people to work at all skill levels to design, implement, coordinate, and construct the environmental retrofitting of economy and society—the ecological reconversion of production, transportation, office space, homes, agriculture, and public space. A positive historical analogy is staring us in the face. Consistent with both Jones’s reference to “Rosie the Riveter” and Krugman’s understanding of what ended the Great Depression, it is World War II, when the United States taxed its rich like never before, reconverted its economy, and put millions to socially useful work, producing what the country and the world needed at the time: weapons and other goods to defeat fascism. As Chomsky notes, “Surely the US manufacturing industries could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled work force—and what the world needs, and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. During World War II, industry was converted to wartime production and the semi-command economy. . . ended the Depression.” Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 96. There is no mythical extraterrestrial menace required. “Spaceship Earth” presents its own urgent social and ecological justifications for massive public works programs and investments. And if science-fiction alien invasions are required, then a far better citation is John Carpenter’s They Live (1987), where the space invaders are already here, wearing corporate suits and changing the climate (“acclimatizing us to their atmosphere”) in the name of free enterprise. See Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014).

14. Resnikoff and Timm.

15. Jill Stein, “Obama Budget Throws American People Under the Bus and Gives the Rich a Free Ride,” A Green New Deal for America (April 11, 2013), http://www.jillstein.org/obama_budget

 

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Paul Street May 14, 2014 4:08 pm 

    Don’t know specifics on that episode but it is certainly emblematic of ever creeping police state militarization on the domestic front. You should have seen the local, county, state, federal, and private security deployment in Chicago during the NATO summit two years ago this month – it was positively dystopian. Hard state power is alive and well as a critical component of how They Rule http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

  2. Richard Bluhm May 14, 2014 1:19 pm 

    Many Green Party members met Jill Stein at a park near the D.U. campus which was the location of a presidential “debate” in late 2012. Recall that Jill qualified to appeared on over forty state ballots. When we reached D.U. the police cuffed Jill and detained her in an undisclosed location. Democracy was hijacked. The public was robbed of a real debate. Obviously, the oligarchy cannot permit a real debate so Jill had to be marginalized. We all had to be marginalized.

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