Sic Transit Imperium

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…. The passing of empire.

The dank and musty allure of 19th century opium dens beckoned to those weak of will and lustful for escape. An opioid fuel of sorts, nature’s stock for an addiction that consumed its adherents in exchange for a state of nonchalant bliss, a temporary reprieve from the thousand paper cuts of life.

Experienced practioners knew to employ the buddy system, in advance soliciting a disinterested friend to come collect the user after 12 hours or so, sternly instructed to ignore any pleas to the contrary, and to extract the user from the den and the throes of opioid delirium, forcibly if necessary. Failure to do so might mean the will for a voluntary exit could well evaporate after a few days, and any exit might be feet first in a pine box.

An early example of the addictive effects of nature’s stock upon humans.

Amid much fanfare and production, the scientists of our society engage us in cultural clashes where arguments pertaining to climate change rage on, point and counterpoint, endless minutiae and technical details debated and argued. Advocates and denialists in full combat, in a battle of data against superstition that has lasted the ages and will never resolve.

Exactly as the instigators intended.

What is missing from these credentialed technical arguments are more basic questions, such as Why? Or How?

Why did our culture take up an addiction to fossil fuels, and How did this happen?

Human ecology professor, Andreas Malm has taken to addressing these two overarching questions in his book “Fossil Capital” which I shall review here.

“Fossil Capital” deviates from the typical climate change discussion as he strives to understand the onset and dependency of fossil fuels from a Marxist perspective. I must admit I was somewhat skeptical, orthodox Marxism is notoriously lax in addressing the largest threat to our planet, seemingly content to lather about in worker exploitation and revolts that never seem to happen.

However, the author reminds us that the core construct of Marx’s magnum opus is based on the philosophy of social relations, if anything, Capital shows us the dialectic relationship between capital, the political economy, and society at large. It shows us how capitalist property relations impacts workers, and how workers impact capital, leading ultimately to Malm’s staggering conclusion- that our addiction to fossil fuels, the resulting present day climate impact, and the onset and general adoption of fossil fuels was not due to technology, not due to scarcity of existing organic resources, and importantly, not due to intrinsic and supposedly dormant human tendencies to plunder the planet.

With academic rigor, Andreas Malm answers the Why and How, as he traces the onset of fossil fuels into general usage, and in so doing discovers that a very small group of men in a very small part of the world, belonging to an even smaller class of participants, are wholly, totally, and irrefutably responsible.

Malm finds that those responsible belong to the Capitalist class of 19th century England.

He explains this by animating Marx’s discoveries of property relations and the laws of motion of Capitalist production. He takes the dry, tedious text of Marx and shows how it fits chapter and verse with the 19th century ascension of the Industrial Revolution.

Fortunately for Malm, 19th century England is one of the most thoroughly documented periods and he find much empirical support for his thesis. The records are quite clear, voluminous data is available for parsing and analysis and he takes full advantage to make his case.

“Fossil Capital” starts with a debunking of the two prevailing mainstream theories as to how we evolved into a fossil fuel economy. The first, the so-called “Elizabethan leap” contains the more common bourgeoisie understanding of how 16th Europe migrated from burning wood for heat and cooking, to the use of coal. The superficial explanation is that wood was a declining resource experiencing scarcity in England and Continental Europe, and the migration to coal was an entirely natural progression to a more dense and efficient energy source.

There are a couple of problems with this, not the least of which is that coal did not make any significant inroads into energy consumption (in England anyway) until the late 18th century, so there is the small matter of a 200 year discrepancy.

But Malm considers even this to be a red herring, he suggests that the use of either wood or coal for heating and cooking purposes (the dominant uses in this time period) is really not a very interesting story, in his words this is a “proto-fossil fuel” economy, the real story begins when these fuels are used for purposes other than cooking and heating.

As all of this late 18th century stuff was taking place in England, to supplement the superficial, the theories of Ricardo, Malthus, and our dear friend Adam Smith all get roped into contributing to this explanation. Ricardo, as he posits that the available land for photosynthesis (the main vehicle for organic fuel production) is insufficient to support an exponential expansion of energy in the soon to occur industrial revolution. Malthus, with his converging and exponential population growth, needs to preserve at least some arable land for food instead of fuel production, and of course, Smith for his division of labor theories.

The author calls this first explanation the “Ricardo-Malthusian” theory, which seeks to explain the evolutionary and entirely “necessary” conversion from wood to coal because of insufficient land mass, and a geometrically expanding population with arithmetically expanding food production. As the organic economy of pre-industrial England is in effect dependent on plants (photosynthesis) for energy production, these arguments might make some sense.

A review of the historical data reveals some troubling problems with the Ricardo-Malthusian explanation. First of all, the use of organic fuels such as wood for cooking and heating cannot explain the explosion of energy expansion in 19th century England. Between 1800 and 1870 the population of England grew by 160%, yet energy consumption grew by some 4,000%.

Next, these theories were applied after the fact, using a modern interpretation (within the last century) to explain what is now a self evident problem, but this is less than convincing as no one in 19th century Britain sat down with quill and ink and forecast the energy demands of the forthcoming industrial revolution, concluding that we must switch to a coal economy toute de suite.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Malm finds no evidence of scarcity of either arable land for wood production, or of wood as a commodity as seen by market forces, e.g. there were no price spikes in this time period that would indicate a shortage, or of pending scarcity. Now there are plenty of papers and scholarly opinions that conclude that large scale shortages were present in this time period, but Malm disagrees.

Malm theorizes with some justification, that if there were resource limits to organic energy production (wood) in this time period there would be at least some price anomalies- he found none.

What then? What could be the cause for a several thousand percent increase in energy consumption- and a paradigm shift away from an organic energy economy to one wholly sustained by fossil fuels?

The genesis can be found in James Watt’s 1784 patent of the steam engine.

Knowledge of the nature of the phase change of water when boiled, and the resulting energy release had been known for centuries. What Watt had done with his steam engine patents was to harness this effect in a self contained boiler, converting steam pressure into smooth, rotative motion. This system converted the choppy, erratic motion of a steam piston into a spinning wheel, which could then be used to power other machines through belt drive connections.

Machines which would soon be called “means of production”.

With twice the BTU’s and half the volumetric density of wood, coal was the perfect fuel to propel the steam engine into mainstream use. In the period of 1800-1870, the vast majority of all coal burned was used to power steam engines, and the largest use of steam engines was in the production of cotton.

And here is where it gets really interesting.

In 19th century in Britain, the economy was all about the production of cotton. By 1870, cotton accounted for nearly 40% of the UK GDP. So cotton was a big deal, not just in sheer numbers, but in the rapid adoption of Capitalist modes of production in the industrial scale up of this commodity. In 1780, it took approximately 600 man hours to process a single bale of cotton, with the invention of the cotton gin (1793), this dropped to around 12 man hours per bale. Adding to the efficiencies, the spinning jenny (1764) and Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1768) which was designed to be powered by water flow- all represented an ushering in of a crude form of machine age- centered around cotton production.

Significantly, the main competitive fuel to coal in the early 19th century was water power. It wasn’t even close, by far water power was the first choice of any and all sources of rotative power. The reasons were simple and compelling- it did not cost anything to run. Water flow was free. Any fuel that burned, be it wood or coal, had a cost associated with it and factory owners did not want to pay when water was readily available and free for the taking.

Water was clean, reusable, quiet, and put forth no emissions. And it was cheap. So why then would anyone want to abandon this cheap and abundant energy source and switch to the dirtier, and far more expensive coal?

Well initially anyway, no one did. But as the production of cotton began to scale, and as Britain shed its mercantilist mode of production for Capitalist tendencies, issues of property and social relations began to rear their ugly heads.

Another consideration was that the use of water flow was by its very nature collective. No one owns the water, and if other mill owners shared the same water source for their own mills, which was common, there could be a conflict between users of the same resource.

So as Malm describes it, the problems began to originate from the spatial attributes of the water mills, they were by necessity located near water sources, which meant that they were generally not near urban centers, and generally located in rural or countryside locations. So it became difficult to attract and keep labor at these semi-remote locations. There was little external infrastructure, often no towns or support resources for life, however short it might be, outside of the factory mills. And retaining labor once so located was also difficult as they might just run off, converting to a ruthless and grueling factory pace of 16-18 hours days, 6 days a week was a difficult adjustment from an agrarian lifestyle which marked the previous way of life.

So the ascendant Industrial revolution began to experience labor strife, it was to become acute, perhaps more acute than any time in modern history, as large numbers of people migrated from agrarian lifestyles to a wage labor supported factory life- they did not make the change with open arms.

The mill owners quickly came up with a brilliant solution as the realties of Capitalist property relations began to settle in. It seemed that the local orphanages were full to brimming with abandoned and runaway children from all walks of life, and surely, the mill owners would be doing all a tremendous favor to “rescue” these misfits and delinquents from their stultifying existence, unshackling them for a vigorous and meditative visit to the British countryside, where they might partake in fresh air and healthy exercise.

For around 20 years.

Ever the social liberals, the headmasters of the orphanages insisted that room and board be offered to each child, and perhaps an hour per week of study so as to insure that some level of education be maintained.

Other than that, they were happy to see them go.

 

 

To support this newfound labor pool, the Capitalist mill owners often had to construct at their own expense a compound, buildings to house workers, eating halls, etc. in effect all the necessities of a labor camp.

There were still more problems. Not all workers were children of course- most were not. Some of the labor classifications, such as spinners were highly skilled and these in-demand workers began to demand high wages. If a group of spinners left a mill, they could cripple production and the prospects for replacement staff was not good- given the remote locales of the water mills. As the water mills became more widespread throughout Britain, child labor also grew. Soon, the moral prospect of working young orphans 16 hours a day began to wear on society as a whole, and a bitter struggle for reformed labor laws ensued lasting throughout most of the first half of the 19th century. A brief listing:

-The Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819. Limited employment to children age 9 or older, children aged 9-12 could not work more than 12 hours per day.

– The Cotton Mills Regulation Act 1825. Limited work hours to 10 hours on Sat, added a one hour lunch break. The mill owners were having problems with inconsistent water flow, so they needed “make up” time, e.g. extra hours during the day when workers could be forced to work longer to make up for poor flow or equipment failures. This Act accommodated these conditions by imposing limits as to how many hours could be worked and how late they could be enforced, typically no later than 11:00 PM.

– Labor in Cotton Mills Act of 1831. Extended the 12 hour day limit to anyone under 18, no night work allowed for minor children.

– Numerous legislation passed between 1831-1867 essentially limiting children, and ultimately most adults to no more than 10 hours a day of work.

One might wonder why it took 50-60 years to resolve which seems like a simple issue of social justice, using children for indentured labor. The answer is twofold, first, the capitalist class put enormous pressure on British parliament to refrain from interfering with any regulations that might impede production, the “compromise” was a highly publicized effort to address the children, as the lawmakers understood that the optics of defending this egregious practice was not going to stand, so they made much of these paltry reliefs specific to child labor. The other reason was that of male suffrage. Incredibly, throughout the 19th century, men without property ownership simply could not vote. This held until the early 20th century, indeed until the 1918 Representation of the People act, which removed the restriction of property ownership and allowed all men (and some women) the right to vote.

All of these acts and legislations were bitterly opposed by the Capitalist class- but none more vigorously than the provision allowing mill owners to work extra hours if the water flow fell off during a production day, or if equipment broke. This provision allowed the mill owner to enforce a labor effort not just by the clock, but to make sure that this labor product could be productively deployed when all the conditions of production were operational- which they often weren’t. So if you were signed up for a 12-16 hour day, and water flow dropped off midday so as to deny production, you had to stay at the mill and make the time up when the water flow returned.

A typical workday might be 16 hours. And in this workday we are reminded of Marx’s principle of abstract surplus value, which says that the workday is organized to first cover the cost to reproduce the worker, then additional hours are used to provide surplus value to the Capitalist. That’s how we get to 16 hour days. 10 hours in this example to reproduce (cover costs) and 6 hours for surplus.

But when forced by regulations to limit the workday to 10 hours, with limited ability for make up time, we have a big problem as now we have to ask where does the surplus value come from?

And the answer is that it comes from intensification of production, e.g. with speeding up the machinery. This now gives us relative surplus value, so named as the surplus is now recovered by extending backward into the workday, by working faster we can reproduce the workers cost in 8 hours and get the same surplus as before in 10 hours total.

But we have to run the machines and the people faster to achieve this result.

And as it turns out, it is pretty easy to speed up a steam engine, not so much for a water wheel. And in fact according to Malm, the sum of these attributes outlines the fundamental reason for the shift to fossil fuels- they were infinitely more tolerant to the demands of the Capitalist class than renewable resources, even though they cost more.

Steam engines could be placed conveniently next to coal mines, or to even greater advantage in the middle of population centers where there was not scarcity of labor. If a crew of experienced spinners up and quit, a replacement crew could be assembled without too much trouble. Also, population centers did not need the infrastructure build out for living quarters for example, that the water mills needed, it already existed.

And this is exactly what happened, despite the more attractive cost model of renewable energy resources, the labor relations outcome was disastrous for the water mill owners and the shift to coal powered steam engines proved unstoppable. By 1840, the battle between water power and coal was largely over, coal fueled steam engines had made significant headway into the sphere of production. This however, was no panacea, labor revolts and labor strikes grew to epic proportions, as capitalists tried to lower wages, with roving bands of strikers marauding through the cities destroying the hated steam engines as Capitalist property owners reduced wages to increase profits.

In 1842 one of the largest strikes ever was assembled, involving some 500,000 striking workers. They took to destroying steam engines, many by pulling the plugs on the pressure vessel rendering the engines useless. The phrase “pulling the plug” is still in common use today and stems from this calamitous riot in Britain.

Soon after, intentionally damaging steam engines became a crime punishable by death in Britain.

Interestingly, the word ‘Power’ in the English language has two meanings, one meaning, the noun, describes ‘…the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events…’

The other usage is as a verb, “…..to supply (a device) with mechanical or electrical energy….’

In no other language does this word share this duality. This is instructive, as it became apparent that those that controlled the power, indeed had social power. We can still see evidence of this today in modern politics.

If Malm had been unkind to the Ricardo-Malthusian explanation for the onset of fossil fuels, he is not particularly generous to the more contemporary Anthropocene narrative. Malm’s objection with this movement is not necessarily to deny the labeling of this as an ecological epoch, rather, he takes issue with the notion that somehow man was intrinsically and irreversibly responsible as a species for the onset of fossil fuel usage and the resulting climate change.

He argues that early man’s mastery of fire does not necessarily implicate humans as destined to destroy the planet, he makes the rather succinct point that ownership of steam engines, and the resulting adoption of coal to feed these engines, was specific to a very small class of people, namely, wealthy white guys involved in the Capitalist mode of production. An average wage laborer did not own a steam engine in the 19th Century, why would she? The Capitalist class acted directly to divert an organic economy that was already successful and underway with renewable hydro power to an economy that relied on fossil fuels, specifically to avoid the untenable social relations present in using a collective energy resource like water power. The Capitalist must own not just the means of production, but the fuel sources as well.

Beyond this Malm ventures into some truly interesting commentary, he discusses in some detail the need for constant exponential expansion intrinsic to Capitalism, and makes a most interesting observation about this expansion from the perspective of fossil fuels.

To do this, he discusses the time honored theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which is the primary failure mechanism of Capitalism in orthodox Marxism. The rate of profit tends to fall, as the organic composition of constant capital to variable capital changes. In plain English, this means that as machines and automation replace people, the profits left for the Capitalist decline. This is because if labor is the source of all value, as labor content declines, so does surplus value.

But this “tendency” is not a hard and fast rule, there are ways that this “tendency” can be mitigated, indeed, the Capitalism of today goes to great pains to deflect these tendencies- largely through State interventions. However, we do know that as more machines are created to replace or accelerate human labor, more fossil fuels will be used to power them- just as it did in 19th century Britain.

Malm suggests that this energy consumption component of value production is a hard and fast rule- not a tendency, and that as the composition of constant Capital increases, the consumption of fossil fuels must also increase- exponentially. He expresses this as an increased carbon content per unit of production. This would suggest a death spiral related to fossil fuel use, unstoppable and with no known restraint under the laws of motion of a Capitalist economy.

To the notion that man as a species is intrinsically responsible and destined to destroy the planet, his view is that if we all are responsible, then no one is responsible. By this he suggests that if all are guilty, then no one can be deposed or held accountable.

And this narrative is starting to sound vaguely familiar, yes, blame the working class and the poor for societies woes, and for good measure be sure to inflict the greatest amount of retribution and payback amongst those least responsible.

This is a time honored strategy unique to class structure. A secondary outcome is the blaming of workers for global warming through consumption.

Malm makes a solid case using historical reconstruction and a Marxist framework to unveil the unity between energy and exploitation. He suggests that the need for exploitation within the Capitalist mode of production is largely the driver towards unfettered fossil fuel consumption. Another thrust, which he is covering in a new book, is the notion that the nexus to petroleum energy was in direct response to the crippling coal miner’s strikes.

So it is not surprising then that we see similar characteristics in our current bourgeoisie government in the persona of Trump. We see the ascension of energy moguls to the levers of power for exactly the same reasons, with exactly the same objectives that were there in 19th century Britain.

The current era Capitalist class is deeply concerned with the declining rate of profit, despite the mitigating influence of neo-liberal expansion. They reflexively return to tried and true restorative strategies, central to this is an expansion of fossil fuel production and simultaneous relaxation of regulations- of which we see abundant evidence that this is underway.

If there is an area of weakness in Malm’s work, it is in his explanation of why man is not acting in his own best interests. While I find his rejection of the culpability of man as a species gratifying, it is hard to connect the dots between the Plug Riots of 1842 and a similar modern day Black Friday mob descending like locusts on a Wal Mart sale. There really is no coherent explanation offered to connect the dots between these disparate behaviors, and it really is one of the more important questions of our time.

Perhaps a narrative that revolves around addiction, and its close companion denial is more appropriate.

Overall in his wrap up to include modern times, Malm is not hopeful for any relief from the fossil fuel madness or any meaningful redress to climate change. He points out that sunk capital costs in coal fired plants, refineries, and other capital intensive investments are unlikely to be unwound until they are fully amortized. Once paid for, there is little motivation to sunset them as after all, they are paid up and can then contribute to supra-profits. The modern day Capitalist class does not make these kind of massive investments without a priori policy assurances from the State- which they actively seek and receive.

In the end Malm accomplishes a great deal with his book, the approach of leaving aside pure science and using tools of sociology to examine causality is very effective. It will be interesting to see where he takes this thread in his upcoming book, continuing with a similar framework around petroleum fuels.

It is more likely that we will find coal a source of sunlight, than sunlight a competitor of coal.

William Stanley Jevons 1860

The Trumpocene: Darkness Gathers

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“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”Gary Kasparov

With each passing day, the mental stability of our narcissistic, megalomaniacal president is increasingly being called into question by those unnerved from his erratic behavior. The unhinged press conferences, comically embarrassing meetings with world leaders, and uncensored tweets reveal just how illiterate, delusional, and divisive America’s first reality TV president truly is, and the consequences won’t be confined to the imaginary world of a television screen. The irony is that the very news media networks whom the president disparages on a daily basis were instrumental in getting him elected, allowing Trump’s circus to hog the headlines in an ‘issues free’ campaign. Trump received $1.9 billion in free media coverage, 190 times as much as he paid for while the major networks made tons of revenue off Trump’s theatrics. Driving this symbiotic relationship is the fierce competition for ratings determining the advertising revenue and bottom line of these corporate-owned news networks. The media exploited Trump’s sensationalist behavior for profit, helping to drive his campaign to the top of this money-grubbing pyramid scheme. We are, as Neil Postman mused, amusing ourselves to death. Most of these networks are now busy trying to contain the monster they helped create. The other great irony is that America is getting a taste of its own medicine after having meddled in other country’s elections for decades; the CIA was one of the early developers of cyber warfare and is one of the world’s most ruthless practitioners of it.

Of the many Trump lies glossed over by corporate media, the most dangerous one is that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. The Trump administration is riddled with like-minded Flat-Earthers bent on dismantling the EPA and stoking fossil fuel consumption. In Trumpland, alternative facts are as valid as any empirical evidence. Scientists are being muzzled and the masses are being gaslighted. Conspiracy theories, hearsay, and pure fantasy have replaced meaningful public discourse. We have a demagogue working to blind everyone to what scientists are telling us and our own eyes can see. A civilization which cannot discern the truth cannot make rational decisions for the future, let alone the present. Trump’s kleptocracy will flourish in such an environment while repeating the mantra, “It’s all about the American people.”

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance” ~ Carl Sagan

The loss of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was an important milestone in America’s decline towards a “post-truth” culture, paving the way for the “outrage industry” and talk radio demagogues like Rush Limbaugh. Twitter is the new bully pulpit for a tyrant-aspiring charlatan, and his antics serve as a useful tool for distracting the public from the right-wing agenda of extreme deregulation and privatization, otherwise known as the Overthrow Project. The biggest danger of wealth inequality is capture of the political system by the elites. This has already happened in America and abroad to the extent that there is now a new globalized elite who have more fealty towards each other than their country of origin, completely lacking positive feelings and loyalty towards their own native lands. The existing oligarchy is being strengthened at the expense of an already polarized and economically disenfranchised society. The Trump regime is corporatism on steroids.

As the famous saying goes, “There’s a sucker born every minute” and Trump is just the latest huckster to exploit them. His rhetoric appeals to people’s emotions and raises their dopamine levels, but facts have a tendency to get in the way of a good story. Trump’s base of supporters, however, appear immune to facts that contradict their leaders’s disinformation. One of his big campaign pledges was to bring back the manufacturing base of the U.S. and revive the Rust Belt, but this promise rings hollow in the age of techno-capitalism. Machines have taken over manufacturing and Trump’s protectionist policies will in all likelihood accelerate this process. AI promises to bring even more radical disruption to the job market:

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well…

In the US, the number of manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 and has steadily decreased ever since. At the same time, manufacturing has steadily increased, with the US now producing more goods than any other country but China. Machines aren’t just taking the place of humans on the assembly line. They’re doing a better job. And all this before the coming wave of AI upends so many other sectors of the economy.

Trump’s fake stance on protecting American workers will not unwind decades of globalization, unrelenting automation, or the machinations of corporate capitalism. His promise to reignite the coal industry is yet more empty rhetoric; independent energy experts at BNEF dismantle his claim:

Coal power is just too costly and inflexible, explains BNEF: “Super-low-cost renewable power — what we are now calling ‘base-cost renewables’ — is going to force a revolution in the way power grids are designed, and the way they are regulated.”

When you add the revolution in cheap fracked gas — which Trump has pledged to double down on — it’s no surprise the country shut down over 40 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations since 2000…

It’s also being driven by a collapse in the export market, as countries from Europe to Asia also move away from coal because of its economic and human cost…

So Trump won’t be bringing back the domestic coal industry. And even if he could, he can’t bring back the jobs because it’s the coal industry itself that wiped out most of those jobs through productivity gains from “strip mines and machinery”…

Conveniently ignoring the harmful environmental impacts and the fact that illegal immigration has been on the decline for the past decade, the proposed Trump Wall is an expensive monument to xenophobia and misguided fears. No wall will prevent those determined to circumvent it, but if you listen to the engineers and experts who actually have experience working at the border, then it’s not a solid continuous wall(projected to take 16 years to complete) but a partial fence that would be more effective and feasible, and that’s if you believe that Americans will take the place of those millions of migrant farm workers who leave their homes every year to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, in addition to the millions of other low-skilled and low-paying jobs that immigrants perform. Capitalism thrives on the back of cheap labor, but even these jobs are not safe from machines.

What kind of world is going to support all this labor-saving, hi-tech gadgetry when its creators are too short-sighted to maintain the habitability of the planet for their own descendants? There is no deus ex machina to prevent catastrophic collapse of the oceans nor is there one to stop catastrophic climate change. Industrial civilization is a one-hit wonder for which there are no solutions that scale up to the mountain of problems it has created. Dealing with the environmental costs of fossil fuels is the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” whereby the incentive to cheat for short-term economic gain prevents the cooperation needed by everyone. The economic, legal, and moral framework to tackle climate change simply does not exist. The invisible hand of the “free market” has turned into the boot of environmental catastrophe.

Primates, mankind’s closest biological cousins in the animal kingdom, are in steep decline because they have the “misfortune of being concentrated in areas rich in certain resources precious to their sapient but ravenous cousins.” Not even our fellow human beings can escape war and death when they live atop coveted resources, so what chance does any other species have?

“People have argued that we only have to worry about human-caused extinctions if we do something that causes the loss of 80 or 90 percent of species on the planet,” said UC Berkeley environmental scientist James W. Kirchner.

“Our analysis shows that even if the human impact is much smaller than that – 20 or 30 or even 50 percent of species – it’s still going to take 10 million years for the Earth to recover. That is well past the expected life span of the human species, or even of the genus Homo.” – Link

The study quoted above was from the year 2000 and has the usual hopeful spin:

“It is not preordained that high levels of human-caused extinction have to happen,” Kirchner said. “Our future depends on what we choose to do on a national and international level, as a society. Those decisions are critical because they will have very long-lasting consequences.”

Not surprisingly, we have failed to heed that advice. Scientists say our rampant road building has dissected the Earth’s land into 600,000 fragments too small to support significant wildlife. A new study covering 130 countries finds deforestation rises with incomes in developing economies and never reverses. This is particularly troubling because Africa is a developing continent with some of the world’s largest tracts of remaining undisturbed forests and biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity loss is an existential threat comparable to climate change. The glaring warning from all these studies is that the Western way of life exported across the entire planet has brought us to a point of cataclysmic overshoot. Business-as-usual only exacerbates the crisis:

Real-world CO2 emissions have tracked the high end of earlier [IPCC] emissions scenarios, and until the currently wealthy countries can produce a large decline in their own emissions per capita, it is dubious to project that emissions per capita in the less developed countries will not continue on a trajectory up to the levels of currently wealthy countries…[The top 10% of the economically wealthy in the world produce almost as much total GHG emissions as the bottom 90% combined]… – Link

Trump peddles the false hope of regaining material wealth for a collapsing middle class with his slogan “Make America great again”, but after being elected, is giving more power and riches to those who have created this environmental and social catastrophe. Capitalism is, as Martin Luther King observed, “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Nonetheless, in the bigger scheme of modern civilization’s looming collapse, the ‘Trumpocene’ amounts to nothing more than polishing the brass on the Titanic.

A time is coming when what we do to Earth is completely overshadowed by what Earth does to us. We have already condemned the planet to an ice-free Arctic and no amount of techno-fixes will return it to its former state. Were humans to disappear today from the Earth, the after-effects of our massive fossil fuel binge would reverberate for aeons. The last time there was an ice-free Arctic was during the Eemian period 125,000 years ago at the height of the last major interglacial period, but the CO2 levels of today are much higher now and causing the climate to change at a rate that is 170 times that of natural forces with much more warming to come. According to a new study, manmade global warming is replicating conditions that triggered an abrupt sea level rise of several meters in the ocean around Antarctica some 15,000 years ago. The damage done is irreversible not only on a human timescale or a civilizational time scale, but a species timescale. The total global carbon dioxide emissions load from the onset of the industrial revolution is enough to push the next ice age back by 100,000 years and only deep geologic time will significantly remediate the chemistry of a CO2-spiked atmosphere. The same is true for ocean acidification. The natural process of continental rock weathering to neutralize all of the CO2 from human activity that is entering the oceans would take hundreds of thousands of years. Plankton blooms, a key part of the entire marine food web and the biological carbon pump, are being disrupted by warming, acidifying oceans. The Great Barrier Reef is expected to be completely dead within the next two decades and 98% of all reefs around the world gone by mid century. The latest research indicates ocean acidification is much worse for corals that previously thought.

Manmade persistent organic pollutants(POPs) such as PCBs and flame retardants can be found in the most remote places on Earth such as the 36,000-foot-deep Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean where researchers tested crustaceans and found them to contain 50 times more POPs than crabs living in one of China’s most polluted rivers. Once these endocrine-disrupting compounds settle into the sediments, they can remain there for thousands of years before being disturbed and recirculated into the environment once again as a contaminant. Microplastics less than 5mm in size are ubiquitous in the environment, having been documented in the waters of both the Arctic and Antarctic and recently found on 73% of Britain’s beaches.

The irrational ramblings of a demagogue won’t change a shifting earth laying waste to a once rich ecosphere and grinding to dust the landmarks of modern man. Delusions and protestations have no bearing on the laws of chemistry and thermodynamics.

Extinction is the End Game

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Civilizations are living organisms striving to survive and develop through predictable stages of birth, growth, maturation, decline and death. An often overlooked factor in the success or failure of civilizations are cultural memes—the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors passed down from generation to generation. Cultural memes are a much more significant driver of human evolution than genetic evolution. Entire civilizations have been weeded out when their belief system proved maladaptive to a changing environment. One such cultural meme holding sway over today’s governments, institutions, and society is our economic system of capitalism. The pillars of capitalism represent a belief system so ingrained in today’s culture that they form a sort of cargo cult amongst its adherents. Cargo cults are any of the various Melanesian religious groups which focused on obtaining material wealth(manufactured Western goods that came on cargo ships) through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices. Today the term “cargo cult” is used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve superficial imitation of a process or system in order to fabricate a successful outcome without even the basic understanding of its mechanism.

The tenets of capitalism are ritually followed in the proclaimed belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, i.e. so-called improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond any doubt that it does not lift all boats. A new study finds that half of Americans are “shut off from economic growth”. The rules of the game are so stacked against the masses that this week a professor said “only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.” Capitalism’s imperative for expansion, growing profit levels, and efficiency has ultimately dehumanized our culture. Not even when our basic life support systems are being torn asunder do the vast majority question the path we are on. We are all a captive audience to the system and those few dissident voices are snuffed out under the wheels of “progress”.

Truth be told, the corporate elite have long written off all those people living hand to mouth. Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary said, unlike workers, machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Massive global unemployment resulting from the automation revolution has not yet been addressed by governments. Roughly half of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of automation and two-thirds in the developing countries. This is all coming at a time when humans are fast destroying the ecosystems underpinning the very foundation upon which human civilization has developed over thousands of years. Mass migration of climate refugees will only further destabilize governments, stoke ethnic and cultural tensions, and give rise to fascist political movements. No conspiracy is needed to exterminate the “useless eaters”, just allow mother nature to take its course and climate change will be killing billions by mid century. Those in military planning know this and periodically express their fear of what is coming, but business-as-usual rolls on.

Capitalism’s constant impetus to shift costs, risks, and burdens off industry and onto the environment and society carries on under the guise of “being more competitive”. It’s a way of externalizing costs to maximize profit and if these costs were truly taken into account, none of the world’s top industries would be profitable(Interestingly, the link to this study has been scrubbed from the internet). It’s the height of magical thinking to put so much faith in some mystical “invisible hand of the free market” to solve existential threats such as an ever-widening wealth gap and the wholesale destruction of planetary life-support systems. There is no benevolent “invisible hand” turning individual self-interest into the common good. The primary mandate of capitalism is to protect and grow capital. The “invisible hand” is just a bunch of people scrambling to make as much money as possible, not caring or oblivious to those they hurt in the process. Fuck the invisible hand of the market. The invisible hand of mother nature will punish those who squander Earth’s rich but finite resources.

it’s been clear for some time that we have past the point of no return, triggering multiple tipping points in Earth’s living systems. New findings are continually confirming scientists’ worst nightmares. A key glacier in the Antarctic that holds back 10 feet of sea level rise was just described as breaking apart from the inside out. In other grim news, the long feared carbon bomb has now been quantified and is projected to release the emissions equivalent of an industrial country like the U.S. in the next few decades, prompting researchers to say that “climate change may be considerably more rapid than we thought it was.” Biodiversity loss is another critical threshold we have breeched: “New research shows that local extinctions have already occurred in 47% of the 976 plant and animal species studied.” A new study also reveals that the planet’s tallest animal is facing extinction after its numbers have plummeted in recent years, with the ominous warning that “many species are slipping away before we can even describe them.” Forests are being wiped out by armies of invasive insects. Because of a rapidly changing climate and the vast scale of the problem, the idea that reforestation will somehow save us is a pipe dream. Those forests won’t stay healthy enough to serve as carbon sinks and besides, seven times Earth’s land area would need to be in cultivation in order to reduce the planet’s atmospheric CO2 level down to 350ppm.

Note that the Permian Mass extinction is estimated to have happened anywhere over the course of 200,000 years to 15 million years. The current 6th mass extinction is happening orders of magnitude faster due to a multitude of factors including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, chemical pollution, poaching, etc., making this current disaster very unique in Earth’s history:

The team of geologists and biologists say that our current extinction crisis is unique in Earth’s history due to four characteristics: the spread of non-native species around the world; a single species (us) taking over a significant percentage of the world’s primary production; human actions increasingly directing evolution; and the rise of something called the technosphere. – Link

Perhaps the fate of humans was written in stone once we stood upright and developed tools. To a large degree, modern technology has been an expression of the energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels we discovered and are not willingly giving up anytime soon. Once fossil fuels ignited the Industrial Revolution and the Haber–Bosch process unleashed the human population bomb, nothing could stop the deadly carbon consumption feedback loop, not even decades of scientific warnings.

From a throwback to our primate ancestors, modern humans have been hard-wired to ignore threats that are not immediate or local; global ecological overshoot(of which climate is just one aspect) is imperceptible to the real-time cognitive processing of humans and represents the ultimate under-the-radar threat able to undermine our reasoning and response:

Psychological concepts of how we view the world around us, including ‘creeping normalcy’ or ‘landscape amnesia’, block day-to-day comprehension of what accelerating human activities represent—whether it is human population, the number of dammed rivers, forest destruction, or the impact of motor car emissions in a timespan that is geologically brief. Creeping normalcy refers to slow trends concealed in noisy fluctuations that people get used to without comment, while landscape amnesia describes forgetting how different the landscape looked 20–50 years ago (Diamond 2005: 425).

In his study of how societies fail, biogeographer Jared Diamond calls global warming a pre-eminent example of a ‘slow trend concealed by wide up and down fluctuations’ (2005: 425). He likens the denial of climate change impacts by leading politicians, including former US president George W. Bush (and his contemporary John Howard in Australia), in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the elite of ‘the medieval Greenlanders [who] had similar difficulties recognizing that their climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya and Anasazi (in Central and North America) [who] had trouble discerning that theirs was becoming drier’ (2005: 425). – link

We evolved to react to imminent dangers, not slow-rolling and seemingly invisible catastrophes as an unintended consequence of our cushy lifestyle. From lofty corporate boardrooms to the filthy streets of skid row, the mass of humanity is following the same biological script of overshoot and collapse seen in every organism from bacteria to reindeer herds. Fossil fuels only enabled the destruction to multiply a million-fold, culminating in one final and spectacular explosion of human activity that will leave the planet nearly barren for eons.

Open-ended growth appears to be inherent in nature, all the way from the DNA to the arthropods to mammals, including humans. Open-ended growth is the psychology of a cancer cell. I am not sure I know of a species which has learnt how to limit its own growth. Unfortunately species which transcend their environmental resources can hardly survive – the final arbiter of the climate impasse will be nature itself. ~ Andrew Glikson, Earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University

The beauty and wonder of this planet is being trashed by a naked ape whose cleverness in tool-building has far outstripped his ability to handle it in any restrained or judicious manner. Nature’s rich book of life is being pancaked into a cheap, crumpled comic book.

Add in the development of mass consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the hypnosis of corporate-sponsored TV and you have a passive, malleable population happily marching towards the slaughterhouse. It’s fitting, then, that the masses would be swindled by a megalomaniac bankruptcy artist who dabbled in Reality TV. Every one of Trump’s cabinet picks is a big middle finger in the faces of those who fell for his pseudo-populist rhetoric: billionaires, Wall Street sharks, Goldman Sachs alumni, and hardcore laissez-faire capitalists chomping at the bit to deregulate, monetize, and privatize every last bit of what remains. The allure of capitalism has always been that you’re just one lucky break away from becoming one of those fat cats, if only someone would give you a chance. A prescient observation by Ugo Bardi from earlier this year:

Trump is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of the social pact…capitalizing on this breakdown by…playing on the attempt of the white (former) middle class to maintain at least some of its previous prosperity and privileges. Trump is…an unavoidable consequence of resource depletion. – Link

The bottom line is that a swing towards authoritarianism happens when resources become scarce. Climate change is simply a symptom of humans overshooting the planet’s carrying capacity. Free market ideologues are nearly always climate ‘skeptics’ because acknowledging the reality of human-induced climate change would be an admission that industry must be curtailed or controlled. Left-leaning people nearly always accept the science because it goes along with their criticisms of capitalism which externalizes social and environmental costs for the benefit of just a few at the top of the economic hierarchy. Thus we see parasitic Trump surrounding himself with right-wing, climate denying, fossil fuel corporatists and insiders who will be doing everything in their power to dismantle health and environmental regulations including privatizing social services which are barriers to capitalist expansion.

To be blunt, our chance of developing a sustainable culture passed us by a long time ago. People will try to adapt until they cannot, and myths will be created to explain away harsh realities. A dystopic future in all its horrific glory has arrived: baked-in biospheric collapse, the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of techno-capitalism, a dysfunctional political system unable to come to terms with root causes, and the cognitive dissonance of the masses blind to the bigger picture. Our numbers are not a safeguard from extinction.

There is No ‘Easy’ Way to Avert the Collapse of Civilization

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Six years ago David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and American writer, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization’. I got the urge to review his advice and critique how well we have followed it. Below are his abbreviated steps along with my commentary on each one:

[1.] “Try not to cough on one another.”

Over the course of numerous microbe generations amounting to a small fraction of a single human lifetime, pathogens have mutated and adapted faster than the antibiotic defenses human’s have built. Through a combination of factors—medical, social and economic—our war on pathogens is being lost, and these superbugs could be the next global pandemic. The danger grows with mankind’s expanding ecological footprint: a rising world population, the widespread use of antibacterial drugs in humans and agriculture, the speed and intensity of an international transport system, and so on. As history has shown, pandemics have always been a consequence of humans breaking down the interface between man and Earth’s wilderness. A recent study highlights this fact:

Tackling antibiotic resistance on only one front is a waste of time because resistant genes are freely crossing environmental, agricultural and clinical boundaries, new research has shown.

Analysis of historic soil archives dating back to 1923 has revealed a clear parallel between the appearance of antibiotic resistance in medicine and similar antibiotic resistant genes detected over time in agricultural soils treated with animal manure…

…”Unless we reduce use and improve stewardship across all sectors — environmental, clinical and agricultural — we don’t stand a chance of reducing antibiotic resistance in the future.”

As of yet, humans are not heeding this advice in any coordinated manner as another new study reveals that antibiotic use and resistance is increasing globally while new antibiotics discoveries have nearly halted. China and India, for instance, have poor regulatory and environmental enforcement:

The NHS is buying drugs from pharmaceutical companies in India whose dirty production methods are fueling the rise of superbugs, write Andrew Wasley & Madlen Davies. There are no checks or regulations in place to stop this happening – even though the rapid growth in antibiotic resistant bacteria in India is spreading across the world, including to the UK and NHS hospitals… government-commissioned study found superbugs would kill more people than cancer by 2050 if no action is taken, and cited pollution in pharmaceutical supply chains as a major problem. – Link

“If you want to see where resistance is occurring in animals, look across the pond to China. They play by a whole different set of rules,” he[Dr. Larry Hollis] says. “Whenever a new antibiotic is developed, the Chinese see the patent filings, figure out how to make it, and without any regulatory structure, it goes straight to animals. By the time it’s available here, the antibiotic is already showing resistance.” – Link

India is a global center of antibiotic manufacture. 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used by pharmaceutical companies worldwide, including the United States and Europe, are made in China. Following their manufacture, most of these ingredients are exported to India for processing and subsequent worldwide sale. The good manufacturing practices in China and India do not include environmental safeguards. “Unfortunately, environmental regulations are currently left up to national regulators, who are not inclined to do much. In India, the effluent discharge load of ciprofloxacin in 2007 was 45 kg per day – the amount consumed in Sweden, which has a population of 9 million, over 5 days,” said Dr. Gandra. – Link

Our hospitals can’t even keep track of how many people are dying from these superbugs. So it seems disease-carrying bacteria shall inherit the Earth, but truth be told, they have always been the dominant forms of life. A population of eight billion people provides a rich substrate for them to colonize and feed upon.

[2.] “Don’t lose things.”

In modern times there has been a large decline in hard-copy forms of record-keeping with ever more material being transferred onto digital formats, especially news reports and visual/auditory records, but the ephemeral nature of our digital media makes it prone to disappearing. Virtually all of the most useful and important artifacts of our time are digital and very little of it is intended to survive. Much of the 20th Century and beyond will be a vast gaping historical black hole except for the plastics, radiation and soot entering the geological record:

Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”…

…If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize-nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” said Abby Rumsey, a writer and digital historian. In other words if you want to save something online, you have to decide to save it. Ephemerality is built into the very architecture of the web, which was intended to be a messaging system, not a library… – Link

The slow creep of technological obsolescence or a sudden cosmic disaster like a Carrington Event could usher in a ‘Digital Dark Age’, making any historical electronic documents unreadable. Google’s Vint Cerf says we’ve grown complacent in how media is stored. He warns that we may find ourselves lost in a bit-rot future unable to access important media documents, scientific data, etc., but leaving behind any kind of record on an overheated world could be a moot point if there’s no one left to read it.

[3.] “Tell each other faster.”

Communication speed has increased exponentially with technology but the infrastructure that supports it is very vulnerable. Aside from the growing threat of cyber-attack, it’s been documented that the most common cause of communication failure is due to the destruction of physical infrastructures. Roughly 200 undersea fiber optic cables link the world’s telecommunications, but they are “poorly armored, rarely patrolled and only occasionally monitored.” The possibility of human saboteurs is ever-present for landlines as well. These systems are usually the first sites to be targeted in wars and crackdowns by authoritarian governments.

Telecommunication infrastructure is also threatened by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and severe weather which can sever cables and flood underground equipment. A study from a couple of years ago found an increase in severe weather has led to a doubling of major power outages across the country in the past decade.

Telling each other faster has not made one iota of a difference in preventing the unmitigated disaster of global warming and climate change. If after decades of climate conferences, libraries filled to the brim with studies and data, and now the imminent death of the largest organism on the planet—the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, we still cannot collectively take this existential threat seriously, then failure and death will be our just deserts.

[4.] “Mitigate tyranny.”

Hyper-nationalist movements are on the rise around the world, and they can be a precursor to authoritarianism. A country by country guide and analysis of fascism and the far right in Europe can be found here. Hyper-nationalism can lead to racism, vicious cycles of revenge, and genocide in which a segment of the population is scapegoated for society’s failures. With the appointment of Steven Bannon to Trumps’s presidential inner circle, the darkness of Trump’s worldview should be evident to most. Trump will soon have America’s militarized police forces at his behest and the world’s surveillance network at his fingertips, enabling him to act on his penchant for vindictiveness in far-reaching ways.

Trump won’t bring back coal because it would mean destroying the natural gas industry which has grown to displace the use of coal in recent years. Trump is going to learn how hard it is to change the dynamics of our energy system. Previous presidents have hit that same wall. Besides, automation is taking over all the blue-collar jobs of Trump’s supporters. All those “big league jobs” promised by Trump just went up in smoke:

…research shows that the automation of U.S. factories is a much bigger factor than foreign trade in the loss of factory jobs. A study at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research last year found that trade accounted for just 13 percent of America’s lost factory jobs. The vast majority of the lost jobs — 88 percent — were taken by robots and other homegrown factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor. – Link

[5.] “Get more brains involved in solving problems.”

Physicist Jonathan Huebner says in his study that rates of global innovations judged significant to human beings have been declining in recent decades, in fact it’s halved in the past hundred years. Joseph Tainter in his own study has come to a similar conclusion:

Over the last 40 years, the number of patents per inventor has decreased by 20% and the number of inventors per patent has increased by almost 50%. Although the quality of patents is unknown (it can not be measured quantitatively), it seems we nowadays get less bang for the buck compared to half a century ago. Larger, interdisciplinary research teams cost a lot more money as they need the support of administrative personnel and formal institutions. This decrease in productivity has been masked by the fact that the whole enterprise (research & development) has grown in absolute terms (i.e. more scientists and more money being poured into R&D). – Link

This decline in innovation is directly related to diminishing EROI of our energy resources and the limits of complexity. As Jonathan Miles said in Want Not“This is our condition. We do not solve problems. We replace them with other problems.” The myriad of crises bearing down on us defies comprehension and certainly won’t be solved by applying more of the same techno-fix thinking.

[6.] “Try not to run out of energy.”

The EROI of fossil fuels, the master resource of industrial civilization, has been in decline for some time and a recent report sheds light on this:

A new peer-reviewed study led by the Institute of Physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico has undertaken a comparative review of the EROI of all the major sources of energy that currently underpin industrial civilization—namely oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

Published in the journal Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, the scientists note that the EROI for fossil fuels has inexorably declined over a relatively short period of time: “Nowadays, the world average value EROI for hydrocarbons in the world has gone from a value of 35 to a value of 15 between 1960 and 1980.”

In other words, in just two decades, the total value of the energy being produced via fossil fuel extraction has plummeted by more than half. And it continues to decline… – Link

No other energy source has the energy density of fossil fuels and the existing alternative or “renewable” energy sources won’t power our current set of living arrangements. Although technology is extending the Fossil Fuel Age, running out of economically recoverable fossil fuels means a radical change in society, if such a thing as ‘society’ can persist in the aftermath of biospheric collapse. I suppose a seventh bullet point is in order and would say something along the lines of, “It’s an ill bird that fouls its own nest.”

Rise of the Deplorables

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Well the preprogrammed spectacle that has been the US Presidential election has finally concluded. The enormity of the result is staggering to behold, how exactly a buffoon with a third grade vocabulary can elevate himself to presumably the most powerful position in world politics boggles the mind.

Much political hand wringing awaits, as the punditry tries to make sense of their gross miscalculations, the nonstop media blitz, and the tacit realization that somehow, despite the protestations from the elitist high priests, a professional grifter has taken the top seat.


Accompanied by a rise of the correctly termed deplorables, a bolus of miscreants and malformed post-adolescent actors constituting a wave of lumpenproleteriat, swept the orange haired overlord into the center ring to claim his rightful throne. His superficial gaze ponders the land that he now lords over, a cornucopia of expansive panorama befitting a real estate baron. It is the jackpot, the mother lode, the penultimate land grab, a polity based version of accumulation by dispossession.

The alternative candidate was only marginally better.

So how does this happen? What possible explanation can be given for this outcome?

It turns out that the calculus of this is well understood, a narrative that goes back 150 years to elemental concepts of dialectic materialism and class consciousness. Viewed through the prism of class consciousness, the spectacle of Donald Trump and HRC makes perfect sense, for they are not opposites, not even opponents, they in fact occupy the same class structure. One is the unbridled face of capitalist excess, harkening back to the robber baron age of which he is a direct descendant, the other a sycophant of corporate dictate, a reliable war horse schooled in the art of fealty to the monied set. Both of the same class, he by inherited birthright and subsequent day job, she by studiously apprenticing to the political elites through a subservient career demonstrating pliability to corporate power.

Both textbook examples of the edict that money can be converted directly to social power.

But this is only part of the story, politicians are elected not by largesse and class membership, but by those that elevate them.

Irony in the extreme

It is fashionable for the left to publish scathing screeds denouncing the right wing deplorables, elitist rants that implore the gods to strike down those unworthy primates in their feeble mud huts. Why, they proclaim, we have turned the controls of the spaceship over to pooh flinging Neanderthals ransacking their disheveled Planet-of the Apes dioramas.

What is missing is a Margret Mead style field investigation to visit the deplorable on his home turf, to see him or her in situ, in their natural habitat. To do so is to witness a class decimated by opiate abuse, a cohort reduced to observer status in a consumerist driven economy-unable to participate at anything other than a token level as compared to their elitist contemporaries. A group asphyxiated by a toxic cocktail of service level jobs on the lower end of scale, counter balanced by a vastly underappreciated skilled labor component on the high end. It is this high skill level that is most misunderstood, much has been written about demeaning service jobs, the real story is not in this sector, the real story is in the upper level blue and grey collar worker. It is this group that has animated the Trump campaign

This cohort is typically not college educated, and often not exclusively white male. What it is though is productive skilled labor. On the purely blue collar side, they range from aircraft assemblers, machinists and other skilled craftsmen, to the iterant IT class, programmers, coders and mid-level technology workers.

What this group has in common is exploitation, alienation, and loss of the workmanship ideal. This coupled with an inchoate rage fanned by the fires of AM talk radio, Fox News, alt-right blogs and websites foments a misappropriated ethos of revenge, as an alienated cohort is forced to witness elites- decidedly unproductive workers- achieve high levels of undeserved success- at their expense.

These elites are living in the best houses, driving the nicest cars and fully reaping the bounty of a consumer class resplendent with trinkets and bobbles- and these people don’t know shit and they don’t do shit.

There is no greater insult in a capitalist economy than to see the spoils of plunder go to those who do nothing. And since time immemorial, this is the very essence of capitalist class exploitation, those that do the least get the most. Those of privilege subsume those without.

Deep State My Ass

Although an old story, we have at the same time amnesia and a new twist. We have lost the intellectual narrative of Das Capital, we have endured decades of abusive labor struggles, corrupted unions, and flat out wars with robber barons- and the left has lost. Labor has lost, collectivism has lost- and lost badly.

The New Deal set in motion a negotiated end to wildcat strikes and unruly pockets of labor unrest, in exchange for a social safety net and the newly formed principle of collective bargaining.

Labor disputes were to be centralized, and negotiated en masse to avoid any annoying (and costly) disruption to the capitalist class. Once so centralized, labor management was easy to co-opt, and in a few short decades was rendered impotent.

The intensity of these techniques remained vigorous during the 50’s, 60’s and early ‘70’s coinciding with the more or less chronic post war labor shortage while capital rebuilt and rolled out a highly networked system of value production. Tight labor markets confounded efforts to tamp down labor concessions- and the middle class prospered.

The laws of motion of Capital were not lost on the elites, as they moved to a neo—liberal agenda in the mid ‘70’s, specifically designed to offshore labor to low cost markets, and thwart a growing regulatory environment stateside.

This proved wildly successful (for Capital) by resetting the bar for socially necessary labor time to a new low, by using far eastern labor to dramatically undercut stateside salaries, effectively using soft power to bust labor unions. And, as any student of Marx knows, the cost of labor to Capital is driven by the cost of labor to reproduce itself, the availability of cheap foreign produced goods is consumed disproportionally by lower income workers, further enhancing the effects of globalization to benefit Capital.

These factors comprise the fundamentals of a superstructure that allows the accumulation of capital to purchase social power, and now the recipe is complete- hegemonic control over the political economy in Capital’s pursuit of unfettered value production.

This is an uncomfortable narrative for bourgeoisie economists and the punditry, they prefer to offer a new, pro-capitalist explanation for what we can observe, and they call this the Deep State. This supposedly is a secretive cabal of mysterious power brokers who operate behind the scenes to influence politics, the markets, foreign policy, and just about anything else that needs explaining.

There of course is no such thing, it’s just Capital operating with business as usual.

Early warning signs

I suppose you could trace the first spasms of the deplorables to Ned Ludd pitching his sewing machine out the third story window of 18th century England textile factory- as labor’s reaction to Capital’s scheming to suppress labor costs goes back centuries.

The first contemporary example, at least in the context of the Trump travesty, of the deplorables lashing out, is the appearance of Japanese cars in the parking lots of General Motors and Ford Motor Company, as (some) workers purchased imported cars that were better than what they were manufacturing at lower prices. The reaction from mainstream labor was swift and violent, cars were smashed by incensed co-workers as it was immediately recognized that jobs would be lost and collective labor bargaining defanged.

And of course Capital doubled down, immediately offshoring everything they could, first to the Japanese, then to the Chinese and other peripheral countries when Japanese labor rose to near US levels.

The current rise of the deplorable embodied by Trump’s supporters then is but a reconstitution of a very old sentiment, the lashing out of a cohort of the working class as they come to terms with a diffuse reality permeated with alienation, diminishing social power, and flat or declining wages. Their white collar managers are demonstrably incompetent, products of an overpriced university system turning out graduates with low level skill sets, high debt, and poor prospects for job opportunities.

To be sure, this group attracts truly unsavory subsets and species, these hangers on are not exploited worker class participants, the KKK and various and sundry white supremist groups do find common ground in the nationalist tendencies that are embedded in these movements, and one cannot discount the seriousness of these influences. But for the most part these nationalistic tendencies are reactionary, part of the inchoate response of alienation, and not deliberately predatory as is characteristic of hate groups

Media complicity

Much has been made recently of the role of the media in reporting, inaccurate polling data, the apparent rise of HRC, and the tendency to discount and even outwardly mock Trump’s rise. There are several areas to blame here, but inaccurate polling and disproportionate reporting of emails scandals are not really relevant.

One cannot forget that all the broadcast media accessible to mainstream voters are owned by Capitalist entities. They primarily make money through the sale of advertising, and nothing sells like conflict and controversy.


The instigating event to media complicity was the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This FCC policy insured that controversial subjects received fair and impartial converge by news media, and a full spectrum of competing viewpoints were to be presented by the broadcast media. The operating theory is that the airwaves were part of the publicly owned commons, and that the privatization of these airwaves could and would lead to capture of what would amount to a corporate owned propaganda tool.

Indeed, within a year of the act’s elimination, Rush Limbaugh’s show hit the AM talk radio circuit, sowing the seeds of a vast communication portal to the disenfranchised lumpen. (Limbaugh reportedly has a $70mm annual salary)

Ten years later we had the beginnings of Fox News, and the official genesis of corporate media capture for the express purpose of policy promotion and influencing elections.

The effect of these efforts was profound- the growing and increasingly vocal discontent of alienated labor was subjected to a propaganda intervention, the media tools were designed to focus this building angst to anti-government/pro-capitalist belief systems. Much of this onslaught revolves around conspiracy theories, and these media portals rely on the technique of fabricating preposterous stories, wrapped in the all knowing glow of insider only knowledge, to reassure the recipient that they are truly privileged thinkers, as they can see what only the wise can see.

All that was missing was the appearance of a strong man- preferably with television media bonafides- to step up and receive the mantle of authenticity from a fawning media hungry for click throughs and profits.

It is important to note the promotion of Stephen Brannon as a senior advisor in the Trump cabinet, this move insures that the alt-right media is directly plugged into the highest level of White House proceedings. The significance of this is that Brannon has now become a de facto Minister of Information for the Trump administration, specifically chosen to disseminate spin to the alt-right media, keeping his proto-Fascist base properly satiated.

The Trump Dominion

So what might the Trump “brand” bring to American governance? We can again view this through the lens of capitalist valorization, as without question Trump’s hyper-capitalist underpinnings will animate his presidency.

First, at the personal level we know that hyper-capitalists in powerful political positions become de facto kleptocrats, using their position to personally enrich themselves, their immediate families, and associated cronies. Look for foreign policy relationships with other kleptocrats such as Putin and Mexican president Enrique Nieto. His business entities are inseparable from his political responsibilities, so we can and should expect an explosion of cross pollinated corruption as he intermingles his empire holdings with American political gravitas.

We should expect these “leadership” qualities to normalize the prioritization of capitalist objectives over any other considerations, and this ethos will quickly trickle down through the entire business ecosystem.

Make no mistake, this election result is an unmitigated disaster for the environment, for social and financial equality, and for the planet. There may well be no recovery from this, as the take away is unbridled, runaway capitalist value production, ironically, that will have the largest negative impact on the deplorable base constituency which elected him in the first place.

To help visualize the form that his rule will likely take, we might look to Mainland China for an example of what happens when State Capitalism intersects authoritarian rule. China may be called a Communist country, but it is very clearly a State Capitalist political economy under authoritarian rule. The State is used to clear the way for capitalist expansion at all costs, no regulations for any initiative that creates value production, the deconstruction of labor into quasi-prison conditions, and plenty of accumulation by dispossession in the form of displacing rice farmers into labor camps dedicated to capitalist production.

Trump’s stated focus on trade policies contain contradictions, but we might postulate that at least some of these policies might mirror Chinese action which attempt to bias trade agreements to allow for one sided tariff systems as well as technology transfers.

A further characteristic of China’s trade policy was massive investment in internal infrastructure, a policy Trump is almost certain to pursue.

We might also expect attempts to repatriate US corporations offshore profits, stockpiled over the last 10 years as a result of quasi-legal tax dodges, as well as significant reduction in corporate tax rates.

Many of his campaign promises contain intrinsic contradictions, or outright measures not favorable to value production. This is almost always due to ignorance of the laws of motion of Capitalism, and will quickly prove untenable.

An example would be his infamous anti-immigration wall. Apparently unbeknownst to Trump, Capital requires a permanent underclass to process seasonal labor, such as migrant farm work. Other low margin industries also require an undocumented underclass that can be further exploited outside of the mainstream minimum wage and benefits systems- such as car washes, restaurants, domestic help and gardeners for the upper class.

None of these industries can support payroll at the prevailing fair market wage. You’d have $10 tomatoes and $100 car washes, which of course just won’t do. This was tried under the Reagan administration when ICE was first formed, workplace raids were soon discontinued at the bequest of Capital as soon as they proved effective. Expect the same results with Trump’s wall, which will be stillborn.

This pattern will continue with most of his campaign promises, expect tangible change only in areas where Capital is the clear winner, such as infrastructure spending which will benefit Trump’s construction cronies. The same fate awaits the vaunted unraveling of Obama care, this will be watered down and ultimately look very similar to what is currently in place.

When will the deplorables first acknowledge that they have been duped?

Revolutions and the decline of the left

This situation is directly attributable to the failure of the left. What passes for the left in this country is not really leftist, but rather progressive. This political energy has been misdirected to insidious social issues, such as whether or not plastic bags should be provided in supermarkets, Big Gulp soft drink bans, and an inordinate amount of attention to LBGT issues. I’m not suggesting these issues are without merit, just not at the current energy spend that is being allocated.

These tactics result in inflaming the value systems of the deplorables, they lash out (rightly so) at the prospect of behavioral overreach of the progressive movement, this coupled with their sanctimonious highbrow attitude delegitimizes progressive causes, and expensive political capital is expended on third tier issues.

This energy is misdirected and disproportionate, the left should stand for anti-Capitalist causes, first and foremost. The left should be demonstrating frequently and loudly with well-defined objectives and messaging, so as to become a thorn in the side of value production, and at the same time, persistently contradicting the alt-right media propaganda that tries to evangelize the Capitalist mode of production.

The center of mass of the right’s “deplorables” is largely alienated labor and this should be recognized and reinforced with consistency.

This cohort shares much in common with Bernie Sander’s coalition for example, but the media shapes the perceptions to create an adversarial identity politics. In the main, the groups share the same sensibilities, but are compartmentalized by fabricated ideologies that bear little resemblance to reality.

Certainly they do not reflect a fundamental understanding of the laws of motion of Capital value production- from either side.

Work still needs to be done by the left to comprehend new forms of value production that are rapidly materializing. Examples would be the emergence of cognitive capital, which is the production of use value without labor participation, and reputational capital, which is the occurrence of supra profits without commiserate labor value through the use of branding and vanity labeling of commodities.

Capital is rolling out new forms of exploitation faster than the left can process these changes into a coherent theory of value.

The right invests in this type of intellectual post processing through the use of corporate funded think tanks, but of course, this is not available to leftist interests for obvious reasons, so other methods must be employed, such as university level study into post Capitalist possibilities.


Next steps

Much of the misdirection of the current election is due to the inability to recognize fundamental symptoms of alienated labor. The Democrats missed it, and so did the mainstream Republicans.

Alienated labor is unquestionably the domain of anti-Capitalist ideology, this is the only group that not only recognizes the depth of the problem, but has a narrative that explains how it occurs and what to do about it.

Any suggested corrective action at the political level is going to be cold comfort to those who recognize the complete collapse of the environment that is occurring around us. We must keep in mind that it took Capital 400 years to get to this point, and it will not be erased overnight excepting some planet scale calamity- which we cannot of course rule out.

But political level initiatives can prove effective in the meantime.

If the focus is kept on discouraging value production and dismantling socially necessary labor time, inroads can be made against the Capitalist mode of production.

Some tactics to achieve this are to shift focus to the point of realization, which is to attack Capital from the retail front. Some of these measures start out as Pollyannaish, such as don’t shop at chain stores, use credit unions not banks, do not use credit cards, look to buy commodity goods from businesses organized as collectives whenever possible.

But quickly we can see some areas that offer the potential for concrete change, if you feel you can start a business do so, but do so as a collective, e.g. structure the business to return profits in an equitable distribution to employees. This collapses the class structure and eliminates exploitation in a shift away from the principle of socially necessary labor time.

A compilation of such businesses at the community scale can then extend favorable conditions to supply chain partners that are also collectives, and non-favorable terms to traditional corporate models, whenever possible.

To promote these types of entities beyond a given community, state wide tax incentives can be used to encourage the creation and operation of collectives. One strategy might be to allow these businesses to operate tax free, while traditional corporate structures have to pay full freight.

Initiatives that support privatization in any form should be vigorously opposed- and protested. Examples would be the obvious attempts to privatize social security, national parks, etc., but awareness and activism should also extend to resisting privatization of intellectual property as well, such as attempts to extend the duration of protection on utility patents, new efforts to privatize internet IP, and drug compound monopolization- to name but a few.

This is a grass roots style build out, when successful at the state or regional level, this can expand to the national level, where with sufficient political strength, more substantial measures can be deployed to discourage traditional corporate value production. Examples might be limiting businesses to less than 500 employees maximum, by applying draconian tax structures when these employment numbers are exceeded.

Longer term, energy production should be nationalized, as well as the financial system.

Taken as an integrated system, these measures redirect, however slowly, towards a more equitable system that ultimately can be based on needs production, instead of the bottomless pit of value production.

Or we can just wait until the next election.

 

Some Fun Facts for a Dystopic Future

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“When you cannot feed your children, you will do anything, even if it means going to war. This is the reality of climate change.” ~ Dr. James Orbinski

80% of the world’s productive agricultural land is in river deltas which are vulnerable to flooding from storm and tidal surges as well as salt penetration inland –as much as 20 km in some cases. Just 1 meter(3.28ft) of sea level rise(SLR) would threaten one third of this food-producing land and render nearly all the barrier islands of the world uninhabitable. (Overly-)Conservative estimates from the IPCC in 2013 predicted 1m of SLR rise by 2100, but the last two decades have seen global sea level increase more than twice as fast as it did in the 20th Century and only recently have scientists realized the true rate of SLR has been grossly underestimated(here and here). James Hansen (et al) has argued all along that 5 meters of sea level rise by the end of the century is possible, taking decades to happen rather than centuries. They conclude that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous consensus estimates. The last time CO2 levels were at 400ppm was during the Pliocene Era when sea level was 5 to 40m higher (16-131ft); unfortunately, Earth is warming 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. Professor Harold R. Wanless who has studied the geologic sedimentary record says that we are in for a nasty surprise within this century:

Most of the models projecting future sea level rise assume a gradual acceleration of sea level rise through this century and beyond as ice melt gradually accelerates. Our knowledge of how sea level rose out of the past ice age paints a very different picture of sea level response to climate change. At the depth of the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, sea level was some 420 feet below present level as ice was taken up by large continental ice sheets. Subsequent ice melt was not a gradual acceleration and then deceleration process. Rather it was a series of very rapid pulses of sea level rise followed by pauses. These rapid pulses of rise, from three to thirty feet, were fast enough to leave drowned reefs, sandy barrier islands, tidal inlet deltas, and other coastal deposits abandoned across the continental shelf. That is what happens when climate change warms enough to destabilize some ice sheet sector. It rapidly disintegrates, resulting in a rapid rise.

We are already witnessing the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, the oldest and largest living organism on the planet, which continues to suffer the lethal effects of a warming and acidifying ocean. We’ve destroyed the planet’s air conditioner in the Arctic and set the stage for an impending Blue Ocean Event where 24 hours a day of summer sunlight penetrating the uncovered dark Arctic waters will create another tipping point for runaway climate change. The Arctic climate is changing so fast science can barely keep track of what’s happening or predict global consequences. On top of this, nature’s carbon sinks have been severely weakened over the last few centuries, hindering the ability of the planet to absorb ever-increasing greenhouse gases. And these things are happening before a large destructive pulse of SLR hits the planet.

History has proven considerably worse than the Club of Rome’s projections. The original report made only passing reference to some of the most critical environmental problems of today. In response to this, the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified a set of nine ecological processes regulating land/ocean/atmosphere and their accompanying boundaries within which humans must stay to avoid biospheric collapse. In 2015, researchers found that four of these planetary boundaries had already been breached: biodiversity loss, damage to phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, climate change and land use. None of these critical boundaries were picked up by the original Limits to Growth report. We have destroyed the stability of the Holocene Epoch and continue to wreak havoc with every passing day. In other words, there are many other environmental crises too numerous to list that are coming to a head, and catastrophic sea level rise is just the icing on the burned cake. The last time Earth had such a disruptive species, cyanobacteria altered the atmosphere and killed off all the anaerobic life forms including itself. Ironically, oxygen was the byproduct of the cyanobacteria that proved lethal to those ancient lifeforms and paved the way for the rise of photosynthetic organisms. The cyanobacteria had a 500 million year run, but modern man has only been around for 0.01% of that time. Our large brain has made it possible for us to destroy ourselves in record time.

Global warming is happening 5,000 times faster than a major food source can adapt. As the global monoculture food system breaks down and leaves vulnerable Third World countries to fend for themselves, I expect the last remaining vertebrates to be hunted to extinction in short order while wealthy nations carry out land grabs in an effort to keep their citizens fed. Humans are pushing all other life off the planet; the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ is not a metaphor.

So you would think that these stark facts laid out before us would be causing panic in the global markets and seats of power around the world because, clearly, no one is safe from this unfolding apocalypse. In what many call the ‘most powerful nation on Earth’, surely a leader must be on the verge of taking the helm of this sinking ship. In any rational world, they would be compelled to battle this planetary emergency with the war-time urgency it demands. In the election year of 2016 there are only two prospects in our corporatocracy, one of whom is so frightening that hundreds of the world’s scientists felt compelled to issue a warning against his possible election. The other candidate seems much more palatable on the surface, but her record and recent emails illustrate just how tortured her positions are on environmental issues. Anyone who has studied the numerous practices that make modern civilization truly unsustainable, the depths of corruption and waste in its global socio-economic system, and how predatory one has to be in order to survive and “succeed’ in it realizes in the end that it wouldn’t matter much who fills that figurehead position. Toeing the line of the dominant culture is a prerequisite for the job. That’s one reason why nations are building walls in response to climate change refugees and putting faith in unproven and unrealistic techno-fixes to save themselves while at the same time drilling for new oil, financing new coal plants, allowing climate goals for corporations to add up to only a quarter of the amount needed to limit warming to 2°C, and giving the shipping industry a pass on curbing its emissions(if shipping was a country it would be the world’s 8th biggest carbon polluter).

Meanwhile, CO2 levels continue to climb at breakneck speed and recent paleoclimate research indicates today’s greenhouse gas levels could produce a ‘game over’ warming of 7°C within our lifetime. We already have no carbon budget left for a 1.5°C warming limit from 2017 onwards. We’re betting our species’ future on vaporware, and no country on Earth is taking the 2°C climate target seriously. Celebrity breakups get more attention than real threats to the continuation of our species. Apocalypse tourism has become a ‘thing’.

The biosphere is collapsing under the weight of 7.5 billion people living off the combustion of a one time endowment of ancient carbon energy, from the factory-farmed produce they eat to the petroleum-based medical supplies that keep them alive. And global population growth may be accelerating at an even greater rate than recent predictions. As Germany has shown, “renewable energies” are nothing more than ‘fossil fuel extenders’ still wedded to fossil-fueled extraction processes for the production and maintenance of those technologies. It’s a shell game of sorts. Industrialized countries will say their carbon footprint has gone down without telling you they’ve moved their dirty industrial operations to Third World countries. Developing countries will make promises of “green growth” while their state-owned banks and companies expand fossil fuel production overseas. We’ve been fooling ourselves for a very long time about what is truly sustainable and will continue to do so as the system falls apart, geoengineering fixes are applied, interstellar space colonization fantasies are dreamed up, and wars are fought for what remains. Humans have constructed a reality incompatible with the well-being of the natural world and the stability of the biosphere, but we won’t be able to escape the rules of physics, chemistry, and biology. We’ve spent generations making the bed we’re going to be lying in, never realizing it’s also our death bed. Time is not on our side.

Most are not listening and our leaders are misleading, so it bears repeating: ‘The Oil Age’ made us all confident idiots with short attention spans. To both candidates: runaway, catastrophic climate change resulting in loss of habitat and mass starvation is our biggest threat.

 

Update 11-10-2016:

The proles have now elected a man who has put a climate science denier in charge of his EPA team, vowed to kill the Paris climate deal, end all efforts to help other countries deal with climate change, stop domestic climate action, reinvigorate coal, and zero out all climate science research & clean energy, but physics doesn’t really care who was elected.

Checkmate

By TDoS
Crossposted from Prayforcalamity

Streams of sunlight find every break in the tree canopy and beam downward, electrifying the dry leaf litter that covers the ground. Our steps are slow. My daughter is twenty five pounds and the hiking pack I carry her in is probably another five which makes the up and down slopes a significant physical endeavor. Staring always at the ground near my feet, the grays and browns flecked with green and lavender make a Renoir of the forest floor, and somewhere in that morass of color there are morel mushrooms. There must be.

We take a break on a shady hillside and my daughter walks about learning the world with her mother close behind. Bear cone sprouts in abundance from nearby oak roots tricking my eye for a quick moment, making me think I have stumbled onto a mushroom bonanza. Early settlers called it Squaw Root due to the fact that the native women used it medicinally for various menopausal or hemmoragic reasons. I prefer its other name. Bear cone doesn’t care what we call it. Every four years it rises to seed itself before continuing its parasitic relationship with whichever oak tree’s root system it has settled on. Maybe we should call it “Election Root,” or “Democracy Root.” There are no more bears here to eat it, after all.

Warm days came too fast. The ticks have been worse than I have ever known them. I already have melons and summer squash planted in the garden. The climate will continue to erase established patterns, and we will continue to take mental notes on the small details of our surroundings hoping to figure out just where it is taking us. Not until a few days ago did enough rain come to cool our temperatures back to something close to normal, and the land seems grateful, lush, green.

There is a question I have wrestled with for years, and which I have at times presented in my writings here. That question is essentially this: How do we destroy a thing on which we are reliant? Industrial civilization will destroy the ability of the planet to harbor life. Whether we look at climate change, topsoil loss, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, oceanic acidification and oxygen depletion, toxification of landbases, etc. we see an accelerating trend by which human industrial civilization is rendering the planet inhospitable to life, all in an attempt to boost the carrying capacity of the planet in regards only to homo sapien life. Some of these crises are so firmly established that there is seemingly no way to now cease them or to reverse the damage done. Others seem to still present a window of opportunity to intervene for the protection of viable habitat. Such interventions seem as though they must come in a form that accomplishes the near immediate halting of many if not all industrial processes, but also a dramatic alteration in the standing mythology people have concerning themselves, their societies, and where they as a species are to exist within the greater context of the living world. That is a tall order indeed.

Meanwhile, billions of human beings now rely on industrial systems to provide them with every single thing they require for survival, from basic water and sanitation to food, shelter, and medical care. How does one begin to convince these billions of people to destroy the systems they rely on? How does one begin to convince these billions of people that it is in fact, in their best interests to see that the permanence of the long term damage being wrought by these systems is not nearly worth the short term gains achieved by employing them? If the billions of people were even thusly convinced, could they even do anything about it? At what level are these billions thoroughly captive to the handfuls of humans who hold political and economic power? After all, knowing is nothing if cannot be followed by some level of doing. Is it fair to say that we are living in checkmate? Have the powers that be already won the game? Is there any move left that the populace or even some subset could make that doesn’t already have a preset counter-move lying in wait that the powerful can successfully respond with?

At times it feels as if this is the case.

I have heard people question whether or not the rich and the powerful understand that the fate of the Earth includes them and their children as well. How is it that in boardrooms and government buildings the people who have various levels of control over the systems of capital and state do not find satisfaction with their wealth and power, and then having driven us so close to the brink take contentedness with their status and finally declare, “Enough!” Why do they not look at the faces of their grandchildren and finally push the big red button that grinds the assembly line to a halt and opens up that bit of space we need to remake the world in a way that doesn’t base itself on ecocide?

And then I think, perhaps we are not living in checkmate, but a stalemate. We are in a condition in which there is no plausible move for either side. This happens in chess when a player cannot make any move because each available option opens them up to certain loss. Looking on the human subplots that round the globe it often looks like this is our condition. The populace can make no move against the state or capital without opening themselves up to certain destruction by those forces. State and capital cannot unmake their machinations without opening themselves up to certain destruction by either the masses, or more likely, by those other members of the ruling cabals. Too many contingencies have been built into the system. Too many continuity of government plans.

Imagine an M.C. Escher sketch of a Mexican stand off with apocalyptic implications.

It is in this spirit that I suggest we are post ideological fidelity. Or more simply put, we must embrace the contradiction. In the broadest of terms, we must bite the hand that feeds, taking swings and jabs at the mechanics and infrastructure of industrial civilization even as we need it and liberally make use of it. We must ignore all wails and shrieks of “hypocrisy!” as purity has become impossible, and the commandments of logic and reason that were carved into stone during an age of expanding excess are turned on their head. The actions and behaviors that such times demand are not ever going to palatable to a crowd whose notions of sensibility or righteousness were forged during an expanse of time when an increase in access to material goods was axiomatic.

To be blunt, what we need is for someone to shut this motherfucker down and to let the chips fall where they may no matter what that might mean, as long as it opens up some small possibility of a future in which the Earth can heal and the survivors, human and non, can establish themselves anew. This is the dark, adult truth as best as I can surmise it, and it is no less terrifying for me than for anyone else. My world orbits around a two year old girl. But all of my desire to see her grow into a happy and healthy women cannot convince me to look away from the abyss. I clutch her smallness and hold her deeply, knowing that the love that overflows from me for this small person is no different, no greater, no more important than the love that every parent has ever felt for their children. We walk hand in hand through the forest, and I wonder which is worse, industrial civilization collapsing tomorrow, or industrial civilization continuing unabated, thrashing and writhing as it burns up the last of the coal and the oil bringing us an ice free Arctic, drought, dust bowls, burned forests, dead oceans. What is my responsibility to her?

Catalhoyuk is often referred to as the “egalitarian civilization.” A neolithic settlement in what is now Turkey, it was active between 7500 and 5600 BC. The population probably rested around seven thousand people and peaked at perhaps ten thousand. What fascinates most people about Catalhoyuk is that there is no real evidence of a tiered society of classes. The interconnected network of mud brick rooms in which people resided offer no clues to a hierarchy or priestly class. More interestingly, the human remains found buried at Catalhoyuk reveal that women were as well fed as men. Buried remains do see to suggest that perhaps there was some sort of division of labor cut along gender lines, as the men are buried with stone axes and the women buried with spinning whorls.

This small civilization that existed on the boundary of the paleolithic era is the foil of anti-civ suggestion. When anti-civ proponents suggest that city based societies ultimately outstrip their land base with agriculture and inevitably create hierarchies which lead to social stratification, expansion, war, and ecological decimation, there are critics who counter, “But not at Catalhoyuk!”

Catalhoyuk is anthropologically interesting, however it is also not completely understood. Personally, I find this ancient city fascinating because it straddled the line between the inception and outright implementation of the civilized project. Murals uncovered on the walls of Catalhoyuk depict now extinct aurochs. Cattle skulls were mounted on the walls. The population of Catalhoyuk was not completely dependent upon agriculture. They grew wheat and barely and domesticated sheep, but they gathered fruits and nuts from the hills and their meat was primarily attained through hunting.

In a sense, Catalhoyuk is the half step between tribal and civilized living. Thought of in this way, it makes me wonder what such a half step would look like only moving in the opposite direction. If we were somehow able to uncivilize ourselves in a proactive fashion, what would the halfway point between here and there look like? Is such a proposition even remotely feasible? At Catalhoyuk, a thriving and unpoisoned wild still existed on the periphery. Food was still making itself in abundance beyond the city walls. Water wasn’t laden with the heavy metals and carcinogens of industry. The path towards civilization has so many emergency exits, and indeed, peoples around the world chose to walk through them when the efforts required to maintain a massive and dense city life was fully recognized. The Maya, the Hohokam, and the people of Gobekli Tepe are examples of such.

Abandoning civilization offers no easy exits. Indigenous tribes that still exist around the globe are constantly fighting to resist enclosure. Individuals who reside within the wealthy nations are falling ever so gradually under the iron grip of high technology while slowly their bodily integrity is assaulted by increasingly artificial food, man made carcinogens, radiation, and stress. The global poor are not quite so lucky, and suffer a brutal and merciless poverty of overcrowding, lack of sanitation, hunger, and hopelessness.

Optimists continually posit that there is a move we can yet make, something political or revolutionary whereby the ruling class can be ousted, and sane, empathetic and ecologically conscious people can be put in their place. In this, optimists are suggesting that if we can just coordinate and organize all of the human community, perhaps through social media and awareness campaigns, that there is some move left on the field to be played. At best they believe we can break the stalemate. At worst, they fail to realize, we already lost. Either the game is over and our opponents gloat, or we are deadlocked, staring down bewildered by the configuration of pieces while our opponents recognize the peril of our position and make their own plans for when the game board inevitably gets tossed from the table.

And that, my friend, is I believe our conundrum. There is no easy exit, no half way point on the road home to a sustainable and ecologically integrated way of living. There is a grinding and terminal lock which will only be upset by calamity. If this is truly our context, then I forgive now anyone who works to foment that upset. We are left without ethical or even seemingly rationally consistent options. Doing nothing is safe in the individual’s near term, and a death sentence generationally. Doing something means using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and doing so unflinchingly, even if they are slave-made, purchased from Wal-Mart and wrapped in so much plastic. I forgive the gasoline used to sabotage the pipeline. I forgive the miles driven to dismantle the power plant. I forgive the hours spent wearing a suit and tie working for quarterly gains when the income is spent on bolt cutters, angle grinders, sledgehammers, or acetylene torches.

Nothing makes sense. We don’t have the luxury of purity.

Three feet into the wet clay Earth, my shovel is pulled by a suction of water and weight, and I fight it upwards before dumping the saturated brown mud along the fence line. When the shape of the hole matches the shape of the black pond liner, I wipe my brow. It is May first, and the sun is oppressive in the clearing where we have our garden. Soon our baby ducks will live outside and use this pond for water in between running about and clearing my plants of snails and slugs. Usually I would only just be planting tomatoes, if not holding off yet another week, but alas, they have been in the ground for two weeks now.

Apparently methane is bulging up from beneath the sea floor off of the coast of Siberia. The Greenland ice sheet’s summer melt began early and violently this year. Upwards of ninety-three percent of the Great Barrier reef has suffered a bleaching event. A massive drought is devastating India where water is under guard. Venezuela is experiencing a full blown economic and political collapse as power is rationed in part due to the failure of rains leading to a failure of hydroelectric dams. It is hard to not feel that the headlines of global strife are more frequent, more dire.

Night falls and my daughter and I sit in the darkness of our home, staring out at the blackness, smiling as flashes of lightning give us glimpses of the forest. Thunder rolls and she smiles at me. I smile back, and we wait.

The Stark Realities of Baked-In Catastrophes

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Joe-Webb-Greetings-From-California

In a civilization gone mad with delusions of grandeur, we’re left with tatters of human sociability held together by rancid mythologies.

Despite human fossil fuel burning recently reported to be “flat”, CO2 levels have been on a tear for the last six months, reaching new worrying levels which have some wondering whether permafrost melt may be contributing to the unusually high spike if no decline happens soon. The giant holes in Siberia serve as an ominous sign. Considering that the current El Niño is contributing only 10% to what we are now seeing, runaway global warming may be accelerating worldwide. But don’t worry, Warren Buffett says climate change is no more of a problem than the Y2K bug and will be profitable through increased premiums and inflation.

Ever dire studies continue to reaffirm worst case scenarios, making clear to anyone paying attention that Earth in the next century will be unrecognizable from its current state. Basic planetary geography and atmospheric conditions will be altered through warming oceans and rising sea levels which are now increasing faster than at any time in the past 2800 years. On average, sea levels were between 50 and 82 feet higher the last time CO2 levels were at 400ppm. Glaciologist Jason Box expects ice melt from the West Antarctic to become the biggest contributor to sea level rise in the coming decades due to a feedback loop not in the climate models. CO2 levels have been increasing around 3ppm per year, a twentyfold increase since pre-industrial times when the highest recorded increase was 0.15 ppm per year. We’ve long since passed the tipping point of melting Arctic summer sea ice; 300-350 ppm of CO2 was the threshold for many parts of the climate. These changes are irreversible on a timescale of human civilizations. Even if all human industrial activity magically ceased today, the footprint man has already left will be felt for eons.

In our warming world, the hydrologic cycle is changing and creating extreme weather; crop-destroying droughts and floods are becoming more frequent. The Jet Stream is transforming into something different, becoming wavier with higher ridges and troughs prone to stagnating in the same region. As global temperatures rise over time, hotter air will be trapped under these layers of high pressure from a mangled Jet Stream, cooking everything to death. Rising winter temperatures are beginning to destroy the “winter chill” needed for many fruit and nut trees to properly blossom and produce maximally. Climate change is also disrupting flower pollination and pushing fish toward the North/South poles, robbing poorer countries at the equator of crucial food resources. In a new study, marine scientists are surprised to find a disturbing trend in the increasing numbers of a specific type of phytoplankton, coccolithophores, which have been “typically more abundant during Earth’s warm interglacial and high CO2 periods.”

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Homo sapiens have only been on the planet for the equivalent of a few seconds in geologic time but have managed to overwhelm and foul up all of earth’s natural processes and interdependencies, leaving a distinct layer in the sedimentary record. There is nothing modern humans do that is truly sustainable. Here are a few glaring examples:

No amount of reafforestation or growing of new trees will ultimately off-set continuing CO2 emissions due to environmental constraints on plant growth and the large amounts of remaining fossil fuel reserves,” Mackey says. “Unfortunately there is no option but to cut fossil fuel emissions deeply as about a third of the CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 2 to 20 millennia.

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Relying on machines for answers to the existential problems of a species run amok with planet-destroying tools and weaponry is rather ironic and tragic. We’re locked-up inside a complexity trap of our own making. The human propensity for tool-building coupled with our discovery of fossil fuels has created a set of living arrangements in which we are now enslaved to those machines and tools. The globalized capitalist economy externalizes its destruction and atrocities, keeping the masses in a state of ignorance and denial. Our corporate overlords are not conscientious citizens, but mindless organizations whose sole purpose is to grow profits no matter the external damage done to society and the environment. Between the economic oil hitmen who ensure that profits flow smoothly and GOP politicians who openly espouse their science illiteracy, a hospitable climate for future humans seems remote. Hopeful delusions have given way to the stark reality of our predicament as scholars like Noam Chomsky who originally started his career fighting for a modicum of social justice have now set the bar at just the chance of human survival. Despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and activists, the wealthy countries most able to do something won’t “get it” until famine, disease, and war come to their country. All is being left for the almighty ‘free market’ to sort out at the same time that climate change, a conflict multiplier, ramps up.

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The sixth mass extinction gathers steam and climate inertia works to catch up to the catastrophic ecological collapse already baked-in. All the while, modern man engages in the spectacle of tribal politics(building walls, exuding military strength, recapturing past glories of their nation) and presidential candidates discuss the size of their penis.

For those who come to understand modern man’s predicament, it can either be the ultimate mind fuck or an epiphany that helps a person appreciate the fragility of life, the urgency of living in the here and now, and the grand cosmic joke of a global, hi-tech civilization that arose from the burning of ancient fossil remains only to have those fumes become a deadly curse, extinguishing any trace of our lofty accomplishments…

The fossil record, Plotnick points out, is much more durable than any human record.

As humanity has evolved, our methods of recording information have become ever more ephemeral,” he said. “Clay tablets last longer than books. And who today can read an 8-inch floppy?” he shrugged. “If we put everything on electronic media, will those records exist in a million years? The fossils will.
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A Demon Haunted World

Cross posted from PrayforCalamity
by TDoS

She picks up a stick. Her two year old hands are pristine, without callouses. Standing straight up she begins to walk forward on the path that leads along a ridge line deep into the forest. On uneven ground her steps still betray a clumsiness, but she overwhelms her lack of experience with exuberance and then turns to see me walking a few steps behind her.

“Dada get a big stick?”

She wants me to use a hiking stick as well. Last year I would carry her in a hiking pack, and I would use a large stick for support as I navigated slopes and downed tree trunks. Now she imitates the habit using the small bit of hickory in her hand, poking the ground with it as she walks, and she expects me to do so as well.

“You want me to find a hiking stick?”
“Uh huh.”
“How about this one?”

Leaning over I pick up a bowed piece of a fallen branch and proceed to snap off the twigs that jut from it in crooked tangles. It is a brittle piece of wood and suffices as more of an accessory than anything, but my daughter is happy that we are now both equipped for our walk. She turns once more down the path. A two year old girl takes confident steps with her hiking stick in one hand, and a plastic pink magic wand in the other. We are going out in search of fairies, and she flat refuses to embark on such an adventure without her wand.

Economic collapse finds itself a popular plot device across a broad spectrum of the internet. Those who anticipate such a collapse monitor the details of international trade, noting the ups and downs of stock and bond markets, currency values, volatility and shipping indices. Economic collapse is one of those concepts that is out the door and around the world generating hype, fear, and sales of pocket knives before anyone who would take the time to explore its value can even settle into an armchair. As with so many other premises and cliches we are bombarded with, most people take for granted that the economy is even a thing.

In 1776 Adam Smith published his magnum opus, “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” in which Smith establishes the now firmly entrenched and wholly mythical notion that barter societies preceded the invention of money, which was an inevitable progression due to its efficiency at facilitating trade. In “Nations,” Smith also establishes the idea that the economy is even a thing that exists and that can be studied. Of course, it will be men like himself that are capable of doing the studying and imparting their wisdom onto the world. It is quite a ruse, if you think about it, inventing a specter and then inventing the business of studying it.

When we speak of “the economy,” what are we even talking about? The Dow Jones Industrial? The S&P 500? Or are we merely speaking of some amalgamation of the habits and behaviors of humans which combine to provide for our daily acquisition of needs? It may seem silly to question because it is such a prevalent notion in this culture, but for the majority of human existence, there was no economy. It was an idea that had to be invented, and now, there are whole academic wings dedicated to the maintenance of the idea, as well as sections in newspapers and channels on television focused solely on its changing winds. Those who lord over such institutions have their charts and maps and a host of methods for describing the economy to everyone else. At times, they speak of their trade as a science, which would lead one to believe that the thing which they observe is predictable, that they could establish some level of capable control over it. At other times, the economy is a wild thing, and it moves and thrashes of its own chaotic will like a storm squall.

So people watch the signs. They generate charts. They consult the experts. Some believe that the economy, despite its tantrums, is an all loving God that will always rise again, and so they tithe. Others believe the economy is a false idol set to feast on the souls of the avaricious or the merely ignorant, and so they prepare.

As someone who long ago came to the conclusion that the civilized method of human organization is one that is always bound to fail, I have many times put forth the suggestion that we need to transition into living arrangements that do not rely on the creation of cities. This is all to say, I have an anti-civilzation philosophy, which to the uninitiated perhaps seems extreme or absurd. Consider quickly, this definition of civilization offered by wikipedia:

A civilization is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite. Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.

To be against civilization is not to be in favor of some inhumanity towards others, but simply to believe that urban development, infinite growth, ecological destruction, social stratification, agriculture, etc. are ultimately unsustainable pursuits that are dooming our possibility of existing very far into the future. Further, the anthropocentrism inherent in such societies results in the widespread extirpation of the other beings with who we share this planet.

Suggesting that we abandon, once and for all, the project of civilization is often met with a buffet of criticisms. That civilization gave us the sciences, and the sciences – usually now expressed simply as Science! – gave us a candle in an otherwise dark, demon haunted world, is usually proffered as reason enough for humanity to continue on a civilized trajectory. Critics of anti-civ ideas would have us believe that as primitive people we lived in constant fear of disembodied spirits that stalked and haunted us, manifesting as sickness and death that we could not otherwise explain. Science! they claim, was a great demon slayer that has brought illumination in the form of germ theory and biology, and thanks to optics of all kinds, both micro and telescope, we can see that the universe both minute and macro is not subject to god or djinn, not spirit or elemental but merely to the wind of a grand mechanical clock of subatomic particles and fundamental forces.

What light! It bathes us in such cleansing luminance! Fear not as you walk through the world sons of Ptolemy and daughters of Hypatia!

Now check your stocks. There are movement in the markets. How is your 401K?

More is happening in the space around you than you can possibly imagine. Your body is equipped with various sensory abilities that allow you to gather information about the world around you, and this information is used to generate a picture of existence that you as a biological entity can use to go forth and attain your survival. This picture exists in your mind only, and it is further shaped and formed by your particular biological makeup, as well as the cultural programming that you have been inculcated with since birth.

The world you see is not the world I see, let alone, is not the world an owl, or a butterfly, or a snap pea sees. Human societies have a habit of claiming that through their sciences that have been able to package and interpret reality as it is. The fun sets in when we notice that each of these societies that has claimed such a handle on reality have all, in fact, had different descriptions of reality.

Again, more is happening around us than we could know. We are filtering. We are constructing from the pieces we capture. We are naming and simplifying and manufacturing volumes of symbols. In a sense, we must do so so as not to be crippled by the overwhelming weight of all that we experience. But ultimately, more is not included in our picture of the world than is included. The cutting room floor actually contains more reality than the final film playing out in our heads.

It is this understanding that stays my hand when others might wave theirs in dismissal of the disembodied phenomena that live outside of the lens we in the modern industrial world currently use to view our surroundings. Those who fear the crumbling of the city walls for what hordes of demons might come rushing in like a torrent to corrupt our understandings so finely crafted over centuries of weighing and measuring might do well to look around and see which demons already stalk the streets and halls. We have traded one set of lesser gods for another. You many not make offerings to the spirits of rain after holding the dry dirt in your fingers, but your faith in tomorrow’s full stomach might have you watching for a little green triangle to come drifting across a stock ticker. Where a few centuries ago a geomancer may have cast a chart that relied on the anima mundi – or soul of the Earth – for its answers, today’s economists are numerologists drawing meaning from the staggered lines that connect disparate values of commodities and currencies, hoping to tease from it all some prediction about future well being.

Am I attempting to claim that germs do not exist? Of course not. Am I attempting to claim that science has produced nothing of value? Of course not. I am simply suggesting that civilized life has not rid the world of demons, but merely shifted the demons we concern ourselves with. Priests have not gone out of fashion, to be sure, they just wear a different costume and spin incantations of a new variety. This class of priests extends far beyond the realm of economics, and the demons they promise to exorcise can be found anywhere uncertainty and fear have taken root. The simple fact is that life is a dangerous pursuit, and we all enter into it with a debt. We owe our lives and will all be held to account sooner or later. If we do not create cultures capable of accepting this most basic truth, we will invariably create cultures that attempt to mitigate our fear of death with palliatives. The palliative du jour in our particular civilization is technological domination of the ecological systems of the Earth, and it is this behavior that is responsible for the variety of cataclysms now unfolding globally. Sea ice melt, top soil loss, forest die offs, oceanic dead zones, mass extinction of species, climatic disruption; all have now long passed the formative stage and are well underway.

But so afraid of the dark beyond the city gates, the civilized world clings to their neon gods. They pray to markets and justice, progress and innovation. The Maya may have found it prudent to sacrifice some humans, perhaps by throwing them into a cenote or by letting the blood of a Pok-ta-tok victor to replenish the vigor of the tree of life. We modern civilized are far more sophisticated, and instead sacrifice the salamander, the Ash tree, the island chain, the clean flowing river, the indigenous tribe, or the global poor.

If we refuse to defecate in the river because we consider the water sacred and believe it contains within it a spirit of its own, does it matter? The water runs clean. If we continue to clear cut jungles so as to mine for rare Earth metals using diesel fuel and laborers fed mono-crops all because we believe that technology will somehow repair the wounds we have inflicted on the living planet, can we really claim that our demon free world is now safer?

She kicks up leaves as she walks.

“Shh!” I crouch low, squatting on my hams and I tap my ear with a forefinger. “Listen.” My daughter emulates my posture and I cannot help but smile. She looks out into the mass of trees before us. I whisper when I ask her if she sees any fairies, and she whispers her replies.

“Yes.”
“How many?”
“Two fairies.”
“What color are they?”
“Blue.”

The afternoon sunlight is gold as it falls all around us. We stay there a while and I tell her that we must not disturb the fairies. We tell them that we are not there to do them any harm. We are nice people, we assure them. We hope that they are safe in the forest and we wish them well in their endeavors. After all, the forest can also be home to goblins, which is why I am glad my daughter has her wand.

Tribute to the City

Cross Posted from Prayforcalamity
by TDoS

The vernal equinox has come and passed and with it the official start of spring is here in the northern hemisphere. Across the countryside Jane Magnolia trees have awoken. Their hundreds of fingers each cupping rose colored blooms like candles, as if they were so many tiny lavender hands offering up communion to the sun. Daffodils peer out of the hillside clearings like periscopes or perhaps yellow gramophones all playing a song of rebirth to call back the songbirds and honeybees. The energy sequestered in the root-balls and mycelium mats as the land went to sleep the last few months has begun surging upward, and it is hard to not feel it flowing through me as I walk my land taking stock of which fruit trees and berry bushes are producing buds. A good friend of mine, and mentor, once told me that I am doing well if I can establish two fruit trees per year. Looking at my spread of apple trees, it looks like I am on track to have done well in that regard. My partner does all of the work to care for our bee hive, and after donning her protective veil for a spring inspection, she reported to me that the hive is in great condition. I have heard it said that bees surviving the winter is what converts one from a bee-haver into a bee-keeper.

Our garden calls for much attention, and each week I spread a truck load of wood chips on the walking paths, which were first covered with flattened cardboard. Hopefully this effort will buy me a few years of relatively weed free walkways. Mint is returning with a vigor, and the strawberry leaves are vibrantly green. Kale, spinach, beets, and parsnips have been seeded, and I am keeping a keen eye for the first asparagus shoots. This year I have to grow significantly more food than I have in the past, as my partner is returning to work full time and I will be staying home during the week days with our daughter. In the short term we will have less money, but I will have more time to attend to tasks around the homestead. Walking through the garden brings me such a deep sense of calm as I talk to the plants and lose myself in my many tasks. Starting seeds is a great way to practice slowing oneself down, especially small seeds that tend to stick together like those of tomatoes and carrots.

I find myself happy as the sun tans my shoulders and a red tailed hawk cries from its nest somewhere high up in the trees behind me.

February was the warmest month in recorded history. The record it broke for such crowning glory had been set in December. February temperatures saw the Earth cross the two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial average barrier that has been established as a hard danger zone by climate scientists. It was an anomaly, for now, but one that is likely to rear itself again and again. The most dramatic warming has been in the Arctic, which bodes ill for jet stream patterns as well as summer sea ice coverage. Time will tell if we see our first ice free Arctic this summer. Somehow the magnitude of the crisis of climate change still seems to evade most general discourse despite the pomp and show of the electoral season now in bloom in the US. There are lots of grand promises being hurled at the public about bringing manufacturing jobs back stateside. If that is not the dictionary definition of cognitive dissonance then I do not know what is. Industrialism long ago set us on a crash course with calamity, and now that the calamity has begun to rain down upon the world in the form of mega droughts, fires, famines, and super-storms, those angling for positions of power are promising more industrialism.

Of course, it is not even a job in a factory per se that most Americans dwelling in the rust belt actually want, it is a secure living situation. They want their basic needs met in a way that does not leave them uncertain and wrecked by stress month after month. It is a culture of production organized and operated through the machinations of capitalism that requires that people work a job in order to have these needs met in such a satisfactory way. When politicians say “Jobs!” it has become a Pavlovian response for the middle, and formerly middle, classes to come salivating like starving dogs to desperately pull a lever in their favor. They forget that first the food, and the land, and the ability to provide for oneself had to be taken away before they could be forced to work jobs for these things. A great deprivation preceded the creation of job economies whereby everyone was made to punch a clock and become the automaton of some civilized production scheme in order to have enough to eat and a place to sleep at night. This deprivation now long forgotten, people have no memory of themselves as anything but workers, and so they beg for work.

Neo-liberal capitalism may be the dominant platform by which this scheme is globally enacted, but it is merely the software that operates on the hardware of the civilized model of human organization. It is key to recall that ecological decimation was the order of the day long before the advent of capitalism. Forests had been clear cut from the Levant, through Greece and across Europe and the UK as civilization marched across the ancient world, slashing and burning its path to conquest and dominion over greater and greater expanses of the Earth. This pattern was repeated globally where ever civilizations formed. The Maya deforested the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula long before Europeans brought their particular version of civilization to the continent and eventually ran head first into the consequences of such short sighted actions. The Aztecs, who may have created one of the more arguably “sustainable” cities in Tenochtitlan, did so on the backbone of war, expansion, tribute, slavery, and human sacrifice. Sure, they recycled their human excrement for crop fertilizer in their Chinampas, but they also relied on the growth of the territory that they dominated through blood shed. Food, firewood, and other material goods flowed into the city from outlying tribute towns where common people had to work to not only provide for themselves, but to pay a quarterly tribute to the city center of the empire.

Such is the way with cities. Goods and raw materials flow in and waste flows out. Cities harvest the natural wealth of outlying areas, and this model is now global, with powerful nations harvesting the material wealth of poor nations. No matter how desperately people may want to believe in the idea of the “sustainable city,” it is a contradiction of terms. Austin, Texas proclaims itself “America’s most sustainable city,” yet every day truckloads of food make deliveries while truck loads of garbage and waste are removed. The city depends on dammed lakes off the lower Colorado river for water which will one day fail to support the city’s growing population, and which in the present deprive down stream communities. According to 2010 data, households in Austin spent the most money on gasoline relative to other American cities. And Austin continues to grow, to cover more of the land in concrete preventing the recharging of the Edward’s Aquifer and demanding more energy for cooling as the city can have over one-hundred days in a year that breach one-hundred degrees fahrenheit.

A recent study calculated how much food the city of Seattle could produce based on how much solar radiation falls on its potentially farmable locations, including parks, rooftops, and yards. Even selecting crops that grow well in Seattle’s climate conditions the study’s authors determined that the city could provide only one percent of its food needs. If the streets and sidewalks were ripped up, the number could rise to two or three percent, but the city would lose functionality. After all, even if day to day travel was carried out on foot or on bicycle, deliveries with diesel powered semi-trucks would still be necessary for everything the city’s inhabitants required, from clothes, to air conditioners, to building materials, and of course, the other ninety-eight percent of the food they could not produce for themselves.

Sustainable living and cities are not compatible. This is not a matter of ideology. This is a matter of hard material reality, and suggestions that somehow 3D printing or vertical farms or a population fed a steady diet of algae shakes will be just the miracle we need to upend hard material constraints are at best, petulant whimpers of those who have become accustomed the vast wealth of selection that living in a first-world city provides, or at worst, Kubler-Ross stage three bargaining, hoping that somehow, by some stretch of compromise we can sustain the unsustainable.

But we can’t. Not without expansion. Not without tribute. Not without an exploitative power dynamic and flows of violence that may or may not be visible from the comfortable confines.

Hot coffee is a miracle, or damn near one. Every morning millions of Americans have a cup or two of hot coffee, the beans of which were grown in Columbia, or Ethiopia, or Hawaii. Maybe those Americans have tea grown in India or a banana grown in Peru. They pull on shoes made in Vietnam and perhaps ride their bicycle made with bauxite mined in Australia on a road paved with bitumen from Alberta. Perhaps these Americans stop off at a local food co-op or farmer’s market where they purchase some locally grown kale. They take pictures of the fresh eggs at the market with their iPhone which has a slew of globally sourced components buried within it, and they post this photo online with the help of a network of satellites and tag it with some cute caption about sustainability.

When the average American city dweller thinks about urban living, they likely think of the comedy clubs, the used book stores, the fusion restaurants, or the bars. They fail to think about the global hegemony of the United States military and how a worldwide network of bases has laid the foundation for dollar dominance. Most of the American or European or Australian or Canadian city dwellers who stammer on about generating green, sustainable cities are not picturing the mega-cities of the world like Dakha or Rio de Janeiro. Millions of children living in the squalor of slums and favelas, tin roofed shacks and human waste littering the streets and waterways are not what the white first worlders are picturing in their minds when they declare the supremacy of urban existence. Even the relatively lucky people in Hong Kong or Manila live in crammed, small apartments set inside concrete towers that resemble prisons more than anything else.

The wealth extracted from around the planet by western powers over the course of centuries, a process which went into overdrive in the twentieth century, has absolutely skewed the perceptions of those average citizens who reside within these conquistador nations. Like Tenochtitlan, the US and its neo-liberal capitalist crony nations exact tribute from the global poor. We may not adorn ourselves in exotic feathers and obsidian jewelry, but our sneakers and our jeans and our lattes and our cellphones will never be sustainably sourced and manufactured within the footprint of our home city limits. It is just not possible. We can have civilization, or we can have a livable planet, but we cannot have both.

Phosphorous leaches from agricultural and manufacturing sources into water ways. Eventually it alters the chemistry of these waterways creating the conditions that support toxic algae blooms. Power plants are often built along waterways. Coal fired plants have been using rivers such as the Ohio as a waste dump for decades. Radioactive tritium has been leaching into the groundwater from the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, and the leak is getting worse. The Turkey Point nuclear power facility is leaking waste into Biscayne Bay just outside of Miami.

Often when I discuss the destruction wrought by civilized existence, the first critique hurled in my direction is that, “We cannot go back.” On this point, I agree. We cannot go back because civilization has greatly destroyed the ability of so many natural systems to harbor life. Industrial civilization will decay and fracture in the coming decades and centuries. I do not know how this process will play out or how long it will take to complete, but I feel that I could safely suggest that several generations from now the people who are making new ways of living will curse the stupidity and greed of those who poisoned the water. They will wonder what demons possessed our hearts with such a dark poison that we could so callously wipe out the other living beings who we rely on for survival.

In the dry wastes a young girl will dig for tubers amongst a backdrop of drought ravaged trees and the charcoal remains of those that burned in the previous season. Seeking a nourishing root she finds the bric a brac of our brain dead culture; a plastic fork, a beer can, rubber testicles that once swung from a pick-up truck’s trailer hitch. Yee haw.

Her family boils caught rainwater unaware that it contains heavy metals which will be responsible for some of their eventual deaths. They will laugh, as people do, and they will tell cautionary tales about a long ago world in which people set the sky on fire.

Whatever gods there may be forgive us. We were drunk on oil and pictures of ourselves. We really wanted good jobs.