My internet is still down, but will hopefully be back up by tomorrow night so I can put out a few posts I was contemplating. In the mean time, an interesting excerpt from a new book by Roberto De Vogli, associate professor in global health at the University of California Davis and University College London.
And of course it continues today as has been discussed in previous posts on this site. So much for the “free market”.
This past week was supposed to be my productive period of the month to post on this site, but my internet has been down while I wait for a new connection… high-speed satellite at 12 MB per second. I’m barely able to squeeze out this post through my neighbor’s week signal which I’m using by permission.
No, I’m not a Luddite by any means. Technology has a place in society if it’s used properly, but like so many other things in a capitalist system, the profit motive distorts and perverts everything. And of course too much automation is not a good thing in an age of declining net energy and a poisoned biosphere. Take for instance the overuse of unnecessary medical procedures. It’s not so much the lawsuit trap as it is the fact that many doctors in America no longer know how to properly diagnose illnesses or pathology from clinical and physical evaluation of the patient. Instead they use a shotgun approach and order every medical exam they can think of, radiating the patient with countless cat scan exams which are negative an overwhelming majority of the time. And for-profit hospitals don’t mind this because they can bill for these services. This is why going to a hospital these days can turn out to be a serious blow to not only your wallet, but also your health.
I’ll have to cut this post short due to the excruciatingly slow internet connection.
In order to understand why the world is locked into a blind stampede over a cliff, you have to understand how the world runs, i.e. its socio-economic system. A large percentage of the population doesn’t understand that the world is ruled by multinational corporations or that the citizenry are simply disposable pawns with no voice in their fate.
The capital that flows around the world, betting on essential staples of life and demanding that barbaric austerity measures be imposed upon the masses, is an entity of its own. It’s a massively destructive force that enslaves people and rips apart the environment. In the Banana Republic of America where a once thriving middle class was sold down the river, nearly half of workers will have a budget of $5 per day when they reach retirement age. Maybe McDonald’s will create a 99 cent meal to cash in on that starving demographic. Oh, they already have…
As far as the environment goes, it is a doormat for the creation of money:
When you have such an immovable supersystem of puppet governments and marauding transnational corporations running the show, radical movements questioning and trying to change the status quo are easily co-opted or crushed, a recent example being the Occupy movement. In a world where extinction of the human species is guaranteed by climate chaos and the myriad of other crises created by industrial capitalism, a slow and incremental regimen of change is not what is needed to stave off collapse. Unfortunately, the entrenched interests of the financial elite and the nation-states they control won’t allow for any sort of abrupt and profound transformation. As Professor Julian Cribb has correctly identified, a culture of money worship and the mass delusion of money’s illusory value is at the heart of the global crisis. The high priests of money are protected at the expense of all else:
Show me a democracy that has an impoverished public life and I will show you one dominated by oligarchs and plutocrats driven by profit maximization that will do anything to get over. Gangster activity is what it is. Scandal after scandal and when you get caught, you PAY MONEY, you don’t go to jail. Plutocrats wage class war, getting away with CRIMES (mortgage fraud, market manipulation, insider trading, securities fraud) every day. But get caught with a bag of weed in the hood and you are in the system, for LIFE. ~ Cornell West
For humans living under such a capitalist society, money determines whether you can eat or not, whether you have shelter or not, whether you can clothe yourself or not, or whether you can afford medical treatment or not. Quite literally, if you have no money in a capitalist society, you die. Money in today’s globalized capitalist system is everything.
When President Obama speaks about confronting climate change, he does so with the mindset of keeping the current capitalist power structure in place. Because of this self-defeating approach, everything he says is rendered useless rhetoric.
Putting aside the gross social inequalities and injustices of our current system, you tell me how we can avert disaster with the following realities:
Without changing the socio-economic system under which we live, no real solutions for the multiple civilization-ending crises we face can be properly addressed. There is an expiration date for this unending conversion of the natural world into fake symbols of wealth hoarded and squandered by a greedy few…
My last post on environmental toxins was inspired from an email I got from Professor Julian Cribb in Australia. Upon closer inspection of his email I see that the attachments have much more interesting information that deserves our attention. I hope my readers will forgive me for having missed this valuable material, but I just came back from the decadence of Sin City on my weekend trip and I’m a little tired.
I hope the good Professor doesn’t mind my posting the attachments at my site. The first concerns environmental toxins and is an extended and more informative version of the brief article that Professor Cribb published in the Canberra Times.
The second attachment is an argument for the renaming of the human species (Homo Sapien) to something more appropriate in order to properly reflect our dysfunctional and self-destructive nature. I believe we’re too full of self-conceit and self-delusion to ever seriously entertain the idea, but it is a good argument to make in light of our impending extinction and the ongoing destruction of the Earth’s habitability for most other organisms. This global apocalypse is being brought to you by the world-wrecking hands of ‘industrial capitalist carbon man’.
Lastly, he sent me an interesting slide show which appears to be the basis for a TV documentary that the Professor is hoping to create in order to explore these unfolding crises leading to mankind’s self-inflicted extinction, an avoidable tragedy if Homo Sapiens lived up to their name of ‘wise man’ – a misnomer if there ever was one.
I look forward to watching this documentary. Luckily, Professor Cribb is trying to get this project done in Australia and not the Banana Republic of America where it would be sacrilege to think that money is an illusion or that all problems cannot be solved by printing more of it.
In my last post I juxtaposed the absurdity of the President speaking about the moral imperative of gun control, all the while the deadly effects of climate change have steadily mounted, promising to wipe modern civilization off the face of the Earth by the end of this century. Similarly, another insidious and seemingly invisible danger lurks all around us, constituting a much greater threat than firearms or numerous other dangers that society sees fit to launch high-profile campaigns against. Professor Paul P. Elrich has warned of man-made environmental toxins and their long-term effects:
We don’t know nearly enough about most of them [man-made chemicals] or how they might affect our health in the long-term, especially mixed together. There may be surprises ahead that we won’t like,’ said Professor Ehrlich… According to Professor Ehrlich, global toxification ranks with climate disruption and acute biodiversity loss as one of the world’s most serious environmental problems.
The Earth is a closed system and within that system 30 >400 million tonnes of man-made chemicals are produced annually by the chemical industry whose size is expected to triple by 2050. According to a study by Onstot and others, everyone alive today carries traces of 700 chemicals which have become ubiquitous in the environment and whose effects are poorly understood. Industrial capitalism’s dehumanizing fetish for technology along with its overriding concern for protecting profits has unleashed a growing flood of toxic pollutants into the biosphere.
Between 1930 and 2000 global production of man-made chemicals increased from 1 million to 400 million tonnes annually. – link
This toxic soup has been created in just the last 100 years and has embedded its poisonous fingerprints into the biological make-up of all living things on the planet. An article sent to me by Professor Julian Cribb provides some shocking numbers that describe the extent of industrial civilization’s toxic accumulation in the environment:
…The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in a regular survey, finds certain industrial ”chemicals of concern” in the blood of 90 per cent to 100 per cent of the American population. The Environmental Working Group, a US non-government organisation, in independent tests reported the finding of 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents. In a further disturbing piece of research it found 212 substances, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens, in the blood of newborn babies, who had been contaminated while in the womb. Tests from China to America to Europe have discovered industrial toxins in the breast milk of nursing mothers.
Groundbreaking Australian research has found even when dead and buried, people release their toxins back into groundwater and the environment, giving them back to future generations…
Just as the fossil fuel industry funds groups to confuse the public on climate science, so too does the chemical manufacturing industry hide behind the mantle of manufactured scientific uncertainty. What good is a system that hides the truth and circumvents government regulation, endangering and killing people so as to protect the agenda of profit-seeking corporations? Any social good touted by industry is negated or severely diminished from the environmental degradation and the damage to public health/safety of these unregulated chemicals. Increased cancer rates/deaths, multi-generational birth defects, and a collapsing environment unfit for human or animal habitation is not “progress” or “advancement”. As Chris Hedges would say, it’s the myth of human progress. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, wrote about capitalism’s inability to self-regulate in the interests of public safety:
When a scientific society acknowledges a trade organization as a ‘sustaining associate,’ whose voice do we hear when that society speaks—that of science or that of industry? This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth…
…The major chemical companies are pouring money into universities to support research on insecticides. This creates attractive fellowships for graduate students and attractive staff positions. Biological-control studies, on the other hand, are never so endowed – for the simple reason that they do not promise anyone the fortunes that are made in the chemical industry. This explains the otherwise mystifying fact that certain outstanding entomologists are among the leading advocates of chemical control. Inquiry into the background of some of these men reveals their entire research program is supported by the chemical industry. Can we ever expect them to bite the hand that feeds them?…
At the rate we are fouling the Earth, trying to cover up our mess is becoming increasingly difficult:
The Southwest drought of the early 2000’s, accompanied by the massive bark beetle infestation, killed over 2.6 million acres of mostly piñon(pinyon) pine. Pinyon pines are an interesting tree, living for up to 800 years and producing a tasty edible nut considered to be a “super food”. Studies by Craig D. Allen (U.S. Geological Survey) tell us that climate change is making droughts, historically normal occurrences in the Southwest, a killer for that region’s trees which usually can withstand such events, but not under the prolonged higher temperatures that human-induced global warming brings. These sustained higher temperatures have been identified as the “critical factor in provoking widespread tree mortality.” With a 4°C increase in temp and all other factors remaining the same, a five fold increase in pinyon tree death has been estimated by recent studies. The problem with that estimate though is that all other factors will most certainly change: less snowfall will diminish the benefits of the albedo effect, more retained heat from the sun and altered rainfall patterns will dry out the soil and increase erosion, and elevated levels of dust in the air will also factor into this vicious feedback loop to shrink mountain snowpack and increase evaporation. Fires and insect infestation will be seasonal events of ever-increasing intensity. And the demise of desert cities like Phoenix, dependent on a shrinking Colorado River, will inevitably follow.
…The team developed a Forest Drought-Stress Index that combines the amount of winter precipitation, late summer and fall temperatures, and late summer and fall precipitation into one number.
“The new ‘Forest Drought-Stress Index’ that Williams devised from seasonal precipitation and temperature-related variables matches the records of changing forest conditions in the Southwest remarkably well,” said co-author Thomas W. Swetnam, director of the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.
“Among all climate variables affecting trees and forests that have ever been studied, this new drought index has the strongest correlation with combined tree growth, tree death from drought and insects and area burned by forest fires that I have ever seen.”…
…“Atmospheric evaporative demand is primarily driven by temperature. When air is warmer, it can hold more water vapor, thus increasing the pace at which soil and plants dry out. The air literally sucks the moisture out of the soil and plants.”…
…These trends, the researchers noted, are already occurring in the Southwest, where temperatures generally have been increasing for the past century and are expected to continue to do so because of accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere… – lnk
Here’s what the benchmark drought of 2001-2002, a harbinger of future hi-temp droughts in the Southwest, did to pinyon trees:
From my post ‘Climate Tipping Points: The Global Die-Off of Forests‘, we know that forests all over the planet are dying and that mass die-offs of these areas are only a matter of time. The arid regions of the world like the U.S. Southwest are the most sensitive biomes on the planet and will be the first areas to exhibit catastrophic die-off from climate change.
This excerpt from the book I’m reading should scare the hell out of you (he’s talking about the 2001-2002 U.S. Southwest drought):
Does ‘industrial-capitalist carbon man’ give a fuck about trees? Certainly not if they get in the way of profit and ‘development’.
I mentioned earlier that I’d talk about my reading list. I’ve got a few books I’ll review for this site. The one I’m reading currently is about how the U.S. Southwest, where I live, will be affected by anthropogenic climate change. The book is ‘A Great Aridness‘ by William deBuys.
A few excerpts from the intro:
As deBuys mentions in his intro, the housing market in the Southwest, in particular Phoenix, took a hit in 2008 but is expected to get back on the [population] growth track in the near future.
I will go so far as to say that not only growth but capitalism itself may be in part dependent on a growing population,” Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Bill Gross wrote. – link
Capitalism is fueled by population growth. More people = more consumption = increased GDP and tax revenues.
Elliott D. Pollack, CEO of the economic and real estate consulting firm Elliott D. Pollack & Co., said Arizona’s economic growth depended on adding 100,000 people every year. The population boom fueled growth in “people–serving” jobs, such as doctors, real estate agents and salespeople, he said.
Pollack said he doesn’t expect Arizona to return to the job growth of 2007, just before the crash, until 2015.
“It will be almost a lost decade,” he said. – link
The following satellite pictures tell the tale of the exploding population in Phoenix, even coining a new phrase to describe such explosive growth suburbs as “Boomburbs“…
In the early twentieth century, when big American cities spawned satellite cities, those satellites were often downscaled mimics of the cities they surrounded. Like New York City, for example, its suburb Newark, New Jersey, had its own downtown. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, a different kind of satellite city emerged: a populous suburb with no central business core. “Boomburbs”—suburbs with populations of 100,000 or more that have maintained double-digit growth over decades—are primarily a phenomenon of the southern and western United States….
…Like much of the American Southwest, southern Arizona is arid, and agriculture depends on irrigation. As a result, cultivated fields—rectangles of green and brown—contrast with the pale tan of the naturally bare desert soil. In the 1989 image, most of the land east of Chandler is agricultural. Between 1989 and 2009, however, most of the fields give way to the blue-gray colors of buildings and pavement. In 2009, only a small number of agricultural fields remain, mostly east and south of Route 202. Because many of the United States’ boomburbs occur in the arid Southwest, planning for their water needs is particularly challenging for metropolitan and municipal governments. – link
Getting back to the book’s theme of climate change and the U.S. Southwest, a ballooning population is running headlong into a future characterized by a “new form of desertification… [brought on by] industrial society’s abuse of the atmosphere.” Radical transformation of our corporate-monopolized economy is the only way that climate change can effectively be dealt with. This would, however, appear all but impossible when any form of true government oversight and responsiveness to the citizens has been thoroughly corrupted and sidelined by corporate interests. According to a review in Truth-Out, deBuys illustrates in detail how corporate power is preventing any such changes:
…Of all his stories documenting the choppy and chaotic effects of global warming in the Southwest, especially the rising temperatures and the plagues of droughts, fires, and bark beetles killing thousands of acres of forest trees, I found the natural history and political drama of Mount Graham the most compelling. This is an example where political corruption and higher temperatures collude in unleashing the decline and fall of the Southwest…
…DeBuys sums up both the science and the biopolitics (ruthless politics) sealing our fate. He sees the triumph of corporate power as a resurrection of the 1520 Requerimiento, Spain’s legal justification for the enslavement and murder of the resisting indigenous people to clear the way for Spanish plunder and political control in the Southwest and Latin America. Indeed, the Requerimiento marked “the momentum of Spain’s imperial impulse,” no different than “the momentum of contemporary climate change today.”
The connection of past colonialism with its present variety, triggering and making global warming possible, is an insight into and a lesson on how the future is likely to be…
There are two major differences between the avarice of the Gilded Age Robber Barons and that of today’s all-powerful multinational corporations. Firstly, the corporations of today are much more omnipotent and control society through a form of despotic rule called ‘inverted totalitarianism‘. As Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer exclaimed last summer, “They were pikers compared to what we’re doing now.” Secondly, an egregious wealth gap and the political disenfranchisement of the worker do characterize both periods, but now the world must contend with climate chaos along with a host of other environmental problems, any one of which can bring down modern civilization.
Thanks Mike. There is a very significant – and most likely suppressed, ignored, or flippantly dismissed source of scientific literature. Very few Americans are prepared to learn much from indigenous (read: backward) peoples. The first citation is my favorite and I was first alerted to it by Vandana Shiva since much of this literature has so far focused on India but I know of other examples from Africa, the Middle East, and native North and South America. It is a fairly standard and widely accepted fact among ethnobotany experts. I’ve attached one pdf for your perusal:
That said, share these citations with your reader. (if you do not have access) I can track down my pdf copies and email them to you, but it’ll have to wait till I get back to my campus computer; I don’t think I have any of those sources at home.
Best regards, and keep sharing as much of my work as you see fit; nice blog by the way! If you all need anything else, please let me know…
I [also] wanted to explain what I know about Zapotec women’s use of plants and herbs for various treatments because some of the abortifacients have other applications.
The Zapotecs use several tall weedy shrubs to small trees, prototypically Solanum lanceolatum, sosa and/or berenjena. yàg-guièdz-zân [`tree/shrub´ + `disease´ + `child birth´], are included here. The fruits are yellow to orange when mature; the name refers to the use of the plant as medicine to treat post-partum weakness and pain; for example, a woman in labor is referred to as mén̲w-zân(`person´ + `childbirth´), disease is guièdz; the woman is bathed in an infusion of the leaves, beginning 15 days after the birth.
It also works as an abortifacient if you drink as tea: three tablespoons three times (se friega `it scours´ the uterus). It is also used to treat wounds and cáncer, i.e., a badly infected wound. In that case, boil, use the whole plant; mix with gordolobo (Gnaphalium spp., Asteraceae) and hierba de cáncer (blàg-chòg, prototypically Tournefortia spp., Boraginaceae) or with canfor; also for swelling (guì); wash with the infusion; it is “hot” (nzæ̌æ); two widely recognized varieties are “smooth” yàg-guièdz-zân-zhǐil and “spiny” yàg-guièdz-zân-guièts. The smooth variety is the best medicine; a very large and very spiny variety grows in neighboring communities, but is not named and is not used as medicine. I hope that is not too much detail, but you did ask.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. 2013 NACCS Scholar Professor American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Program on the Environment University of Washington EMAIL| email@example.com UW OFFICE| 206-543-1507 MOBILE| 206-228-4876 NGO WEBSITE| The Acequia Institute BLOGS| Environmental and Food Justice and History and Politics of Mexican Immigration
“Memory is a moral obligation, all the time.” – J. Derrida
Native cultures appear to have much more knowledge than ‘techno-fix carbon man’ gives them credit for.
I wanted to comment on XrayMike’s excellent and provocative post “Earth to Humans”, as well as some of the follow up comments, but the response got a little lengthy so I am guest posting my remarks.
This linkage between capitalism and the economy, labor exploitation, environmental sustainability, population growth and various and sundry other issues is so complex that it defies deterministic explanation.
Attempts to assign single variable responsibility to any culture, economic system or similar set of circumstances are inherently flawed. These phenomena are overdetermined, which is to say that they contain dialectic influence between each other, which is in effect multi-variable causality. Very difficult to resolve, and there are but two fields that can do this (dynamic, non linear interactions), mathematics and philosophy. It is interesting that the field of philosophy was the first to resolve these methods, in the absence of mathematical tools.
Dialectic philosophy can mean many things, but in this context it is the ever changing relationship of causality between a political economy and the environment, population growth, and resources.
To cite an example, I’m reminded of an excellent PBS special that I saw a few months ago, “The Dust Bowl” which provides ample (and contemporary) illustration of the interaction between capitalism and the environment.
The Dust Bowl was the worst man made environmental disaster in recorded history, and illustrates the nebulous and overdetermined link between population, capitalism, and the political economy.
Hard on the heels of the Great Depression, the ‘30’s brought the convergence of several influential factors to the travesty of population settlement in the American Great Plains. Fueled with the intoxicant of Manifest Destiny, the dynamics of the era were remarkable, as simultaneously and with varying degrees of import, we saw the following:
1.) A ceaseless expansion of population from the East and South westward into the Plains and onwards to the Pacific. There were many factors contributing to this westward expansion, but central was the fresh memory of the Mexican-American war, the ongoing dispute over the Oregon border with the British empire, and other land grab type concerns on the part of the US Government. By now the native Americans were suitably marginalized by the offshoot of Manifest Destiny, namely, the machinations of Accumulation by Dispossession, the time honored means to justify a good old fashioned land grab. What was left was a State sponsored occupation of these territories under the Lockean theory of ownership by virtue of land cultivation.
2.) To accomplish this, we had a series of “Homestead Acts”, legislation which essentially gave away land parcels in the Great Plain regions ranging from 160 acres (circa 1860) initially, then gradually expanded to 640 acres (circa 1930). Basically free land for any who might ask. These were typically settled by families, who raised sufficient numbers of children to work the land plots as productive farms, it being key to the number of family members relative to the size of the plot. These small independent farms were decidedly non-capitalist, although they did contain internally, strong elements of class structure, mostly feudal class. This arrangement (homesteading) was preferred by the capitalists of the North, as they were concerned about the Southern states rampant success with large scale plantations using slaves, (circa 1860) as the Northerners (with the Industrial Revolution now underway) could not compete with free slave labor. They knew full well in a few decades time that these independent homesteaders would be subsumed into the capitalist mode of production with the emergence of new factories and the spectre of large scale competition from massive factory farms, ultimately rendering the small family farmer obsolete.
3.) What these farmers did not know was that the arid land in the Great Plains had evolved over the centuries to include a ground cover of prairie grass, a drought tolerant plant that covered the vast majority of this enormous land mass East of the Rockies.
4.) At the same time, Industrialization of the Northern states and Great Lakes regions began to take hold to a very significant scale, and the transition to mechanized farming was begun in earnest. Companies like John Deere, Caterpillar, and many others began where Eli Whitney had left off, and brought massive mechanization to the farm business. Capital again plays a multi-faceted role, exhibiting it’s curious ability to simultaneously fund the enormous factories (modes of production, including entire supply chains) and at the same time to fund the customer base as well. And the customer base was the small 160 acre farmer run by a traditional family. So how does this work, how does a dirt poor farmer obtain a piece of capital equipment? Why he borrows the money of course, and this era has the interesting attribute of the emergence of a third arm of Capitalism, the Money Lending Capitalist, to the retail farm sector. They borrow the money using the Government supplied Homestead Act land as collateral. The same money lending capitalists also lent money to the John Deere’s of the world to expand the mode of production, and lending to large scale factory farmers at the same time. But perhaps most interesting to me anyway, was the legacy of farm equipment manufacturer John Deere, who during this period filled the role of Money Lending Capitalists, as they built scores of community based local dealerships and get this, gave out the tractors to whoever wanted one (for a small monthly payment of course). This circular monetary flow is a critical illustration to how capital works, funding both expansive modes of production, as well as the customer base. It also illustrates the ingrained tension between separate money lending capitalists (such as banks) and industrial capitalists, (in this case John Deere) as Deere wanted desperately to control the financing of their equipment, using both the machines and the land as collateral. How can you lose?
The irony though is how the recipients of these “factory” loans from John Deere perceived the fleecing of their surplus value, unlike the banks which were largely reviled during and after the Great Depression, especially by the farm community, the reputation of John Deere rose like a shooting star, with it’s fanatical customer base ever grateful for the “neighborly” largesse the corporation showed, even as it was repossessing failed farms. Those suckers never knew what hit them.
5.) If this was not enough, the world was undergoing a massive shortage of wheat production, largely due to the loss of Russian wheat farming, which was having a few problems of its own what with Stalin’s antics. At the time, Russia was the largest producer of wheat in the world, and this capacity suddenly went off line. This prompted a near panic in the ‘30’s, with the US government facing the very real possibility that it could not access sufficient wheat to feed its population, and as such offered incentives to homesteaders to grow wheat with highly subsidized wheat pricing.
Hopefully the point is made that these five factors combine simultaneously to unleash a set of conditions that results in the worst man made environmental disaster ever recorded. No one single factor is to blame, rather the interaction at precisely the right time and exactly the right proportion was needed to create this disastrous result. Dialectic reasoning allows one to consider these multiple factors that are constantly interacting and changing, and to assess the system as a whole, as well as to derive meaning.
The small farmer, flush with opportunity to provide for his family and at the same time to raise his standard of living significantly, went with the program and borrowed money to buy farm equipment. At the turn of the last century, these types of purchases were made by collective, as any fool knew that a small farmer did not need expensive capital equipment that was used 2 weeks a year for harvest and then sat idle for the remainder. These machines were shared, and where possible, harvests were time phased to allow a harvester or combine for example, to serve a number of nearby farms. One of the key attributes of the early and mid 20th century was the atomization of collective groups into individual consumers, effectively turning them away from collective sharing into not just stand alone consumers, but consumers competing with each other (for status) as well as capitalist aspirations. (A Dodge in every garage)
What with all these new tractors, what is one to do but to start tearing up the ground and plant, you guessed it, wheat. So all that centuries old prairie grass was quickly dispensed with, and one got about the business of rutting up the earth as fast as possible to plant wheat in order to get some of the subsidized wheat pricing in order to buy some consumer goods. At first, it was a “bumper” crop, so named as the bounty was often so large as to weigh down the bumper of the vehicle when it went to market.
Now all that was missing was an inflection point, and this came in the form of a massive drought which commenced in 1930 and lasted for more than a decade. Now that the prairie grass was removed by damaging farming practices (largely by tractor) over millions and millions of acres of land, there was no ability to retain any moisture, nor to hold and maintain topsoil.
And then the winds began.
In November, 1933, the Great Plains were besieged with truly incomprehensible wind storms that lifted up the newly exposed top soil and blew it hundreds, and in some cases thousands of miles. This went on with great frequency, often several times a week for 5, 6 , 7 years. The clouds were truly frightening and the dust permeated every pore of a house, caused massive lung infections and death (mostly of children), and resulted in the slaughter of millions of cattle as they had no food to eat. Large trenches were dug in farm fields, starving cattle herded into the trenches and shot to death by the hundreds of thousands. It was common to run a rope from the kitchen porch to the barn, as during the daytime dust storms it was impossible to see the “arm in front of your face” and people could get lost and die in their own backyard. The density of the black was described as “two midnights in a jug” hence the title of this post.
So how does one interpret this calamity? Is this a natural result of population growth, a symbol of man’s disrespect for the environment, a reveal of the vagaries of capitalism, or as some might say, an example of government intervention gone wrong. All have credible narratives around them, but the right answer is neither in the singular, the right answer considers that these effects occurred in synchronization with each other, and all had varying degrees of causality. All the listed factors are contributors, as well as some not listed.
But the illustrative lesson of the Dust Bowl may be distilled down to several key contributors, one of which might be the notion that man acting in his own best interests does not in fact benefit society as a whole. If farmers all around you practice destructive farming, and you do not, you are affected, and so are other non participants. These types of discussions lead to a thought domain characterized by John Rawls (Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick’s (Anarchy, State, and Utopia) wherein the principle of side rights of the individual is broached effectively.
This type of thinking is an essential step to recognizing that governance and political philosophy have moved on substantially from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Particularly, the realization that “side rights” or the influence of a neighbor reducing your utility while in pursuit of his so called “liberty” is an intellectual dead end and is contradictory to the principle of any meaningful freedom. So is the prospect of being forced to sell your labor power for sustenance, to those that would exploit you- the very antithesis of freedom. Modern conservatives do not acknowledge side rights, principally because they are stuck with a paradigm where ostensibly the government is to blame for all that is wrong.
In fact, the opposite is often the case, and history illustrates many examples where government intervention, central planning, and other types of consolidated (as in not local) government edicts were essential to provide corrective action. We can again look to the Dust Bowl for evidence, as we have another contemporary example. These settlers were fiercely independent and reliably self sufficient, every bit what the modern libertarian would strive for, yet only with substantial government intervention were the ravages of the Dust Bowl finally mitigated through, among other initiatives, government demonstrated upgraded farming practices that rectified the environmental damage precluding it from happening again. After nearly a decade of this self realized environmental disaster, the settlers were, literally, begging for government support and guidance to get back on their feet.
This also occurred in the late 19th century, with the start of the Progressive Era and the time of the Robber Barons, wherein the population begged and demanded that the capitalists of the day be brought to heel. This worked until the ‘20’s and the Gilded Age, when Capital shed the chains of progressive influence, and once again blew the place up with the 1929 Crash, which brings us full circle back to the Dust Bowl.
Yes, everyone will die, every empire will fall, every monetary system will collapse, and ultimately we will in fact consume all of the finite resources on our planet. To this ultimate end, no one can offer a panacea, not Marxism, not Communism, and certainly not Capitalism, all will ultimately collapse if for nothing else but lack of resources. But it is our lot to Reason, it is human to better oneself.
We have been infected with a malaise that has altered our very DNA, it has damaged our ability to reason, it has blinded us to the contradictions that are self evident, it has promoted false consciousness, and it has denied the very discussion of alternatives.
Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.” The moral of the quote, supposedly, is that a future society must emerge from the spontaneous dynamics of history, not from the isolated imaginings of some scribbler. This isn’t without some irony, since two years later Marx the scribbler wrote his own little cookshop recipe in his Critique of the Gotha Program — it involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.
As it happens, Marx’s comment was a riposte to a negative review he’d received in a Paris newspaper run by devotees of the philosopher Auguste Comte, criticizing Marx for offering no concrete alternative to the social system he condemned. (That’s why, in the original quote, he asks wryly if the recipes the reviewers had hoped to see happened to be “Comtist” ones.) To grasp the context, you have to understand that like many utopian writers of the era, Comte proffered scenarios for a future society that were marked by an almost deranged grandiosity, featuring precise and fantastically detailed instructions on practically every facet of daily life. It was this obsessive kind of future-painting that Marx was really taking aim at.
Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.
There is much ongoing dialogue on how to fold some of the more contemporary concepts of political philosophy into actionable lifestyle choices, and I am a big fan of these types of discussions- even if they do turn circular (which they often do). But nevertheless, initiatives like Richard Wolf’s worker funded exchanges wherein surplus value is distributed to workers, and managers are elected democratically, and (as in the excerpt above) centrally planned command economies are hybridized by using free market demand signals to inform production volumes and regional needs. Reintroducing class consciousness as a repetitive topic of discussion reinforcing where and when exploitation occurs is another example.
The major impediment of any refined approach to political philosophy is not so much what we don’t know, it’s discarding the nonsense that we do know.
I think the circumstances on Easter Island although not capitalistic, were similar to what happened in the Dust Bowl, one factor was inadequate and (at times) inappropriate command level decisions. I think if you trace most of the pre-capitalist failures of societal endeavors you will find similar themes, improper or missing command authority, reliance on principles of self liberty over common good, lack of class consciousness, etc.
Capitalism just adds rocket fuel to a fire that is already smoldering.