Sometimes, we hope we are honest enough to admit, we are struck speechless by just how incapable our "elected" bought-and-sold government is to lead, leaving the comprehension of the situation to the ordinary citizen, who has a bunch of other more immediate matters on her mind. And it's rare to find anything written or broadcast that gives us the real hope only a piece of thought unclogged with denial and hustle can bring.
Thank all that's Good for essayists like George Monbiot and Chris Hedges and reporters like the LA Times' incomparable Louis Sahagun and his colleague Veronica Rocha. -- blj
To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, who burn the furniture, the panelling, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years, all are being stacked onto the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth. -- Monbiot, Nov. 11, 2014.
The Insatiable God
The blind pursuit of economic growth stokes a cycle of financial crisis, and wrecks our world.
By George Monbiot,
Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it(1). The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins.
You can take your pick. The Financial Times reports today that China now resembles the US in 2007(2). Domestic bank loans have risen 40% since 2008, while “the ability to repay that debt has deteriorated dramatically”. Property prices are falling and the companies that run China’s shadow banking system provide “virtually no disclosure” of their liabilities. Just two days ago, the G20 leaders announced that growth in China “is robust and is becoming more sustainable”(3). You can judge the value of their assurances for yourself.
Housing bubbles in several countries, including Britain, could pop at any time. A report in September revealed that total world debt (public and private) has reached 212% of GDP(4). In 2008, when it helped to cause the last crash, it stood at 174%. The Telegraph notes that this threatens to cause “renewed financial crisis … and eventual mass default.”(5) Shadow banking has gone beserk, stocks appear to be wildly overvalued, the Eurozone is bust again. Which will blow first?
Or perhaps it’s inaccurate to describe this as another crash. Perhaps it’s a continuation of the last one, the latest phase in a permanent cycle of crisis, exacerbated by the measures (credit bubbles, deregulation, the curtailment of state spending) which were supposed to deliver uninterrupted growth. The system the world’s governments have sought to stabilise is inherently unstable, built on debt, fuelled by speculation, run by sharks.
If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services, it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in 1970s. The problem that then arises – and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash – is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes while expecting a different outcome.
To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, who burn the furniture, the panelling, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years, all are being stacked onto the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth.
David Cameron boasted on Monday that he will revive the economy by “scrapping red tape”(6). This “red tape” consists in many cases of the safeguards defending both people and places from predatory corporations. Today, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill is passing through the House of Commons(7), spinelessly supported, as ever, by Labour. The bill seeks to pull down our protective rules to “reduce costs for business”, even if that means increasing costs for everyone else, while threatening our health and happiness. But why? As the government boasted last week, the UK already has “the least restrictive product market regulation and the most supportive regulatory and institutional environment for business across the G20.”(8) And it still doesn’t work. So let’s burn what remains.
This bonfire of regulation is accompanied by a reckless abandonment of democratic principles, not least of equality before the law. In the House of Commons on Monday, Cameron spoke for the first time about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership(9). If this treaty between the EU and the US goes ahead, it will grant corporations a separate legal system to which no one else has access, through which they can sue governments passing laws that might affect their profits. Cameron insisted that “it does not in any way have to affect our national health service”(10). (Note those words “have to”.) Pressed to explain this, he cited the former EU trade commissioner, who claimed that “public services are always exempted”(11).
But I have read the EU’s negotiating mandate(12), and it contains no such exemption, just plenty of waffle and ambiguity on this issue. When the Scottish government asked Cameron’s officials for an “unequivocal assurance” that the NHS would not be exposed to such litigation, they refused to provide it(13). This treaty could rip our public services to shreds for the sake of a short and (studies suggest(14,15)) insignificant fizzle of economic growth.
Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable god(16)? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises?
Amazingly, this consideration begins on Thursday. For the first time in 170 years, parliament will debate one aspect of the problem: the creation of money(17). Few people know that 97% of our money supply is created not by the government (or the central bank), but by commercial banks in the form of the loans they issue(18). At no point was a democratic decision made to allow banks to do this. So why do we let it happen? This, as Martin Wolf has explained in the Financial Times(19), “is the source of much of the instability of our economies”. The parliamentary debate won’t stop the practice, but it represents the opening of a long-neglected question.
This, though, is just the beginning. Is it not also time for a government commission on post-growth economics? Drawing on the work of thinkers like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Kate Raworth, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, it would investigate the possibility of moving towards a steady state economy: one that seeks distribution rather than blind expansion; that does not demand infinite growth on a finite planet. It would ask the question that never gets asked: why?
Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all over outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.
3. G20, November 2014. Brisbane Action Plan. http://bit.ly/1xk6mLR
4. Luigi Buttiglione et al, September 2014. Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? Geneva Reports on the World Economy 16. http://www.voxeu.org/content/deleveraging-what-deleveraging-16th-geneva-report-world-economy
8. G20, November 2014. Comprehensive Growth Strategy – United Kingdom. http://bit.ly/1yPuIv7
The Myth of Human Progress
The technical and scientific forces that created a life of luxury for the industrial elites are now the ones that doom us.
Clive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.
The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.
Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.
“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada.
They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.
If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later. If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.
Wright, who in his dystopian novel “A Scientific Romance” paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.
Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.
Wright explained this further on our call.
The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever. It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.
And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.
As Wright told me:
Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away. There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.
We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring. It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.
If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.
Los Angeles Times
Orphaned baby squirrels just one wildlife casualty of drought
By VERONICA ROCHA
Drought forcing wildlife to travel farther in search of food, in some cases leading to death
Boom in orphaned baby squirrels tied to drought, experts say
Another reason to dislike the drought: orphaned baby squirrels
Starving baby squirrels in parts of Northern California are so hungry that they are jumping out of their nests to search for food and getting lost on the way home.
The boom in suddenly motherless squirrels is just one example of how a drought going on more than three years has affected wildlife, experts say.
This year, the Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Loomis has been swamped with orphaned baby squirrels. The nonprofit volunteer organization saw a 120% increase in the number of baby squirrels it took in, from 1,800 in 2013 to more than 2,200 this year, organization spokeswoman Jackie Nott said.
“If the drought continues, we expect next year to be much worse as the insidious affects of loss of food sources, more concentrated populations increasing competition, higher mortality, and a loss of 'recruitment,' meaning less babies make it through to adulthood,” she said.
But baby squirrels are just one of many animals risking their lives and fleeing their homes to search for food sources, which are diminished by drought.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials on Monday said drought has forced more bears and deer to venture into mountain highways, causing many to be struck and killed by vehicles.
Just in the last week, Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation, said there were an “unprecedented” 23 collisions between wildlife and drivers on Highway 50 and Interstate 80 in Northern California.
Mating season and recent wildfires, which have destroyed a significant amount of vegetation, have also forced wildlife to travel farther than usual for food.
According to the California Roadkill Observation System, more deer were killed in 2014 than last year. Drought was likely to blame for the increase in deaths among deer, which were forced to travel farther in search of food, said Fraser Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center.
Still, officials say there is no easy solution for diverting wildlife away from busy highways.
“You can’t really change wildlife behavior,” Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Dana Michaels said. “We have to hope people are more intelligent than the animals.”
To reduce the number of animal-involved highway collisions, wildlife and transportation officials are reminding drivers to watch out for wildlife on the roads.
Caltrans is alerting drivers to look for wildlife through electronic messaging and signs posted along the highway system.
Wildlife officials said animals will continue to move closer to urban areas as long as the drought continues.
“If the drought persists there will be catastrophic consequences for all kinds of species-- especially those dependent on water, like amphibians,” Nott said. “It is very likely there will be pockets of local extinction for these animals.”
Decline of desert tortoise in Joshua Tree linked to long droughts
By LOUIS SAHAGUN
In recent years, California’s Agassiz’s desert tortoise population has been decimated by shootings, residential and commercial development, vehicle traffic, respiratory disease and predation by ravens, dogs and coyotes.
Now, dwindling populations of the reptiles with scruffy carapaces and skin as tough as rhino hide are facing an even greater threat: longer droughts spurred by climate change in their Sonoran Desert kingdom of arroyos and burrows, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey study.
Drought conditions are linked to declines in a population of desert tortoises in a square-mile study plot in Joshua Tree National Park, according to the study published in the online journal Biological Conservation.
The study, one of the few to examine a desert tortoise population’s response to climate change, surveyed about 1.4 generations of the species scientists know as Gopherus agassizii.
“The last time the climate of the Earth jumped as rapidly as it seems to be now was about 55 million years ago — and that was a five-degree increase over thousands of years,” Jeff Lovich, lead researcher of the USGS team, said in an interview. “The changes we are seeing now are virtually unprecedented, and they are occurring in a desert landscape fragmented by development and roads.”
“The desert tortoise is surviving in the current landscape by its toenails,” he said.
“Although the animal’s name suggests that it is well adapted to desert conditions, it is not,” Lovich said. “Prior to 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, the region was cooler and wetter with lakes fringed with Joshua trees and junipers. That’s the landscape that dominated the evolutionary history of the so-called desert tortoise.”
“It probably evolved its burrowing trait to escape predators,” he said. “Later, burrows became a critical means of escaping the climate extremes.”
“So, this animal has ‘accepted’ — not adapted to — desert conditions,” he said. “Our study shows that its survival can be seriously compromised after two to three years of drought.”
Desert tortoise survival rates in the study plot were found to be highly dependent on climate events, particularly the duration of droughts. For example, the study said, the adult population of about 175 to 200 tortoises declined to about 25 tortoises from 1996 to 2012, a period concurrent with drought conditions in the area.
The postures and positions of a majority of dead tortoises found in 2012, it said, were consistent with death by dehydration and starvation.
Some live and many dead tortoises found in 2012 showed signs of predation or scavenging by carnivores.
The problem, Lovich said, may be linked to drought conditions, which killed off annual plants and triggered a crash in populations of rodents that eat them. As a result, coyotes, which normally thrive on kangaroo rats and rabbits, turned to the lumbering tortoises for sustenance.
The study acknowledges that the tortoise population survived through the 1960s and 1970s, which appeared to be relatively dry years, then increased dramatically during later periods of greater precipitation.
“However, if drought duration and frequency increase,” it said, “they will likely have wider and more significant impacts on Agassiz’s desert tortoise survivorship, particularly in the low Sonoran Desert portion of their range in California, and it will be difficult or impossible for resource managers to mitigate their effects.”
The study of the desert tortoise, which is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened in portions of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah, was funded by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.