Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Anthropocene Is Here: Humanity Has Pushed Earth Into a New Epoch

Incredible impact on the environment (Kevin Gill/flickr/cc)
 
The Anthropocene Epoch has begun, according to a group of experts assembled at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa this week.
 
After seven years of deliberation, members of an international working group voted unanimously on Monday to acknowledge that the Anthropocene - a geologic time interval so-dubbed by chemists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 - is real. 
 
The epoch is thought to have begun in the 1950s, when human activity, namely rapid industrialization and nuclear activity, set global systems on a different trajectory. And there's evidence in the geographic record. Indeed, scientists say that nuclear bomb testing, industrial agriculture, human-caused global warming, and the proliferation of plastic across the globe have so profoundly altered the planet that it is time to declare the 11,700-year Holocene over. 
 
As the working group articulated in a media note on Monday:
Changes to the Earth system that characterize the potential Anthropocene Epoch include marked acceleration to rates of erosion and sedimentation; large-scale chemical perturbations to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements; the inception of significant change to global climate and sea level; and biotic changes such as unprecedented levels of species invasions across the Earth. Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible. These and related processes have left an array of signals in recent strata, including plastic, aluminium and concrete particles, artificial radionuclides, changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns, fly ash particles, and a variety of fossilizable biological remains. Many of these signals will leave a permanent record in the Earth's strata.
"Being able to pinpoint an interval of time is saying something about how we have had an incredible impact on the environment of our planet," said Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and secretary for the working group. "The concept of the Anthropocene manages to pull all these ideas of environmental change together."

Indeed, the Guardian compiled more "evidence of the Anthropocene," saying humanity has:
  • Pushed extinction rates of animals and plants far above the long-term average. The Earth is now on course to see 75% of species become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
  • Increased levels of climate-warming CO2 in the atmosphere at the fastest rate for 66m years, with fossil-fuel burning pushing levels from 280 parts per million before the industrial revolution to 400ppm and rising today.
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover.
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with our fertilizer use. This is likely to be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years.
  • Left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice such as black carbon from fossil fuel burning.
Now, scientists must commence their search for the "golden spike" - explained in the Telegraph as "a physical reference point that can be dated and taken as a representative starting point for the Anthropocene epoch." This could be found in anything from layers of sediment in a peat bog to a coral reef to tree rings. "A river bed in Scotland, for example, is taken to be the representative starting point for the Holocene epoch," the Telegraph reports.

The Guardian points out: "For the Anthropocene, the best candidate for such a golden spike are radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests, which were blown into the stratosphere before settling down to Earth." However, Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the working group, told the paper that while "the radionuclides are probably the sharpest - they really come on with a bang," humanity has left no shortage of signatures. "We are spoiled for choice," he said. "There are so many signals."

According to the Telegraph, once one or more golden spike sites have been selected, a proposal for the formal recognition of an Anthropocene epoch will be made to a series of commissions, culminating at the International Union of Geological Sciences. The process is likely to take at least three years.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Dare Yourself

https://unsplash.com/search/jump?photo=EyTOnL4ST9k
by Thomas Oppong, Founding Editor at http://alltopstartups.com. Curator at http://postanly.com. Columnist @Inc. Magazine, Contributor @Entrepreneur and @Observer, The Mission: https://medium.com/the-mission/dare-yourself-a099ed289b58#.mxoge637p

Dare Yourself 

Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible” - Cadet maxim.

When was the last time you did something that pushed you outside the usual. Outside the secured zone. Outside your circle of comfort. We expect change. Better change. But we are afraid to make a move. Change is hard. It represents a threat, a chance for things to go wrong. It’s no wonder many people avoid anything that smells of change. And changing our own minds is the most difficult place to start.

Your body and mind crave easy routines. We naturally gravitate towards our safe zones. But your growth depends on discomfort. It pays to explore new routines, paths, ideas, disciplines and new ways to be better at what you do.

Fear is the body’s own way of protecting itself. But you can get past it and you will be used to the new normal. In the real world, you don’t get anything by wishing it, and you can’t get a reaction without action. When you play it too safe, you’re taking the biggest risk of your life.

Never miss an opportunity to show up. To participate. To make a move. To share yourself. Give yourself time in your life to wonder what is possible and to make even the slightest moves in that direction. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut or stick with your routine.

Challenge your mind 

“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing” - Denis Waitley.

New challenges and activities can strengthen your brain. Learn a new language. Read science fiction. Speak in public. Learn to swim. Be the first to introduce yourself at the event. Engage in conversation with new people. Tackle the fear that has kept you from living your best life. Your mind has a way of rising to the occasion. Challenge it, and it will reward you.

You have to challenge your mind - even making it a little uncomfortable by pushing yourself to learn tasks that may not come naturally. Think of the mind as a muscle that naturally tightens up over time unless it is consciously worked upon. Most things seems impossible until they are done. Give yourself permission to think and act beyong the usual. You will be surprised by what you are capable of achieving.

Comfort is an Illusion 

“The only source of knowledge is experience” - Albert Einstein.

Comfort kills creativity and productivity. Your body and mind crave easy routines. We naturally gravitate towards our safe zones. But your growth depends on discomfort. It pays to explore new routines, paths, ideas, disciplines and new ways to be better at what you do.

Alan Henry of Lifehacker explains: “The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety - a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,” and it’s just outside our comfort zone.

Left unchecked, we always default toward a more comfortable path. Your comfortable zone provides a state of mental security. You can understand why it’s so hard to kick your brain out of your comfort zone.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happinessby Maria Popova, Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/23/harvard-grant-study-robert-waldinger-ted/?mc_cid=24aa1ea22b&mc_eid=12abe48642

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of the good life and how we limit our happiness.

For the whole of human history up to that point, such questions had been left entirely to his ilk - the philosophers - and perhaps to the occasional poet.

By the following decade, a team of visionary researchers at Harvard had enlisted the tools of science in wresting tangible, measurable, actionable answers to this perennial question of the good life.

So began the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard Medical School, better known as the Grant Study - the longest-running study of human happiness.

Beginning in 1938 as a counterpoint to the disease model of medicine, the ongoing research set out to illuminate the conditions that enhance well-being by following the lives of 268 healthy sophomores from the Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. It was a project revolutionary in both ambition and impact, nothing like it done before or since.

For some necessary perspective on medicine in the 1930s: having not yet uncovered the structure of DNA, we knew close to nothing about genetics; mental health was a fringe concern of the profession, with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still two decades away; the microbiome was an inconceivable flight of fancy.

Little progress had been made since Walt Whitman’s prescient case for the grossly underserved human factors in healthcare and the question of what makes for a good life was cautiously left to philosophy. It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp just how daring it was for physicians to attempt to address it.

But that’s precisely what the Harvard team did. There are, of course, glaring limitations to the study - ones that tell the lamentable story of our cultural history: the original subjects were privileged white men. Nonetheless, the findings furnish invaluable insight into the core dimensions of human happiness and life satisfaction: who lives to ninety and why, what predicts self-actualization and career success, how the interplay of nature and nurture shapes who we become.

In this illuminating TED talk, Harvard psychologist and Grant Study director Robert Waldinger - the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project - shares what this unprecedented study has revealed, with the unflinching solidity of 75 years of data, about the building blocks of happiness, longevity, and the meaningful life.



The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
For a deeper dive into the significance and legacy of the Grant Study project, see the revelatory book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (public library) by Harvard psychologist George E. Vaillant - Waldinger’s predecessor, who spent thirty years as director of this revolutionary study - then revisit his Harvard peer Daniel Gilbert on how our present illusions hinder our future happiness and pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our relationships affect our immune system.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Why No-One Remembers Those Who Struggle for Peace

Iraq and Afghanistan protestorsby Adam Hochschild, UTNE Reader: http://www.utne.com/politics/struggle-for-peace-zbtz1412zhur.aspx

Go to war and every politician will thank you, and they’ll continue to do so - with monuments and statues, war museums and military cemeteries - long after you’re dead.

But who thanks those who refused to fight, even in wars that most people later realized were tragic mistakes?

Consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now widely recognized as igniting an ongoing disaster. America’s politicians still praise Iraq War veterans to the skies, but what senator has a kind word to say about the hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched and demonstrated before the invasion was even launched to try to stop our soldiers from risking their lives in the first place?

What brings all this to mind is an apparently heartening exception to the rule of celebrating war-makers and ignoring peacemakers. A European rather than an American example, it turns out to be not quite as simple as it first appears. Let me explain.

December 25th will be the 100th anniversary of the famous Christmas Truce of the First World War. You probably know the story: after five months of unparalleled industrial-scale slaughter, fighting on the Western Front came to a spontaneous halt. British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other and emerged into the no-man’s-land between their muddy trenches in France and Belgium to exchange food and gifts.

That story - burnished in recent years by books, songsmusic videos, a feature film, and an opera - is largely true. On Christmas Day, troops did indeed trade cigarettes, helmets, canned food, coat buttons, and souvenirs. They sang carols, barbecued a pig, posed for photographs together, and exchanged German beer for British rum.

In several spots, men from the rival armies played soccer together. The ground was pocked with shell craters and proper balls were scarce, so the teams made use of tin cans or sandbags stuffed with straw instead. Officers up to the rank of colonel emerged from the trenches to greet their counterparts on the other side, and they, too, were photographed together (refusing to join the party, however, was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler, at the front with his German army unit. He thought the truce shocking and dishonorable).

Unlike most unexpected outbreaks of peace, the anniversary of this one is being celebrated with extraordinary officially sanctioned fanfare. The British Council, funded in part by the government and invariably headed by a peer or knight, has helped distribute an “education pack” about the Truce to every primary and secondary school in the United Kingdom.

It includes photos, eyewitness accounts, lesson plans, test questions, student worksheets, and vocabulary phrases in various languages, including “Meet us halfway,” “What are your trenches like?,” and “Can I take your picture?” The British post office has even issued a set of stamps commemorating the Christmas Truce.

An exhibit of documents, maps, uniforms, and other Truce-related memorabilia has been on display at city hall in Armentières, France. A commemorative youth soccer tournament with teams from Britain, Belgium, France, Austria, and Germany is taking place in Belgium this month. The local mayor and the British and German ambassadors were recently on hand for a soccer game at a newly dedicated “Flanders Peace Field.”

Volunteers from several countries will spend three days and two nights in freshly dug trenches reenacting the Truce. Professional actors, complete with period uniforms, carol-singing, and a soccer match, have already done the same in an elaborate video advertisement for a British supermarket chain. One of the judges for a children’s competition to design a Truce memorial is none other than Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

What Won’t Be Commemorated

Given the rarity of peace celebrations of any sort, what’s made the Christmas Truce safe for royalty, mayors, and diplomats?

Three things, I believe. First, this event - remarkable, spontaneous, and genuinely moving as it was - did not represent a challenge to the sovereignty of war. It was sanctioned by officers on the spot; it was short-lived (the full fury of shelling and machine gunning resumed within a day or two, and poison gas and flamethrowers soon added to the horror); and it was never repeated. It’s safe to celebrate because it threatened nothing. That supermarket video, for instance, advertises a commemorative chocolate bar whose sales proceeds go to the national veterans organization, the Royal British Legion.

Second, commemorating anything, even peace instead of war, is good business. Belgium alone expects two million visitors to former battle sites during the war’s four-and-a-half-year centenary period, and has now added one or two peace sites as visitor destinations. The country is putting $41 million in public funds into museums, exhibits, publicity, and other tourism infrastructure, beyond private investment in new hotel rooms, restaurants, and the like.

Finally, the Christmas Truce is tailor-made to be celebrated by professional soccer, now a huge industry. Top pro players earn $60 million or more a year. Two Spanish teams are each worth more than $3 billion. The former manager of Britain’s Manchester United team, Sir Alex Ferguson, even teaches at the Harvard Business School. Five of the world’s 10 most valuable teams, however, are in Britain, which helps account for that country’s special enthusiasm for these commemorations. The Duke of Cambridge is the official patron of the sport’s British governing body, the Football Association, the equivalent of our NFL. It has joined with the continent-wide Union of European Football Associations in promoting the Christmas Truce soccer tournament and other anniversary hoopla. That packet of material going to more than 30,000 British schools is titled “Football Remembers.”

While such sponsorship represents only a tiny percentage of the public relations budgets of these organizations, they have surely calculated that associating soccer with schoolchildren, Christmas, and a good-news historical event can’t hurt business. All industries keep a close eye on their public image, and soccer especially so at the moment, since in many parts of Europe audiences for it are declining as a barrage of other activities competes for people’s leisure time and spending.

For nearly four years, as we reach the centenary mark for one First World War milestone after another, there will be commemorations galore across Europe. But here’s one thing you can bank on: the Duke of Cambridge and other high dignitaries won’t be caught dead endorsing the anniversaries of far more subversive peace-related events to come.

Christmas Truce memorial
This Christmas Truce memorial in Belgium recognizes one of the few unexpected outbreaks of peace.

For example, although soldiers from both sides on the Western Front mixed on that first Christmas of the war, the most extensive fraternization happened later in Russia. In early 1917, under the stress of catastrophic war losses, creaky, top-heavy imperial Russia finally collapsed and Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest. More than 300 years of rule by the Romanov dynasty was over.

The impact rippled through the Russian army. An American correspondent at the front watched through binoculars as Russian and German enlisted men met in no-man’s-land. Lack of a common language was no barrier: the Germans thrust their bayonets into the earth; the Russians blew across their open palms to show that the Tsar had been swept away.

After November of that year, when the Bolsheviks - committed to ending the war - seized power, fraternization only increased. You can find many photographs of Russian and German soldiers posing together or even, in one case, dancing in couples in the snow. Generals on both sides were appalled.

And here are some people who won't be celebrated in “education packs” sent to schools, although they were crucial in helping bring the war to an end: deserters. An alarmed British military attaché in Russia estimated that at least a million Russian soldiers deserted their ill-fed, badly equipped army, most simply walking home to their villages. This lay behind the agreement that halted fighting on the Eastern Front long before it ended in the West.

In the final weeks of the war in the West, the German army began melting away, too. The desertions came not from the front lines but from the rear, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers either disappeared or evaded orders to go to the front. By early autumn 1918, the Berlin police chief estimated that more than 40,000 deserters were hiding in the German capital. No wonder the high command began peace negotiations.

Don’t hold your breath either waiting for official celebrations of the war’s mutinies. Nothing threatened the French army more than the most stunning of these, which broke out in the spring of 1917 following a massive attack hyped as the decisive blow that would win the war. Over several days, 30,000 French soldiers were killed and 100,000 wounded, all to gain a few meaningless miles of blood-soaked ground.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of troops refused to advance further. One group even hijacked a train and tried to drive it to Paris, although most soldiers simply stayed in their camps or trenches and made clear that they would not take part in additional suicidal attacks. This “collective indiscipline,” as the generals euphemistically called it, was hushed up, but it paralyzed the army. French commanders dared launch no more major assaults that year. To this day, the subject remains so touchy that some archival documents on the mutinies remain closed to researchers until the 100th anniversary in 2017.

Parades for Whom?

From Bavaria to New Zealand, town squares across the world are adorned with memorials to local men “fallen” in 1914-1918, and statues and plaques honoring the war’s leading generals can be found from Edinburgh Castle to Pershing Square in Los Angeles. But virtually nothing similar celebrates those who served the cause of peace.

The Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who argued against the suppression of free speech both in the Kaiser’s Germany and in Soviet Russia, spent more than two years in a German prison for her opposition to the war. The eloquent British philosopher Bertrand Russell did six months’ time in a London jail for the same reason. The American labor leader Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft, was still in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta in 1920, two years after the war ended, when he received nearly a million votes as the Socialist Party candidate for president.

The French socialist Jean Jaurès spoke out passionately against the war he saw coming in 1914 and, due to this, was assassinated by a French militarist just four days before the fighting began (the assassin was found innocent because his was labeled a “crime of passion”). Against the opposition of their own governments, the pioneer social worker Jane Addams and other women helped organize a women’s peace conference in Holland in 1915 with delegates from both warring and neutral countries. And in every nation that took part in that terrible war, young men of military age - thousands of them - either went to jail or were shot for refusing to fight.

Jump half a century forward, and you’ll see exactly the same pattern of remembrance. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first official U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, and already a duel is shaping up between the thankers and those who want to honor the antiwar movement that helped end that senseless tragedy.

The Pentagon has already launched a $15 million official commemorative program whose purpose (does this sound familiar?) is “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War ... for their service and sacrifice.” Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people, many of us veterans of the U.S. military, the anti-war movement, or both, have signed a petition insisting that “no commemoration of the war in Vietnam can exclude the many thousands of veterans who opposed it, as well as the draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans, some at the cost of imprisonment or exile.”

A recent New York Times article covered the controversy. It mentioned that the Pentagon had been forced to make changes at its commemoration website after Nick Turse, writing at TomDispatch.com, pointed out, among other things, how grossly that site understated civilian deaths in the notorious My Lai massacre.

Perhaps when the next anniversary of the Iraq War comes around, it’s time to break with a tradition that makes ever less sense in our world. Next time, why not have parades to celebrate those who tried to prevent that grim, still ongoing conflict from starting? Of course, there’s an even better way to honor and thank veterans of the struggle for peace: don’t start more wars.

Adam Hochschild’s most recent book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. During the Vietnam era, he was a U.S. Army Reservist and a founder of the Reservists Committee to Stop the War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2014 Adam Hochschild

Top photo by Fibonacci Blue, licensed under Creative Commons 
Bottom photo by ThruTheseLines, licensed under Creative Commons

Friday, 26 August 2016

The World Wide Cage

Image result for Internet as Prison
guardianlv.com
by Nicholas Carr, edited by Pam Weintraub, Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/the-internet-as-an-engine-of-liberation-is-an-innocent-fraud
 
It was a scene out of an Ambien nightmare: a jackal with the face of Mark Zuckerberg stood over a freshly killed zebra, gnawing at the animal’s innards. 
 
But I was not asleep. The vision arrived midday, triggered by the Facebook founder’s announcement - in spring 2011 - that ‘The only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.’
 
Zuckerberg had begun his new ‘personal challenge’, he told Fortune magazine, by boiling a lobster alive. Then he dispatched a chicken. Continuing up the food chain, he offed a pig and slit a goat’s throat. On a hunting expedition, he reportedly put a bullet in a bison. He was ‘learning a lot’, he said, ‘about sustainable living’.
 
I managed to delete the image of the jackal-man from my memory. What I couldn’t shake was a sense that in the young entrepreneur’s latest pastime lay a metaphor awaiting explication. If only I could bring it into focus, piece its parts together, I might gain what I had long sought: a deeper understanding of the strange times in which we live.
 
What did the predacious Zuckerberg represent? What meaning might the lobster’s reddened claw hold? And what of that bison, surely the most symbolically resonant of American fauna? I was on to something. At the least, I figured, I’d be able to squeeze a decent blog post out of the story.
 
The post never got written, but many others did. I’d taken up blogging early in 2005, just as it seemed everyone was talking about ‘the blogosphere’. I’d discovered, after a little digging on the domain registrar GoDaddy, that ‘roughtype.com’ was still available (an uncharacteristic oversight by pornographers), so I called my blog Rough Type. The name seemed to fit the provisional, serve-it-raw quality of online writing at the time.
 
Blogging has since been subsumed into journalism - it’s lost its personality - but back then it did feel like something new in the world, a literary frontier. The collectivist claptrap about ‘conversational media’ and ‘hive minds’ that came to surround the blogosphere missed the point. Blogs were crankily personal productions. They were diaries written in public, running commentaries on whatever the writer happened to be reading or watching or thinking about at the moment. 
 
As Andrew Sullivan, one of the form’s pioneers, put it: ‘You just say what the hell you want.’ The style suited the jitteriness of the web, that needy, oceanic churning. A blog was critical impressionism, or impressionistic criticism, and it had the immediacy of an argument in a bar. You hit the Publish button, and your post was out there on the world wide web, for everyone to see. Or to ignore. Rough Type’s early readership was trifling, which, in retrospect, was a blessing. 
 
I started blogging without knowing what the hell I wanted to say. I was a mumbler in a loud bazaar. Then, in the summer of 2005, Web 2.0 arrived. The commercial internet, comatose since the dot-com crash of 2000, was up on its feet, wide-eyed and hungry. Sites such as MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn and the recently launched Facebook were pulling money back into Silicon Valley. Nerds were getting rich again. 
 
But the fledgling social networks, together with the rapidly inflating blogosphere and the endlessly discussed Wikipedia, seemed to herald something bigger than another gold rush. They were, if you could trust the hype, the vanguard of a democratic revolution in media and communication - a revolution that would change society forever. A new age was dawning, with a sunrise worthy of the Hudson River School. Rough Type had its subject.
 
The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions - greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology - is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his testament The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (1833). By fulfilling its ‘mechanical purposes’, he wrote, the US would turn itself into a new Eden, a ‘state of superabundance’ where ‘there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations’, not to mention ‘vegetables of infinite variety and appearance’.
 
Similar predictions proliferated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in their visions of ‘technological majesty’, as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We might blow kisses to agrarians such as Jefferson and tree-huggers such as Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.
 
Cyberspace, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for the spiritual yearnings and tropes of the US. ‘What better way,’ wrote the philosopher Michael Heim in ‘The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ (1991), ‘to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?’ 
 
In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting ‘the second coming of the computer’, replete with gauzy images of ‘cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos’ and ‘beautifully laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens’. The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. 
 
The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’
 
The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets - he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ - announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. 
 
Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables. 
 
Such prophesies might be dismissed as the prattle of overindulged rich guys, but for one thing: they’ve shaped public opinion. By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests. 
 
If, after all, the technologists are creating a world of superabundance, a world without work or want, their interests must be indistinguishable from society’s. To stand in their way, or even to question their motives and tactics, would be self-defeating. It would serve only to delay the wonderful inevitable.
 
The Silicon Valley line has been given an academic imprimatur by theorists from universities and think tanks. Intellectuals spanning the political spectrum, from Randian right to Marxian left, have portrayed the computer network as a technology of emancipation. 
 
The virtual world, they argue, provides an escape from repressive social, corporate and governmental constraints; it frees people to exercise their volition and creativity unfettered, whether as entrepreneurs seeking riches in the marketplace or as volunteers engaged in ‘social production’ outside the marketplace. As the Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler wrote in his influential book The Wealth of Networks (2006):
This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.
Calling it a revolution, he said, is no exaggeration. Benkler and his cohort had good intentions, but their assumptions were bad. They put too much stock in the early history of the web, when the system’s commercial and social structures were inchoate, its users a skewed sample of the population. They failed to appreciate how the network would funnel the energies of the people into a centrally administered, tightly monitored information system organised to enrich a small group of businesses and their owners. 

The territory began to be subdivided, strip-malled and I sensed that foreign agents were slipping into my computer through its connection to the web. The network would indeed generate a lot of wealth, but it would be wealth of the Adam Smith sort - and it would be concentrated in a few hands, not widely spread.

The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterised by frenetic production and consumption - smartphones have made media machines of us all - but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency. That’s not to deny the benefits of having easy access to an efficient, universal system of information exchange. It is to deny the mythology that shrouds the system. And it is to deny the assumption that the system, in order to provide its benefits, had to take its present form.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud. 

I love a good gizmo. When, as a teenager, I sat down at a computer for the first time - a bulging, monochromatic terminal connected to a two-ton mainframe processor - I was wonderstruck. As soon as affordable PCs came along, I surrounded myself with beige boxes, floppy disks and what used to be called ‘peripherals’.

A computer, I found, was a tool of many uses but also a puzzle of many mysteries. The more time you spent figuring out how it worked, learning its language and logic, probing its limits, the more possibilities it opened. Like the best of tools, it invited and rewarded curiosity. And it was fun, head crashes and fatal errors notwithstanding.

In the early 1990s, I launched a browser for the first time and watched the gates of the web open. I was enthralled - so much territory, so few rules. But it didn’t take long for the carpetbaggers to arrive. The territory began to be subdivided, strip-malled and, as the monetary value of its data banks grew, strip-mined.

My excitement remained, but it was tempered by wariness. I sensed that foreign agents were slipping into my computer through its connection to the web. What had been a tool under my own control was morphing into a medium under the control of others. The computer screen was becoming, as all mass media tend to become, an environment, a surrounding, an enclosure, at worst a cage. It seemed clear that those who controlled the omnipresent screen would, if given their way, control culture as well.

‘Computing is not about computers any more,’ wrote Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his bestseller Being Digital (1995). ‘It is about living.’ By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley was selling more than gadgets and software: it was selling an ideology.

The creed was set in the tradition of US techno-utopianism, but with a digital twist. The Valley-ites were fierce materialists - what couldn’t be measured had no meaning - yet they loathed materiality. In their view, the problems of the world, from inefficiency and inequality to morbidity and mortality, emanated from the world’s physicality, from its embodiment in torpid, inflexible, decaying stuff.

The panacea was virtuality - the reinvention and redemption of society in computer code. They would build us a new Eden not from atoms but from bits. All that is solid would melt into their network. We were expected to be grateful and, for the most part, we were. 

What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us. Our craving for regeneration through virtuality is the latest expression of what Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) described as ‘the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine’.

What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet. We would like to see this project as heroic, as a rebellion against the tyranny of an alien power.

But it’s not that at all. It’s a project born of anxiety. Behind it lies a dread that the messy, atomic world will rebel against us. What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. The screen provides a refuge, a mediated world that is more predictable, more tractable, and above all safer than the recalcitrant world of things. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.

‘You and I are alive at this moment.’ That Wired story - under headline ‘We Are the Web’ - nagged at me as the excitement over the rebirth of the internet intensified through the fall of 2005. The article was an irritant but also an inspiration. During the first weekend of October, I sat at my Power Mac G5 and hacked out a response.

On Monday morning, I posted the result on Rough Type - a short essay under the portentous title ‘The Amorality of Web 2.0’. To my surprise (and, I admit, delight), bloggers swarmed around the piece like phagocytes. Within days, it had been viewed by thousands and had sprouted a tail of comments.

So began my argument with - what should I call it? There are so many choices: the digital age, the information age, the internet age, the computer age, the connected age, the Google age, the emoji age, the cloud age, the smartphone age, the data age, the Facebook age, the robot age, the post-human age. The more names we pin on it, the more vaporous it seems. If nothing else, it is an age geared to the talents of the brand manager. I’ll just call it Now.

It was through my argument with Now, an argument that has now careered through more than a thousand blog posts, that I arrived at my own revelation, if only a modest, terrestrial one. What I want from technology is not a new world. What I want from technology are tools for exploring and enjoying the world that is - the world that comes to us thick with ‘things counter, original, spare, strange’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once described it. We might all live in Silicon Valley now, but we can still act and think as exiles. We can still aspire to be what Seamus Heaney, in his poem ‘Exposure’, called inner émigrés.

A dead bison. A billionaire with a gun. I guess the symbolism was pretty obvious all along. 

Reprinted from ‘Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations’ by Nicholas Carr. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas Carr. With permission of the publisher, W W Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene

urbanby Rod Oram, Pure Advantage: http://pureadvantage.org/news/2016/08/16/three-cities-seeking-hope-anthropocene/ 

With economies stagnating, politics polarising, societies shattering and ecosystems suffering, I felt an urgent need to go walkabout last September. 

It was my best chance of making some sense of the news from around the world. I travelled to Beijing, London, and Chicago, three cities that have profoundly shaped my life, as much so as Auckland has these past twenty years. 

I came home from my walkabout feeling in some ways more despondent. The damage being done is so rampant, the vital changes needed so radical, the time left so fleeting. Righting our utter unsustainability seems impossible. Yet if we give up we are already lost.

Thankfully, I also came home feeling more optimistic and purposeful, with a deep appreciation for the people I had met and the work they do.

They are recovering a sense of boundless opportunity, optimism, common good and, above all, values and moral purpose. They are keeping alive rationality, engagement, enterprise and freedom. They are creating political systems, social structures and business models that will help us achieve an unprecedented speed, scale and complexity of change.

They are giving us half a chance to work with the ecosystem, not against it. They all work in small communities of interest with deep knowledge and skills, while networking widely. These are strong, learning communities with the essential attributes of common sense (understanding what’s going on), common purpose (responding effectively) and common wealth (sharing the economic, ecological and societal benefits).

In such communities, individuals are valued, helped and encouraged. In return, they participate and change, and help others change. In my new BWB Text, Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene, I discuss three concepts that help show us how we can achieve this.

First, the Doughnut Economy situates the ideal economy between two circles, the outer one labelled ‘environmental ceiling’, the inner one ‘social foundation’. In between lies ‘the safe and just space for humanity’. Created by British economist Kate Raworth, this concept lays out the strong social foundation required for transformational change, and the environmental limits within which we must live.

The second concept is the Circular Economy in which the waste material from making one product becomes the raw material for making another. This guides us towards returning to nature everything we take from it, ensuring we work with the ecosystem, not against it.

The third is China’s long-term vision of Ecological Civilisation which involves wise use of resources, environmental protection and ecological preservation. This informs the values we need to achieve deep sustainability in environmental, social, cultural and economic terms.

While the concepts are new, some elements of them were once embedded in New Zealand society. We used to talk about equality of opportunity. But now we create growing inequalities in health, education and welfare. We used to conserve some of our local ecosystems. But now we systematically degrade all our land, water and air.

Now, though, we have to embark on deep change so we can achieve the biggest goal humankind has ever attempted. It is not to save the planet. It will survive the Anthropocene - even if we don’t. It will adapt as it has to previous geological eras. Over tens of millions of years a vastly different ecosystem will evolve, one shaped by prevailing conditions.

Our goal has to be to save ourselves. To do so we must give this ecosystem that gives us life the best chance it has to recover and to continue to support us. Achieving this enormous goal will take countless steps. The three most critical are minimising climate change, and making sustainable use of land and oceans. Each in turn will take myriad steps. This can be achieved if people are wise and effective, quick and committed.

Minimising climate change dictates we must drastically cut human triggered carbon emissions to net zero by 2040 - meaning, we reuse or capture and store enough existing atmospheric carbon to negate the new carbon we add. That requires radical changes to the way people design the built-environment and economy, the materials used to make them and the energy used to run them. Then we will have half a chance of keeping climate change to less than 2 ̊C.

We have to begin right now with communities, business and government working on ways to reduce our carbon emissions far more, and far more quickly, than the immorally minimalist target our government tabled in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations. Such transformation will create great economic opportunities for all.

urban_trees

Sustainable land requires equally radical change in the way soil and freshwater are used. For farmers, this means developing practices that improve the health of soil and water and increase biodiversity, while eliminating artificial fertilisers and chemicals. Deep science and technology are vital to helping people understand and work with the vast complexity and abundance of nature.

For city-dwellers, achieving sustainable land and water use means minimising urban footprints and bringing more of nature into our built- environments. This includes producing more food in towns, using natural processes to treat storm water, and greening buildings and streetscapes to enhance their biodiversity.

Sustainable oceans are a still greater challenge, not least here in the South Seas. New Zealand is responsible for the fourth-largest oceanic zone in the world. It is more than twenty times our land area. Yet we know little about it. Given the great complexity of the marine ecosystem our fishery management practices are crude and probably not sustainable. Close to shore in places such as the Hauraki Gulf we are rapidly degrading the ecosystem by over-exploiting it and pouring urban detritus into it.

These ambitious goals can be achieved over coming decades if we commit right now to beginning the long adventure. Crucial first steps include the government making a much deeper international carbon reduction pledge than it did in Paris. 

Long-term, stable policies, devised collaboratively with companies and communities, would enable the country to meet that commitment. The policies would need strong cross-party and public support, based on a clear understanding of their benefits, and because of their intergenerational timeframe.

But treaties and policies are top-down. They alone can’t do the job. We must also have bottom-up complementary, voluntary measures to enable companies, communities and individuals to go above and beyond.

All of the above needs to be underpinned by a committee on climate change, like the UK’s, which gives independent, evidence-based advice to the government and parliament on carbon budgets and policies, while measuring progress on it.

New Zealand businesses need to play their part by following the lead of offshore corporates that are measuring and managing their carbon flows. This has become a fundamental business discipline, as much so as measuring and managing money. The London Stock Exchange, for example, requires listed companies to measure, report and manage their carbon footprint.

Likewise, carbon is increasingly a metric for company evaluations by investment fund managers. This helps them judge which companies will benefit most from engaging in the low-carbon transformation, and which are most vulnerable from not engaging. […]

All these projects would deliver substantial economic and environmental benefits. But at best only a few might happen, because society is so divided over how serious the current unsustainability is. And that won’t change until we understand how fundamental a transformation we need in our relationships with each other and with the ecosystem.

If we get them right, though, a galaxy of opportunities for our planet’s remedy and renewal will open up. 

About the author, Rod Oram

Rod Oram has forty years’ experience as an international business journalist. He has worked for various publications in Europe, North America and New Zealand, including the Financial Times and the New Zealand Herald. He is currently a columnist for the Sunday Star-Times; a regular broadcaster on radio and television; and a frequent public speaker on sustainability, business, economics, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, in both New Zealand and global contexts.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Degrowth, Green Capitalism and the Promise of Ecosocialism

by Richard Smith, Links.org: http://links.org.au/degrowth-green-capitalism-ecosocialism-richard-smith

I don’t need to tell you we face an existential threat. Scientists tell us we face a “climate emergency.” Last year was the hottest year ever recorded, beating 2014, which beat 2012. We break new records every year. 

The fourteen hottest years ever recorded have been recorded since 2000. January and February temperatures were torrid. Global temperatures hit new all-time highs in February; the northern hemisphere breached the 2 degrees-Celsius-above-normal mark for the first time in recorded history. Svalbard, Norway, averaged 10 degrees Celsius above normal. 

Parts of the Arctic were more than 16 degrees Celsius warmer - basically no winter. There were record-setting low measures of maximum Arctic sea ice this “winter.” In the United States, the winter was record-warm from coast to coast, breaking all-time temperature records for February. The same in Asia. In the tropics, record warmth is massively bleaching the Great Barrier Reef.

Keep in mind that it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October for temperatures to climb 1.0 degree Celsius, and we’ve come an extra 0.4 degrees further in just the last five months. What’s driving this? More and more, people are coming to understand that the problem is not the climate. It’s our economic system.

In her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein tersely sums up our plight: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.” Climate scientists tell us that “our only hope of keeping warming below … 2 degrees Celsius is for wealthy countries to cut their emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 per cent a year.” “The ‘free’ market simply cannot accomplish this task,” Klein writes, “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered growth.”

So far, unfettered growth is winning. Instead of suppressing fossil fuel production, oil companies are pumping oil and gas from the ends of the earth. President Obama opened the Atlantic seaboard to drilling after he opened the Arctic and after he promoted his “All of the Above,” also known as “Drill Baby Drill,” plan to pump and drill and frack the country and beyond and bragged that he’s laid more pipelines than any president in history.

Instead of minimizing fossil fuel consumption, consumers seem bent on maximizing consumption. The glut of oil production has only encouraged people to drive more and buy gas-hog SUVs and huge trucks that get worse gas mileage than the Cadillac land yachts of the 1950s. We’re burning up more fuel flying everywhere and installing air conditioners to beat the heat.

Instead of imposing binding limits on emissions, governments have kicked the can down the road for 22 consecutive years. At Paris in December, they didn’t even try. Instead they promoted hallucinatory fantasies of huge “negative emissions” to be had by some high-tech “carbon capture and storage” - again, always “someday” in the future, never today; no such technology presently exists in any practicable form nor is ever likely to. 

The U.S. government has abandoned subsidizing carbon capture. Carbon capture is not a technology. Carbon capture is a propaganda tool to let consumers rationalize obscene, unsustainable overconsumption: Not to worry, we’ll fix it tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes. Year after year, decade after decade, climate summits collapse in disarray because no country will sacrifice jobs and growth today to save their children tomorrow.

And not just fossil fuels, we’re devouring everything - minerals, lumber, fresh water, fish stolen from the mouths of sharks and whales; we’re saving nothing for the future, reserving nothing for other species, which instead we’re just driving to the wall. 

Instead of inventing ways to minimize resource consumption, our smartest companies like Apple and Google work only to invent “needs” we don’t really need: drones, robots, iPhones 5-6-7, 3D printers, hoverboards, the “Internet of Things,” self-driving cars, biometric T-shirts, electric planes - the endless quest for “the next big thing,” but really just new ways to devour more resources and convert them into “product.” 

Instead of making products to be as durable and long-lasting as possible to conserve resources, our top companies pay their brilliant engineers, designers, and marketers to devise ways to make them wear out faster, to become obsolete, disposable, replaced in ever-faster cycles. 

Our capitalist economy is geared completely wrong. All the incentives are wrong. As an American retail analyst famously wrote way back in 1955: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace"[1]. 

And so it is. For three hundred years, the engine of capitalist economic development revolutionized technology, and science improved our lives in countless ways. But now this out-of-control engine is consuming us to death, driving us off the cliff and into the abyss. 

What to do? Mainstream economists have had two approaches. Economists such as Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, and Serge Latouche have advocated “degrowth.” The idea is that capitalism can be slowed down, made to run at a “steady state” or even to “degrow.” I have argued elsewhere that these theorists just don’t understand capitalism. Capitalist “degrowth” just means recession, if not depression. 

Imagine Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, telling his investors, “Sorry, but to save the planet, we cannot grow profits next year, and in fact, we have to cut production (and thus profits) by 8-10 per cent next year and every year thereafter, for the next three-and-a-half decades, by which time we will be basically out of business.” How long would it take your retirement fund to dump that stock? 

The other approach is “green capitalism.” The idea here is that growth can go on forever but be rendered benign for the environment. Economists who advocate green capitalism call for carbon taxes, solar power, LED lightbulbs. We are no doubt better off for some of these policies and technologies. But green capitalism can’t save us. Here and there the planet’s needs and the corporations’ needs do coincide - but they do not align systematically. To save the planet, corporations would have to subordinate growth and profits to saving the humans - but they can’t do this. They’re not responsible to us. They’re responsible to shareholders. 

Shareholders can’t subordinate growth to saving the planet and still compete in the world market - especially against China. What difference does it make if Germany gets 30 per cent of electricity from renewables when what it produces with that electricity, its biggest export industry, is global warmers: gasoline-powered cars and gratuitously filthy diesels to boot? What difference if Apple powers all its servers in California with solar power when what it produces in China (and with coal power) is just completely disposable iPhones and iPads?

Americans alone junk 100 million cell phones a year - mostly perfectly workable but “so last year.” The environmental cost of producing millions and billions of cellphones, computers, Gameboys, and all the other “devices” is just staggeringly unsustainable. IPhones are expensive. The cost of that new iPhone 6 is your children. 

What about cap-and-trade policies? No capitalist economy, no government, will accept cap-and-trade. Why? Because it would impose a “cap.” A cap is a finite limit on greenhouse gas emissions like CO2. But every government understands that a cap on emissions means a cap on growth. That’s why no industrialized country has been willing to accept a cap. As George Bush senior put it back in 1992, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” And if the Americans won’t cut emissions, why should the Chinese? 

What about carbon taxes? Lots of governments pass carbon taxes, but they’re all too feeble to make any real difference. Scientists tell us that to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius and prevent runaway global warming, the industrialized countries would have to suppress emissions by 6-10 per cent per year, truly draconian levels, for the next 35 years to get emissions down to where they need to be by 2050. But cutting emissions by anything like that amount would mean industrial shutdowns across the board. 

So governments pass carbon taxes to placate environmentalists, but they pass taxes that are too feeble to force any real change. That’s why oil company executives at Shell, ExxonMobil, and so on all support carbon taxes. Carbon taxes are just an indulgence, just another cost of doing business, which they can also just pass along to their customers. Most importantly, it’s not a cap, so it won’t stop growth. These market approaches aren’t designed to cut fossil fuel consumption. They’re designed to delay or to avoid cutting fossil fuel consumption, to keep the engines of growth revving, to keep prioritizing growth and jobs over the environment. 

It’s not difficult to stop global warming. It’s completely obvious and simple. If we want to cut fossil fuel consumption we just have to enforce cuts in consumption, just ration oil and gas, like governments did during World War II, like when the U.S. government banned DDT, or when it banned ozone-depleting refrigerant chlorofluorocarbons. 

The problem is that, given capitalism, cutting fossil fuel consumption would immediately bankrupt the largest companies in the world and plunge us into economic collapse, mass unemployment, and depression. Our whole economy is based on fossil fuel: mining, manufacturing, heating, transportation, petrochemicals, construction, industrial farming, tourism, you name it.

Electricity and heat account for 25 per cent of CO2 emissions; industry, 21 per cent; transportation, 14 per cent; agriculture, forestry, and deforestation, 24 per cent[2]. If we have to cut emissions by 90 per cent, renewable energy is a start but only part of the picture. We need a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to minimizing resource consumption, not maximizing it, an economy geared to sustainability and equity, not profit. 

My argument can be summed up in three points:  

1. Rational, sustainable economic planning is the only way to save the humans. “We’re one people on one planet.” Either we start acting like it or we’re doomed.

2. Rational, sustainable planning will only work if it’s done democratically, if all those who are affected have an equal say in decisions that affect them. That, after all, is the essence of democracy.

3. True democracy is impossible without generalized equality. 

Why planning? 

The problems we face, the problems of “planet management,” can’t be solved by individual choice in the marketplace. They require conscious, rational planning, international cooperation, and collective democratic control over the economy - not market anarchy. 

Climate scientists have been telling us for decades that we need a binding, global plan to suppress fossil fuel emissions. Ocean scientists tell us we need a global five-year plan to save the oceans[3]. We need rational, comprehensive, legally binding plans and agreements to save the world’s remaining forests; to protect and restore rivers, lakes, and fisheries; to save millions of imperiled species around the globe; and to conserve natural resources of all kinds for future generations. 

I don’t think people really grasp how big a change we need to make. Cutting emissions by 8-10 per cent per year would require selective but substantial deindustrialization in the global North. We would have to contract and converge our levels of production and consumption around a globally sustainable and hopefully happy average that can provide a dignified living standard for all the world’s peoples. 

In the global North, the industrialized nations would have to radically suppress fossil fuel consumption across the economy. We would have to phase out use of coal, drastically curtail oil consumption, ration it, and drastically retrench auto production, trucking, shipping, airlines, petrochemicals, construction, and other sectors. 

We would have to abolish the consumerist designed-in obsolescence, repetitive-production disposables industries (plastic junk, H&M disposable clothes, IKEA chipboard furniture, throwaway products of every sort) and replace those with durable, rebuildable, recyclable, and shareable products instead of disposable products.

We would have to reorganize production of the goods and services we do need to minimize resource consumption, instead of maximizing consumption by producing goods to be “burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded as fast as possible.” We would have to discontinue harmful and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, and logging and replace these with organic farming, husbandry, forest conservation, and so on. 

We would have to redirect investments into renewable energy, public transportation, public water systems, public health, public schools, and social services - so that we can get more of what we need collectively instead of privately. And if we have to shut down harmful, wasteful industries, then we have to provide equivalent jobs for all those displaced workers, not only because this is a moral imperative but because without guaranteed employment elsewhere, those workers can’t support the huge structural changes we need to save the humans. So we would need substantial deindustrialization in the global North. 

In the global South, however, we need to ramp up sustainable development. We in the North have a responsibility to help the South build basic infrastructure, electrification, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on. We would help their citizens achieve a comfortable material standard of living without repeating all the disastrous wastes of capitalist consumerism in the North. 

Planning can’t work? 

Of course, capitalist economists never tire of telling us that economic planning “can’t work.” It’s “too complicated” and “the first step on the road to serfdom, to Stalinism. Look at the Soviet Union.” I don’t buy that. Planning for whom by whom? Stalinist planning worked poorly because in the Stalinist states planning was of, by, and for the party bureaucracy. This proves nothing about the potentials of planning per se or democratic planning. Today, China plans most of the second largest economy in the world. They plan it badly, squandering money on massive overproduction of steel, coal, and cement; massive overproduction of housing, roads, rails, dams; and so on. So China is just another bad example. 

Capitalist economists tell us that governments can’t pick winners. Hardly a week goes by that the Wall Street Journal fails to remind us that the 2011 bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra Corporation, bankrolled by the Obama administration, is proof that governments can’t pick winners. But since when do capitalists have a crystal ball? CEOs and corporate boards make bad bets on “loser” technologies and products all the time. 

Look at Fisker Automotive, or Better Place, the Israeli electric vehicle charging stations. Companies fail all the time. Silicon Valley is littered with failures. Corporate CEOs lose money all the time. Remember Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Enron, WorldCom, Pan American Airways. Who knows if Facebook or Zipcar or Tesla Motors will ever make money? Capitalists just bet on the future. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. 

Government-backed Solyndra lost $535 million. But when Jamie Dimon lost two $2 billion for JP Morgan Chase, I didn’t hear the Wall Street Journal howling that capitalists “can’t pick winners.” When Enron collapsed, I didn’t hear any blanket condemnation of the “inevitable incompetence of the private sector.” When Shell abandoned its fool’s-errand Arctic-drilling adventure last year, losing $8 billion of its shareholders’ money, the Wall Street Journal blamed excessive government regulations, not the company. 

So the free market is no better at “picking winners” than governments. Actually, private industry is not nearly as good as even capitalist governments. Because when governments plan investments in national rail systems or power plants or ports, and so on, they do so from the standpoint of the needs of the whole society, and for the long-term, not just the needs of corporate shareholders and quarterly returns. 

Governments not only regularly pick winners, but the U.S. government, through its own agencies and targeted support of innovation funding at universities, has been the leading engine of technological innovation in the United States since World War II (as recent studies have confirmed: Matthew Keller, State of Innovation: The U.S. Government’s Role in Technology Development (2011) and Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (2013)). 

Government-funded and -directed applied research produced nuclear energy, radar, rockets, the jet engine, the transistor, the microchip, the internet, satellite broadcasting, satellite GPS, critical breakthroughs in biotechnology, and many more. Government-developed and -produced ballistic missiles terrorized the Soviets and government-designed and -operated bombers bombed the Reds in Korea and Vietnam to contain Communism and to secure dominance of the Free World for corporate America to exploit. 

The most important innovations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were government startups. What’s more, most of these were then handed over to capitalist corporations to profit from, even to the same capitalists who badmouth government. 

But you don’t hear the Wall Street Journal applauding the government successes. All you hear is “Solyndra shows government can’t pick winners.” 

Capitalist planning works just fine 

Moreover, within their own enterprises, capitalists are fanatically rational planners. Today, the revenues of the world’s largest corporations are bigger than many national economies. Of the world’s one hundred largest economic entities, 37 are corporations, the rest countries. 

Large multinational companies operate in dozens of countries with hundreds of thousands of employees. Walmart has 2.2 million employees - almost equal to half the population of Denmark. Boeing Aircraft sources its 787 components from 50 companies in more than a dozen countries, among them Japan, Italy, Korea, Germany, China, the U.K., Sweden, and France. 

Take the Boeing Corporation as an example of capitalist planning. Boeing’s ultra-high-tech and far-flung operations are all “centrally planned,” coordinated, and managed from the corporate head office in Chicago. Airplane production is systematically planned, coordinated, tightly sequenced, and choreographed. Every minute and dollar is counted. Waste and inefficiency are fanatically rooted out. Production is rigorously precise, disciplined, and efficient. Besides production, Boeing manages crew training, maintenance, repair, and upgrading of thousands of aircraft around the world. Then there are offices for product development, sales, personnel, and government regulation management, and more. 

If companies with revenues greater than the GDPs of most countries can rationally and efficiently plan their economies, why can’t nations? Why can’t we rationally plan the world industrial economy for the needs of the world’s peoples? 

Of course, planning a national economy and coordinating global economies is more difficult than planning production, sale, and maintenance of airplanes. But I don’t see any technological barrier to this. Besides, we don’t have a choice. It’s plan or die. If we don’t rationally plan our major industrial economies for the needs of people and planet, if, instead, we continue to let market anarchy and profit-maximization guide our global economic life, the result will be collective human suicide. 

Public regulation of utilities

The United States may be the world’s leading champion of the free market, but it nonetheless possesses a large and indispensable sector of the economy that is not governed by the free market but instead is regulated democratically by public oversight - and that is the public utilities: electricity, heating fuel, water and sewerage, local telephone service. These are the most efficient and cheapest utility systems in the world. Greg Palast and co-authors wrote a book about it. They write:

"Unique in the world (with the exception of Canada), every aspect of U.S. regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly, to ask questions of government and utilities, to read all financial and operating records in detail. In public forums, with all information open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extraordinary exercise in democracy - and it works". 

Another little known fact is that, despite the recent experiments with markets in electricity - the authors published this book in 2003, just three years after the Enron privatization debacle - the U.S. holds to the strictest, most elaborate and detailed system of regulation anywhere: Private utilities’ profits are capped and investments directed or vetoed by public agencies. Privately owned utilities are directed to reduce prices for the poor, fund environmentally friendly investments, protect community employment, and open themselves to physical and financial inspection. Americans, while strongly attached to private property and ownership, demand stern and exacting government control over vital utility services. 

So, regulation of large-scale utilities is a real-world example of something like a “proto-socialism.” I see no obvious reason something like this model of democracy and transparency could not be scaled up to encompass the entire industrial economy. And of course in Western Europe you have lots of state-owned industries and utilities, they mostly work fine, better than private services, and you live in democracies, not state-serfdom. 

Saving small producers 

In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy. 

I contend that the only way to plan the economy for the common good is if we do it ourselves, democratically. I believe that rational planning must be democratic. Solar or coal? Frack the planet or work our way off fossil fuels? Drench the world’s farms in toxic pesticides or return to organic agriculture? Public transportation or private cars as the mainstay? We can put the big questions up for a vote. Shouldn’t everyone have a say in decisions that affect us all? Isn’t that the essential idea of democracy? 

We don’t have to be experts to make such decisions. Corporate boards aren’t composed of experts. They’re composed of major investors and prominent, often politically connected, VIPs. Yet corporate boards decide and vote on what they want to do and then hire experts to figure out how to get it done. Why can’t society do the same, but in the interest of the common good instead of Wall Street investors? 

Well, you may ask, “How do we know people would vote for the common good?” We don’t. After all, people vote against their own interests in elections all the time. Look at the U.S. primaries. Yet on closer inspection it’s not so surprising, given the limited choices they’re offered in capitalist democracy. 

What we see is that in the abstract, people would vote their conscience on environmental issues: so 69 per cent of Americans favor binding limits on CO2 emissions and 93 per cent want GMO labeling. This shows, I believe, that people have pretty good instincts about the environment. 

But when the issue is framed as a choice between environment versus jobs, people often vote for the economy and against the environment. If we want democracy to work, we would have to have exclusively public funding of elections and referendums, free and open debate on issues, and zero tolerance for Fox News and similar propaganda machines - and we need an economy in which workers in industries that need to be cashiered to save the planet are guaranteed other comparable jobs. 

When, in the midst of the Great Depression, that great “People’s Lawyer” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” he was more right than he knew. We have to recognize that genuine democracy requires a society that approximates socio-economic equality. 

Today we have by far the greatest concentration of wealth in history. Not just the 1 per cent. Worldwide, Oxfam found that just 80 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom half, 3.6 billion, of the world’s population. So it’s hardly surprising that today we have the weakest and most corrupt democracies since the Gilded Age. 

I contend that if we want a real democracy, we will have to abolish the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. That means we will have to abolish not just capitalist private property in the means of production, but also extremes of income, exorbitant salaries, accumulated wealth, great property, and inheritance. The only way to prevent the corruption of democracy is to make it impossible to materially gain, by creating a society with neither rich nor poor. If it’s illegal to be rich, then there’s little or no incentive to be corrupt. 

Does that mean we would all have to dress in blue Mao suits and dine in communal mess halls? Hardly. Lots of studies, like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argue convincingly that people are happier, life is better, there’s less crime and violence, and fewer mental health problems in societies that are more equal, where income differences are small and concentrated wealth is limited, societies like Denmark. 

Gandhi was right in saying “the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” We don’t have five planets to provide the resources for the whole world to live a consumerist lifestyle. But we have more than enough wealth to provide every human being on the planet with safe water and sanitation, quality food, housing, public transportation, great schools, and health care - all the authentic necessities. These should all be guaranteed as a matter of right. Indeed, most of these were already declared as such in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948:

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.

Article 23: The right to work, to free choice of employment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favorable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to just and favorable remuneration, to join trade unions.

Article 24: The right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25: (1) The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection. 

The promise of ecosocialism  


Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary and harmful commodities would free us to shorten the workday, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less. We can all build a beautiful world to pass on to our children while leaving space and resources for the wonderful life forms with which we share this amazing blue planet. That’s the potential of ecosocialism. 

 We’re living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history; indeed, this is the most critical moment in human history. Capitalism has had a good 300-year run. But economic systems come and go, as do governments. There is no gainsaying the magnitude of the changes we are going to have to make to save ourselves. 

There is no doubt that closing the book on capitalism and moving on to a higher stage of civilization - ecosocialism - by replacing the culture of “possessive individualism” with a culture of sharing, community, and love, is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. This is the revolution to come. We may very well fail. But what other choice do we have but to try. 

All around the world, on every continent, we see vibrant and growing struggles against capital; against layoffs and unemployment; against privatization, ecological destruction, dams, and dumps; against overdevelopment. They have fought and won, beating back water privatization in Bolivia and health care privatization in El Salvador; won against the siting of chemical plants and garbage incinerators in China, against drug company piracy in South Africa and India, against factory schooling. 

They have won community control over schooling and social services, successfully defended indigenous rights (against Keystone XL and pipelines in Canada), restored teaching of indigenous languages in Hawai’i, successfully defended workers’ cooperatives, won land for the tiller (as by the Via Campesina movement), and more. Diverse as they are, these struggles all share a common demand for bottom-up democracy. They may not yet be organized in a common party, a global organization, but they’re headed in that direction. Unifying those struggles for an alternative, a new world, is our best hope.

Richard Smith is an economic historian and has written extensively on capitalism and the environment for academic and Left journals. His book Green Capitalism: the God That Failed (WEA Books) was published in 2015 and his China’s Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso) will be published in 2017.
This paper was originally presented at the conference Red/Green Alternatives: Breaking with Growth and Neoliberalism, which was held in Copenhagen on March 12, 2016, and sponsored by the Red Green Alliance and transform! network. 


Notes 

[1] Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955,” Journal of Retailing (Spring 1955), quoted in Vance Packard, The Wastemakers (David McKay, 1960), 24.
[2] U.S. EPA, "Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data."
[3] Jenna Iacurci, “Report Calls for Five-Year Plan to Save World’s Overfished Oceans,” Nature World News, June 24, 2014.