What follows is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave in Amherst, MA. on January 25, 2020 sponsored by the organization Tom Paine Friends, in honor of what would have been Tom Paine's 283rd birthday.
What Would Tom Paine Advocate Today
My favorite quote from Tom Paine is, "The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion." I would change "mankind" to "humankind," but otherwise that quote is close to a succinct summary of my worldview.
I'm not a big fan of ideological labels. Describing people as Socialists, Capitalists, Communists, Anarchists, or some other "ist", often obscures, rather than clarifies, their beliefs. However, if you called me a Tom Paine-ist, you wouldn't be far off the mark.
What would Tom Paine or a Tom Paine-ist advocate today?
I use the word "advocate" because that's who Tom Paine was. He didn't mount the barricades. He didn't fight in an army. He used his pen to promote actions and support policies. During the American revolution his pen turned out to be mightier than many British swords and canons. So, what would he advocate today?
It is safe to say that Tom Paine knew nothing about climate change, but I think that he would advocate for what environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are saying and doing. More about this later.
As a person of the enlightenment, someone who elevated reason and science, he would argue first for applying our scientific knowledge to make a realistic assessment of what we face. Given that climate change is a global problem that must be tackled by all people, everywhere, advocating for revolutionary change in order to achieve global sustainability is exactly what someone would do who believed in doing good for the entire world and all people who live upon it.
I don't know how much Paine knew about environmental interactions and so do not know if he understood that doing good for all people also requires doing good by the plants and animals we share the planet with. But as an enlightenment man of reason and science, if he were alive today, he would quickly reach that conclusion.
So, what is a realistic assessment of what we face? Most of us have heard a lot of about bigger storms, worse droughts, hotter temperatures, coupled with more erratic weather in general. We've also heard about sea level rise and catastrophic weather events causing 10's, even 100's, of millions of climate refugees, and that this will cause widespread misery, social chaos and war.
I hate to say it, but that's a sugar-coated assessment. Once we cross a certain threshold (the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris accords put that number at 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, or approximately between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit) we will trigger a self-perpetuating cycle of temperature increases that we can do nothing to stop. That will result in several more degrees of warming.
If that happens, massive methane releases will poison our atmosphere, growing food will become close to impossible and most drinkable fresh water will vanish. In other words, we won't be able to breath the air, drink the water and there will be no food. That's what we face and that's why it is no exaggeration to say we face an existential crisis.
Why hasn't it been presented to us in this manner? I'll quote from an essay Jonathan Franzen published in the New Yorker last September, that begins to explain this. He wrote that avoiding this kind of talk is not surprising, "Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I'll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senes (breakfast!) my mind prefers to focus on the latter." So do we all….
We shake our heads and express sorrow and sympathy for the animal and plant victims of the Australian fires. But we don't give a thought about it happening here. The recent firestorms in northern Alberta, in California, and now Australia will not be confined to those areas as the weather becomes hotter and more erratic. Once we cross the threshold I described a few moments ago, and possibly even before, it will become inevitable that our forests will burn just like those in California and Australia. I'm not predicting this will happen in hundreds of years; I predict that sometime in the next several decades our forests will burn. Imagine our Valley in the midst of a firestorm.
And firestorm is a good word for it, because these fires are so potent that they create their own weather. Meteorologists have observed an unprecedented type of cloud formation during the Alberta and Australian fires. Their technical name is pyrocumulonimbus clouds. They are caused by the energy released during the fires and create lightning, thunder and tornado-like winds that spread burning embers over long distances. Australians have begun to call them fire clouds. None of us want to imagine them in our Valley.
Scientists are human and not necessarily politically astute. Back in 1988 head NASA scientist James Hansen publicly predicted what has happened since and what we are facing. He might have also been correct at that time when he said that if we attacked the problem immediately and applied our collective political will we could turn this around. But the world's weather seemed benign at the time, and powerful economic and political forces reacted by creating the vast array of climate denial propaganda that plagues us to this day.
All the scientists could think to do, as it became less likely that we could turn this around, was to scream more shrilly that we must act and that it isn't too late. They said it in 1990, in 2000, in 2010 and during every year since. That didn't help as the decades rolled by. People could rationalize: you said the sky was falling in 1988, you have said it over and over again for 30 years and the sky is still up there. Until the last few years, such skepticism helped delay the realization that Hansen was right.
Some scientists came to believe it was too late and gave up in despair. Others, and this goes well beyond scientists, educated themselves and understood what was happening, but became reluctant to tell the whole truth because it was so dire and overwhelming that they feared it would discourage action.
And this last fear is a very real one. When I bring this up, a common response is, "What a downer." Yes, confronting the horror we face is a downer, but isn't making a comment like that designed to shut off discussion? Isn't it in fact a form of climate change denial? It says, let's not talk about this. But if we don't talk about it, how can we address it? Tom Paine would say we must mobilize the masses on a global scale in order to make our best efforts to combat this. He would be the last person to say don't talk or write about it.
If I accomplish one thing today, I hope that no one who hears this talk will ever try to stifle climate change related discussion by saying it's a downer. And better still, if you hear someone else say it, confront them about it.
As a political strategist Tom Paine would also make a realistic political assessment. His application of the science to our political situation would lead him to conclude we are unlikely to change the global power structure quickly enough to avoid crossing the thresholds I talked about before. However, Paine never shied away from taking on long odds, so I bet, confronted with this crisis, he'd pen a pamphlet. Perhaps he'd title it "Environmental Common Sense." In this pamphlet he'd outline how to make our most effective effort to save ourselves and the productive capacity of the planet.
I mentioned the Extinction Rebellion before. XR, as it calls itself, started in the UK and has been engaging in a range of non-violent civil disruptions. Their actions have included blocking intersections and bridges in cities across the globe to demand that all governments declare a climate emergency and make addressing the problem their top priority. Tom Paine would recognize the need for mass revolutionary action. He would say that common sense demands we support and join them.
What kind of change would he urge? As a revolutionary who looked at social structure as a whole, he would urge that our survival now depends on transforming our basic social ethic from competition to cooperation. He would see the need to place the environment over profit and the economy. He would note that sustainability, rather than growth, must be our guide-star.
How much time do we have? If we don't turn things around in the next ten years, how long before we blow through the threshold that will generate self-perpetuating changes that we will be unable to stop and render the planet virtually uninhabitable?
Scientists tell us that it takes thirty years to feel the full impact of the greenhouse gases we've pumped into the atmosphere in any given year, and that in the last 30 years we've pumped as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we did in the previous 150 years. During those 150 years we increased global temperatures by one degree Celsius, so it is reasonable to project that we'll reach the two-degree Celsius threshold by the time we feel the full effect of the gases we've pumped into the atmosphere since 1990. That is around 2050, but, of course, such dates are hard to pin down exactly.
A very well-connected and well-funded British think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, has produced a policy paper that sheds further light on how much time we have. As an aside, I don't like a lot of what they do because they see nuclear power and other technological fixes as solutions. They believe that we can get out of the mess industrial technology has gotten us into by applying even more industrial technology. I think that's absurd. One of the definitions of insanity is the belief that you can do the same thing you've been doing and produce a different result. However, their position papers present the clearest picture of what we will face and when we will face it.
They point out that the world has several major bread baskets; the US/Canadian plains, and the rice bowls of China and India, along with rich agricultural river deltas like the Mekong and Nile. They predict that climate change could lead to the simultaneous crop failure of all of them by 2050. Once that happens, we will face global societal breakdown. I'll have to live to over 100 to experience it, or more likely die by it, but I fear for my children, their children, and all the younger people in this room. Blowing through the 2-degree Celsius threshold will generate at least another two degrees of warming, bringing the total to four degrees Celsius. About that, the report says, "Scientists warn that warming of 4 degrees C is incompatible with an organized global community. …. The World Bank says it may be beyond adaption." The World Bank is hardly a radical organization.
Given this time frame, Paine would recognize that every day counts, but he'd also acknowledge that, although we must try, any progress we can make during the 10 years the scientists claim we have to drastically cut our emissions, probably won't prevent us from crossing the self-perpetuating threshold of further temperature rise. However, since it might, it would still be worth pursuing.
He'd also acknowledge that it might not and so it would be wise to brace ourselves for all the nastiness that is coming down the pike. Again, a quote from Jonathan Franzen's article illuminates what I mean by this. Franzen writes that if we can't win the battle against climate change outright, "other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force. rather than the rule of law, and our defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, and functioning communities. In this respect any movement towards a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting a humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, …. these are all meaningful climate actions."
I doubt Tom Paine knew much about social media, but he wrote about and advocated for every other progressive action mentioned in the quoted language. For instance, in "Common Sense," Paine saw our emerging nation as an asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty. He'd be turning over in his grave if he saw what is happening today to the American human rights haven he dreamed of.
That means that efforts like those right here in Amherst, to provide sanctuary for an undocumented man not only support human rights but are climate actions as well. And the same can be said for community efforts to aid refugees, support permaculture farming, offer anti-racist training, promote workers' rights and build neighborhood support networks.
What would Tom Paine say about the 2020 election? He wrote, "Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions."
Wow. Tom Paine died well over a hundred years before Donald Trump was born, but he still described him to a tee.
On the Democratic side. I think he would analyze the political and economic forces arrayed against those working to prevent environmental collapse, and quickly realize that only those willing to directly confront American and global extractionist corporations are proposing policies that just might save us. There are only two viable current candidates who fit this mold, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I think Paine would favor Sanders over Warren because, despite the major grass roots campaign Warren is mounting, she's basically a regulator. That's a top down perspective, while Sanders stakes his ability to make change on building a bottom up mass movement, and Paine was a promoter of revolutionary mass movements. Still, Paine was a political realist and despite his preference for Sanders, would have been willing to support Warren if she became the nominee because she supports necessary basic change as well.
Injecting my own opinion: I believe a Sanders/Warren ticket would be best. I think that combined they have the best chance of beating Trump, and that having a bottom up organizer and a top-down regulator working in tandem would be an excellent combination.
And I think Paine would argue that it must be now. That we have run out of time. I think we can agree that if Trump is reelected, we will blow through the 2-degree threshold more quickly and the future of the human race, and all complex life forms on the planet, looks bleak. But I think Paine would also recognize that even if we dump Trump, which would be a good thing, if we replace him with a corporate-oriented democrat we won't gain what is necessary to save us.
Why is that? The scientists say we have ten years, but while most of their predictions have been accurate, things have gotten worse more quickly than they predicted. Thus, eight, rather than ten years, to turn things around may be a more prudent assessment. If we elect a corporate democrat, that person may reverse some of Trump's worst policies, but he or she will not make the basic changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas production. In that case, we lose four of our precious eight years. And, of course, that corporate democrat will run again in 2024, and his or her republican opponent will be even worse than whoever that is. So even if that democrat wins again in 2024, it will be 2028 before any of the necessary changes are even in the planning stage and by then it will be too late. That's why electing Warren or Sanders is so essential. If we elect any other Democrat we'll be jumping out of the fire, but into the frying pan.
That's the beginning of an outline of what I believe Tom Paine would write in Environmental Common Sense, but I want to leave you with one final thought.
What does it mean to say "the world is my country"? If the world is your country, it means you do not give your allegiance to any particular country. It means that you don't believe in nationalism. It means that you don't elevate any nation above others. It means that patriotism is obsolete, except in the sense that you express your love for your country, by taking actions to benefit all countries including your own. And because we face an urgent global crisis that requires global cooperation, Tom Paine's basic philosophy,"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion," has never been more timely.
STILL OUT ON A LIMB
What follows is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave in Amherst, MA. on January 25, 2020 sponsored by the organization Tom Paine Friends, in honor of what would have been Tom Paine's 283rd birthday.
The issue before the Easthampton City Council was simple. The Department of Public Works recommended that the City buy a standard gas powered SUV because it cost $7000 less than a hybrid SUV. The proposal failed because it required six of the nine councilors to vote yes and only four did. This is not a perfect measure because, among other things, an environmentalist might argue against purchasing any SUV, but it does indicate that at least some elected officials are willing to place environmental concerns above economic ones.
Unfortunately, the Easthampton City Council vote only provides a glimmer of hope that people are coming to this realization. The majority of green advocates are arguing, instead, that we can make our economic system sustainable without reducing business activity. Advocates of the Green New Deal argue that building a renewable energy-driven economy will create millions of well paying jobs, fostering economic growth. In other words, a win-win, sustainability and growth.
This position is understandable. Regardless of whether they have considered the greenhouse gas consequences of creating millions of new jobs or believe what they are saying is feasible, Green New Dealers know our species survival depends upon weening us off fossil fuel. They fear they won’t gather public support unless they convince people this can be done without major economic disruption. There is force to their argument because it will be difficult to get Americans workers, 78% of whom are living paycheck to paycheck, to take a financial hit unless the threat is serious, tangible, and immediate. Those who have barely survived the California fires, or hurricane generated floods, might make this leap, but they are, as yet, a relatively small minority.
Since the fossil fuel must be left in the ground if we are to avoid the collapse of civilization or worse, the changes the Green New Dealers are demanding are necessary. But if the millions of well paid, new green jobs occur within the context of a growing consumption-oriented green capitalist economy, it will lead to more production and more greenhouse gases. NBC news reported a few days ago that “[n]o matter that coal-fired power plants went out of business in record numbers, or that Americans nearly doubled their purchases of electric cars. The U.S. increased its carbon dioxide emissions in 2018,” because “[a] booming American economy meant increased industrial production, more truck and air travel and more offices and other workplaces to heat — all combining, along with other factors, to create the second-largest annual increase in the key greenhouse gas emissions in more than two decades.” Even with the addition of the modest socialist-oriented changes proposed by Bernie Sanders and his allies, increased economic activity will still generate more greenhouse gasses.
Perhaps we should pose the question this way to gain more converts:
1. What happens if the economy tanks? The recession of 2008, and the depression of the 1930’s provide the answer. It is an ugly picture, and of course, the most vulnerable populations, the poor and people of color, will suffer disproportionately.
2. What happens if the environment tanks? As in an economic downturn, the most vulnerable amongst us will suffer the most. Having to move to higher ground, enduring terrible storms and consequent long-term, massive blackouts, or dealing with billions of refugees will be terrible. But we face much worse. If the environment tanks we’ll be unable to grow our food, drink the water or breath the air.
Difficult as the economic disruption would be, even for a relatively well-off white guy like me, I’d chose it over extinction any day. Read More
50 years later, that dramatic prediction is upon us for an entirely different reason.
It is hard to be optimistic about our species’ prospects. In the coming decades almost 10 billion of us face monster storms, more erratic temperatures, rising sea levels and resulting resource depletion that will decimate the productive capacity of the planet. We will endure deprivation on an almost unimaginable scale, and history teaches us that tribalism rises whenever societies face such threats.
I use the concept of tribalism, rather than racism, although the two are deeply interrelated, because I see the former as having more to do with what we identify with and the latter as what we are against, or who we identify as the enemy. It is understandable that people seek to “find their tribe.” We crave the community and sense of belonging this gives us, but it is so easily manipulated to turn people against each other.
Trump is a manifestation of tribalism, as are leaders of many countries from Russian, to Brazil and Turkey. As the seas rise, and the crops fail, the number of refugees, recently estimated by the UN at 69 million, will swell to hundreds of millions, or even billions fleeing misery. Authoritarian leaders will have fertile ground to till as they employ fear to goad people to protect what is theirs from evil hoards of interlopers. What we see now at the Mexican border only hints at what is to come.
On the other hand, our species is awakening to the danger. There is worldwide recognition that we must develop an unprecedented international movement to save the productive capacity of the planet. Masses of Europeans are already involved and indigenous peoples’ resistance, now most pronounced in Latin America but growing in Africa and Asia, has the potential to develop into a world-spanning effort to resist our current capitalist orders’ global death march. Even in our own country, where climate change denial remains powerful, thousands of young people, and their indigenous allies, are dedicating their lives to preventing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and the concept of a Green New Deal is gaining momentum.
This as yet amorphous set of movements is the antithesis of tribalism. It celebrates diversity, embraces refugees and seeks to provide sanctuary. It recognizes the commonality of our humanity and envisions a world grounded in cooperation, not competition, in equity over profit, and on living sustainably rather than requiring endless expansion. Fueled by each new climate change-related disaster, it is gathering recruits daily.
These diametrically opposed social movements are growing, and are bound to clash. “It doesn’t take a seer to see the scene is coming soon.” There is hope for a good outcome, but we face a tidal wave of turmoil so it is time to buckle up. Read More
Although Europe already taxes gasoline at a much higher rate than we do, my first reaction to the protests was that, given the environmental cost, gasoline taxes should be even higher. I am a car owner and love to drive, but I believe that gasoline powered cars meet the legal definition of a public nuisance: “A public nuisance is a criminal wrong; it is an act or omission that obstructs, damages, or inconveniences the rights of the community.”
Gasoline powered cars are dirty, deadly machines that are playing a major role in destroying the productive capacity of our planet. Driving gasoline powered cars should be discouraged, and higher gas prices, whether caused by oil companies or taxes, do this. When the price of gas dropped precipitously from $4 to $2 a gallon a few years ago, I felt that gave our legislature cover to double the gas tax in Massachusetts. I never floated this to our local representatives, and it went nowhere, but I still think it was a good idea.
The problem is that within the context of our current economic system raising taxes on gas hurts those who can least afford it. In a fossil fuel driven economy, with woefully inadequate public transportation, the average worker often has little choice but to drive to get to work and to carry out life’s chores.
This is why it is encouraging to see the Yellow Vest protests evolve into what is basically a protest against increasing financial inequality in France. We need a similar evolution here. Until we have a more equitable distribution of resources within our society any major tax increase will be met with howls of protest. This is demonstrated by last month’s spectacular failure (70% of voters opposed it) of the State of Washington’s carbon tax referendum, which was designed to combat climate change by charging polluters for their carbon dioxide emissions. The fact that the extractionist industry spent 40 times more money than the referendum’s proponents also contributed to their victory, but the fossil fuel companies advertising scare tactics struck a responsive chord with the public.
The proponents of the Green New Deal face the same dilemma. Until we take the funds needed to transform our system out of the hides of the capitalists, instead of from the average person, the extractionists will employ divide and conquer tactics to defeat green initiatives. Further, unless the Green New Deal does this, it will fuel right wing claims that elite green liberals are hurting American workers. We must place green initiatives squarely within the framework of creating a society based upon economic and social justice in order to make the rapid, fundamental changes necessary to our survival.
The recent explosion of climate change related disasters has placed climate issues at the center of global debate. Today vast swaths of humanity recognize the problem. This is a great opportunity because we have people’s attention, but now we face the even bigger challenge of involving them in campaigns that take into account current inequities as we promote the necessity of transforming the nature of our economy. Read More
What can I do to help these children? I’ve written something about this [see link to The Marshall Project on the top left], and attended demonstrations, but I burn to do more.
I keep thinking about how the Nazis separated parents and children. That was the national program of the Nazi government, but thousands of prison guards put that policy into action. Those guards, who were facilitating and perpetrating ghastly human rights abuses, were given a free pass by their local populations. “Good Germans” ignored the holocaust going on in their midst.
I live in a community that is overwhelmingly appalled by the Trump regime’s policy of ripping families apart. Yet, even here, two thousand miles from the Mexican border, ICE agents are detaining immigrants and destroying families in the process. Locals have made laudable efforts to protect vulnerable people, churches have offered sanctuary and local police departments are not aiding ICE. But the daily dirty work of the individual ICE agents continues and no one is confronting them face-to-face about their ugly behavior.
These agents live amongst us. They eat in local restaurants and attend local activities. Surely, there are those among us who have the research skills to identify who they are, and publish their names and images.
We’ve all seen the stories of high-level Trump officials confronted in restaurants and on the streets. These policy makers deserve imprisonment more than embarrassment, but I join Congresswoman Maxine Waters in applauding these actions. However, it is individual ICE agents who are the immediate cause of the state-sponsored harm that terrorizes our vulnerable neighbors.
I want to be clear that I’m writing about verbal, not physical, confrontation. And I also want to be clear that the ICE agents would be confronted not about their ideas or beliefs, but about their specific actions in our communities. I want us to actively show our disapproval of their behavior.
My wife, Ellen, disagrees strongly and I respect her opinion. So I am going to try to state the pros and cons of our discussion of the proposal, and I’d love to know what you think.
Pro: Why should ICE agents be able to enjoy a pleasant meal at a restaurant or go to a movie without someone pointing out to other patrons that they are dining out with human rights’ abusers? If we ignore them, and their behavior, aren’t we being “Good Germans?”
Con: Wouldn’t such tactics display class bias by targeting working people who need these jobs?
Pro: Possibly, but couldn’t the same be said about people who work selling drugs in poor neighborhoods? The ICE agents’ jobs are wrong. No one should do them, no matter their class. These agents are no better than the scabs, who also need jobs, brought in to break strikes. Strike breaking is terrible, but is it any worse than destroying families? And I must reiterate, since union members often physically attacked scabs, that I am only advocating verbal action.
Con: This tactic won’t change the policies that make it legal for ICE to separate families. And it may backfire, with the mainstream media turning the ICE agents into victims and possibly justifying more attacks on the left and on immigrants communities. Do we want to stoop to the tactic of individual shaming, rather than focusing on the big-picture politics and policies?
Pro: It won’t accomplish much if only a few people do it, and might expose those few to potential civil, even criminal liability. But if a significant segment of the community, repeatedly and publicity, displays its disapproval, it could have a powerful impact. And if it is done in manner that is protected by the first amendment, it will be very difficult for the agents of repression to convict anyone.
Con: While it might feel personally satisfying to call out these individuals, such confrontations will intensify and harden the profound polarization and divisions rather than bring people together. It would be better to counter ICE’s destructive behavior with positive displays of solidarity and support for the vulnerable populations in our midst. This is primarily what people of goodwill have been doing, and it has mobilized a surprisingly broad coalition. Using a confrontation tactic could split this coalition at a time when we need all the support we can get. And, it is likely that verbal attacks can escalate into physical violence, further increasing tensions and increasing harsh treatment of immigrants.
Pro: Despite all the work done by people of good will to combat family destruction, many children have not been reunited with their parents, and ICE shows no sign of being transformed into a more humane institution. Don’t such extraordinary times call for more aggressive forms of protest?
Con: Might shaming individuals cause even more division and hate? Are there “aggressive forms of protest” that bring people together, rather than further polarize us?
What do you think? Read More
Many insist we must always vote for the Democrats because the Republicans are so much worse. Many castigated me for voting Green in 2012 because it would have been terrible if Romney won. I have no doubt that Romney would have been worse than Obama, but …
Guess what…. If Romney had won in 2012, I bet Trump wouldn’t be President now. Read More
Trump’s firm admits that Earth First! is a set of ideas with no members or formal leadership, but they still attempted to serve their complaint to Earth First! Journal, a quarterly magazine operated on a shoestring by a small rotating collective. The journal’s current editor, Ryan Hartman said, “We got this 187-page legal document in the mail that didn’t even mention the Journal. Our philosophy is based on biocentrism, direct action, and not compromising with Earth-destroying corporations when fighting for the environment. It is an idea that for over 35 years has been followed and held dear by individuals and groups all over the world. You can’t sue an idea.”
Needless to say, Earth First! Journal never had $500,000 or engaged in on-site drug sales at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps.
This lawsuit is part of a campaign of corporate harassment designed to intimidate protesters and characterize activism (environmental, animal rights, and Black Lives Matter) as terrorism. The good news is that the activists are not frightened. The CCR is counter-attacking by asking the court to dismiss the complaint, and requesting it sanction Trump’s firm for wasting the court’s time with frivolous claims.
Earth First! is familiar with such corporate “slap” suits that are designed to silence and impoverish those who take on corporate bad-actors. I first learned about slap suits in 1992 when I attended a conference at the Highlander Center initiated by Judi Bari, the late Earth First! and IWW leader. Bari and her partner Darryl Cherney had organized the Redwood Summer Campaign to protect some of the last remaining stands of old growth Redwoods in Northern California. I attended the conference at Highlander to learn about the emerging threat of corporate harassment, hear the stories of other targeted activists, and introduce those who had children to the benefits the RFC could provide for their children. Judi laughed off the slap suits. “I’ve got no money,” she said, “I ignore the suits.” But the corporations also fostered violent attacks on those who stood in their way, and that was no laughing matter.
Judi paid a high price for her activism. She was permanently disabled when right-wing terrorists exploded a bomb in her car. The FBI charged her with the bombing. Judi fought back, ultimately winning a suit against the FBI for false arrest and imprisonment. Unfortunately, she died of breast cancer, so her estate won this final victory. Judi’s two children were Rosenberg Fund for Children beneficiaries. We funded music lessons throughout their childhood and made a special grant after Judi’s death to help with their college education.
Over 25 years later, the sophistication, breathe and violence employed by corporations to protect their profits poses a global menace to people and the productive capacity of our planet. Some of the worst fears of those who gathered at the Highlander Center a quarter-century ago have been realized. However, the spark ignited by Judi Bari, and others like her, has been passed on to another generation. The movement these activist defendants embody is much larger and even more determined. Trumps’ attorneys, and his minions, will not silence them. Read More
by Robert Jensen
Naomi Klein understands that President Donald J. Trump is a problem, but he is not the problem.
In her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Klein reminds us to pay attention not only to the style in which Trump governs (a multi-ring circus so routinely corrupt and corrosive that anti-democratic practices seem normal) but in whose interests he governs (the wealthy, those he believes to be the rightful winners in the capitalist cage match), while recognizing the historical forces that make his administration possible (decades of market-fundamentalist/neoliberal rejection of the idea of a collective good).
Klein, one of the most prominent and insightful leftist writers in North America for two decades, analyzes how Trump’s “genius” for branding, magnified by his reality TV success, carried him to the White House. But while we may have been shocked by the election of Trump—not just another celebrity but the ultimate “hollow brand” that adds no tangible value to society—she argues that we should not have been surprised:
Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination—the logical end point—of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the one percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this (pp. 257-258).
Underneath all these pathologies, Klein explains, is “a dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable” (p. 233), which gives rise to “a system based on limitless taking and extracting, on maximum grabbing” that “treats people and the earth either like resources to be mined to their limits or as garbage to be disposed of far out of sight, whether deep in the ocean or deep in a prison cell” (p. 240).
Klein’s book does not stop with an analysis of the crises, outlining a resistance politics that not only rejects this domination/subordination dynamic but proceeds “with care and consent, rather than extractively and through force” (p. 241). In addition to the “no” to the existing order, there must be a “yes” to other values, which she illustrates with the story behind the 2015 Leap Manifesto (“A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another”) that she helped draft.
Klein believes the expansive possibilities of those many yeses are visible in Bernie Sanders’ campaign and others like it around the world. Near the end of the book she lists ideas already on the table: “free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows, demilitarize the police, prisons are no place for young people, refugees are welcome here, war makes us less safe.” She goes on to identify more ambitious programs and policies: “Reparations for slavery and colonialism? A Marshall Plan to fight violence against women? Prison abolition? Democratic worker co-ops as the centerpiece of a green jobs program? An abandonment of ‘growth’ as a measure of progress? Why not?” (p. 263).
Klein is not naïve about what it will take to achieve these goals but stresses the possibilities; “there is reason to believe that many of the relationships being built in these early days [of the Trump administration] will be strong enough to counter the fear that inevitably sets in during a state of emergency” (p. 208).
Recognizing that the 2008 financial crisis created opportunities for more radical change that were lost not only because of the Obama administration’s cautious, centrist approach but because of progressive movements’ timidity, she reminds us that the most important changes in the past (expansions of justice and freedom post-Civil War, during the New Deal, and in the 1960s and ‘70s) “were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public—explosions of utopian imagination” (p. 217).
Klein is right to challenge the pessimism that so easily sets in when we capitulate to the idea that radical change is politically impossible because of the success of decades of right-wing propaganda and organizing in the United States. Politics is a human enterprise, and therefore humans can change it. Utopian thinking in these realms is to be encouraged, as movements build the capacity to move us toward those goals.
My only critique of Klein’s book—and it is not a minor point—is that while reminding us not to accept artificial, self-imposed limits on social/economic/political fronts, it glosses over the much different status of the biophysical limits we must work within. Klein’s 2014 book on climate change demonstrated how thoroughly she understands what my late friend Jim Koplin called the “multiple, cascading ecological crises” of our time. But what are the implications of facing those crises?
Go back to Klein’s list of programs, which includes “100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows,” alongside such goals as free tuition and a doubled minimum wage. These are very different kinds of projects that shouldn’t be conflated. By building a stronger left/progressive movement, greater equity in higher education and fairer wages could be won. But much more difficult challenges are hidden in “100 percent renewable energy.”
First, and most painful, is the recognition that no combination of renewable resources is going to power the world in which we now live—7.4 billion people, many living at some level of First World affluence. That doesn’t just mean the end of luxury lifestyles of the rich and famous, nor just the end of middle-class amenities such as routine air conditioning, cheap jet air travel, and fresh fruits and vegetables from the other side of the world. We are going to have to face giving up what we have come to believe we “need” to survive, what Wallace Stegner once termed “things that once possessed could not be done without.” If you have trouble imagining an example, look around at the people poking at their “smart” phones, or walk into a grocery store and survey the endless aisles of food kept “cheap” by fossil-fuel inputs.
If we give up techno-utopian dreams of endless clean energy forever, we face a harsh question: How many people can the Earth support in a sustainable fashion, living at what level of consumption?
There is no magic algorithm to answer that question. Everyone’s response will be a mix of evidence, hunches, and theology (defined not as claims about God but ideas about what it means to be human, to live a good life). I’m not confident that I have an inside track on this, but I’m fairly sure that the answer is “a lot fewer people than there are now, living at much lower levels of consumption.”
There are biophysical limits that we can’t wish away because they are inconvenient, and they limit our social/political/economic options. Those realities include not only global warming but an array of phenomena, all interconnected: accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity; overexploitation of resources (through logging, hunting, fishing) and agricultural activities (farming, livestock, timber plantations, aquaculture), including the crucial problem of soil erosion; increase in sea levels threatening coastal areas; acidification of the ocean; and amplified, less predictable threats from wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves. We are no longer talking about localized environmental degradation but global tipping points we may have already reached and some planetary boundaries that have been breached. The news is bad, getting worse, and getting worse faster than most scientists had predicted.
The goal of traditional left politics—sometimes explicitly, often implicitly—has been to bring more people into the affluence of the First World, with the contemporary green version imagining this will happen magically through solar panels and wind turbines for all. Honest ecological evaluations indicate that in addition to the core left/progressive goal of equity within the human family, we have to think what kind of human presence ecosystems can sustain.
A simple example, but one that is rarely discussed: A national health insurance program that equalizes access to treatment is needed, but what level of high-tech medicine will we be able to provide in a lower-energy world? That question requires a deeper conversation that we have not yet had about what defines a good life and what kinds of life-extending treatment now seen as routine in the First World will not be feasible in the future. Instead of rationing health care by wealth, a decent society should make these difficult decisions collectively, and this kind of ethical rationing will require blunt, honest conversations about limits.
Here’s another example: Increasing the amount of organic food grown on farms using few or no petrochemical inputs is needed, but that style of agriculture will require many to return to a countryside that has been depopulated by industrial agriculture and consumer culture. If we are to increase what Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry call “the eyes-to-acres ratio”—more farmers available to do the work necessary to take better care of the land—how will we collectively make the decisions needed in moving people from cosmopolitan cities, which young people tend to find attractive, to rural communities that may seem less exciting to many?
My point is not that I have answers, but that we have yet to explore these questions in any meaningful depth, and the ecosphere is going to force them on us whether or not we are ready. If we leave such questions to be answered by the mainstream culture—within the existing distributions of wealth and power, based on that logic of domination/subordination—the outcomes will be unjust and inhumane. We need to continue left/progressive organizing in response to contemporary injustices, not only for the short-term progress that can be made to strengthen communities and protect vulnerable people but also to build networks and capacities to face what’s coming.
To ignore the ecological realities that make these questions relevant is not hope but folly; to not incorporate biophysical limits into our organizing is to guarantee failure. Until we can acknowledge the inevitability of this kind of transition—which will be unlike anything we’ve faced in human history—we cannot plan for it. And we cannot acknowledge that it’s coming without a shared commitment not only to hope but grief. What lies ahead—coming in a time frame no one can predict, but coming—will be an unprecedented challenge for humans, and we are not ready.
Saying no to the pathological domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the dominant culture is the starting point. Then we say yes to the capacity for caring collaboration that we yearn for. But we also must accept that the systems of the larger living world—the physics and chemistry of the ecosphere—set the boundaries within which we say no and yes.
No one can predict when or how this will play out, but at this moment in history the best we can say about the fate of the human species is “maybe.”
We have a chance for some kind of decent human future, if we can face the challenges honestly: How do we hold onto the best of our human nature (that striving for connection) in the face of existing systems that glorify the worst (individual greed and human cruelty)? All that we dream is not possible, but something better than what we have created certainly is within our reach. We should stop fussing about hope, which seduces too many to turn away from difficult realities. Let’s embrace the joy that always exists in the possible, and also embrace the grief in what is not.
We must dare to dream big, and we must face our nightmares.
As I tell my students over and over, reasonable people with shared values can disagree, and friends and allies often disagree with my assessment of the ecological crises. So, let’s start with points of agreement: We must say no not only to Trump and the reactionary politics of the Republican Party, but no to the tepid liberal/centrist politics of the Democratic Party. And we must push the platform of the social democratic campaigns of folks like Sanders toward deeper critiques of capitalism, First-World imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
But all of that work will be undermined if we cannot recognize that remaking the world based on principles of care is limited by the biophysical realities on the planet, an ecosphere we have desecrated for so long that some options once available to us are gone, desecration that cannot magically be fixed by a technological fundamentalism that only compounds problems with false promises of salvation through gadgets.
No is not enough. But yes is not enough, either. Our fate lies in the joy and grief of maybe.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/. To join his email list, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Read More
It has been over two months since I last posted a blog. Moving was disruptive, but now I’m ready to resume my posting routine. I’m going to start easy and take a break from the dire shape of the world with a more whimsical post.
In my wife’s latest novel, Kinship of Clover, she describes a grand piano in the lobby of an assisted living center. Death notices of residents are placed on the piano, accompanied by “framed photos taken decades earlier and a few pathetic paragraphs about long-ago jobs and awards.” Elli labelled this forlorn instrument “the piano of death.”
Elli’s father lived in an independent living/assisted living facility near us for over a decade before his death in January (six months before what would have been his 100th birthday.) There was a grand piano in the lobby, where the death notices appear, and I dubbed it “the piano of death.”
Elli frequently tells friends to watch what they say around her because their words could end up in one of her novels. I knew Elli’s penchant for appropriating such phrases, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when those words appeared in the novel. I don’t mind. In fact, I admit getting a kick out of making a contribution, however small, toward one of her creations. But since a number of residents of the facility buy and read Elli’s books, I wondered how they’d react when they came upon that description during their journey through Kinship of Clover.
Sure enough, one of the residents who had already read the book brought it up at a local reading. He said he immediately recognized the “piano of death” in the lobby of his building. Like many fiction writers, Elli has a fertile imagination, but she’d never dreamed of what he told her next.
In Elli’s book, it is a working piano that occupants sometimes play. But the resident who had already read Elli’s book, told her the piano in the lobby, the real one on which she based the story, has no insides. It can’t be played. It is a hollow sham of a piano. Hosting death notices was its only purpose.
I was shocked when I heard this. Instead of making a snarky remark with my “piano of death” comment, I had provided an accurate description. Once again, reality is stranger than fiction. Read More
This month’s Monthly Review features an article by Paul Burkett entitled: “Global Warming: An Eco-Revolutionary Tipping Point?” While discussing three books: Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, he succinctly summarizes a key Eco-Socialist position.
“To deny that the climate crisis is hardwired into capitalism, and that we need a new system to deal with it, is just as misleading and dangerous as to deny the existence of human-induced global warming.” In other words, green capitalism is not a solution. Human-induced global warming is a scientifically demonstrable, existential threat that can’t be successfully addressed within any capitalist framework.
There are right and left critiques of this position. The one from the right is not valid. The one from the left has more force, but perhaps the Eco-Socialist perspective can accommodate it.
The right critique comes from those with progressive or even socialist sensibilities who respond: Good luck. It is impossible to overthrow capitalism quickly enough to save us from civilization-ending climate catastrophe. We must support the push for green capitalism in order to slow climate change so we have more time to make the necessary structural adjustments.
I agree with Burkett that this is counterproductive for several reasons.
1. Transforming our current neoliberal system into one that is predominantly green capitalist is almost as politically difficult as making a socialist revolution.
2. The most politically feasible green capitalist solutions are baby-steps that will gain almost no time.
3. The green capitalist panacea is counterproductive because it promotes the idea that people in first world countries can continue their consumerist lifestyles.
4. The promise of a Green New Deal putting millions to work, sparking an economic boom based on green energy production with little or no carbon emissions is wishful thinking. If it ever came to pass, millions of new well-paying jobs will generate an orgy of consumption. Capitalism’s grow or die imperative means even green capitalists must make more stuff as they compete for market share and greater profits. Thus, a Green New Deal is a blueprint for more economic activity, which, in turn, creates more greenhouse gases.
While a rapid socialist transformation is even more unlikely, if physical reality commands that ending capitalism is our only chance of survival, we must try to bring it about.
The left critique, has an Anarchist undertone and posits that while getting rid of capitalism is necessary, it is not sufficient. It points out that Eco-Socialists argue we can save civilization if we re-organize production so that in Burkett’s words “working people and their communities collectively and democratically regulate production and other interactions with their material and social environment.”
The left argument is that feeding, clothing and sheltering a human population that will soon top 10 billion based on mass mechanized production will still generate an unsustainable level of greenhouse gases. This argument states that this manner of production, regardless of whether workers or capitalists control it, is unsustainable. In other words, the problem is not how the factory is organized, but rather the factory itself. The left critique is that we must deindustrialize, decentralize and drastically reduce our population if we are to survive.
Nothing in the Eco-Socialist position would prevent workers from democratically and collectively regulating their production in a manner that would move toward the reductions listed in the last sentence. However, nothing written by Eco-Socialists suggests we would embrace such reductions. Instead, they postulate that we can achieve environmental sustainability once workers are in control, remove the profit motive, and focus on producing only what is needed to meet human needs without the use of fossil fuels. Apparently, they argue that since broader biospheric stability is essential to meeting human needs, that humans, even 10 billion of them, without the profit motive will act as good environmental stewards.
Perhaps that’s correct, but is it anthropocentric wishful thinking? As long as we place ourselves at the center of the ecosystem can we be trusted not to exploit it unsustainably? Rather than an economy built upon socialistic mass production, wouldn’t one based on decentralized, locally-oriented, worker-controlled small scale production, whose main goal is maintaining the environment regardless of human needs, be more sustainable?
Such an economy could never support 10 billion of of us. It might be able to provide for no more than a tenth of that number, but that is probably what the planet’s ecosystem requires.
Of course, rapidly achieving any of these goals seems next to impossible. But, again, political feasibility becomes irrelevant when science teaches us that this is the course human society must follow if we are to survive. Read More