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Time’s Up?

Two weeks ago Elli and I began our tour to promote her new novel. On the first night we stayed at an old friend’s apartment in New York City. Naturally, we discussed politics, and after hearing me describe my environmental concerns our friend responded that scientists have been predicting for decades what they still say today; we are running out of time to avoid ecological disaster.

I believe she was gently implying that perhaps things weren’t as bad as I feared, and that I might be over-reacting. Our old friend raised a very important point, and I believe that she was both right and wrong.

It is true that scientific warnings of climate-model predicted catastrophes first cropped up over 25 years ago, and we are hearing more of the same today. In fact, in 2013 when I was considering writing a book about climate change, I drafted some preliminary thoughts to include in it. I addressed this issue in those notes:

“In the World Watch Institute’s annual publication, The State of the World, which I first read in 1989, Lester Brown wrote that the situation was becoming dire and we were running out of time. James Hansen, the famed NASA scientist echoed this sentiment in Congressional testimony in 1995. Tim Flannery in his book The Weather Makers said the same in 2005, and now Bill McKibben and a host of others reiterate this warning every day. For over 25 years most experts have been predicting that we were almost out of time. At some point we must conclude that either their earliest predictions were alarmist or we’ve already run out of time.”

So our friend was correct to imply that increasingly shrill, but constant, warnings over decades begin to feel like Chicken Little shrieking that the sky is falling. But the broader political context of such warnings demonstrate that something else is going on.

In this country the vast majority of scientists (who have based their dire forecasts on the predictive models they’ve studied) accept as a given the economic and social bases of Western Society. They haven’t only been saying “it is almost too late to avoid disaster.” Taken in context, their words actually mean, “If we find the political will to act quickly and decisively it is not too late to avoid civilization-destroying calamities within the framework of our capitalist system.”

Their repeated plaintive cries do not reflect their models’ exaggeration of predicted disasters. If anything, the models’ predictions have been too conservative. Things are getting worse, more quickly than expected. Rather, scientists are trapped by their inability to conceive of a way out of the mess we’ve gotten into that doesn’t fit within the parameters of our current economic system. The only choice offered by that perspective is either to repeat it is not too late or give up all hope.

But there is an alternative assessment: unless we junk our current system it is already too late.

I believe the only chance we have to avoid what our species will experience as unprecedented planetary disasters during this century is to abandon multi-national corporate capitalism and its accompanying military-industrial complex and consumption-driven excesses. This may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. That’s one reason why I say we have to reject politics as usual in order to defeat business as usual.  Read More 
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Jobs or Environment?

The scientific consensus is that continuing “business as usual” will result in the rapid destruction of the planet’s productive capacity and cause the demise of most complex life forms, including our own. Many people understand this, but agreeing on how to avoid climate disaster remains a great challenge.

Historically, our species’ impact on the planet grew steadily, but relatively slowly, until the capitalism-driven industrial revolution in the early 19th century. Since then, our global carbon footprint has mushroomed, and in the last 50 years it has enveloped the world. Today, because of the interaction between capitalism and industrial production, we face human-induced global warming, sweeping resource depletion and mass extinction. Earth’s resources are finite, but the developed world produces too much, consumes too much, and capitalism requires perpetual growth to avoid recessions, or even a depression. The underdeveloped world has a much smaller carbon footprint, but its natural resources are being vacuumed up by the richer nations.

Many people assume that we can’t take action to protect the environment if it will hurt the economy. But scientists, who are neither politicians nor economists, teach us is that if economic and environmental needs are in conflict, we cannot afford to chose the former at the expense of the latter. It seems obvious: if the way we extract and consume resources causes global warming, climate change, sea level rise, and resource depletion, then we must alter our extraction and consumption behavior. But this means reversing the developed world’s requirement of continuous growth.

Many “Greens” in the United States and Europe claim that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. They call for a “Green New Deal” or a “Green MacArthur Plan” or a “Green Apollo Project.” Such proposals postulate that we can “grow our way” to sustainability with new technology and increased efficiency. Both business and labor push this agenda.

Labor demands full-time, living wage work for all and progressives support this demand. But if there are more people working for more hours, even in green jobs, we’ll produce and consume more. Greener, more efficient, production still requires energy and uses resources. And, if we work to distribute resources more fairly throughout the world, that means 7 billion, not just 500 million, consumers. It is wishful thinking to believe that we can rev up the global economy to sustain 7 billion consumers while avoiding environmental destruction.

The elephant in the room is that we need to reduce economic activity even though this is incompatible with capitalism. In order to extract and consume less, we must produce less. In other words: the environment must trump the economy. Furthermore, if we share resources equally, the 20% of us (myself included) who consume 80% of the world’s products must live differently and give up approximately three-quarters of what we have. Actually, for most of the top 20% the figure is not that high because of the top 1%’s alarmingly enormous consumption. That said, are the remaining 19% willing to give up even half their stuff?

These concerns feed our paralysis. We don’t see a political path to get those in power, who represent the 1%, to alter our economic system, and we can’t imagine ourselves, and other reasonably well-to-do people, giving up our lifestyles. But if we accept that we are unable to change either our economic system or our lifestyles, then we are conceding that our economic system will trump the environment.

We’ve been advertised into thinking our devices and clothes, cars and travel are essential to our happiness. Studies have shown, however, that American consumers are not fulfilled by the lives they are leading. We might discover that we can consume less and feel more satisfied.

We fear that we don’t have the time and/or ability to build the movement we need, but are we that powerless? Each year brings new international convulsions. Domestic and worldwide rebelliousness may appear ephemeral, and the politics of those resisting are not necessarily green, but there is massive global dissatisfaction with the status quo. Perhaps we can harness this if we give up politics as usual in the name of derailing business as usual.

In the United States, the majority of people are barely getting by, and millions live in poverty. How absurd for me to ask them to risk transforming our economy while, in effect, stopping to smell the roses. Those of us who believe in economic justice will find such a request particularly troubling. But domestic consumption must be reduced, and some proposals on the table could move us concretely in the right direction. A Labor-Green coalition calling for a huge hourly wage increase tied to a 25 hour work week would enable people to work less and still make enough to house and feed themselves and their families. More people would have good jobs, but the total amount produced would not increase would not increase. A reduction in work hours, coupled with community-building campaigns, can encourage people to use their new-found free time for social fulfillment rather than consumption, lowering our carbon footprint.

This will drive the capitalists crazy since the wage increases will come out of their profits, and slackened consumption will reduce their sales. But that’s what it would mean for the environment to trump the economy.
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On Hurricane Island

My wife Elli’s second novel was published this week. In the words of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner, “On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad. Meeropol puts the reader right into the middle of these practices through characters about whom you really care and a story you can’t put down; a really good book.”

I’ve been waiting for this moment since I read the initial draft of her first chapter in 2008. Back then, after two terms of Geroge W. Bush’s post-9/11 black site prisons and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the idea of a citizen being kidnapped and disappeared by security forces at JFK airport, was no more than a frightening possibility. But it was real enough, and no one else was writing fiction about it. There are novels about terrorist plots, but none that I’m aware of are told from the point of view of an ordinary citizen detainee. I sensed that Elli had a story that would grab a lot of people.

I urged her to hurry after Obama’s election. He promised to close Guantanamo, and put an end to Bush-era human rights abuses, so what she was describing might become yesterday’s news. I needn’t have worried. Unfortunately the existence of secret detention centers, like the one Elli created on a fictionalized Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine, is just as likely today.

I was also excited because I had a special role in the novel’s creation, beyond my usual commenting and critiquing her drafts. I’ve been obsessed with observing weather since I was a child. Elli chose to complement the political storm of human rights abuses with a physical one. The book takes place over a four-day period culminating in the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. This is the height of the hurricane season and Hurricane Island, living up to its name, is about to experience a doozy.

It was my job to make sure Elli got the hurricane right. She had many questions. How far away would the hurricane center be when the island felt the initial effects? Should the eye go just to the east or the west of the island? What would it be like before and after the eye passed? How long would it take for the storm to run its course?

Some might wonder if there could be such a powerful hurricane with a well-defined eye so far north? That part isn’t fiction. I’ll never forget the photograph we found in the Vinalhaven Historical Society Library; the spray from a wind-driven wave during the hurricane of 1938 shot 100 feet into the air, overtopping the evergreens on the oceanside shore of Hurricane Island.

Today, with evidence of climate change all around us and post-9/11 laws in place, a book that explores the twin impacts of human-enhanced natural disasters and enhanced interrogation could not be more timely. But I must admit that I’m far from an objective observer. On Hurricane Island combines three of my strongest interests: politcs, weather and Elli.

Elli and I will be traveling extensively to promote her novel. To find out when we’ll be in your area so you can join us, please click on the picture of the book jacket on top left.  Read More 
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