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Nightmare on TV

A television commercial for Rocket Mortgage last night horrified me. The narrator declared these quick mortgage loans would enable more people to purchase homes. This would create more contruction work and jobs producing the materials for building houses. The new owners would have to buy furniture, appliances, art for the walls and clothes to fill their closets. The people put to work making this merchandise could then buy their own homes, which they’d have to fill with furniture… and so on. Attractive visual images filled the screen with countless consumer items. Less than a minute after it started, the narrator concluded that this scenario demonstrated “America’s power.” It was terrifyingly brilliant; a catchy summary of the ideological underpinning of our nation’s need to engage in orgasmic excesses of production and consumption.

Industrial capitalism is a fabulous engine of production; that’s its greatest strength. The Great Depression, however, taught the captains of industry to fear over-production. If they produce too much, prices drop, profits disappear, and companies shut down. Workers lose jobs and the unemployed can’t afford to buy products so the system spirals downward. World War II got us out of the Great Depression. For the first time since 1929, industry could run at capacity, and since much of what was manufactured was expended or blown to smithereens in battle they could produce to their heart’s content without creating a glut.

When the war ended, many feared another depression. But those evil twins, the military-industrial complex and domestic consumerism, saved the day. We could manufacture huge amounts of military equipment as we pursued the cold war and developed an unprecedented globe-spanning empire, while selling even more to other “free world” countries. But that wasn’t enough. Madison Avenue convinced us to buy an endlessly expanding array of items that we simply had to have, even though we’d done perfectly well without them before we realized they were necessities.

This is an oversimplification, but the military industrial complex coupled with an explosion of domestic consumption is what fueled 60 years of prosperity. That ended for most with the 2008 collapse, but the economy remains wedded to increasing military production and domestic consumption. The problem is that this continual growth is destroying the productive capacity of the planet.

This can’t be sustained. Even if all the green capitalist dreams of expansion through renewable energy, increased efficiency, and technological breakthroughs were realized, infinite growth will still increase greenhouse gases, species loss, and habitat destruction. Do the math; even if we become ten times more efficient (very unlikely), and use one tenth of the fuel to build something, we gain nothing if the system demands that we make ten times more stuff.

Unfortunately, that commercial wasn’t just a nightmare. It captured the essence of our system. And, nightmare or not, we desperately need an alarm to wake up more of us because our survival depends on junking capitalism.  Read More 
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This Changes Everything?

I concluded my last blog: “The global warming-induced climate chaos and consequent resource depletion that Naomi Klein wrote, “changes everything,” has begun. I believe that Klein is right, but that many progressive[s]” remain stuck in decades-old strategies.

Why is that?

Perhaps some see that phrase as hyperbole. I believe Klein meant it literally, and that is how I take it for at least three reasons: 1. The overwhelming scientific concensus is that if global warming induced climate change is not stopped we will cross climate tipping points that will gut the planet’s productive capacity and render large portions of it uninhabitable. 2. Our time is limited. Either it’s too late already, or we have only a decade or so to turn this around, and minor adjustments won’t cut it. 3. Continuing current first world behavior guarantees disaster.

I’m not going to argue with those who don’t accept these points here, but if you agree, isn’t one question: If everything has changed, why do we vote as if they haven’t?

Some who know this feel defeated by it. They continue with their lives as if it isn’t happening. This mind-set leads people to follow past political proclivities as if nothing has changed.

Some hope either it can’t be that bad, or that it won’t happen for hundreds of years. Given the enormity of problem such thinking is understandable, but these positions are based upon denial and wishful thinking, not knowledge. This also leads people to follow politics as usual.

Some look at our inabiliy to get out of the pickle we’ve created as proof that we are a stupid, fucked-up, vicious species that deserves what it is about to get. I doubt anything I could write would change that attitude, so I’ll focus on the first two and relate them to the upcoming presidential election.

Many progressives who hate Hillary Clinton’s politcs say they will vote for her if she is the nominee because the Republicans are particularly god-awful this time around. This is the politics of “things haven’t changed that much.”

We’ve been told that if you throw a frog into boiling water it will jump out, but if it is sitting in comfortable water and the heat is increased slowly it will sit until it cooks. For argument sake, assume you knew that it was likely that either the Republican nominee or Clinton, if elected, would start a nuclear war. You wouldn’t vote for either even if you saw no alternative.

Apply that logic to climate change. If you believed, as I do, that neither would take the actions needed to save us from civilization-ending climate-based disaster, and you still would vote for Clinton because the Republicans are even worse, wouldn’t you be cooking in increasingly hot water? (Scalia’s death does not change this fact.)

Naomi Klein has put her finger on what requires the most basic re-thinking of our political tactics. This is why I reiterate that if you really believe that everything has changed, voting for the lesser evil is no longer a viable option.  Read More 
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Clinton Over Republicans?

In last week’s blog I explained why I agreed with the following quote: “It is easy to focus our ire and ridicule on those we call ‘climate deniers.’ But the worst climate change deniers are not the ones who say it is not happening, but the ones who recognize the problem but refuse to confront its most basic sources and causes.” The author was referring to the empty promises and false green capitalist solutions of the Paris Climate Conference. In that blog, I wrote that the proponents of this path “in the guise of saving us … will make things worse.”

Last week Noam Chomsky said in an interview that what Republican presidential candidates “are saying is, let’s destroy the world. Is that worth voting against? Yeah.” He explained further that he always counseled strategic voting, and so if Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and if he lived in a swing state, he’d vote for Hillary Clinton to defeat the Republican.

If Chomsky is correct, then the quote in the first paragraph is wrong.

The Republican candidates are climate change deniers. And Hillary Clinton is firmly in the camp of the worst climate change deniers, the ones who recognize the problem but refuse to confront its most basic sources and causes. If elected, she will continue Obama’s “all the above” policies that encourage renewable energy within the capitalist framework, while expanding off shore drilling rights, continuing the oil depletion allowance which gives massive tax breaks to the big oil corporations for extracting oil, protecting nuclear power, and opposing infrastructure projects like the XL pipeline only when it is politically expedient.

These policies will bring about the disasters that Chomsky correctly predicts will “doom our grandchildren.” Perhaps Clinton’s willingness to promote renewable alternatives will delay that doom a bit, but if her policies lull segments of the population into thinking that the government is addressing the problem, they will also serve to co-opt and weaken portions of the movement to prevent the growing climate chaos.

I call myself a radical environmentalist because I believe that we cannot prevent civilization-ending catastrophes without eliminating capitalism’s Grow-or-Die imperative, and its reliance on competition, consumption and military domination. I support Bernie Sanders because, although he has not jettisoned these ideologies, his “socialism” can undermine them.

If Clinton is nominated, I will vote for the Green Party candidate because Clinton will doom my grandchildren as surely as the Republicans. With Clinton’s election we would lose more than four precious years. We will be confronted with the same choice in 2020 when she runs for re-election, and beyond, as long as the major party duopoly persists without either a mass popular uprising or true electoral alternatives.

The global warming-induced climate chaos and consequent resource depletion that Naomi Klein wrote, “changes everything,” has begun. I believe that Klein is right, but that many progressive tacticians, even those as brilliant as Chomsky, remain stuck in decades-old strategic voting schemes. All of us must fully incorporate into our thinking, and our voting behavior, that everything really has changed.  Read More 
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Coalition Blues

Despite all the post-Paris conference self-congratulation, the world’s nations adopted environmental plans that are inadequate, inequitable and unenforceable. If we’re going to solve the over-arching problem of climate change, it will most likely take an international, grassroots-based coalition of unprecedented size to push governments to act in time.

But such coalitions tend to be unwieldy, weak on demands and easily co-opted. The Alliance for Global Justice recently reposted a blog that provides a summary of the problems facing the exploding, but amorphous, “climate movement” in the US and Western Europe. They write:
“It is easy to focus our ire and ridicule on those we call ‘climate deniers’. But the worst climate change deniers are not the ones who say it is not happening, but the ones who recognize the problem but refuse to confront its most basic sources and causes. They are the ones who marginalize and ultimately suppress the voices of those proffering radical solutions and expressing urgency commensurate with the times …. They reject the demands of the Global South saying there is no unity. They put their faith in a quest for new technologies rather than fighting for a new system. They reject calling out the destructive nature of capitalism, saying we need a movement that cuts across class lines. And they treat those who speak about Empire as anachronistic visitors from another age.”

I agree with that statement and have previously written in this blog that the climate change movement must beware of green capitalist allies. “They are frienemies; in the guise of saving us they will make things worse.” Why do I risk attacking potential allies for making the problem worse at a time when building the broadest possible coalition is essential?

Because green capitalist solutions seduce even green-oriented progressives into thinking that we can reverse the coming climate chaos and ecological collapse by mounting a green New Deal that will provide tens of millions of well-paying jobs creating technological breakthroughs, and sustainable infrastructure, energy sources, transportation and housing while continuing our comfortable consumption-oriented life style. This is counterproductive in at least two ways.

First, while everyone deserves a well-paying job, in our system companies will advertise effectively to get these new job-holders to spend their new-found money on their products. This will cause an ecologically destructive orgy of consumption even if those products are made more efficiently. Second, it distracts people from focusing on the root cause of the problem: capitalism’s elevation of competition and its Grow-or-Die imperative. We can’t attack this global problem as long as countries and individuals compete to secure the most resources and accumulate as much wealth as possible. We need worldwide cooperation and social egalitarianism; these can never occur within the capitalist framework.

Since our current circumstances require the broadest coalition possible, we must distinguish between the more powerful promoters of green capitalism and the well-intentioned individuals who grasp at the straws it provides. Our job is to debunk the schemes of the former and persuade, not attack, the latter. The tightrope between fragmentation and co-optation is treacherous, but the only way to get to the other side is to traverse it successfully.  Read More 
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Should Have Been Snow

Weather forecasters are all a-dither about the “massive” snowstorm predicted for the Northeast this Saturday. Actually, one group of predictive models indicates the storm will pass far enough south to spare much of Southern New England, while a second model predicts it will wallop the entire region. Naturally, the media is hyping the latter, but as I write this it is even possible that for us it could blow harmlessly out to sea.

If the brewing storm strikes, it really should be the second of a one-two punch. That’s because last weekend’s rainstorm should have been a snowstorm. For those unfamiliar with Southern New England weather, we get lots of snow, but also plenty of rain in January. A rainstorm at my house at this time of year is far from extraordinary. To oversimplify the situation, that is because storm centers either pass to the north or south of us. If the center passes to our north, the counter-clockwise winds that circulate around low pressure draw warmer wet air from the Altantic over our region resulting in rain. When the center passes to the south, as in the classic Nor’easter, the same circulation draws in colder air from the Gulf of Maine and Quebec. In mid-winter this causes snowstorms.

In over fifty years of following weather, this is the first time I’ve seen what just happened late last week. A powerful storm developed off the mid Atlantic Coast and the storm center passed to the south of us. The winds shifted to the Northeast and North, but rain, not snow, fell the entire time. That’s because the temperatures over land were so mild and the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine was unusually warm. In fact, the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean is now 6 degrees warmer than it usually is at this time of year. I can’t imagine the amount of additional energy that has to be absorbed by sea waters to elevate the temperature that much over a thousand-mile stretch of ocean. That is a sobering indicator of global warming induced climate change.

Twenty, even ten years ago, what happened last weekend would have buried my house under a foot or more of snow. Now, we’d be bracing for another foot or two on top of that. Dealing with it would be rough, but such double-barreled snow dumps happen around here most winters, so we know how to cope.

Whenever such storms hit, they are a giant pain in the ass and last weekend’s rainstorm was easier to deal with than snow would have been. But as a weather nerd who understands its implications for our future, I find last weekend’s cold nasty rain much more worrisome than a massive snowstorm on the horizon.  Read More 
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Armed Insurgents, not Terrorists

Over the past few days there have been many news reports about the occupation of public land in Oregon. There’ve been multiple analysis pieces also, like the one in Common Dreams titled “Rightwing Terrorism on Display as Militants in Oregon Beckon Reinforcements.” I like Common Dreams and agree with their emphasis on the stark disparity between the government’s response to these armed white Christians and how it would respond if the occupiers were Muslims, blacks or Native Americans. The article notes that the mainstream media would be calling non-whites “terrorists” rather than “militia members” or “principled patriots.”

But do we want to label the occupiers “terrorists” as the Common Dreams headline suggests?

I define terrorism as serious violent acts against civilians designed to instill widespread fear in order to make a religious or political point. The 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the recent attacks in Paris fall within that definition. So do our drone strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the world’s governments commit terrorism, although none admit it.

Mass shootings, however, carried out by deranged individuals, property destruction not intended to kill, or even violent resistance to oppression, are not terrorism. Shooting 20 children in Sandy Hook – horrible though it was – was not terrorism, and neither were the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Recently executed Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was not a terrorist, despite the Saudi government’s claims.

Those occupying the Malheur National Wildlife headquarters in Oregon, are armed and dangerous but they have not, as far as I know, harmed anyone during their occupation. Even if they violently resist an FBI effort to retake the buildings by force, that would not make them terrorists.

One of the columnists quoted in the Common Dream article got it right: “This is an act of armed sedition against lawful authority. That is all that it is and that is quite enough. These are men with guns who have declared themselves outside the law. These are men with guns who have taken something that belongs to all of us.”

We on the left are correct to protest when law enforcement and the mass media slap the terrorist label on progressive activists they seek to repress. Secretary of State Kerry’s labeling Edward Snowdon a terrorist was just as outrageous as the government’s charging two young men in Illinois with terrorism for freeing mink in an animal rights protest. But we must resist the temptation to respond that “if you call left-wing protesters terrorists, then you should give the same label to right-wingers and attack them with equal firepower.” Playing fast and loose with this extremely inflammatory term is a bad idea no matter the political position of those involved. It will be used to counter our protests against government misapplication of the term, as well as to justify their falsely labeling our protests as terrorism.

While these right-wing militia types could easily, and possibly already have, committed terrorist acts elsewhere, let’s not get carried away and label as terrorist the militant actions of those we disagree with, unless the label really fits.  Read More 
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You can’t make everyone happy

At one point in the Democratic Party debate Saturday night, Sanders and Clinton were asked if corporations would be happy if they were elected. Sanders bluntly answered “no,” but Clinton said her goal was to make everyone happy.

Clinton’s desire to please everyone is like countering BLACK LIVES MATTER with ALL LIVES MATTER. With replacing WE’RE THE 99% with WE’RE FOR THE 100%.

At first these responses may sound reasonable. Of course the President should work on behalf of everyone. Of course all people’s lives are important. However, they fail to recognize the divisions in our society along race and class lines, and that our laws, police, courts, educational system, tax code, zoning regulations and so much more are designed to keep it that way. At best these broadening statements are meaningless platitudes that miss the point. At worst they are evidence of racism, class bias and acceptance of corporate criminality.

Those who respond ALL LIVES MATTER either don’t get, or refuse to accept, what the slogan really means: black lives should matter as much as white lives. BLACK LIVES MATTER attacks the systematic devaluation of African-American lives; the ALL LIVES MATTER position refuses to admit that the United States is racist. It refuses to acknowledge how our society forces African-Americans into ghettos, denies them meaningful education and employment, and imprisons an alarmingly high percentage. ALL LIVES MATTER doesn’t view the police as an occupying militarized force that shoots and kills hundreds of African-Americans every year. The WE’RE FOR THE 100% position argues that singling out the 1% is divisive and destructive. This position ignores the fact that our economic/political system is owned by and run by the 1%, and those who serve them, for their exclusive benefit. This position ignores how the rich and powerful have rigged our system.

Sanders doesn’t go far enough, but his response indicates that he understands that giant corporations are at the core of our problems, fattening their own wallets while sucking the rest of us dry and destroying the environment. Clinton, on the other hand, is a corporate democrat. She will never accept that it is necessary to attack corporate power in order to drag a hundred million Americans out of debt and poverty, as well as prevent globe-spanning climate-related catastrophes.

Clinton ignores the corporate rot in our system, dismissing the need for basic change. Whatever she says about change or improvement, at the heart of her program is an acceptance of the status quo. If, like me, you find the status quo unacceptable, you will reject candidates who and the slogans that espouse it.  Read More 
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A Warm December Day

Friday, December 11. The morning fog has finally burned off, ushering in another warm sunny afternoon in interior Southern New England. We’ve had a string of them recently and the next several days are predicted to get even warmer. In fact, it is so mild that I’m planning to mow the lawn once I’m finished writing. Great to spend time outdoors in such comfortable temperatures at this time of year, but it is disquieting too. I’ve lived here for over four decades and I’ve never had to mow the lawn in December.

I know the difference between weather and climate. No spell of weather in any region is necessarily a manifestation of global warming induced climate change. But it has been so consistently mild at my house and in all of the northeastern United States, that it is hard not to believe that we are sampling what will become “normal” in a couple of decades.

This weather seems a boon to the neighborhood’s plants and animals. I still see flies, and even bumblebees pollinating the remaining flowers in my yard. Thankfully the mosquitoes are gone. Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and many seed-eating birds have a much easier time gorging themselves when there is no snow cover. But whether flora or fauna, the local species have evolved in conjunction with the region’s climate. Weather that is far outside the expected range of climatic variation is disruptive of their life cycles.

At first, the plants and animals will adjust. The climate has always changed. Sometimes, even without human influence, those changes are too sharp for some and some species face extinction, but most survive. This time the change is happening with unprecedented rapidity, and it appears to be gathering momentum with each passing year. To begin with there will be a few species who are “winners,” but planetary life is a vast interconnected web. It will disintegrate once too many strands are lost.

I’ve observed later autumns and earlier springs over the last forty years, but for the most part the changes haven’t been sufficiently dramatic to shock us. While generally warmer, we haven’t had a horribly hot summer or a snowless winter… yet. Last December was our warmest on record, but February was very cold and snowy. So although it was short and statistically average, many perceived last winter as overly harsh. That could happen again this year, but sometime soon, we’ll have a winter that will feel more like Northern California than Southern New England. Hopefully, that will goad a few more neighbors into swelling the ranks of climate change-related activists.

In the meantime, while New Delhi and Beijing endure their worst pollution ever and an unprecedented December tornado was reported in Eastern Washington State, voting members at the COP21 conference in Paris have adopted a woefully inadequate plan. No matter how foggy it gets on these weird December mornings, it has never been clearer that our leaders will only take the actions needed to save us when we force them to.  Read More 
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Could it Happen to You?

Elli and I are speaking at an Amnesty International Human Rights Day program in Amherst this afternoon. Our talk is entitled, “Disappeared in American: Secret Detention and Interrogation in Fiction and Fact.”

First, Elli will read from her novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND. It is the story of a 60-year-old math professor who is whisked away by the TSA at JFK airport to a secret detention center for interrogation. 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.”

By the time Elli is finished, I expect many in the audience will be wondering if such secret centers actually exist in our country. I will attempt to answer that question by looking at the last 100 years of U.S. history.

Our entry into World War I provided the watershed for repressive governmental laws and institutions. Woodrow Wilson’s successful re-election campaign slogan was, “he kept us out of war,” but within a year he had to whip up support for the war effort from a reluctant public and silence contrary voices. His administration helped establish the American Protective League, a public-private partnership that at its height boasted 250,000 members in 600 cities. Its members acted as a vigilante auxiliary security force – rounding up, detaining, and beating subversives, dissenters and draft dodgers. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which, among other things, criminalized anti-war speech. Remarkably, imprisoned anti-war socialist Eugene Debs ran for President in 1920 and garnered a million votes.

This repressive atmosphere led to the Palmer Raids of 1919. In response to an anarchist bombing campaign, Attorney General Palmer’s minions rounded up, detained, brutalized and summarily deported over a thousand foreign-born anarchists and communists, the most famous of whom was Emma Goldman.

These actions apparently had the support of a majority of Americans. The politicians, the newspapers, and the radio news (TV didn’t exist yet) warned that foreigners and radicals would steal their property, impose tyranny and destroy their way of life. In this crisis, the authorities claimed that national security and the strict implementation of draconian laws were necessary. Human rights, civil liberties and the constitution could not be allowed to stand in the way. The government, media, powerful corporations, and local small business interests combined with conservative religious institutions and xenophobic whites to promote this authoritarian ideology. To a large degree, it worked.

In the ensuing decades, these same forces combined to bring us the Japanese Internment, summary mass deportation of migrant workers in the 1950’s, the McCarthy era Red Scare, the USA PATRIOT act, post 9/11 round-ups of Muslims, mass detention of the undocumented, as well as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the rest of those dangerous clowns.

Today, if the government designates you a terrorist, or an enemy combatant; can you be disappeared and detained indefinitely? The courts have yet to decide this issue, but in the 14 years since 9/11, they haven’t ruled that the government can’t.

I don’t know if what happened to Elli’s protagonist could happen to any of us, but I wouldn’t bet against it. We don’t have the American Protective League any more, but every night on TV tens of millions watch heroic federal agents save us from terrorists while shredding the constitution. While many courageous people would protest against such governmental overreach, the majority would not. Although Elli’s book is fiction, it is also frighteningly real.  Read More 
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A Green Capitalist Solution?

With the Paris Climate Summit approaching, THE NATION magazine has featured articles about global warming induced climate change. A recent cover story by economist Robert Pollin was entitled “The New Green Economy: Think we can’t stabilize the climate while fostering growth? Think Again” His thesis is, “The global economy can bring global emissions down to the IPCC target of 20 billion tons within 20 years if most countries - especially those with large GDPs or populations - devote between 1.5 and 2 percent per year of GDP to investments in energy efficiency and clean, low-emission renewable-energy sources.” He argues that the jobs generated by these investments, coupled with targeted retraining of those who lose jobs by weaning the world off of fossil fuels will cause growth while lowering our carbon footprint.

Pollin contrasts his view with “leftists [who see] … the solution to climate change is to oppose economic growth in general and advance an alternative ‘de-growth’ agenda.” He cites one of my favorite books, Juliet Schor’s PLENTATUDE, as an example of this transgression.

Pollin argues well. He shows that if we act quickly, plan carefully, and invest wisely, we can cut carbon emissions within the confines of our current system. But he writes as if this key element of our economy is a self-contained unit. His scenario suffers from the same, albeit more sophisticated, tunnel vision I discussed in my last blog (It’s Real, but I’m not Worried), because efficient energy generation is the beginning, but not the end, of the carbon impact of what he proposes.

For instance, Pollin writes that his plan won’t cost more because, “To begin with, energy-efficient investments make it cheaper to cook meals, heat and cool homes and offices; travel by cars, buses and trains; and operate industrial machinery.” In our system people buy more if it is cheaper. All the new green jobs and lowered costs mean that more people will eat, heat, cool, and travel more. It means appliance companies, and auto dealers will advertise to get more people to buy bigger, better refrigerators, air-conditioners and cars with their newfound income. Such increases, regardless of efficiency, will produce more greenhouse gases.

Applying Pollin’s logic to his snapshot of India illuminates this problem more dramatically. In India, his plan will “produce a near tripling of average incomes within 20 years… [and] also create an average of about 10 million more jobs per year….” Under capitalism, with companies competing to sell as many products as possible, 200,000,000 more jobholders with three-times the income will cause an explosive increase in consumption. Producing and selling more goods only exacerbates our wasteful, throwaway economy, in which fashions change so quickly that local Goodwill stores can’t accommodate the mountains of discards, and we hardly have time to learn how to use new electronic devices before they must be replaced. Everyone should have a path out of poverty, but creating huge masses of new consumers and new products courts ecological disaster.

Pollin gives his argument too much credit. He demonstrates that his plan can IN AND OF ITSELF reduce the global carbon footprint to sustainable levels. But the energy producing aspect of our economy is not isolated. It is part of a larger system that mandates competition, profit and consumption-fostered growth, increasing global carbon footprint to unsustainable levels.

We must make the changes Pollin advocates. But while they are necessary, they are not sufficient. We must get off the capitalist growth treadmill if we are to survive.  Read More 
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