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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.


May. 21st, 2006 06:18 pm
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By now it's a truism for many that America and many other nations are "addicted to oil," in the sense that "[t]he problem is not that we lack evidence [of the damaging effects of fossil-fuel use] or the economic and technical capacity to solve the problem, but that we lack the collective will to act."  (This quote is from the Alliance for Climate Protection, which will garner support from ticket sales for the upcoming movie An Inconvenient Truth.)

Observers of individual addicts, such as David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest, have noted that they rarely if ever manage to break the cycle of addiction without outside help before they've "hit rock bottom."  Will the same be true of our society?  Will we continue to feed our "addiction" with coal even after the oil runs out, until the consequences of our actions finally build up to the point where civilization is too damaged to continue to "stay the course?"  If so, can an independent group of humans provide the "outside help" we need to break our addiction?  Or is the arrival of benevolent aliens the only thing that could really prevent the global-warming catastrophe that is now inevitable if we don't change our ways within ten to twenty years?

...except they'd never get here in time, so planning for handling catastrophes and their aftermath is now more important than ever.  If we're going to hit rock bottom, and it's too late to open a parachute, we should at least try to deploy some kind of cushion.  Here are some ideas of what that should include:
  1. Prepare contingency plans for evacuating the regions that will be hardest hit by global warming.
  2. Improve international standards for quarantine procedures in case of multiple major disease outbreaks.
  3. Build a complete list of the web of ecological dependencies that sustain all the species humans use, and preserve every necessary species in this web in captivity, along with frozen samples of its seeds or fertilized eggs.
  4. Reinforce buildings and sewer systems, create a stockpile of boats, and so forth so that coastal cities and towns can smoothly handle the transition as their streets start to become canals.
At the same time, we also need to consider the consequences of our wider addiction to economic growth and unbridled mass production with scant regard to the state of the resource base or the buildup of waste products.  Unlike the specific problem of fossil fuels, for which the development of cost-effective alternatives is already well underway, there are not many people trying to cure humanity of this wider economic addiction, though the book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins has some ideas for where we could start.

Despite all this talk of inevitable disasters lately, I still consider myself an optimist compared to some.  I believe firmly that even if we hit rock bottom, while hideous amounts of suffering and death will occur, humanity as a whole will survive and will gain wisdom from this awful experience that will put us on the right road to breaking the cycle of addiction once and for all.

Essay 2

May. 19th, 2006 04:43 pm
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This next one is much longer and was my final paper for Intro Environmental Studies.  It was titled "Can humanity become independent of the natural environment?"

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"The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars," says religious leader Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler's novel, Parable of the Sower. It's an old idea in science fiction: by carrying life to other worlds, humans can serve as the seeds, the reproductive mechanism, of Earth's biosphere. Some take this literally, referring to the hypothetical planetary superorganism called Gaia; for others it's merely a useful analogy.

But there is another important reason to establish space colonies, also alluded to in Parable of the Sower: "It's a destiny we'd better pursue if we hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs." To be a bit poetic about the analogy, we need to evolve into what a Star Trek fan might call "the Great Bird of the Galaxy" (which was actually a nickname for Gene Roddenberry).

More prosaically: at this point, we have to acknowledge that terrible things may happen to Mother Earth no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and while a catastrophe that kills off the whole human species is unlikely, it's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. As SF authors also like to say, "humanity has all its eggs in one basket," but we can change that if we choose. Ecologists may see this as a misguided attempt to escape the natural cycle of species birth and death, even though humans will probably continue to evolve wherever we may be. But coupled with the first rationale, I think there is a very compelling ecological argument for human expansion into space.
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About forty years ago, before the environmental movement got started in earnest, virtually nobody believed that humanity could have a significant impact on the atmosphere, the global water cycle, or any of the other great global systems that sustain us. The evidence was there--a huge and growing world population, giant cities, plains covered horizon-to-horizon with checkerboards of crop fields--but the idea was too radical to take seriously. In many circles it still is, but nevertheless, the progress environmentalism has made in the past forty years is astounding. Today almost everyone knows that there are people called environmentalists who seek to undo the harm humanity has supposedly done to our planet. In polls, a majority of Americans even assign a high priority to environmental issues, even though more than half of voters still seem to support a decidedly un-environmental administration.

Still, considering the enormity of the task before us--to change not only our technological infrastructure and economic paradigms, but thousands of human cultures and billions of human minds--it seems terrifyingly unlikely that we will have enough time to prevent ecological catastrophe. So perhaps we should be asking ourselves these two hard questions: Can we predict, or perhaps even choose, which catastrophe we will have to face first? And what can we do to prepare for that catastrophe and minimize the death toll?

On the plus side, if it's clear that this catastrophe resulted from human actions, afterward we will probably start to move much more quickly onto the path of sustainability. "Good decisions are the result of experience, which is usually the result of bad decisions." But that said, we still shouldn't give up hope of learning the easy way, however unlikely it may seem. After all, our whole era is characterized by rapidly accelerating change; all we really have to do is point that change in the right direction. If environmentalists can find enough key points of influence in the interlocking web of problems we face, and "a lever and a place to stand" for each one, then perhaps we can move the world in time to dodge the bullet humanity has unwittingly fired at itself.

March 2015

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