Saturday, May 26, 2018

Dying On the Edges

Neoliberalism is not conducive to our health or to our survival.

Neoliberalism has brought us to a place where we have to choose to either step back or accept the butcher's bill to keep it going. We're running out of room, we're running out of stuff, somebody - a lot of somebodies - are going to have to die to keep this party going, to keep us in our big trucks, to keep us in our McMansions. There's simply not enough to go around.

We cannot pretend to bend the Earth to conform to our politics any more. We must now reconcile our politics to the imperatives of our planet. We are going to have to harness consciousness to conscience.

Even in generally affluent Europe there's a movement of people who say, "we can't see a future." These people, from across Europe, are suing the EU for failing to protect their fundamental rights to life, health, occupation and property. They are acting in their own right and on behalf of their children and generations to follow. They are saying that all governments have responsibilities now and to the future. Nobody gets to wreck the future. No government has that right. Not even yours. Implicit in that is that governments must heed "should" as much as "can." Yes they can do things, especially vote-winning things today, but should they do them if the immediate benefit is outweighed by future consequences.

Imagine you're in a lifeboat (which, as I'll explain you now are) and you're in command (you've got the pistol).  All of the survivors, a dozen in all, haven't eaten for a while and they're getting hungry and thirsty. You've got enough water to slake everyone's thirst and enough food to fill their tummies. They get angry and tell you they want that water and they want that food and you had damn well better deliver. You know if you go along they're not going to be happy by Day 3, the days following will be worse and by Day 6 they may be turning on each other. So are you going to ration that food, make it last, or will you let everything go all to Hell? Or, Option 3, you've got six rounds in that revolver. You could shoot the six people you like least, toss them over the side, and relieve the pressure - for a while.

We live on a very finite planet, Earth. It's our one and only biosphere. It operates much like a space ship hurtling through the universe at astonishing speed. (When you combine the speed Earth turns on its axis, the speed of Earth's orbit around the sun, the speed of our solar system's transit through our galaxy and the speed of our galaxy's travel through the universe, it's mind-boggling.) The point is, Earth is still our one and only. Earth - not Elon Musk, not Jeff Bezos, not the Koch Brothers - provides everything you own, everything you use, everything that keeps you alive and happy - the lot. The point is that you, me, all life plant or animal, have to live within the limit of what Earth provides. Go beyond that limit and your chances are about the same as an astronaut going on a spacewalk and removing her helmet. Not good - at all.

Here's the problem. We want everything Earth provides, all of it. We want all of it and more. We have found ways to get more. We now use the Earth's resources far beyond what the planet can sustainably provide. We do this by pillaging the Earth's resource reserves. You can't really argue with that because the evidence is tangible, calculable, some of it is even visible to the naked eye from space. It's visible in deforestation, the clearing of vast tracts of forests. It's visible in desertification, the exhaustion of once fertile farmland and its transformation into barren desert. It's visible in dried up lakes and rivers that no longer flow to the sea. NASA's Grace satellites record it in the subsidence of surface levels caused by the draining of freshwater from aquifers below. We see it in global fisheries that are being collapsed, one by one, as the industrial fishing fleet "fishes down the food chain." It's visible in the algae blooms that now regularly appear in our lakes and along our coasts. It is manifest in the global collapse of biodiversity of both terrestrial and marine species.

The signs are everywhere. They're inescapable, irrefutable. There ain't no getting around it. This is a planet in peril. We're now using the Earth's resources in excess of the planet's carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7.

The neoliberal model of political/economic governance holds that if you can still stock the store shelves it's okay, don't stop. The neoliberal model of governance cares little if at all for the future. That's what has those "we can't see a future" folks in Europe up in arms. They can't see a future. The difference between those brave few and the neoliberals who govern them is that those few have bothered to look to the future. Neoliberals don't look up. Neoliberals look down. Neoliberals can't look up because they know what they'll see utterly contradicts their ethos. It puts the lie to their mode of governance. They won't have that. They're already in too deep to worry about the future.

Look at what's happened during the era of neoliberalism (in addition to all that business about desertification, deforestation, fisheries collapse, etc.). We have doubled in population. We have significantly extended human lifespans. We have substantially increased our per capita consumption. So, more people, living longer, consuming more. As an equation that's more people X living longer X consuming more = the mess we're in today. It has exhausted Earth's resources and caused other life, terrestrial and marine, to plummet in numbers by 50%, half. The bottom is now falling out. The 2016 LivingPlanet Report found that we're on track to lose 67 per cent of wildlife by 2020. This has all happened since the era of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney.

Over that interval, China's population has grown from 982 million (1980) to nearly 1.4 billion. India has gone from 696 million to 1.324 billion. The US grew from 226 million to 323 million. Consider this. It took all but 200 years of the 12,000 year history of human civilization to grow our entire global population to one billion. It took the past 200 years to grow that to 7.5 billion and we're expected to hit 9 billion in just another two or three decades.

China's GDP grew from 192 billion (1980) to 11.2 trillion. India grew from 36 billion to nearly 2.4 trillion. The US grew from 543 billion to 18.6 trillion. India today has almost five times the total GDP of the US in 1980.

In 1980, GWP, Gross World Production, was about 18.8 trillion. In 2000, GWP was 41 trillion. By 2014 it had grown to 77.8 trillion dollars. By way of perspective, in 1900 GWP hit a blistering, all time record 1.1 trillion dollars.

Do you see a trend there?

Those figures - population, GDP, GWP - they're exponential. That's the course neoliberalism has us on, exponential growth. Not for nothing is it called "The Great Acceleration."  And that's the biggest problem with neoliberalism - it only comes with a gas pedal, the steering is shite and there ain't no brake. But even the most powerful locomotive, the greatest ship will stop - when it runs into something.

When I began this post I started with the title "Living On the Edges." Only we're not really living on the edges any more. We're dying on the edges. We don't notice it because we're killing off the rest of nature first. Those other species are dying so that we might live this way a little longer, but only a little. It caused George Monbiot to ask why mankind has chosen to go to war on our living world.
...In a society bombarded by advertising and driven by the growth imperative, pleasure is reduced to hedonism and hedonism is reduced to consumption. We use consumption as a cure for boredom, to fill the void that an affectless, grasping, atomised culture creates, to brighten the grey world we have created. 
We care ever less for the possessions we buy, and dispose of them ever more quickly. Yet the extraction of the raw materials required to produce them, the pollution commissioned in their manufacturing, the infrastructure and noise and burning of fuel needed to transport them are trashing a natural world infinitely more fascinating and intricate than the stuff we produce. The loss of wildlife is a loss of wonder and enchantment, of the magic with which the living world infects our lives. 
...A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.
And the beneficiaries? Well they are also the biggest consumers, using their spectacular wealth to exert impacts thousands of times greater than most people achieve. Much of the natural world is destroyed so that the very rich can fit their yachts with mahogany, eat bluefin tuna sushi, scatter ground rhino horn over their food, land their private jets on airfields carved from rare grasslands, burn in one day as much fossil fuel as the average global citizen uses in a year. 
Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.
We are dying on the edges and we're killing off everything in our way to cling to our suicidal lifestyle for just as long as we can.
...farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals
But comparison of the new estimates with those for the time before humans became farmers and the industrial revolution began reveal the full extent of the huge decline. Just one-sixth of wild mammals, from mice to elephants, remain, surprising even the scientists. In the oceans, three centuries of whaling has left just a fifth of marine mammals in the oceans.
The important question isn't how did we do this but rather why are we still doing this? If this neoliberal trap leads to our possible extinction, why don't we stop and find other ways of organization - political, economic, industrial, social - that can bring humanity back into harmony with our planet, our one and only biosphere?

We have a shared responsibility for our predicament and some bear more responsibility than others. It stops when we say it stops. It stops when enough of us say, no more. There's a lot to undo and it won't be painless or free of sacrifice. But when you're in a lifeboat, your ultimate survival depends entirely on sacrifice.


Toby said...

Mound, you bring back memories of Buckminster Fuller and his Spaceship Earth. Fuller was talking about this stuff 50 years ago. He likened the earth's resources to a car battery, necessary to start the engine but we only get to use it once. If we don't get Spaceship Earth started we're sunk.

As someone else asked, with all that we need oil for why are we burning it?

I have this vision of Easter Island priests persuading islanders that they need to keep building statues for the good of the country, that there is no other way to save them. Besides, the statues bring jobs, jobs, jobs.

The Mound of Sound said...

It's when you begin putting together the numbers - gross population, GDP, GWP - over the span of the past century or two - and the early onset impacts we're already seeing that the measure of our predicament, the need for wholesale change and the alternative of refusing that essential change become inescapable.

We are at the edge now and neoliberalism holds us hostage in this unlivable place. Stepford wife Liberals, Stepford wife Conservatives and Stepford wife New Dems can't get their heads around the reality of where their party's neoliberal politics have brought us. Yet here we are.

Trailblazer said...

Unfortunately the growing populations come with growing expectations.
The expectations, as I can see it, come more from those that have little but see the west as inspirational.
The western world encourages inspiration and growth but when those with less , often because of famine,strife, or politically induced conditions, reach out for more or equal opportunity, they are castigated as freeloaders and their country of origin are cut off from the world wide markets that would enable themselves be more self sufficient.


The Mound of Sound said...

The thing is Trail Blazer, we're eating our own. Some may a convincing argument that we, the developed nations, are taking all that's ours, taking what we can pilfer from lesser nations, stealing from nature and other species - plant and animal - and, worst of all, stealing from our children and theirs. When you look at the numbers I gave for gross population, GDP and GWP, it's difficult to argue with those aforementioned views. We have a choice. Either we find a way to live in relative harmony with the remainder of life on Earth or we die. Yes, poorer and more vulnerable humans in equatorial, tropical and southern hemisphere regions may go first but we'll follow in due course. At this point, those who insist on pursuing growth for the sake of growth are merely adding names to the butcher's bill.

Karl Kolchak said...

Mound--I like your lifeboat analogy. I would just add a bit where a tiny minority of the most influential passengers (those living in the West) are continuing to live as if they were in their first class cabins back on the ship while the large majority of the rest of the passengers are angry that such luxuries were not afforded to them and now obviously never will be.

Thanks to the (American dominated) Western media, the ideal as pictured not only for American citizens but for people in much of the rest of the world is a suburban or urban upper middle class lifestyle. Yes, this lie called the American Dream is being forever flogged by the neoliberals, but I'll bet 99% or more of Americans view it as the birthright. Even most Millennial Bernie Sanders supporters are not so much angry about the mindless consumerism of previous generations as they are that the ability to live that kind of life is being denied to THEM.

A lot of liberal/leftist commentators who reject this messaging understand what is happening, but what they seem to fail to recognize is just how powerful the beast really is and just how receptive their fellow citizens are to its message. And it sure doesn't help having many of the leading voices raising the alarm about climate change like Al Gore living in gigantic mansions and traveling around the world in private jets.

I'm not saying any of this as a criticism. I grew up in the 70s at a time when environmental activism was at its peak in terms of its effectiveness in curtailing the excess of corporate America (Earth Day used to be a really big deal--we even learned about it in grade school). Since then, I've watched in sadness and horror as even the environmental movement has been co-opted by the big corporations. The Green Party even neutered itself for the "sin" of costing Gore the 2000 election when it was the Clinton administration's godawful environmental record that finally breathed some life into it via Nader's campaign and led many of its supporters to believe that Gore had sold them out for power--which
he did.

Anyway--great post. It's particularly galling to know what the answer is yet recognize how few people have any interest in hearing it.