Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The best of times. The worst of times.

These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. The times we live in give us great hope. And, the times we live in crush what little hope we have.

We have hope, because we know what to do to solve the problems that now threaten our very existence. But we lose hope, because implementing these solutions seems politically impossible. Too few people with too much money would have their financial interests hurt or even destroyed by these solutions, so the media they own obscures the solutions behind false equivalencies, and the politicians they own  dismiss the solutions as "too expensive."

The recent EU elections show that citizens in a number of countries are not happy with this state of affairs. RT.com notes that "For the first time since 1906 a party, other than the Conservatives or Labour, garnered the most votes in a national poll in the UK [Great Britain]." In the state of New York, it is now possible that the Republican Party will lose major party status. These things give us hope. But in too many instances, citizens are giving their support to right-wing extremists, who often misdirect popular anger against immigrants or minorities, rather than targeting the neo-liberal banksters' dictatorship which has seized control of the world's economy the past half century. This gives us fear.

Even political leaders of the supposed "left" offer no hope. France's Socialist party was clobbered in the EU election, because they were unwilling to actually confront the banksters and hold them accountable. Ian Welsh wrote last week:
The neo-liberal left of Europe and North America offer no solutions.  They cannot offer solutions, it is not possible under neo-liberalism to fix the problems neo-liberalism has created: they are a result of neo-liberalism’s genuine beliefs about how the world economy should be run.

You can not, under the neo-liberal model of globalization, tax the rich effectively: they can go somewhere else.  You cannot hold wages up, because jurisdictions can always be played against each other.  You cannot fix the environment and stop the mass wiping out of species and the probable death of a billion humans, because jurisdictions can be played against each other.  That countries no longer produce the majority goods they need themselves, nor in many cases even the food, means jurisdictions cannot unilterally do the right thing, even if they wanted to (which they don’t.)

Because the oligarchs also control the means of ideological dissemination, you also can’t effectively communicate either the problems or good solutions.  Because the oligarchs control the means of political production (ie. the process of producing and nominating political candidates), you can’t get into power the people who would actually want to change the neo-liberal political order (and if by some miracle you could, expect them to be treated as Argentina or Venezuela have been treated or destroyed as Howard Dean was.)

I believe that Democrats running for office can easily defeat Republicans, even in the reddest, most conservative of states if Democrats talked openly about these matters. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans, all over the USA, feel that the country has gone off the tracks. Doesn't matter if they identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans, as liberals or as conservatives or libertarians - the majority of Americans, for many years now, are unhappy with the direction the country is going in.

How could it be otherwise? There are no leaders - none, zero, nada - even talking about ending the burdens of usury and speculation on the economy - even though these are fundamental processes of economic decay that have been discussed and condemned by every major religion of the world for the entire written history of humanity.  In a nutshell, that's the lesson of David Graeber's 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. Paul Krugman may now profess himself impressed with Obama's second term, but what good is providing all Americans with health insurance if we cause a major extinction event? Or if we allow financial speculators to continue to  profit from the escalating price of food? Right now, about 160,000 people die each day on our planet. Do you really think Obamacare will protect us when there are one or two million people dying every single day?

A ten-fold increase in mortality rates is a horrifying thought - one which is brutal in its destruction of our hope. But in its very horror lies the seeds of our hope. Because humanity has proven, over and over and over again - then again a few more times for good measure - that it will do whatever is necessary to survive. This is not to say there will be no suffering or privation. There will be widespread pain and misery, and millions of individuals will perish. Entire countries will disappear, entire civilizations collapse. But in this whirlwind of extermination, there will be at least one society, somewhere, that will successfully adapt and survive, ensuring that humanity itself also survives.

And what is needed to survive, we have already at hand. We have the science, and we have the technology. What we do not have is the political will to create crash programs to apply that science and technology, because that would require crushing our present rulers and leaders. Indeed, one half the formal political system in the USA has devoted itself to opposing science. And much of the other half has devoted itself to opposing technology.

But what we lack most of all, is VISION. We do not have a coherent, plausible, positive vision. And without vision, the people will perish - another hard-learned lesson of human history the world's major religions warn us about. 

The 2008 Obama campaign showed us how powerful a vision of hope can be, no matter how much of a charade it might be. What do you think would be the electoral results if Democratic candidates starting telling people we are actually on the verge of a massive new economic boom? Because there is $100 trillion of work we need to do to solve the problem of climate change. This new boom will last for decades, just like the boom unleashed after World War 2 by meeting pent-up consumer demand  and rebuilding Europe and Japan.  I believe, in a few years or decades, the harshest and most important historical judgement of President Obama will be that he took office at a point where he could have led the nation and the world into a new golden age of capitalism, but instead chose to defend the status quo, and as a result the populist upsurge against the status quo veered right instead of left.

Our great hope is based on the fact that we basically need to build an entirely new world economy, to replace the old economy that is so heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels. Considering that the entire world economy produces around $71 trillion in goods and services each year (of which the U.S. economy produces around $16 trillion), that means we could easily see double digit rates of economic growth each year, for many, many years. $100 trillion over 15 years is just under $7 trillion a year. That's just a ten percent increase in world output right now! We CAN do this - we have hundreds of millions of people worldwide who would welcome the opportunity of a new, well-paying job that moreover made a significant contribution, in whatever large or small way, to building a better future for their children and grandchildren. We essentially need to repeat the Chinese economic miracle, but this time, we have to make sure it is sustainable and friendly to the environment. We need development of national economies, not creation of industries producing cheap consumer goods for export.

Here's just one measure of how massive this new economic boom will be. The total number of operating utility-scale wind turbines in the USA at the end of 2012 was 46,100, according to a American Wind Energy Association fact sheet. But to make all our electricity generation renewable, we need 590,000 wind turbines, or over 12 times as many. (Source: Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials, by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi , Table 4, page 1,160.) The number of wind-related jobs in the U.S. at the end of 2013 - including for development, siting, construction, transportation, manufacturing, operations, and services - was 50,500 people. Which means we need another half million people or so trained to operate and maintain multi-megawatt wind turbines. That should give you some idea of the amazingly bright and hopeful future we can promise our children and our grandchildren.

Or consider this: the Wikipedia entry on solar energy notes: "The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the Earth's non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined..." According to Jacobson and Delucchi, we need to build 1.7 billion roof-top photovoltaic systems in the world, each generating 3 kilowatts (.003 megawatts) of electricity. 265 million of those are needed in the U.S. Millions of new jobs, probably more like tens of millions of new jobs - will be created as we begin to do what needs to be done.

These are just two of the massive projects we are about to embark on. And we will begin these projects, because these are what need to be done if humanity is to survive as a species. Our species' instinct for self-survival is simply too strong to let a few thousand banksters around the world tell us there's "no money" for what we need to do. Here's a quick list of other massive programs that will be launched in the not too distant future:

• Every single car and truck needs to be replaced with hybrids or super fuel-efficient vehicles. There are now just over one billion autos on the roads in the world, 239.8 million of those in the USA. World auto production capacity is now about 80 million vehicles a year, so it will be a strain, but entirely doable, to replace all one billion vehicles with new highly efficient vehicles over the next 10 to 20 years. But it won't happen so long as most income goes to the top one percent, depriving most of the 99% of the income needed to purchase a new car.

• A replacement for or, more accurately (for the next decade or so) a "replica" of, the entire system of gasoline delivery and distribution to facilitate a transition to electric vehicles. In the U.S. alone, this infrastructure has been estimated to cost over one trillion dollars.

 • Almost the entirety of the U.S. housing stock needs to be replaced or retrofitted with green technology, including high value insulation, and on site wind and solar power where appropriate. Much the same is true of the rest of the world. Note that the Scandinavian countries have already developed and begun building homes that generate more power than is required to operate and heat them.

• Commercial and public buildings similarly need to be upgraded, especially skyscrapers built in the 1950s to 1990s, which is almost all the core downtowns. Architectural preservation will be extremely important, because modern architecture, under the influence of corporatist funding, has become hideously ugly and anti-human.

 • There will be a huge boom in building urban mass transit rail systems. New York City has the most dense network in the U,S,, but it is only half as dense as what you find in Tokyo, London, Paris, or Moscow. Cities like Miami and Phoenix, which are now in the top ten urban areas in the U.S. don't have ANY mass transit rail, or have a single line with one or two dozen stations. A few years ago, I calculated this urban rail program in the USA alone will require over $3 trillion. There are already 259 major rail construction projects underway in Europe, compared to only 82 in USA. If you want to see for yourself how pitiful USA urban rail coverage in comparison to other major cities around the world, Urbanrail.net is a great site to access maps of all the world's urban rail systems. Here, for example, is the metro rail system of Berlin, which has 5.1 million people in its urban area. Compare that to the map of the rail system in Atlanta, which is significantly more populous, at 5.5 million. Even the map of Washington DC (5.9 million people) looks abysmal by comparison to Berlin. Which of these three cities, with about the same level of population, is better prepared to address the problems of peak oil and global climate change?

• Cross-country passenger rail with its own rights of way. How many people know Amtrak has to run on rails owned and maintained by the freight railroads? In the northeast corridor, from Washington DC to Boston, if land acquisition for new right of way is too expensive, or destructive of existing communities, we really should build this entirely underground: one long tunnel from DC to Boston. With real high speed rail on its own underground, dedicated tracks, the trip of 227 miles from DC to New York would be a bit less than 90 minutes, with the 215 miles to Boston adding another 90 minute ride. And, built underground, terminals can be located right in core downtowns. The application of automation to tunneling technology has not only made tunneling much safer, by removing the need for a human presence at the rock face, but has increased in productivity a hundred-fold in the past century, from 5 meters an hour when the Holland Tunnel was bored beneath the Hudson River in the 1920s, to over 450 meters an hour boring the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland, which will be the longest rail tunnel in the world when it is completed in 2016.

• Massive repair and replacement of older water treatment and distribution systems in most major cities. In some US cities, such as New York and Boston, wooden sewer pipes over 100 years old are still in service. The fifth largest city in the world, Istanbul, Turkey, is now running out of water. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and other cities in arid areas will have to be abandoned over the next half century unless we build massive new systems of water desalination and purification. With the most recent technology, these need not be systems that are geographically massive, such as the 1950s proposal to move water from where there is an abundance, such as the Yukon in North America, to arid areas. We now have the technology of small, water purification systems suitable for a single household, but, again, we're looking at increasing production and installation of such systems a hundred fold or more within the next few years.

• The entire grid for electricity generation and distribution needs to be almost entirely replaced, and made ready for the massive build-out of wind and solar energy. Areas rich in wind potential, such as the upper plains in USA, need to be connected to urban areas in the Midwest and East. Areas rich in solar energy, such as northern Africa, need to be connected to population centers along the Mediterranean, and in Europe.

But all this building of a bright future is an impossible dream so long as Wall Street can make more money trading credit default swaps than by actually investing in building these new energy, water and transportation systems. This is not just a matter of re-regulating the financial system. Costas Lapavitsas, professor in economics at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies and author of the recent book Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, points out in a recent interview on The Real News that "it was in the environment of regulations that finance became so powerful it was able to burst all the regulations."

Viewed from this perspective - and keeping mind we need to crush the fundamental processes of usury and speculation - not even making Elizabeth Warren President of the United States and leader of the free world is enough. Lapavitsas argues in the interview,
...we need public institutions of finance, we need public intervention, we need public mechanisms, and we need publicly owned financial institutions to be put in place that would actually have a public mandate and that would begin to think of themselves and of what they do in the economy not like the private financiers do, which is let's make a quick buck and let's get out of it before the sky caves in, but think of themselves as public institutions that are there to provide the financial means that the real economy needs to put itself on a different footing. ....nationalization isn't really what we're talking about. We're talking about public financial institutions with a public mandate and run in a new public spirit, communally based, associational, and with a different understanding of themselves and how they operate and what they ought to do in society, and institutions that are focusing on supporting investment and on providing credit to ordinary people with some aspects of public utility attached to it.
We already have the science, and we already have the technology. What we do not have is a society that values scientists and engineers more than Wall Street speculators and usurers. That will change as the combined triple crises of climate change, resource depletion, and economic degradation under the burdens of usury and speculation, compel us to turn to science and technology to save our very lives. This will be similar to the process described by Thomas Piketty, in which the tragedies of World Wars One and Two destroyed the stranglehold oligarchs in various countries had achieved over their nations' economies. Even now, we are developing the new ideologies that will replace neo-liberalism and conservatism, and change our culture so that doing good is no longer a losing proposition.

The level at which World War Two was actually won, was the level of science and technology, with the deployment of mass produced internal combustion engines, directed radio waves (radar and sonar), computers for code-breaking as well as effective combat fire control, and, finally, the splitting of atoms. The level at which humanity will win its struggle to survive global climate change will again be the level of science and technology, and woe betide the selfish oligarch and financier who stands in the way.

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