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Sad to say, it wasn’t exactly a shock to read last night about the passing of poet, songwriter and social critic Gil Scott-Heron at the age of 62. His struggles with drugs and illness and the law in recent years have been well documented. Still, one should reflect on his contributions, mainly during the 1970s.
I knew Gil a little. When I was senior editor at Crawdaddy — for most of the 1970s — I convinced Gil to become an occasional columnist. He was well-known, in certain circles, for his “The Revolution WIll Not Be Televised” and for a later cult hit “The Bottle” and excellent album Winter in America from which it emerged, but he was hardly a commercial superstar. Crawdaddy never cared about that and was always eager to promote any kind of lefty musician. His antinuclear epic “We Almost Lost Detroit” remains relevant to this day (I linked to it here after the Fukushima disaster this year).
I only met Gil a couple of time, including once backstage at a Central Park concert where I picked up a column (it seemed the only way I’d ever get it). But we chatted on the phone a few times, again, often surrounding an overdue piece. He was a bright and engaging guy, and about to go a little more mainstream with his song “Johannesburg” — which he wrote about for Crawdaddy (if memory serves, it was based on his trip there, with Mandela a long way from being freed) and gave us the lyrics before the single came out. “Hey brother have you heard the word — Johannesburg!”
Anyway, here are a few key YouTube songs  by GIl, via the Common Dreams site. R.I.P. at last , Gil.
Greg Mitchell’s latest books are “The Age of WikiLeaks” and “Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequeces,” available both as e-books via Amazon and in print at blurb.com.
This is not defenitively a revolution . This is a moment where radical people and people that have never been involved in politics before are meeting in the squares around spain and are talking about capitalist system, financial crisis, political crisis, etc… It’s a process of ridding fear to raise our voices. And it is complicated for people who are super radical to work with people who have never heard the word patriarchy, you know. But it is beautiful and very important that new people is getting involved, outside the political ghetto. The camp in Plaza Catalunya is very very organized, full of people cooking for free, free radios, free tv programs, people making gardens, nurseries, workshops, talks, music…
So now it’s official. The 2012 campaign will be about the future of Medicare. (Yes, it will also be about jobs, but the Republicans haven’t come up with any credible ideas on that front, and the Democrats seem incapable of doing what needs to be done.)
This spells trouble for the GOP. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans — even a majority of Republican voters — want to preserve Medicare. They don’t want to turn it over to private insurers.
It would be one thing if Republicans had consistency on their side. At least then they could take the high road and claim their plan is a principled way to achieve the aims of Medicare through market-based mechanisms. (It isn’t, of course. It would end up squeezing seniors because it takes no account of the rising costs of health care.)
But they can’t even claim consistency. Remember, this was the same GOP that attacked the President’s health-reform plan in 2010 by warning it would lead to Medicare cuts.
Former President Bill Clinton counsels Democrats not to say Medicare is fine the way it is. He’s right. But instead of talking about Medicare as a problem to be fixed, Democrats should start talking about it as a potential solution to the challenge of rising health-care costs — as well as to our long-term budget problem.
Can we be clear about that budget problem? It’s not driven by Medicare. It’s driven by the same relentlessly soaring health-care costs that are pushing premiums through the roof and causing middle-class families to shell out more and more money for deductibles and co-payments.
Some features of Obama’s new healthcare law will slow the rise — insurance exchanges, for example, could give consumers clearer comparative information about what they’re getting for their insurance payments — but the law doesn’t go nearly far enough.
That’s why Democrats should be proposing that anyone be allowed to sign up for Medicare. Medicare is cheaper than private insurance because its administrative costs are so much lower, and it has vast economies of scale.
If Medicare were allowed to use its potential bargaining leverage over America’s hospitals, doctors, drug companies, and medical providers, it could drive down costs even further.
And it could force the nation’s broken health-care system to do something it must do but has resisted with a vengeance: Focus on healthy outcomes rather on costly inputs. If Medicare paid for results — not tests, procedures, drugs, and hospital stays, but results — it could give Americans better health at lower cost.
Let the GOP go after Medicare. That will do more to elect Democrats in 2012 than anything else. But it would be wise and politically astute for Democrats to go beyond just defending Medicare. Strengthen and build upon it. Use it to reform American health care and, not incidentally, rescue the federal budget.
May 25, 2011
Today, 40 Senate Republicans demonstrated their desire to block the road to the future. They sent a loud and clear message to the American public that sacrifice is for the weak, while the powerful and well-connected get tax cuts.
This Tea Party budget would destroy the fabric of our country rather than put America back to work and focus on what’s important. The Republican Party leadership would have us erase the jobs created during the recovery, gut Medicare and attack Social Security. Veiled in a sham claim of deficit reduction, this budget would do almost nothing to cut the deficit. While it cuts $4.3 trillion in spending that mainly helps middle and low income Americans, it gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. This is no more than a pass-through to enrich the already rich at a time when inequality stands at historic levels.
Like the vast majority of Americans, the labor movement remains strongly opposed to this partisan attack on our nation’s economic future. Those who supported this measure need look no further than the NY-26 special election to see that voters are watching and there are consequences to supporting corporate CEOs at the expense of working people.
The kick-off for the interview is this article in Daily Kos, also by Cruickshank, and the recent dust-up over theCornel West comments on Obama. About coalitions, Cruickshank writes, correctly I think (my emphasis):
Conservatives simply understand how coalitions work, and progressives don’t. Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation. A right-winger will repeat the same talking points even on an issue he or she doesn’t care about or even agree with because he or she knows that their turn will come soon, when the rest of the movement will do the same thing for them.
Progressives do not operate this way. We spend way too much time selling each other out, and way too little time having each other’s back. … But within our own movement, there is nothing stopping us from exhibiting the same kind of effective messaging – if we understood the value of coalitions.
About Democrats and the so-called “Democratic coalition” Cruickshank writes:
The bigger problem is that it is very difficult to successfully maintain a coalition in today’s Democratic Party. Michael Gerson has identified something I have been arguing for some time – that the Democratic Party is actually two parties artificially melded together. I wrote about this in the California context last fall – today’s Democratic Party has two wings to it. One wing is progressive, anti-corporate, and distrusts the free market. The other wing is neoliberal, pro-corporate, and trusts the free market. … The only reason these two antithetical groups share a political party is because the Republicans won’t have either one.
It’s clear that the “Democratic coalition” can never function as Cruickshank prescribes above, since many of goals of the two groups are actually opposite. The Cruickshank rule, if you want to define it, is that in every compromise with the other side, every member of the coalition either advances his goals, or at least, never suffers a loss. With Democrats, every advance of the DLC-corporate agenda is automatically a loss for progressives; and every progressive victory on taxes, for example, is always a loss for neoliberals. That baby can’t be split.
Cruickshank says that Obama has his own coalition, which isn’t quite identical with the Democratic “coalition.” In the Obama coalition, progressives are considered always expendable by Team Where Else You Gonna Go?(They’re also hated and sneered at, I’d add, but why pile on?)
Into that context comes this interview. It starts with “What’s a coalition?” and considers what progressives can do to strengthen theirs — and also strengthen their hand vs. Obama’s eight-dimensional machinations.
A very good conversation. The interviewer is Sam Seder, who is doing excellent work at Majority.fm. (If you want to help him out, click here; they’re member-funded over there and just getting on their feet.)
Note that there’s both negative and positive in the conversation. Negative: Failing to protect ACORN. Positive: Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood. We can learn.
It’s a three-sided game — Obama, Dems, and us. The stronger we are — not Dems, but progressives — and the more united as a coalition, the more we have to be taken into account. I’m in a different place with Obama than Cruickshank is, but I agree 100% with his tactical recommendations.
US President Barack Obama has signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act from Paris, extending post-September 11 powers allowing the government to secretly search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of alleged terrorists or their supporters.
Hours after the US Senate and House of Representatives passed the law, through votes taken in rapid succession, and just minutes before the law was to expire at midnight in Washington DC, Obama sent in a digital signature, finalising the renewal on Thursday.
During congressional debates, legislators rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties would not be abused.
A U.S. Senator from Oregon has once again taken a stand against his own party to defend what he sees as the inherent right to free speech on the Internet, placing a hold on a bill that could force search engines and Internet service providers to block websites deemed to be “infringing” on copyrights.
The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act — or “PROTECT IP” for short was part of a second attempt to pass provisions of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to clear Congress during its last session thanks to a parliamentary maneuver by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
And once again, Wyden has stepped forward to ensure those measures do not pass.
The article notes that “Internet freedom advocates claim the proposed laws could be used to shut down websites that link to other websites that authorities claim to be carrying out infringing activities.”
As evidence, I offer channelsurfing.net and atdhe.net. These domains created no content, as near as I could tell. But they linked to sites that offered sports television over the Internet, and those links were on a game-by-game basis. So, for example, if you didn’t want to subscribe to cable, but wanted to watch ESPN games, you could go to one of these sites, peruse the list of links, choose your game and source, click and watch. Sometimes several sources offered the same game, and you had several links to choose from.
Again, neither of these sites generated the video. They merely offered links to other sites that did. Those other sites perhaps violated intellectual property rights; these sites certainly did not.
Now go ahead and click the links for those sites, and see what happened to them. Yep, that’s the Homeland Security logo.
Three guesses when both of these seizures occurred. If you said “Right before the Super Bowl,” America’s ad and money feast with a football game inside, you wouldn’t be wrong. Homeland Security, the counter-terrorism arm of our national security state, is helping to seize small-people’s property (those sites were property) in order to protect the profits and property of billionaire sports owners and the advertisers who love them.
So you can see where Internet freedom is headed. I’ll reiterate that these sites provide only links to other sites. As Wyden said in his prepared statement (click and scroll down to read it):
PIPA’s prescription takes an overreaching approach to policing the Internet when a more balanced and targeted approach would be more effective. The collateral damage of this approach is speech, innovation and the very integrity of the Internet.
Without Wyden’s hold, the bill would have passed. So good on Sen. Wyden for putting the breaks on this stuff.
A second point — I’ve been watching Wyden for a while. I’m developing a list of known-good progressives, andseveral people with decent public reputations are actually questionable. Ron Wyden ran an aggressive shirt-sleeves & baseball-cap campaign in 2010 in a barely contested race. He appeared to be inoculating himself against something, but I couldn’t figure out what.
Wyden seems to be a progressive. Is he a reliable part of the progressive coalition? This will help move him into the Yes column. Thank you, Senator. More of our people should be using these holds.
It’s vital that we understand the truth about the American economy.
How did we go from the Great Depression to 30 years of Great Prosperity? And from there, to 30 years of stagnant incomes and widening inequality, culminating in the Great Recession? And from the Great Recession into such an anemic recovery?
The Great Prosperity
During three decades from 1947 to 1977, the nation implemented what might be called a basic bargain with American workers. Employers paid them enough to buy what they produced. Mass production and mass consumption proved perfect complements. Almost everyone who wanted a job could find one with good wages, or at least wages that were trending upward.
During these three decades everyone’s wages grew — not just those at or near the top.
Government enforced the basic bargain in several ways. It used Keynesian policy to achieve nearly full employment. It gave ordinary workers more bargaining power. It provided social insurance. And it expanded public investment. Consequently, the portion of total income that went to the middle class grew while the portion going to the top declined. But this was no zero-sum game. As the economy grew almost everyone came out ahead, including those at the top.
The pay of workers in the bottom fifth grew 116 percent over these years — faster than the pay of those in the top fifth (which rose 99 percent), and in the top 5 percent (86 percent).
Productivity also grew quickly. Labor productivity — average output per hour worked — doubled. So did median incomes. Expressed in 2007 dollars, the typical family’s income rose from about $25,000 to $55,000. The basic bargain was cinched.
The middle class had the means to buy, and their buying created new jobs. As the economy grew, the national debt shrank as a percentage of it.
The Great Prosperity also marked the culmination of a reorganization of work that had begun during the Depression. Employers were required by law to provide extra pay — time-and-a-half — for work stretching beyond 40 hours a week. This created an incentive for employers to hire additional workers when demand picked up. Employers also were required to pay a minimum wage, which improved the pay of workers near the bottom as demand picked up.
When workers were laid off, usually during an economic downturn, government provided them with unemployment benefits, usually lasting until the economy recovered and they were rehired. Not only did this tide families over but it kept them buying goods and services — an “automatic stabilizer” for the economy in downturns.
Perhaps most significantly, government increased the bargaining leverage of ordinary workers. They were guaranteed the right to join labor unions, with which employers had to bargain in good faith. By the mid-1950s more than a third of all America workers in the private sector were unionized. And the unions demanded and received a fair slice of the American pie. Non-unionized companies, fearing their workers would otherwise want a union, offered similar deals.
Americans also enjoyed economic security against the risks of economic life — not only unemployment benefits but also, through Social Security, insurance against disability, loss of a major breadwinner, workplace injury and inability to save enough for retirement. In 1965 came health insurance for the elderly and the poor (Medicare and Medicaid). Economic security proved the handmaiden of prosperity. In requiring Americans to share the costs of adversity it enabled them to share the benefits of peace of mind. And by offering peace of mind, it freed them to consume the fruits of their labors.
The government sponsored the dreams of American families to own their own home by providing low-cost mortgages and interest deductions on mortgage payments. In many sections of the country, government subsidized electricity and water to make such homes habitable. And it built the roads and freeways that connected the homes with major commercial centers.
Government also widened access to higher education. The GI Bill paid college costs for those who returned from war. The expansion of public universities made higher education affordable to the American middle class.
Government paid for all of this with tax revenues from an expanding middle class with rising incomes. Revenues were also boosted by those at the top of the income ladder whose marginal taxes were far higher. The top marginal income tax rate during World War II was over 68 percent. In the 1950s, under Dwight Eisenhower, whom few would call a radical, it rose to 91 percent. In the 1960s and 1970s the highest marginal rate was around 70 percent. Even after exploiting all possible deductions and credits, the typical high-income taxpayer paid a marginal federal tax of over 50 percent. But contrary to what conservative commentators had predicted, the high tax rates did not reduce economic growth. To the contrary, they enabled the nation to expand middle-class prosperity and fuel growth.
The Middle-Class Squeeze, 1977-2007
During the Great Prosperity of 1947-1977, the basic bargain had ensured that the pay of American workers coincided with their output. In effect, the vast middle class received an increasing share of the benefits of economic growth. But after that point, the two lines began to diverge: Output per hour — a measure of productivity — continued to rise. But real hourly compensation was left in the dust.
It’s easy to blame “globalization” for the stagnation of middle incomes, but technological advances have played as much if not a greater role. Factories remaining in the United States have shed workers as they automated. So has the service sector.
But contrary to popular mythology, trade and technology have not reduced the overall number of American jobs. Their more profound effect has been on pay. Rather than be out of work, most Americans have quietly settled for lower real wages, or wages that have risen more slowly than the overall growth of the economy per person. Although unemployment following the Great Recession remains high, jobs are slowly returning. But in order to get them, many workers have to accept lower pay than before.
Starting more than three decades ago, trade and technology began driving a wedge between the earnings of people at the top and everyone else. The pay of well-connected graduates of prestigious colleges and MBA programs has soared. But the pay and benefits of most other workers has either flattened or dropped. And the ensuing division has also made most middle-class American families less economically secure.
Government could have enforced the basic bargain. But it did the opposite. It slashed public goods and investments — whacking school budgets, increasing the cost of public higher education, reducing job training, cutting public transportation and allowing bridges, ports and highways to corrode.
It shredded safety nets — reducing aid to jobless families with children, tightening eligibility for food stamps, and cutting unemployment insurance so much that by 2007 only 40 percent of the unemployed were covered. It halved the top income tax rate from the range of 70 to 90 percent that prevailed during the Great Prosperity to 28 to 35 percent; allowed many of the nation’s rich to treat their income as capital gains subject to no more than 15 percent tax; and shrunk inheritance taxes that affected only the top-most 1.5 percent of earners. Yet at the same time, America boosted sales and payroll taxes, both of which took a bigger chunk out of the pay the middle class and the poor than of the well off.
How America Kept Buying: Three Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanism No. 1: Women move into paid work. Starting in the late 1970s, and escalating in the 1980s and 1990s, women went into paid work in greater and greater numbers. For the relatively small sliver of women with four-year college degrees, this was the natural consequence of wider educational opportunities and new laws against gender discrimination that opened professions to well-educated women. But the vast majority of women who migrated into paid work did so in order to prop up family incomes as households were hit by the stagnant or declining wages of male workers.
This transition of women into paid work has been one of the most important social and economic changes to occur over the last four decades. In 1966, 20 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home. By the late 1990s, the proportion had risen to 60 percent. For married women with children under the age of 6, the transformation has been even more dramatic — from 12 percent in the 1960s to 55 percent by the late 1990s.
Coping mechanism No. 2: Everyone works longer hours. By the mid 2000s it was not uncommon for men to work more than 60 hours a week and women to work more than 50. A growing number of people took on two or three jobs. All told, by the 2000s, the typical American worker worked more than 2,200 hours a year — 350 hours more than the average European worked, more hours even than the typically industrious Japanese put in. It was many more hours than the typical American middle-class family had worked in 1979 — 500 hours longer, a full 12 weeks more.
Coping mechanism No. 3: Draw down savings and borrow to the hilt. After exhausting the first two coping mechanisms, the only way Americans could keep consuming as before was to save less and go deeper into debt. During the Great Prosperity the American middle class saved about 9 percent of their after-tax incomes each year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, that portion had been whittled down to about 7 percent. The savings rate then dropped to 6 percent in 1994, and on down to 3 percent in 1999. By 2008, Americans saved nothing. Meanwhile, household debt exploded. By 2007, the typical American owed 138 percent of their after-tax income.
The Challenge for the Future
All three coping mechanisms have been exhausted. The fundamental economic challenge ahead is to restore the vast American middle class.
That requires resurrecting the basic bargain linking wages to overall gains, and providing the middle class a share of economic gains sufficient to allow them to purchase more of what the economy can produce. As we should have learned from the Great Prosperity — the 30 years after World War II when America grew because most Americans shared in the nation’s prosperity — we cannot have a growing and vibrant economy without a growing and vibrant middle class.
(This is excerpted from my testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on May 12. It is also drawn from my recent book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.)
(Click on the image above–it is from a very interesting exhibit from 2005.)
(1) Europe Slumming It: Last month the LA Times and other outlets reported about IKEA’s factory in Virginia where the company is treating workers in ways that would be unacceptable, and illegal, in Sweden. Workers are pushing back, garnering not much attention here, but apparently it is front-page news in Sweden, tarnishing IKEA’s reputation there.
Now an op-ed by Harold Myerson in the LA Times connects the phenomenon of European companies coming to the United States for our low wages and lax labor regulations with European banks’ shoddy practices around foreclosure. The U.S.: Where Europe Comes to Slum has a picture of a dilapidated house in LA owned by Deutsche Bank, which the city of Los Angeles is suing for being a slumlord:
The newest slumlord in Los Angeles is a pillar of German capitalism. Earlier this month, the city attorney’s office filed suit against Deutsche Bank, the world’s fourth-largest bank, for letting many of the more than 2,000 L.A. homes it has foreclosed on descend into squalor and decay.
A yearlong city investigation of the properties on which Deutsche Bank foreclosed turned up tenants compelled to live in crumbling apartments the bank would not fix, houses taken over by gangs, faucets from which water either wouldn’t flow or wouldn’t stop, and the occasional unidentified dead body. Nothing, in other words, that would be allowed to happen to bank holdings in Frankfurt, the neat-as-a-pin German city that is home to Deutsche Bank and much of the rest of German finance.
The picture reminded me of the ones we ran with an article about the foreclosure crisis and renters a couple of years back–before-and-after pics of a house in New Haven, owned by … Deutsche Bank.
(2) Foreclosure rulings: Speaking of foreclosures and banks, two recent rulings might make life harder for banks to push foreclosures through. One ruling in Oregon challenged the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), which “was created by the mortgage industry in the 1990s to facilitate the recording of mortgages that were being bundled and resold as securities,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and may force banks to go through the courts to carry out foreclosures.
And the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine overturned a foreclosure, calling the paperwork “untrustworthy.” TheWall Street Journal blog post about the case said, puzzlingly: “The issues raised in the case are separate from the robo-signing scandal that first erupted last fall, where bank employees were accused of signing paperwork without reviewing their contents.” We reported about hat scandal, which originated in Maine, here. It seems quite related to the robo-signing cases, which were about robo-signing, but also about fraud via the creation of documents ex post facto. In the more recent case, again according to the Wall Street Journal blog post, the homeowners “challenged irregularities in the foreclosure documents that suggested potential fabrications or other shortcuts,” including this egregious irregularity: “the initial affidavit in the case was dated and notarized on Sept. 10, 2008, even though it included the balance and late fees as of Jan. 29, 2009—or for four months that hadn’t yet happened.” Sounds a lot like the robo-signing cases. What’s more, the hero of the original Maine case, retired lawyer Thomas Cox, is serving as one of the lawyers for the homeowners in this case.
All this could slow down the foreclosure engines and further complicate the housing “recovery” (sorry–I find it hard to buy into the idea that increasing housing prices should be regarded as a good thing).
(3) Bill Black on Cost-Benefit Analysis and Regulation: An amusing blog post here.
(4) Judge Rules Against Wisconsin Anti-Union Law: The Dane County Circuit Court ruled that the Wisconsin State Senate’s March 9th vote (the one they took without the Democratic Senators present, because they’d fled to Chicago) violated an “open meetings” law. Read about it in this article from the New York Times. But the case will go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on June 6.
(4) The Cost of the Wars: The National Priorities Project has updated its page calculating the total cost of the wars since 2001. I’m not sure whether it includes the cost of the Libyan intervention, which according to an article by a Cato guy sent to me by my Ron-Paul-libertarian brother-in-law, is already up to $750 million.
(5) News from Syracuse: Two items from my hometown: First, an article by tax expert and former NYTreporter David Cay Johnston in the Syracuse New Times: Death and Taxes. Nice piece; hat-tip to T.M.
Plus I had noticed the toxic piece by the sadly unhinged Christopher Hitchens railing against Noam Chomsky over at Slate, calling him “stupid and ignorant” in the subtitle of the article (the title was “Chomsky’s Follies”). All Chomsky said was that the killing of Osama bin Laden counted as state assassination and seems to have been illegal. Anyway, hat-tip to K.J.S. for letting me know that Chomsky responded to Hitchens at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Syracuse Peace Council, held at my alma mater, Nottingham High School. Watch the YouTube video:
The rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, has been confronted by the power elite with self-delusion.
- May 29, 2011 Our Imagination Deficit
- May 27, 2011 Russia Changes Stance on Libya
- May 27, 2011 Texas Gov. on Presidential Bid: Going to ‘Think About It’
- May 27, 2011 Words From the Right: On Buckley and From Paul and Breitbart
- May 26, 2011 Exclusive: Ry Cooder’s ‘No Banker Left Behind’
The rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, has been confronted by the power elite with equal parts of self-delusion. There are those, many of whom hold elected office, who dismiss the science and empirical evidence as false. There are others who accept the science surrounding global warming but insist that the human species can adapt. Our only salvation—the rapid dismantling of the fossil fuel industry—is ignored by both groups. And we will be led, unless we build popular resistance movements and carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, toward collective self-annihilation by dimwitted pied pipers and fools.
Those who concede that the planet is warming but insist we can learn to live with it are perhaps more dangerous than the buffoons who decide to shut their eyes. It is horrifying enough that the House of Representatives voted 240-184 this spring to defeat a resolution that said that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” But it is not much of an alternative to trust those who insist we can cope with the effects while continuing to burn fossil fuels.
Horticulturalists are busy plantingswamp oaks and sweet gum trees all over Chicago to prepare for weather that will soon resemble that of Baton Rouge. That would be fine if there was a limit to global warming in sight. But without plans to rapidly dismantle the fossil fuel industry, something no one in our corporate state is contemplating, the heat waves of Baton Rouge will be a starting point for a descent that will ultimately make cities like Chicago unlivable. The false promise of human adaptability to global warming is peddled by the polluters’ major front group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which informed the Environmental Protection Agency that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” This bizarre theory of adaptability has been embraced by the Obama administration as it prepares to exploit the natural resources in the Arctic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcedrecently that melting of sea ice “will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves.” Now that’s something to look forward to.
“It is good that at least those guys are taking it seriously, far more seriously than the federal government is taking it,” said the author and environmental activist Bill McKibbenof the efforts in cities such as Chicago to begin to adapt to warmer temperatures. “At least they understand that they have some kind of problem coming at them. But they are working off the science of five or six years ago, which is still kind of the official science that the International Climate Change negotiations are working off of. They haven’t begun to internalize the idea that the science has shifted sharply. We are no longer talking about a long, slow, gradual, linear warming, but something that is coming much more quickly and violently. Seven or eight years ago it made sense to talk about putting permeable concreteon the streets. Now what we are coming to realize is that the most important adaptation we can do is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere. If we don’t, we are going to produce temperature rises so high that there is no adapting to them.”
The Earth has already begun to react to our hubris. Freak weather unleashed deadly tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It has triggered wildfires that have engulfed large tracts in California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. It has brought severe droughts to the Southwest, parts of China and the Amazon. It has caused massive flooding along the Mississippi as well as in Australia, New Zealand, China and Pakistan. It is killing off the fish stocks in the oceans and obliterating the polar ice caps. Steadily rising sea levels will eventually submerge coastal cities, islands and some countries. These disturbing weather patterns presage a world where it will be harder and harder to sustain human life. Massive human migrations, which have already begun, will create chaos and violence. India is building a 4,000-kilometer fencealong its border with Bangladesh to, in part, hold back the refugees who will flee if Bangladesh is submerged. There are mounting food shortages and sharp price increases in basic staples such as wheat as weather patterns disrupt crop production. The failed grain harvests in Russia, China and Australia, along with the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, have, as McKibben points out, been exacerbated by the inability of Midwestern farmers to plant corn in water-logged fields. These portents of an angry Gaiaare nothing compared to what will follow if we do not swiftly act.
“We are going to have to adapt a good deal,” said McKibben, with whom I spoke by phone from his home in Vermont. “It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees, the rule of thumb the agronomists go by is every degree Celsius of temperature rise represents about a 10 percent reduction in grain yields. If we let it go up three or four degrees we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got.
“I have sympathy for those who are trying hard to figure out how to adapt, but they are behind the curve of the science by a good deal,” he said. “I have less sympathy for the companies that are brainwashing everyone along the line ‘We’re taking small steps here and there to improve.’ The problem, at this point, is not going to be dealt with by small steps. It is going to be dealt with by getting off fossil fuel in the next 10 or 20 years or not at all.
“The most appropriate thing going on in Chicago right now is that Greenpeace occupied [on Thursday] the coal-fired power plant in Chicago,” he said. “That’s been helpful. It reminded people what the real answers are. We’re going to see more civil disobedience. I hope we are. I am planning hard for some stuff this summer.
“The cast that we are about is essentially political and symbolic,” McKibben admitted. “There is no actual way to shut down the fossil fuel system with our bodies. It is simply too big. It’s far too integrated in everything we do. The actions have to be symbolic, and the most important part of that symbolism is to make it clear to the onlookers that those of us doing this kind of thing are not radical in any way. We are conservatives. The real radicals in this scenario are people who are willing to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere. I can’t think of a more radical thing that any human has ever thought of doing. If it wasn’t happening it would be like the plot from a Bond movie.
“The only way around this is to defeat the system, and the name of that system is the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry in the world by a large margin,” McKibben said. “Fighting it is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to build a movement big enough to make a difference. And that is what we are trying desperately to do with 350.org. It is something we should have done 20 years ago, instead of figuring that we were going to fight climate change by convincing political elites that they should do something about this problem. It is a tactic that has not worked.
“One of our big targets this year is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest front group for fossil fuel there is,” he said. “We are figuring out how to take them on. I don’t think they are worried about us yet. And maybe they are right not to be, because they’ve got so much money they’re invulnerable.
“There are huge decisive battles coming,” he said. “This year the Obama administration has to decide whether it will grant a permit or not for this giant pipeline to run from the tar sands of Alberta down to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet. We have to figure out how to keep that from happening. The Obama administration, very sadly, a couple of months ago opened 750 million tons of western coal under federal land for mining. That was a disgrace. But they still have to figure out how to get it to port so they can ship it to China, which is where the market for it is. We are trying hard to keep that from happening. I’m on my way to Bellingham, Wash., next week because there is a plan for a deep-water port in Bellingham that would allow these giant freighters to show up and collect that coal.
“In moral terms, it’s all our personal responsibility and we should be doing those things,” McKibben said when I asked him about changing our own lifestyles to conserve energy. “But don’t confuse that with having much of an impact on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. You can’t make the math work one house or one campus at a time. We should do those things. I’ve got a little plaque for having built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont the year we built it. I’ve got solar panels everywhere. But I don’t confuse myself into thinking that that’s actually doing very much. This argument is a political argument. I spend much of my life on airplanes spewing carbon behind me as we try to build a global movement. Either we are going to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and put a price on carbon or the planet is going to heat past the point where we can deal with it.
“It goes far beyond party affiliation or ideology,” he said. “Fossil fuel undergirds every ideology we have. Breaking with it is going to be a traumatic and difficult task. The natural world is going to continue to provide us, unfortunately, with many reminders about why we have to do that. Sooner or later, we will wise up. The question is all about that sooner or later.
“I’d like people to go to climatedirectaction.organd sign up,” McKibben said. “We are going to be issuing calls for people to be involved in civil disobedience. I’d like people to join in this campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s very easy to sign up. If you don’t own a little business yourself, you probably shop at 10 or 20 of them a week. It’s very easy to sign those guys up to say the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me. We can’t take away their [the Chamber’s] money, but we can take away some of their respectability. I would like people to demonstrate their solidarity with people all around the world in this fight. The next big chance to do that will be Sept. 24, a huge global day of action that we’re calling ‘Moving Planet.’ It will be largely bicycle based, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that both rich and poor use and because it is part of the solution we need. On that day we will be delivering demands via bicycle to every capital and statehouse around the world.
“I wish there was some easy ‘end around,’ some backdoor through which we could go to get done what needs to be done,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. That became clear at Copenhagenand last summer when the U.S. Senate refused to take a vote on the most mild, tepid climate legislation there could have been. We are going to have to build a movement that pushes the fossil fuel industry aside. I don’t know whether that’s possible. If you were to bet, you might well bet we will lose. We have been losing for two decades. But you are not allowed to make that bet. The only moral action, when the worst thing that ever happened in the world is happening, is to try and figure out how to change those odds.
“At least they knew they were going to win,” McKibben said of the civil rights movement. “They didn’t know when, but they knew they were going to win, that the tide of history was on their side. But the arch of the physical universe appears to be short and appears to bend towards heat. We’ve got to win quickly if we’re going to win. We’ve already passed the point where we’re going to stop global warming. It has already warmed a degree and there is another degree in the pipeline from carbon already emitted. The heat gets held in the ocean for a while, but it’s already there. We’ve already guaranteed ourselves a miserable century. The question is whether it’s going to be an impossible one.”
Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”
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Minister of Ecology Norbert Roettgen of the Christian Democratic Union party made the announcement early Monday after negotiations with coalition partner, the Liberal Party, which had been opposed to setting a date for decommissioning the nuclear facilities.
Opposition parties have long supported shuttering nuclear energy in Germany
“The decision looks like this,” Roettgen said. “Seven older nuclear power plants … and the nuclear plant Kruemmel will not go back online … a second group of six nuclear reactors will go offline at the end of 2021 at the latest, and … the three most modern, newest nuclear plants will go offline in 2022 at the latest.”