Sounds of Silence: What’s Left out of the Debate
On January 9, 2013 the Center for Global Justice took a look at some of the important issues that were all but ignored by the candidates in the November election in the US. Cliff DuRand, Bob Stone and Gregory Diamant gave voice to some of those issues and reflected on why they were unspoken by our leaders.
Click here for the video https://vimeo.com/57641278
1. Remarks by Cliff DuRand
As one reflects on the campaign “debates” over the last year in the US, one is struck by how little was actually debated. And many really important issues weren’t even discussed. I want to briefly talk about two of the neglected issues of great moment for us: trade policy and the US role in the world. The silence on these speaks volumes.
The 2008 bank bailout shows us how our political elite protects the interests of finance capital, but not the people. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Corporate capital as a whole is favored by government. Witness its championing of free trade over recent decades.
It is important to understand that free trade agreements are not just about facilitating the movement of goods and services across borders. It is also about investment, the movement of capital. It is about capital flight as corporations move jobs to low wage areas of the world so as to realize greater profits. I discuss this in our book Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State. As I argue there
Transnational capital now roams the planet in search of accumulation. Yet the state still functions to serve the interests of the transnational corporations, even when that is against the nation in which it is based. Thus the globalized state finds itself against the nation. With neoliberalism, the state (in both core and peripheral countries) has abandoned the people in serving the interests of transnational capital. [p. 83]
Much of the US public now understands that free trade means run-away plants move to Mexico and China, taking well paying jobs with them. Free trade means employers can threaten their workers with plant closures in order to roll back hard won wage and benefit gains. It means their employers pit them into competition with low wage workers in the global South. Investment and employment moves abroad. The result is declining real incomes for most USians and economic stagnation as consumers have reduced buying power. Next week I will explore the impact of this on the American Dream.
The complicity of politicians in this is illustrated by Senate approval this last year of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. While all politicians were calling for more jobs, they approved a free trade agreement that they knew would destroy jobs. This was evident in the fact that approval of the free trade agreement was accompanied by extended unemployment benefits for displaced workers. It’s like they just can’t help themselves when an opportunity arises to favor transnational corporations. And now the Obama administration is set to expand this folly even further with the Trans-Pacific Partnership –a kind of super NAFTA. More on that in three weeks.
In a campaign, one reason for not talking about an issue is you’re views are not popular with the voters. And if your opponent has those views too, he’s not going to talk about it either. So we get a conspiracy of silence. On the other hand, if your views are popular, the you want to talk about them and so does your opponent. Jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone is for that. But what if the policies that you both share destroy jobs? Then neither of you will want to talk about them for fear of alienating voters. That’s why free trade was not an issue in the campaign.
US Role in the World
Here’s another issue that was sidestepped by both candidates. True, the last presidential “debate” was on the obligatory topic of foreign policy. But it revealed no substantive difference between Obama and Romney. It was clear that a president Romney would do pretty much the same as president Obama, only louder. Commentators saw this lack of disagreement as a failure of ideas by Romney. But I think it reveals a deeper truth: there is basic bi-partisan agreement on the US role in the world, viz. US hegemony. For the last three quarters of a century, Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to maintain the country as the global dominant power, the policeman of the world. And it has done this on behalf of the transnational corporations. From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, our government has sent its youth to die in obscure parts of the world and squandered its national treasure in order to keep countries in the orbit of capital and break down barriers to its corporations. The public is growing increasingly tired of the present long war and the increasing sacrifices they are called on to make. No wonder our politicians don’t want to question the wisdom of the imperial role of the US.
2. WHY WASN’T GLOBAL WARMING ON THE AGENDA?
Research Associate, Center for Global Justice
Professor Emeritus, Long Island University
Who sets agendas? At a given historical conjuncture, a group’s or a nation’s agenda determines the issues and options it will and will not openly debate and decide for its future good. If an issue or problem directly affects a group or nation in a major or urgent way (or both), if postponing decision would worsen the problem, foreclose easier remedies, and leave only drastic choices in the future, then it ought to be at or near the top of the present agenda. This urgency is ramified if the very survival of the group or nation that is making the decisions is at stake.
Global warming easily meets all of these criteria. Why wasn’t it on the agenda in last fall’s nationally televised debates between the two major candidates for the Presidency of the United States? Traditionally, an independent civic group, the League of Women Voters, determined the questions to be put to candidates for the Presidency. But having excluded third parties from the discussion, the two major parties themselves decided in secret on the means by which the agenda-setters for the 2012 debates would be selected. One result was no debate of: why there have been no arrests of fraud-perpetrating mortgage bankers; how to get money out of politics; immigration and labor markets; the policy of torturing “terror” suspects by water-boarding; secret lists from which the President selects foreign and U.S. citizens for drone and other forms of “extrajudicial” killing; spending cuts that impoverish women first; and the outrageous human cost of the world’s biggest military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes. Romney and Obama passed over these issues in silence. In scale, severity and urgency, global warming was and is among these un-remarked-on elephants in the room. Why wasn’t it debated?
One answer revolved around Candy Crowley, moderator of the second, October 16 debate on domestic policy. Of course Crowley could have herself insisted, given the urgency of global warming’s threat to all humans, on raising the issue in behalf of the U.S. people. Instead she explained that she had wanted fifteen voters to ask questions but, due to long candidate responses, only eleven did. While Crowley had expected a global warming question, she just didn’t get to it.2 Whether discussion was programmed or excluded by agreement, either candidate could easily have raised it in the name of the public good, and the other would have had to join in — with or without script. This is why explanations turning on the moderator’s time pressure or judgment won’t wash.
But even if the candidates had agreed to exclude such discussion: why? It’s not as if the issue were minor — or simple. Global warming is at the convergence of a nest of recent pressing environmental problems: melting polar ice, acid rain, air pollution, methane release from defrosting tundra, increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, acidification of oceans, oil spills, and the present unfolding of the sixth wave of massive species extinctions (for perspective: the fifth was the dinosaurs’ disappearance sixty-five million years ago) — among many other adversities. But this nest also contains major foreign policy problems. Yet in the third presidential debate on foreign policy October 22, the candidates and moderator once again skirted a slew of climate-related foreign policy issues, such as: merits and demerits of backing (or creating) middle east governments that allow large measures of foreign control of their own oil wealth; Iran, whose democratically-elected government was replaced by the U.S. in 1953, is now made pretext for keeping the region an active war zone; and diverting resources much-needed (among others, by those impoverished by the 2008 “financial crisis”) to militarily policing the smooth running of what amounts to a global system all-but-designed to release carbons.
A more “insider” explanation for silence on global warming in both of the pertinent debates came from Shawn Otto, CEO of the D.C.-based advocacy nonprofit ScienceDebate.org. Amidst politicians, Otto defends the pervasive opinion among scientists (especially biologists and chemists of every sort) that global warming is “the single leading science-based political and environmental issue.” Having talked with “campaign strategists” of both parties, he reported that they “think science is a boutique issue, like changing to the metric system. They don’t see the votes in it.”3
But this “no votes in it” explanation is no better. For on thing, denial proved twice to be a loser. John McCain, with his nutty “drill, baby, drill,” lost in 2008. Romney avoided McCain’s error, but neither did he separate himself from right-wing dismissal of global warming as “liberal” paranoia. Thus when a run-away hurricane wiped out an entire New York City neighborhood, followed by the Republican mayor’s insistence that global warming is an issue, Republican Romney lost in 2012.
But, still: why did Romney’s equivocation make him vulnerable? Surely in part because the “no votes in it” dogma frontally contravenes gathering evidence that, on purely political grounds, global warming is a winning issue! A pre-election poll by the Pew Research Center showed sixty-seven percent of those polled (including forty-eight percent of Republicans) say there is “solid evidence” of global warming.4And well before the election a longitudinal study by social scientists from Yale and George Mason Universities found an increase in the percentage of U.S.-Americans who “believe in” global warming from fifty-seven percent in January 2010 to seventy percent in September 2012. In that period the study also found that the number of U.S.-Americans who deny there is global warming had declined from twenty percent to twelve percent.5 Surely these large and growing new majorities would have appreciated some mention of solutions. Instead they got a sort of TV mini-series, silent on real public concerns, showing two highly competent pugilists shadow-boxing with mock intensity. But if there are votes in it, then why the silence?
Let’s look at the issue from the other end. Was global warming blocked not for being an unsolvable problem but for its drastic solutions?
Basic parameters of a solution to carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have been known worldwide since the term “global warming” first entered public discourse.6 Based on projecting current emission levels in tons, and the tonnage the atmosphere can accept before “irreversible climate change,” one can calculate the year by which emissions must zero out. “Irreversible climate change” carries with it the high probability that the living systems on which humans depend will collapse.7 Consensus among scientists who study climate change and related phenomena seems to be that, to avoid this “point of no return” or “tipping point,” humans must avoid raising their planet’s average temperature over two degrees centigrade. The result, though approximate, is not therefore insignificant. Let’s look at two frameworks for solutions discussed by scientists dedicated to find solutions.
On one estimate 2043 will be the year of no return. The supposed “tipper” — one trillion metric tons of carbon — will by then have been forced into the atmosphere, exceeding the two-degrees limit. Taking humanity with it, the planet would in effect die — like the moon or Mars. To avoid that foreseeable event, humans, starting immediately, will have to reduce carbon emissions globally at an annual rate of 2.4 percent on average for the next twenty-nine years.8 Other researchers anticipate irreversible climate change when seven-hundred and fifty billion metric tons of carbon are injected — which is projected to occur around 2028. Such findings indicate that to go on with their history all of us humans all over the world, jointly and individually, will need to reduce our annual average global carbon emissions by 5.3 percent. Zero emissions, then, is a condition for humanity’s longer-term survival.9 Most politically possible proposals for reaching emissions would badly overrun both deadlines. Thus, even if the datings are approximate, an astonishing conclusion follows: to avoid their demise as a species, all humans everywhere, out of necessity organizing and working together for the first time in their history, will have to join in what would be the humanity-wide project in our history, namely, stopping global warming and solving the problems nested with it. A unique project of social sustainability to match the challenge of ecological sustainability!
That task is made more daunting by evidence that neither the 2.4 percent nor the 5.3 solution can work in the world’s present economic system. The 2007 Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change, issued by the British government, argued that any emissions reduction greater than one percent annually would cause a crisis for the world’s economy so severe as to make even uselessly low emissions reductions “unthinkable.”10 Despite some efforts, global treaty conferences have — partly due to U.S. hesitations — failed to set any reduction targets.
We approach a plausible explanation for the deafening silence when we consider that today’s interlinked boom-and-bust economies based on “consumer sovereignty” and private property notoriously discourage planning, especially planning of the intensity needed at all levels to advance the project described above. A healthy capitalist economy is one that is motored by free markets in which individuals (not even families) compete for wages to meet needs, excluding planning in their nature. Corporations, today’s dominant economic agents, also compete, indeed they must grow or die. This bottom-up micro-imperative of growth — lest market shares (or jobs) go to competitors — is imparted to the system as a whole. It must also grow or die. Can a system recently re-designed for swift capital flight to the cheapest labor markets, thereby pitting capitals against each other and all capitals against labor, foster the global consensus and organization needed to slow, much less reduce, carbon emission? Due to their conflict a self-interest in increasing emissions is imposed on both capitalists and workers. If other costs can be “externalized” onto nature, labor costs can be borne.
Let’s ponder the dimensions of this challenge to “humanity” as such. Until all individuals, communities, utilities, and corporations who inject greenhouse gases into the atmosphere devise a way to fairly bear all costs of stopping global warming, the existing emission pattern — “financed” by ruination — cannot help but reward and subsidize its own continuation. A system based on indefinite externalization onto nature cannot save itself. And if the subsidy is slowly ended, this laudable “internalization of costs” would likely slow the world’s economy by over the one percent that the Stern report says would destroy it.
Hence our dilemma in 2013. History offers few positive models. Where capitalism retreats, as in New England’s post-war “de-industrialization,” emissions abate. By the 1880s, that region had been seventy-percent cleared for agriculture and industry. Today, New England is seventy-percent forested — a lucky side-effect of de-industrialization that can also be planned. Where capitalism advances, as in China, unlimited emissions from non-renewables function as economic stimulant. The sacrifices are great in terms both of citizens’ health and loss of precious years starting solutions. A Wall Street economist remarked: “the economic recovery, where it has occurred, has been dirty.”11 Nor is the U.S. prospect positive. U.S. life expectancy is already declining. By opposing emissions-reduction targets at global treaty gatherings, U.S. governments have in effect “taken out a mortgage” on future generations in order to sustain present emissions levels. Even if the “tipping” date is approximate, with no head-start now, the mortgage will come due suddenly and will be payable — grotesquely — by reducing the life-expectancy of humanity itself.12
If unlimited emissions is a subsidy and stimulant then, given the current crisis, one option would be to add other stimulants, like “green” infrastructure reconstruction. But the Great Depression of the 1930s ended only with 1942’s “war economy” — a “command economy”-lite. In a Second Great Depression war may again be capitalism’s life-saver. But the evidence is that humans would survive neither runaway global warming nor a world war three fought with today’s omnicidal weapons. Global warming as stimulant, or falling back on war, are both non-starters as our remedies.
Nurtured for centuries by the capital-accumulation mania, is it possible to re-direct the U.S. can-do spirit from profit to human ends? Why can’t the most productive and beneficial economic system in history innovate its way out of this self-inflicted death? Obama grants that “economic growth” carries “very real concerns about the effect we’re having on our planet. And ultimately I think this can be solved with technology.”13
It is true: technological innovation usually yields relative efficiency gains in the form of reductions in energy and raw materials inputs per unit of output. But absolute decreases in aggregate environmental externalities rarely result. As John Bellamy Foster points out, we run into the so-called Jevons paradox. The nineteenth-century economist, William Stanley Jevons, found that since gains in energy efficiency feed economic expansion and profitability, they almost invariably increase absolute amounts of energy used. Watt’s new steam engine used coal more efficiently than its predecessor, but its introduction led to greater absolute use of coal. Marx noted a related tendency in labor productivity. In nineteenth century England, humane laws limited the workday to twelve and then to ten hours. The resulting lower profits inspired innovation to reduce production time. With an externally limited workday, technology intensified productive labor during the workday and profits were restored.14 While socialist labor-saving innovations can increase workers’ free time, capitalist innovations aim only to lower labor costs. Owners get richer at the expense of workers and nature. In our economy, as in Jevons’, growth means ever-greater aggregate energy and materials use, hence more global warming. Absent incentives in the system (or system-change), technology can’t magically turn efficiency gains into lower carbon emissions or workers’ free time. “Free enterprise” won’t allow it. Under the growth imperative more technology = more emissions.
The system’s need for consumption growth, made crucial since World War II (especially the heroic U.S. consumer), makes all the more surprising one of the conclusions of the 2012 report of the Royal Society of London. In People and the Planet, the Society declared that the environmental threat to the planet as humanity’s own habitat has become so serious that it is necessary for humanity “to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth.”15 More radical than the Stern report, this respected society (founded in 1660) ended by challenging settled faith that unfettered markets are eventually self-regulating. The facts drove the Society to conclude that “eventually” is too long. So long as it sustains the current system, humanity can’t both internalize all costs dumped on nature and obey the growth imperative.
So what? – the free market faithful might ask. They advised inaction against 1930s rising unemployment, plummeting aggregate demand (i.e. poverty), and factory closings. Today, capitalism’s “creative destruction” advocates regret wasting of lives and productive assets by depressions and by war, but thank them for pruning weak competitors, raising efficiency, and re-opening investment opportunities. Millions died needlessly but capitalism was re-started. Our situation differs. We could suffocate waiting for market “self-regulation” or die in a global war, unable to prevent it.
Let’s look at the problem anew, this time from the perspective of ecological sustainability.
I mentioned at the start “a global system all-but-designed to release carbons.” And indeed we humans must admit: an enormous sector of the world’s economy — especially in “developed” countries who set the world’s standards of “progress,” “modernity” — is organized around efficient continuation of this release, especially from internal combustion engines. This includes the making, driving, fueling, repairing, insuring, cleaning, painting, parking, and protecting of vehicles containing such engines. Many other sub-systems are parts of it, like using tax money to build roads and bridges to drive these engines on. Freedom itself is identified with driving. But consider the enormous percentage of our workdays needed to pay for mere transportation. That is free time lost. Consider also that the system makes streets and roads inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, to the point where for safety parents drive their children everywhere. That amounts to a net loss in truly free and autonomous human mobility. The system seems designed to pump tons of carbons into the atmosphere, endangering life and human life. Economies built around it are rapidly transforming the planet — with unknown and potentially cataclysmic consequences. John Bellamy Foster characterizes this transformation as a “planetary emergency.” He calls it “humanity’s ultimate crisis” since humanity’s very existence is at stake.16
Rational use of raw materials and energy requires imaginative bottom-up planning. Consider the following. Residents of sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida re-cycle their cars and line their avenues with oxygen-rich trees to shade local bicycle trips and commutes. Solar-powered jitneys could deliver on-line purchases and — with fore and aft bike racks — close longer distances. This calls for local face-to-face decision-making. Were this mirrored at work — with workers choosing managers, what and how to produce, and how to share gains and losses — democratic control of life would vastly expand. Problems could be identified earlier. It’s not a fantasy. We know that cooperation in families and in civil society meets needs better than competition. As shared decision-making at all levels proves itself, private property in the means of production will become an authoritarian restraint on shared productivity, or a menace to humanity, or both.
This evokes socialism. Compared with capitalism’s work-place dictatorship, and contrary to wide belief, true socialism vastly increases democracy.17 My aim not to push a vision but to elicit a conversation. A humanity-wide halt to emissions and war might start with global “town meetings” linking searches for solutions. New communications technologies put such meetings in reach.
First: let’s break the silence. All fall global warming was a political unmentionable in the U.S. campaigns. Then nature spoke: hurricane Sandy broadened and deepened public recognition of global warming. Thus paradoxically, as politicians tip-toed around the phenomenon, its undeniability permeated public awareness. Now, post-election, we are invited to re-wind history and join the fall’s conspiracy of silence. Why?
Was it perhaps due to the four-year paralysis in governing, still going post-election? It is presented as a sad accident that both parties tried to avoid. But let’s look more closely. Harry Truman, by bashing a “do-nothing Congress,” snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the 1948 presidential election. The 2012 election was the reverse. True, Obama did complain of “Republican obstructionism.” But neither candidate blasted a do-nothing Congress on global warming — among other urgent issues. Neither made a point of asking voters for a Congress likely to mandate environmental and energy policy changes. Since November newly re-elected President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner have blithely resumed their paralysis script — as if issues like global warming had vanished. “Congressional gridlock” is in fact government-wide. And the media, too wedded to the system to blow the whistle, downplay the threat.
Instead of causing the unwillingness to debate global warming, gridlock is more likely an effect of it — a cover for the silence. Surely given the threat’s urgency and gravity, responsible leaders lacking solutions would open a wide public debate. Why haven’t they? Because entertaining any plausible solution, even a partial one, could easily lead to questions whether any solution is possible in today’s system. Third party candidates Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson both courageously allowed that we face just that challenge. But the major parties froze them out.18 This engineered silence confirms that both parties identify with today’s capitalist system devoted to carbon release. They even equate it to democracy. Perhaps secretly they admit capitalism can’t solve it. But since debate would question their identity their silence makes it The Big Unmentionable.19
This helps explain why neither candidate broached the issue; why neither sought votes of the growing majority worried about it; why measures were taken to avert the risk that third parties might putting it on the nation’s agenda; and why we are being distracted by gridlock in governing of the U.S.! Capitalism threatens humanity with planet-death from global warming. Ignoring capitalism’s special nemesis — global warming — keeps the topic off the agenda. No leading politician has made a major speech. The continued silence can only reflect the system’s own bankruptcy.
Why wasn’t global warming on the agenda? The terrible conclusion is either that a conspiracy of silence to save capitalism rather than humanity is afoot, or, more likely, there is a spontaneous and pervasive flight from responsibility for humanity — in the typical style of capitalist individualism.
Yet awareness is dawning that ecological sustainability and social sustainability require each other. Many are breaking the silence. The “evidence” that they can thereby save themselves is that they must.
1 Presented as part of panel on “Sounds of Silence: Undebated Issues in the U.S. Elections” offered by the Center for Global Justice, January 13, 2013, in the Sala Quetzal of San Miguel’s Biblioteca Publica. [This was written before President Obama repeated in 2013 his 2008 inaugural intention to address “climate change.” But this worthy expression of intention does not affect the talk’s main argument. 21Jan13]
2 Chris Mooney, “Why No One Said the C-Word in the Debates,” Mother Jones, October 23, 2012. Source URL:http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/why-no-one-said-c-word-debates Also see: http://grist.org/news/candy-crowleys-weird-dismissal-of-climate-change/
3 Ibid. Chris Mooney.
4 Andrew Rosenthal, “Left Unsaid,” in “Taking Note: The Editorial Page Editor’s Blog,” October 16, 2012, New York Times.
5 Maggie Caldwell, “Poll: Most Americans Believe in Man-Made Climate Change,” Mother Jones October 20, 2012, URL Source: http://www.motherjones.com/print/201866 See also: http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/Global-Warming-2012-Election.pdf
6 The first “Earth Day” was 1970, followed by launching of the Environmental Protection Agency.
7 Susan Solomon, et al., “Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no.6 (February 10, 2009), pp. 1704-9.
8 Ibid., Foster and Clark, p. 2. See also: Myles Allen, et al., “The Exit Strategy,” Nature Reports Climate Change, April 30, 2009, pp. 56-58, and http://trillionthtonne.org
9 Ibid., Foster and Clark, p. 3. See also: http://trillionthtonne.org
10 Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp. 4-16, 95, 193, 220-34, 637-51.
11 Pwc (Pricewaterhousecoopers), Counting the Cost of Carbon: Low Carbon Economy Index 2011, http://pwc.com pp. 2-7.
12For a thought-experiment on how — in class society — the living time of each individual’s life might be measured, segmented, monetized and used as medium of economic exchange (covering fares, purchases, wages, savings with one’s life-minutes), see Andrew Niccol’s film “In Time” (2011). That world’s harsh truth, articulated by a banker, is that “many must die in order for some to live forever.” In 2028, say, faced with immanent planet-death, but insisting on class privileges, the “In Time”-scenario might be entertained.
13 President Barak Obama, “Interview of the President by the CBC,” February 17. 2009, http://whitehouse.gov
14 “Intensification of Labour,” in Capital, Vol. 1 (New York: Modern Library), pp. 447-457.
16 John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency.” Monthly Review. Vol. 64, No. 7, December 2012, http://monthlyreview.org Nuclear war is the other sudden-death-of-humanity The economic crisis and the paralysis of democracy threaten humanity, but by forestalling facing the first two.
17 Works that elaborate parts of this sketch, not always in harmony with each other, include David Schweickart’s After Capitalism, 2nd ed, 2011, and Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2004).
18 The Commission on Presidential Debates, says candidates must have “at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly supported results.” (www.debates.org)
19 In his Ecology as Politics (1976), p. 86, Andre Gorz posited an alternative: “Capitalism can accept non-growth as long as competition is eliminated in favor of a general cartelization that freezes the power relations among firms, guarantees them their profits, and substitutes capitalist planning for the market.” He called this “technocratic fascism.” But is that capitalism? And above all: is it survivable?