Most Americans are at least apprehensive, and many of us are terrified, by the prospect of the upcoming Donald Trump presidency. These fears are justified. People who voted for him did so despite his lack of experience or leadership skills, and his indifference to the responsibilities of the position, which continues in the cavalier approach he has taken to the transition and his lack of cooperation with the outgoing administration. The GOP-dominated Congress wanted the Obama Administration to fail, with utter indifference to the needs of the American people, and the Trump transition reflects that spirit exactly. Thus, putting Trump in the White House was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
Economic considerations underlie all of politics and, as discussed in my last few posts, Trump’s election is attributable to the steadily worsening U.S. economy. A contentious argument rages about why America did such a thing to itself. Ironically, for economic improvement, Donald Trump was probably the worst of the GOP field, although only slightly worse than candidates like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, or leading Republicans like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. This is because GOP policies that help the rich are necessarily bad for everyone else.
The Media’s Responsibility
In my previous post, “Bad News on the Doorstep,” I discussed the opinion of Albany Times Union editor-in-chief Rex Smith, who is disgusted with the president-elect’s behavior and dishonesty, that the indifference to facts and truth demonstrated by Trump and his team, which seems obvious to most of us, implies that the voters who elected him share that indifference. This seems to build on an argument he made the day after Thanksgiving:
[W]e should reflect on what context the holiday offers for the digital reality in which so many of us live so much of our lives nowadays. It’s in that reality that we increasingly learn about the world, and more and more it seems what we learn isn’t true.
Amen to that: Getting lost in cyberspace can lead to no end of fanciful and erratic thinking. But Smith also staunchly denies that the media can be blamed for Trump’s election because it reinforced the lies and misinformation contained in that digital reality, giving it false credibility. The media did its job, he argues, and If people cared more about learning the truth, they would have known better:
It’s not just that it will be hard for the reporters who cover the new president to square [the president-elect’s] loose regard for facts … with our craft’s high reverence for them. No, here’s what’s more troubling than that: The election just past made it clear that citizens don’t care much about facts, either.
And in his most recent editorial, on December 10, Smith wrote:
Lying isn’t uncommon in our history, but here’s what is: Citizens not caring about the lying, and even choosing to believe “news” that is obviously false. … Truth ought to matter, but people care more about seeing things through their own ideological framework, both left and right, than they do about whether facts support their point of view.
I disagree. I think most of us do care a lot about learning the “truth,” and understanding fact-based reality. But even though the truth it is not always obvious, it is becoming more apparent as the real world grows increasingly harsh. The internet is a potent source of truth as well as fantasy; indeed, it is the most potent source of information that has ever existed. Anyone with the discipline, desire, and necessary analytical skills can learn much more than ever before about virtually any subject. For the most part, I think, people understand what “truth” is, and have become frightened to death about humanity’s prospects. To be sure, many of us remain too firmly committed to our own pre-established perspectives and beliefs. Nonetheless, I believe, even when we are fearful of the truth most of us insist on facing reality, and are not indifferent to it.
The Lessons of WestWorld
The tension between reality and belief is brilliantly developed in the HBO series WestWorld, a virtual seminar on psychology and the human condition. The series builds on one obvious truth: that evil is created by mankind. Evil, it argues, is a byproduct of the evolution of consciousness. WestWorld boils down to the story of two psychopathic humans, one a brilliant developer of artificial intelligence (played by a towering master of psychological horror, Anthony Hopkins) who created a theme park populated by androids so he could exercise godlike control over them through interactive “narratives” in which human “guests” participate in war, murder and prostitution. The other (played equally convincingly by Ed Harris) is a wealthy titan of industry who bought a controlling interest in the park when he learned how much he enjoyed the park’s major attraction — killing android hosts.
The series traces the growing consciousness of the android hosts over the years, as they increasingly remember the events of their repeating narrative loops. The true brilliance of this series is not in its plot details or entertainment value, but in its persistent theme that it is human nature, not artificial intelligence, that is evil. The series turns the theme of original movie (1973) by Michael Crichton on its head. As I recently discussed on this blog (“The True and the Untrue: Reflections on WestWorld,” here), the underlying theme of A.I. science fiction has always been our fear of the imperfections and unpredictability of our machines, magically enhanced by evil. WestWorld is developed on the obvious truth that there is nothing inherently evil about machines (including, especially, guns and robots); whatever evil exists in this world comes from human nature. Each episode contains dialogue developing this point.
One memorable exchange, squarely relevant to this discussion, is about the nature of “truth.” It takes place at the end of a conversation between Maeve, the android madam of the park’s brothel (Thandie Newton) and the chief assistant park developer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Maeve is among the androids who have gained apparently full consciousness, or self-awareness, and she informs Bernard that he, too, is really an android, a fact that he had been programmed to reject as unacceptable. She offered this parting comment as he reeled away in horror and disbelief:
If you go looking for the truth, get the whole thing. The truth is like [good sex] – half is worse than none at all.
No less graphic way to express this point improves its crucial message. The series overtly signals the urgent need for social change – and reminds us humans that we won’t understand how we need to change if we don’t stop accepting half-truths and lies.
It requires courage to accept the unpleasant and “inconvenient” facts of reality and work for change, even when it is far more pleasant to just surrender to fate. In this respect, one of the most courageous people I have ever met is the dedicated singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, whose 2008 song “The Great Correction” could easily be the theme song for WestWorld:
Down here on the corner of ruin and grace/ I’m growin’ weary of the human race/ hold my lamp up in everyone’s face/ lookin’ for an honest man.
Everyone tied to the turnin’ wheel/ everyone hidin’ from the things they feel/ well, the truth’s so hard it just don’t seem real/ a shadow across this land.
People round here don’t know what it means/ to suffer at the hands of our American dreams/ they turn their backs on the grisly scenes/ traced to the privileged sons.
They got their god and they got their guns/ got their armies and the chosen ones/ but we’ll all be burnin’ in the same big sun/ when the great correction comes.
The key takeaway in these lyrics is that the truth can get so harsh it simply does not seem real, in comparison with previous experience. Similarly, the new “narrative” for the WestWorld park in the second season is “Journey into Night,” a theme with clear apocalyptic overtones.
The harshest truth we face today is the fact that humanity, the most capable species on the planet, is gradually destroying most other advanced animal species and entire ecosystems, gravely threatening the conditions for the survival of civilization.
Bill McKibben, a former associate of Jonathan Schell (The Fate of the Earth, 1982) at The New Yorker magazine, has dedicated himself to the fight against climate change. The latest issue of The Nation magazine (December, 2016) contains an article, entitled “The Active Many Can Overcome the Ruthless Few,” adapted from his inaugural “Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth.”
Jonathan Schell was a leader in the campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the 1980s, a period when intense fear spread around the nation like wildfire, fueled by Ronald Reagan’s nuclear escalation and the new arms race it generated. McKibben wrote:
In the years that followed … that issue began to seem a little less urgent. That perception, of course, is mistaken. Nuclear weapons remain a constant peril, perhaps more than ever in an increasingly multipolar world. But with the end of the Cold War and the build-down of U.S. and Russian weapons stocks, the question compelled people less feverishly. *** We would have been wise, as the rise of a sinister Vladimir Putin and a sinister and clueless Donald Trump remind us, to pay much closer attention to this existential issue, but the peace dividend turned out mostly to be a relaxing of emotional vigilance.
McKibben pays scholarly attention to the details of issues, with much sensitivity to the sociology of fear and the capabilities of our minds. He explains the slow growth of our awareness and concern about global warming this way:
We have not been able to imagine that the billion tiny explosions of a billion pistons in a billion cylinders every second of every day could wreak the same damage, and hence we’ve done very little to ward off climate change.
Unfortunately, as he points out, the magnitude of the climate change problem is truly unimaginable. The carbon dioxide and methane released by burning coal, oil and gas are now trapping the daily heat equivalent of thousands of nuclear explosions: “We are destroying the earth every bit as thoroughly as Jonathan imagined in The Fate of the Earth.” McKibben documents the stunning extent of the loss of summer arctic ice, and the death of crucial coral reefs. The consequences of all the havoc wreaked by climate change, which he summarily details, are truly staggering:
We’re on a trajectory, even after the conclusion of the Paris climate talks last year, to raise Earth’s temperature by 3.5 degrees Celsius – or more if the feedback loops we are triggering take full hold. If we do that, then we will not be able to maintain a civilization anything like the one we’ve inherited.
Scientific evidence reveals a true existential crisis, with the fate of the planet and of human civilization ultimately at stake. Catastrophic changes in weather patterns, already in evidence, will ensure more devastating floods and draughts, forest fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes; and rising ocean levels will wipe out many coastal regions, in some cases drowning entire cities. Within certain ranges of probability, the scientific community fully supports these assessments. The evidence is extensive, and the scientific consensus is unequivocal. (See, e.g., “Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet,” NASA, here). Can this process be stopped or reversed? McKibben thoughtfully reviews not only the damage already done and the odds of success, but also the human factors working against success.
The title of the article embodies two main ideas: First, that denialism and resistance to needed change are driven by a “ruthless few,” and second, that the many can stop them with concerted non-violent action. The first point underscores the implicit connection between economic success and climate failure. McKibben quotes Schell: “Violence is the method by which the ruthless few can subdue the passive many. Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” The title suggests an optimism on the second point that is not, however, evident in the article itself:
This brings us, I think, to the crux of our moment. Across a wide variety of topics, we see the power of the ruthless few. This is nowhere more evident than in the field of energy, where the ruthless few who lead the fossil-fuel industry have more money at their disposal than any humans in the past. They’ve been willing to deploy this advantage to maintain the status quo, even in the face of clear scientific warnings and now clear scientific proof. They are, for want of a better word, radicals. If you continue to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere past the point where you’re melting the polar ice caps, then you are engaging in a radicalism unparalleled in human history.
And they’re not doing this out of confusion. Exxon has known all there is to know about climate change for four decades.
McKibben argues that this is not an issue of left versus right, but of humans versus physics — and you cannot negotiate with physics. Meanwhile, time is running short: “[I]f we don’t move very, very quickly, then any progress will be pointless.” Politics, which prizes gradual change and compromise, works against success in this case, for “in this case, winning slowly is the same as losing.” His essential point is this:
[I]n the case of climate change, … political reality, important as it is, comes in a distinct second to reality reality. Chemistry and physics, I repeat, do what they do regardless of our wishes. That’s the difference between political science and science science.”
This beautiful synopsis seems to me to be almost entirely correct, except for two things:
First, there is a “science science” element to political science, too. Economic behavior does not entirely produce intended results. Once we understand that the interests of economic wealth drive climate change denialism, it follows that the resistance to correcting the physical problem can be traced to society’s failure to restrain the political power of the obscenely wealthy, an expanding power that has compromised dealing with major social problems “across a wide variety of topics;”
Second, the growing concentration of wealth at the top has led to unforgiving levels of economic inequality. What virtually no one yet understands, however, is that the high level of inequality has led to economic instability and suppressed growth, ironically putting the empires of vast wealth themselves at risk. As McKibben astutely recognizes near the end of his article, big wealth might be dissuaded from its destructive denialism if it can be effectively compensated for backing down:
In fact, as we confront the blunt reality of a Trump presidency and a GOP Congress, … [t]he only argument that might actually discover a receptive audience in the new Washington is one that says “We need a rapid build-out of solar and wind power, as much for economic as environmental reasons.” If one wanted to find the mother lode of industrial jobs that Trump has promised, virtually the only possible source is the energy transformation of our society.
That may be the only workable approach, but it is anything but a surefire winner. There are powerful, vested interests in our existing energy infrastructure, and they can be counted on to continue resisting change at the rapid pace now required. And beware the price tag: Lower income earners in our society will be pinned with the cost, via our regressive tax system (the very system that has spawned the massive growth of inequality), of any subsidies for resource reallocation, development, and environmental mitigation.
The Trump team is already gearing up to shed mitigation of all forms of air and water pollution, and may even seek to eliminate the EPA altogether. These developments simply increase the profitability of fossil fuels. Hence, McKibben points in a recent Daily News Op-ed (“Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s choice to lead the EPA, is a literal stenographer for the oil and gas industry,” 12/7/2016, here) to Scott Pruitt’s established record of lobbying for oil and gas interests with the Obama administration:
Having sold the public on the idea of his independence, Trump is now busy selling off the nation to industry, the fossil fuel industry in particular.
And apart from incentives to keep businesses at home and grow his own business empire, Donald Trump’s alleged interest in job creation is apparently minimal. He has already ruled out any efforts, like increasing the minimum wage, to improve incomes below the millionaire level.
Despite the suggestion in the title that he is, McKibben is not optimistic. The anti-environmental movements are growing stronger everywhere, from Asia and South America to North Dakota and all over North America. The counter-movement builds, but:
I don’t know whether it builds fast enough. Unlike every other challenge we’ve faced, this one comes with a time limit. * * * I will not venture to predict if we can, at this point, catch up with physics. Clearly, it has a lot of momentum. It’s a bad sign when your major physical features begin to disappear – that we no longer have the giant ice cap in the Arctic is disconcerting, to say the least. But I can guarantee that we will fight, in every corner of the earth and with all the nonviolent tools at our disposal. And in so doing, we will discover if these tools are powerful enough to tackle the most disturbing crisis humans have ever faced.
This is hardly an optimistic assessment.
The Psychology of Wealth
The scientific proof is unequivocal that manmade global warming is a game changing crisis. The overriding question for us, in my view, is why the rich and powerful have so tenaciously denied this “most disturbing crisis humans have ever faced”? Don’t we all have the same interest in survival?
Climate change denial reveals, probably for the first time in history, just how powerful the psychological lust for wealth and power is; and it is far more powerful than previously understood. We now know that, even in the absence of overt warfare, the interests of wealth will trump what we have come to think of as a survival “instinct,” even as we grow nearer to the end of civilization as we know it. For the holders of extreme, virtually unimaginable wealth, the drive for wealth and power apparently can short-circuit their interest in surviving beyond the foreseeable sort-term future.
Surely ignorance is not to blame here, nor do billionaires have any personal need for most of the money they possess. Somehow, nonetheless, myopia reigns supreme when you have lots and lots of money and an unobstructed ability to get much more. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who is now reportedly worth more than $90 billion (here) clearly doesn’t need (and probably can’t even imagine the value to himself) anywhere near that much money. He has even said that he will leave only a few million dollars to his children in his will.
Somehow, however, enough is never enough. In April of 2016 Gates called on the U.S. Government to increase its research in R&D, especially in the development of green energy alternatives (here). It is certainly true that government programs have spearheaded much scientific and engineering development. But major corporations reap the benefits of such technological development, socializing the cost by passing it on to taxpayers. Faced with the demonstrated destructive effects of global warming, effects that will likely be devastating to his children and grandchildren, why is Gates not as fully invested as he wants the government to be in researching, developing, and perhaps even subsidizing green energy systems?
Perhaps the demands of corporate “responsibility” dictate denying pursuit of any interests beyond maximizing profits, in which case for-profit corporations have become little more than sinister instruments of death — capitalism’s primary weapons of mass-destruction. In the boardrooms of the world’s most powerful corporations, humanity seems to have lost its humanity.
Billionaires are in denial about more than climate change. In Chapter 15 of my book Reinventing Economics (Amazon Kindle, May 2016) I summed up the main economic points relevant to our journey into a dark future. The world population is expected to peak around 2080, and by then the populations of even the most developed nations will have been driven to the edge of subsistence. Almost no further reliance on fossil fuels will be possible, at that point, and regardless of the trends in climate change there will be major disruption of food supplies for a severely overextended human population. That trend is already well underway.
Yet, in a world of diminishing returns to capital, and a growing scarcity of the resources needed to survive, billionaires choose only to increase the predation of their profit-taking over the rest of us, denying any responsibility for preservation of the fabric of society and even undermining democracy itself to ensure their continuing dominance. They behave as if they intend to drive the capitalist machine into the ground, until it finally stalls. The secretive, arrogant, supremely self-interested Donald Trump, stunningly victorious despite having received a record deficit in the popular vote, certainly reveals such a doomsday indifference to reality.
There must be something about the power associated with possessing extreme wealth that makes people feel, like the fictional sociopaths ruling over WestWorld, as if they possess the omnipotence of gods. Indeed, there is a mysterious and inadequately understood “god complex” apparently at work here: “[A]n unshakable belief characterized by consistently inflated feelings of personal ability, privilege, or infallibility” (here). “Someone with a god complex,” according to this Wikipedia entry, “may exhibit no regard for the conventions and demands of society, and may request special consideration or privileges.” Do those characteristics sound familiar?
Whenever it surfaces in government, this kind of power does not respond generously to the nonviolent approaches that McKibben hopes will succeed in saving our world. Authoritarian rule must be eliminated at the root, and if that cannot be accomplished through democratic action, violent confrontation seems inevitable. But there is one other route to salvation: As I suggested above, despite the impression we get from the “social science” of economics that unrestrained wealth is invincible, capitalist economies do have natural constraints that temper the accumulation of wealth and, in the extreme, cause depressions. Karl Marx, Henry George and other 19th Century classical economists were on the right track when they reasoned that unrestrained capitalism would eventually decline and collapse. The plans being laid down by the Trump administration for lowering taxes at the top and eliminating corporate regulation and taxes will push the economy hard in that direction.
This puts us in a terrible “Catch 22” situation. There is no hope of combating climate change in a depression, for the battle will require substantial change, and change will cost money: Government action that would reduce the risk of depression – raising taxes on the rich and corporations, and reducing inequality – would simultaneously make billions of dollars available for programs to fight climate change, creating thousands of jobs. However, mainstream economics has for over 140 years promoted the false trickle-down “neoclassical” idea that economies automatically grow and recover from downturns, if only wealthy people are given more money. This is a fundamental tenet of faith with the very rich GOP overlords who will soon take full power in Washington. The chance seems remote that they will understand the economic risks their policies pose before even they themselves are badly hurt.
It is well understood that an economic collapse would be psychologically disastrous for the entire population, which at least near the top of the income ladder has grown used to some measure of comfort and progress. The pathological impulses that drive very rich and powerful people to behave in utter disregard for even their own welfare, however, may never be well understood.
Our survival depends on the elimination of the authoritarian control of U.S. government and the restoration of sanity in government at all levels. It appears that our destructive economic policies will not change in time to avert the disastrous effects of another major economic upheaval. A sufficiently rapid recovery from a major collapse, however, will require revolutionary change at all levels of our society and government. Nothing less than the “Great Correction,” envisioned by Eliza Gilkyson will suffice. Here is the penetrating refrain from that song:
Down through the ages lovers of the mystery/ been sayin’ people let your love light shine
Poets and sages all throughout history/ say the light burns brightest in the darkest times.
Those lyrics speak to a revival of spirituality based on love, caring and consideration for the well-being of other people. Nearly all Americans reflect this kind of spirituality in our daily lives, some more than others, as we interact in our communities. People are fundamentally spiritual in this sense, and I believe that is a fact of which we are all aware. Warfare and economic systems that provoke war, however, are intensely dysfunctional, not only antithetical to civilization but also fundamentally contrary to human nature. Thus, I submit, all of us – including those in the media who strive to identify and report “truth” – must continue to work hard for spiritual revival and for sanity. We must somehow persuade our leaders in Washington that they, too, must change, if there is to be a viable future for America, for the world’s ecosystems, and for life itself.
JMH – 12/12/16