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2013: The Circle Has Closed

Events Continue to Happen – Capacity to Respond Worsens

Failure to anticipate, to perceive, and even to attempt to solve problems

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to anticipate the contours of our new year (we did that very well last year, thank you!), a Gubernatorial election year to boot.

No, a mere glance – superficial analysis – of recent events is a more than adequate baseline to project from.

Here’s the basic pattern: things will continue to deteriorate; “random” crises will emerge prompting media and public outrage devoid of content and absent analysis; and the predicted lessons won’t be learned or effective corrective policy actions taken.

We need only look at 2 of NJ’s biggest 2012 disasters and the (non)responses they triggered: climate change and Superstorm Sandy.

  • In the hottest year on record, as the country was experiencing devastating extreme weather in the form of droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, and floods, NJ Gov. Christie dismantled NJ’s Climate programs, abandoned the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and diverted over $680 million in Clean Energy Funds designed to reduce GHG emissions.  The Democrats, the media, environmental groups, and the public showed little concern, less opposition, and let him get away with it.
  • When NJ was hit with its own climate change extreme weather wake up call (Superstorm Sandy), there was virtually no attempt – even outright hostility – to linking it to climate change  or in any way changing Gov. Christie’ policies. Instead, there was  a mad rush to repeat exactly the same failed climate, energy, transportation, housing, and coastal land use policies and practices that created the problem. Shockingly, DEP Commissioner Martin moved to deregulate shore rebuilding and testified to a Senate Committee announcing a plan to further “relax” the Flood Hazard regulations! (without a word of objection by Democrats, environmental groups, or media – I was there and witnessed it).

The Circle Has Closed.

I stole that from Dr. Barry Commoner’s groundbreaking 1971 book: “The Closing Circle – Nature, Man and Technology” – a book that had a powerful affect on me when I read it as a freshman in college in 1975, majoring in chemical engineering, a major I abandoned shortly after reading the book. The timing was not random.

Commoner was a trained biologist, with a vision and a conscience.

He died this year, and we mourn not only the loss of the man, but even more significantly, the disappearance of his ideas from the public realm.

His book made the argument that until we began to understand the ecological origins of our problems, then our society was doomed. His vision was broad and deep, linking science to systemic social and economic issues, in an integrated whole that reconciled science and democracy in a noble pursuit of justice – a very old idea:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all 
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Commoner warned of “collapse” 4 decades before – and for similar reasons – the recent popular work “Collapse – How societies choose to fail or succeed” by Jared Diamond.

Diamond’s 5 point collapse framework basically expands upon and confirms Commoner’s analysis via investigation of historical examples of where societies had destroyed the ecosystems and natural resource base upon which they depended and proved incapable of either anticipating, perceiving, or responding to these problems due to political, economic, cultural, and social factors.

But forty years before Diamond, Commoner warned:

Understanding the ecosphere comes hard because, to the modern mind, it is a curiously foreign place. We have become accustomed to think of separate, singular events, each dependent upon a unique, singular cause. But in the ecosphere every effect is also a cause: an animal’s wastebecomes food for soil bacteria; what bacteria excrete nourishes plants; animals eat the plants. Stich ecological cycles are hard to fit into human experience in the age of technology, where machine A always yields product B, and product B, once used, is cast away, having no further meaning for the machine, the product, or the user.

Here is the first great fault in the life of man in the ecosphere. We have broken out of the circle of life, converting its endless cycles into man-made, linear events: oil is taken from the ground, distilled into fuel, burned in an engine, converted thereby into noxious fumes, which are emitted into the air. At the end of the line is smog. Other man-made breaks in the ecosphere’s cycles spew out toxic chemicals, sewage, heaps of rubbish-testimony to our power to tear the ecological fabric that has, for millions of years, sustained the planet’s life.

Suddenly we have discovered what we should have known long before: that the ecosphere sustains people and everything that they do; that anything that fails to fit into the ecosphere is a threat to its finely balanced cycles; that wastes are not only unpleasant, not only toxic, but, more meaningfully, evidence that the ecosphere is being driven towards collapse. 

If we are to, survive, we must understand why this collapse now threatens. Here, the issues become far more complex than even the ecosphere. Our assaults on the ecosystem are so powerful, so numerous, so finely interconnected, that although the damage they do is clear, it is very difficult to discover how it was done. By which weapon? In whose hand? Are we driving the ecosphere to destruction simply by our growing numbers? By our greedy accumulation of wealth? Or are the machines which we have built to gain this wealth-the magnificent technology that now feeds us out of neat packages, that clothes us in man-made fibers, that surrounds us with new chemical creations-at fault?

This book is concerned with these questions. It begins with the ecosphere, the setting in which civilization has done its great-and terrible-deeds. Then it moves to a description of some of the damage we have done to the ecosphere-to the air, the water, the soil. However, by now such horror stories of environmental destruction are familiar, even tiresome. Much less clear is what we need to learn from them, and so I have chosen less to shed tears for our past mistakes than to try to understand them. Most of this book is an effort to discover which human acts have broken the circle of life, and why. I trace the environmental crisis from its overt manifestations in the ecosphere to the ecological stresses which they reflect, to the faults in productive technology-and in its scientific background-that generate these stresses, and finally to the economic, social, and political forces which have driven us down this self-destructive course. All this in the hope—and expectation-that once we understand the origins of the environmental crisis, we can begin to manage the huge undertaking of surviving it. (p. 12 – 13)

Commoner held out hope – thus the title of his book – warning of a “closing”, but not yet “closed” circle.

But Commoner’s hope and expectation failed to fully grasp the power of the capitalistic system and how economic and corporate power could bend and corrupt  all other mediating institutions of power: government, media, academia, and civil society.

After 40 years, if this were a PeeWee hockey game, it would have ended years ago under the 10 goal rule -

It’s been a rout – corporate economic power has won by a landslide, and as a result, the Circle Has Closed and we are now in what Princeton political economist Sheldon Wolin described as “managed democracy” and “inverted totalitarianism”:

Democracy is struggling in America–by now this statement is almost cliché. But what if the country is no longer a democracy at all? In Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon Wolin considers the unthinkable: has America unwittingly morphed into a new and strange kind of political hybrid, one where economic and state powers are conjoined and virtually unbridled? Can the nation check its descent into what the author terms “inverted totalitarianism”?

Wolin portrays a country where citizens are politically uninterested and submissive–and where elites are eager to keep them that way. At best the nation has become a “managed democracy” where the public is shepherded, not sovereign. At worst it is a place where corporate power no longer answers to state controls. Wolin makes clear that today’s America is in no way morally or politically comparable to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, yet he warns that unchecked economic power risks verging on total power and has its own unnerving pathologies. Wolin examines the myths and mythmaking that justify today’s politics, the quest for an ever-expanding economy, and the perverse attractions of an endless war on terror. He argues passionately that democracy’s best hope lies in citizens themselves learning anew to exercise power at the local level.

Commoner saw it all coming and tried to stop it – exactly what Jim Hansen has recently described as “game over for the climate” and Bill McKibben has called the terrifying math of global warming .

Today, corporate funded frauds deny and attack climate models and scientists, but environmental groups, and media seem totally incapable of communicating the issues. Yet Commoner framed and explained the situation in clear, simple, and accessible terms and metaphors 41 years ago:

Carbon dioxide has a special effect because it is transparent to most of the sun’s radiation except that in the infrared region of the spectrum. In this respect, carbon dioxide is like glass, which readily transmits visible light, but reflects infrared. This is what makes glass so useful in a greenhouse in the winter. Visible energy enters through the glass, is absorbed by the soil in the greenhouse, and then is converted to heat, which is radiated from the soil as infrared energy. But this infrared energy, reaching the greenhouse glass, is bounced back and held within the greenhouse as heat.  This explains the warmth of an otherwise unheated greenhouse on a sunny winter day.  Like glass, the carbon dioxide in the air that blankets the earth acts like a giant energy valve. Visible solar energy easily passes through it; reaching the earth, much of this energy is converted to heat, but the resultant infrared radiation is kept within the earth’s air blanket by the heat reflection due to carbon dioxide.

Thus, the higher the carbon dioxide concentration in the air, the larger the proportion of solar radiation that is retained by the earth as heat. This explains why on the early earth, when the carbon dioxide concentration was high, the average temperature of the earth approached the tropical. Then, as great masses of plants converted much of the carbon dioxide to vegetation – which became fossilized to coal, oil and gas – the earth became cooler. Now that we have been burning these fossil fuels and reconverting them to carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere has been rising; what affect this may be having on the earth’s temperature is now under intense scientific discussion. (p. 29 – 30)

Let me repeat: That was 41 years ago folks.

Guess we’ll see ya’ in 2013!

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