COVID-19: An end to the world (or to capitalism?)

There is a quote, which Capitalist Realism author Mark Fisher attributes to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I will say that this is likely not a recent insight among leftist thinkers. Acute crises like the First World War, which involved countries with high numbers of left-wing intellectuals and political parties, very well saw the imperialist carnage of European nation-states in apocalyptic terms. Though these crises can create a revolutionary situations (the February and October Revolutions in Russia came amidst a long period of defeats on the frontlines), they may also make it seem more likely that the world will end than a definitive end to the capitalist era. The subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, coming at the tail end of the war, killed more people than the war.

Most people, outside of infectious disease experts, who worry about the end of human society as we know it, probably thought until a few months ago that the existential crisis was climate change. And indeed, it still is in the long-ish term. But COVID-19, which is ravaging countries with the most developed healthcare systems in the world, and is beginning to affect the Global South with very limited resources, has taken end-times thinking from about a decade out to week-by-week. Under one projection, even U.S states that have enacted shelter-in-place are looking at aggregate casualties in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, depending on how strictly these advisories are imposed and the amount of assistance supplied by a generally oblivious federal government.

Climate change and COVID-19 have several important similarities. They both expose a general lack of intra-national and international cooperation in issues that ignore borders. Likely, by the end of this, poor countries will be the most vulnerable and the least likely to gain access to treatments discovered in the next year or two. Both reveal a critical lack of attention paid to infrastructure and creating excess capacity. And both have shown in the U.S the power of special interests to siphon of needed money for bailouts that are in large-scale firms largely crises of their own design (i.e spending most of their profits on stock buybacks rather than keeping cash on hand). I think some countries will learn valuable lessons that they will apply to combating climate change, but also that some countries are so deeply dysfunctional that they have both a lack of short-term and long-term planning when it comes to existential threats.

Lenin once wrote “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” COVID-19 has compressed decades of climate change damage into a couple of months. The end of feudalism occurred over several centuries, where the ancien regime of France fell in a couple of years. The question is whether the obstacles faced in confronting a pandemic will be used later on, or will we learn nothing from the tragedy.

Press Kit: Help spread the labor struggle of #Greenpeace canvassers

Here is a collection of all the major media we have available to media. Please spread this as far and as wide as you can, because the GP strike is going well, but it needs media attention to sustain its push- we’re talking three weeks into the strike.

Please direct any questions or requests for interview to Bryan Kim (619-382-7888). 

A labor strike based in San Diego and Sacramento is now three weeks old. Greenpeace Frontline staff, the people who raise money outside of supermarkets and at farmer’s markets, are striking because the quota system they are all held to means no job security- have two bad weeks in a row and you’re fired, no matter how much you raised before then. 

Please check out recent San Diego news stories on the strike:

Also on the strike Facebook ( gained the endorsement yesterday of Paul Watson, original Greenpeace member, founder of Sea Shepherd, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

Here is a letter signed by 66 ex-Greenpeace staff, including city and regional coordinators:

Solidarity Forever – An Open Letter in Support of Greenpeace on Strike Additionally the petition (here) shows international supporters for the strikers. 

Check out video from an 8/19 rally in Balboa Park, including Kiku Adair, a striker:

And Sarah Saez, program director of United Taxi Workers, based in City Heights:

The strike is working, but more people need to be circulating the information. It’s the only way to keep things running and potentially expand the scope of the strike.

No other way: radical movement against climate change

Meditating on the climate actions on Sunday and the more radical movement on Wall Street the next day (with large-scale arrests and direct action), something that socialist Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant said on Democracy Now! resonates with me. Others have articulated it, but this gets at the core of the mountain we all must climb:

“what we were talking about last night was that this collective action needs to be channeled into a really radical, militant, nonviolent mass movement that will raise concrete political demands.

What do we need to end, to really fight climate change? We need an end to fossil fuel use. We need a rapid transformation of the global economy into renewable energy. We need a massive expansion of mass transit, which will generate millions of unionized, living-wage jobs. And also, we don’t buy into the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment.”

These adjectives get at the meat of how the movement against climate change has to shift. It needs to go beyond the solutions offered by the political and economic establishment. It needs to be stout in the face of obstacles and oppression. It needs to keep the campaign in the nonviolent sphere, for violence is the strongest point of the groups that are responsible for wide-scale environmental destruction. And it needs to be big. Way bigger than 400,000 people in New York City. It stretches from rural cornfields in Iowa to sweatshops in Bangladesh and Vietnam. The entire energy economy has to be overturned. Whole communities must be placed on sustainable footing- the vast regions of coal fields and tar sands cannot be exploited if a thriving Earth is the objective.

Historian David Blight states bluntly in his marvelous free course on the Civil War and Reconstruction that at a certain point the abolitionist movement realized it had to move beyond mere reform and become extralegal. The crisis was so vast, with millions in chains and slavery on a path towards expansion, there was no other path than to break the law. The establishment will only give so much. Those used to signing MoveOn and petitions and holding carefully sanctioned protests will need to radicalize. Our communities, our countries, our planet is on a trajectory of great danger and destruction. My family down in Florida will find their homes underwater within my lifetime. Only radical movements can seize the initiative and put business and government on their heels. Action must be faster, more frequent, and more willing to take risks. The most effective activists are those that have worked through their fear.

Be flexible: The long march to environmental justice

At the San Diego People's Climate march.  Photo by Andrew Mackay
At the San Diego People’s Climate march.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

There is tension in the movement attempting to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change.

There is always tension in any coalition of people. Historically, the center-left and left have been prone to splits and animosity – even if they all agree on the major issues of the day. Climate change is no different. In New York City, a vast collection of groups and the unaffiliated came out and broke all the expectations of attendance, ending up in the vicinity of 400,000 people.

The march I went to in San Diego had both those that oppose current environmental policy in a general, non-specific way, and those with narrow issues of focus. There are the cyclists, those that oppose factory farms (or meat altogether). People advocate for solar energy, or curbing population growth. Some want to work through existing institutions (in this case, the San Diego City Council and eventually state and federal authorities), some want to create new ones. For some the solutions are simple, for others they are brutally difficult. As with any march, the question after all the inspirational rhetoric and empowering community is: what now?

A poster on the march Facebook page was fed up with the whole People’s Climate movement. Certainly there are glaring flaws in the event: corporate sponsors that are not only unpopular but environmentally damaging. A regimented march structure that kept radicals from the parts that were going to get media coverage. And the main point that popular protest has not accomplished anything beyond symbolic progress with the U.N and major polluting nation-states.

Such is the eternal split. Working within the system versus working outside of the system. Even now, 5 1/2 years in, I hear people say when a new crisis comes up, “this will really get President Obama mad, and implementing real change.” Hundreds of people in SD, and thousands in the many other marches in solidarity with NYC signed pledges and petitions. Symbolic acts like petitions and marches often yield symbolic reaction from politicians. Groups are welcomed, in this area into the Democratic machine. Their anger is used to further the institution, and the power of mass social movement is lost. Gaining currency is the phrase “graveyard of social movements” going back to the Civil Rights Movement and before that with Protestant reform efforts that used women’s issues as a springboard. Both modern parties do it, because motivated people win elections.

Socialist Alternative talking with the community. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Socialist Alternative talking with the community.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

In the end, I participated with Socialist Alternative- we sold papers and booklets about the environment, and how a new economic system could stop the exploitation of the Earth and its inhabitants. People were receptive, and eager to engage in conversation. Even if I had no group affiliation, I still would have gone as a show of solidarity. Flexibility of tactics helps keep groups united and working in the right direction. Even if a protest is not organized exactly as I would have liked, it shouldn’t prevent participation.

These marches are a starting point, or a recharge to get people moving to the next step. Despite its flaws, I will one day have to justify to the next generation my actions. That is not only my carbon footprint, but also my moral philosophy, and affirmation that their lives and happiness are essential to my being. Few here think one march will create real progress, but it’s important to show up. All justice in the world was gained by those that showed up and used their will and tenacity.

People’s Climate: There. Is. No. Planet. B.

I took many pictures of great signs at today’s San Diego demonstration, part of the larger People’s Climate March centered in New York City. The march was probably around 600 people, along a wide range of age and political philosophy. It was not as diverse as it needed to be, given the makeup of San Diego. But it was positive.

Here is my favorite:

Taken at Civic Center, San Diego.  Photo by Andrew Mackay
Taken at Civic Center, San Diego.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Indeed. There is not another Earth on standby.

California’s drought: how long until this is the new standard?

Made by Richard Tinker. Found

The drought marches on.

Though I’m hardly an old sourdough, I have been through resource crises. In third grade we often had to switch to writing or going on early recess because the rolling blackouts didn’t allow fancy-pants pedagogy. Yet the energy crisis was relatively short-lived. This drought period- far from the first for older Californians- is serious and has no end in sight. People are running out of tap water. All of California is growing taller because of the lack of heavy water to press it down.

One cannot overstate the importance of water. Not only do humans need to drink it, it comprises a majority of our body mass. Down to the cellular level, water-based chemistry is all there is. Those extremophile bacteria that can resist heat, cold, radiation, can’t live in an environment with no water. An old trope is that cockroaches will be the only ones left after a nuclear war. Cockroaches couldn’t survive a waterless Earth.

Collectively, we must deal with resource anxiety. Many resources globally may be running out, or becoming scarce and expensive. With California, my anxiety is fundamental: how many more droughts do we have before it’s just the new state of climate? Put simply, is drought the current reality, or is also transitioning into the reality in my state.

When climate change worsens, every event connects to the split between temporary and a new standard. Temporary droughts, hurricane seasons, heat waves etc. give people some chance to make right. Even if they don’t cut carbon emissions, you can build a new infrastructure to mitigate future disasters. Yet at some point, time runs out. California should have built a larger water storage system. It should have set up fines for excessive water use. It should have yelled at Homeowners’ Associations until they allowed drought-resistant landscaping. It should have invested in more reclamation and grey-water usage. But infrastructure built in reaction to something is never as good as infrastructure built in expectation of something.

This drought has knocked an existential fear into many citizens and officials alike. But fear must be made into policy; future action may be more difficult and expensive. We are procrastinating on a project, and the project is the future of the planet.

Ozone protected, acid rain stopped, but will climate change get its own solution?

Phys. Today 67, 7, 42 (2014); Co-authors: Anne R. Douglass, Paul A. Newman and Susan Solomon

A scientist friend posted a link to a new paper in Physics Today (“The Antarctic ozone hole: An update“) about the history of ozone depletion. It was an unexpected crisis met with a surprisingly quick and effective response. As they say, “Although the year-to-year meteorological variability is too large for us to be able to declare that the ozone hole is closing, figure 5 [shown above] makes clear that the Montreal Protocol prevented substantial worsening of ozone loss in Antarctica and worldwide.” It’s a happy environmental story, from a year where things like hydraulic fracking and the appalling pollution of the Ganges in India get frequent media exposure.

The final paragraph concludes with the statement “[the ozone hole’s] disappearance will symbolize the possibility of protecting Earth through cooperative actions” (emphasis mine). Quite optimistic, and an indirect but obvious reference to the ongoing political struggle about CO2 and its role in anthropogenic climate change.

So, the question then: is carbon fundamentally a different beast than other atmospheric pollutants? In the United States, CFC emissions are a small fraction of what they were just three decades ago. SO2 emissions, which contributed to devastating acid rain in the Rust Belt and the Northeast, have plummeted since the cap-and-trade market implemented in 1990; the issue still exists, however, as the graph below shows the influence of China on total emissions. Clearly economic forces can in some cases react to environmental catastrophes.

From PNNL:
From PNNL:

Million dollar question: is carbon dioxide and its compatriots a different beast? Is it too much to think we will see similarly upbeat reports in the future?

A couple things I think may create separation between acid rain and climate change. The first is the question of time. Acid rain quickly became a serious industrial problem, and its effect came quickly and was obvious. Nobody could look at a forest with dead trees, next to a lake with no fish, and handwave it away.

Climate change is real, and it’s going to get a lot worse. When will it have its acid rain moment? It’s still too early to shove navel-gazing legislators, particularly in developed countries who have the economic power to shift global environmental policy. Kiribati just bought a chunk of land thousands of kilometers away, because the future does not look good for Kiribati as a home in the future. AOSIS is an example of serious state-level demand for radical solutions. The countries involved also almost no political clout. Powerful solutions will, at least for now, be done at the leisure of wealthy countries.

Another point is whether certain pollutants are more economically integral than others. CFCs were replaced relatively quickly, and today nobody misses them. Replacing fossil fuels means overhauling transit, power generation, and economic production. Collectively, it’s pretty much anything involving energy. Alternative tech exists, but it needs to show up in poor, rapidly expanding regions. The single best bit of information about the politics of climate change is this 2012 infographic by Al Jazeera English. Deadlock revolves around developing countries wanting large cash transfers (1% of wealthy states’ GDP, or about $168 billion annually for the US) to buy into emissions treaties, and the G8 and company wanting nothing of the kind.

There is good logic in the idea that if reducing greenhouse gases were easy, it would have been done already. Even modest claims about economic costs, a couple percent of global GDP, is trillions of $USD every year. But right now there seems to be very little of the “cooperative action” that the ozone report co-authors suggest. I have suggested in the past (paper posted on Scribd), that a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be a way to reduce emissions on the state level without a large-scale treaty, but that’s speculative and definitely in the optimistic vein that permeates the report quoted. The issue is massive, the sources of global warming diverse. The choice is between the “Expected future” and “World avoided” at the top of this article.

Business is always personal.

Oil derrick at sunset. Photo by xtriky

There was a great interview with Tim DeChristopher published this week. DeChristopher, who spent time in jail for interrupting the usual function of an oil lease auction, talks about many important issues here. Baby Boomers have failed to slow climate change, and thus have forced their kids and grandkids to suffer and pay for their disinterest. The justice system is being used to deny activists a chance to justify why they decided to break the law. Occupy is not dead, and the relationships formed by its meaningful dialogue continue to impact the world today.

All of this is important, and DeChristopher has a fire that sets him apart from the Unitarian Universalists I know and interact with. It was a small snippet, though, that captured my attention:

Talking about the corporate climate that pervaded in these auctions, where public land was sold for exploitation, he said:

That’s something that has always bothered me in the discourse around climate change; those who are choosing their own profits over people’s lives say, “Well, it’s just business.” They make it cold and calculating.

It’s only “just business” for the people making profits. For a young person looking at climate change, it is personal. It is an older generation trading our lives for their own short-term interests, whether that’s fossil fuel executives trading our lives for profit or whether that’s baby boomer liberals trading our lives for their own comfort and convenience because they don’t want to take the risk of fighting back.

That’s the thing. American capitalism triumphs over the moral aspects of life. Pollution is just the side effect of Americans keeping the economy going. Job loss is about supply and demand. Foreclosures are an important market adjustment. Any attempt to help the actual people that are affected is viewed as meddling. Unemployment benefits and food stamps are distorting labor incentives. Environmental regulation threatens industry and competitive American exports.

So there is this big business machine churning through all aspects of American life. Anything that gets in its way is bad, because the economic system itself has not been assigned a moral value. If this supercharged capitalism is a moral good, than attempts to interfere with it would indeed be meddling. But it’s more likely that social movements standing in its way are trying to stop something that is out of control and dangerous.

“It’s only business” reminds me of a generic action movie. A contract killer dressed in black, with slicked-back hair and a meditative look, pursues one of the good guys through the dark streets. He corners the mark in a dead-end, then raises a gun. “It’s not personal” he says, just before he pulls the trigger.

Maybe it wasn’t personal for the killer. He was just doing a job for the money, just like large petroleum and chemical companies. But his actions have personal consequences. The person he shot had kids, a spouse, a community. These people grieve and it doesn’t matter whether or not the person who killed had a personal motivation or an impersonal one.

Even if Bank of America has just a business motive when they reject a loan modification and foreclose on someone, they are responsible for personal turmoil and tragedy. Job loss, foreclosure, and cuts to services all push people to their limits. If a bank’s decision leads to a family falling apart, is what they did “just business”? No. There are consequences that go beyond spreadsheets.

DeChristopher is right- the personal cost of economic action is understated. It stems from assuming that business is somehow a virtue in and of itself. The truth is that what we do, for money, for love, for the common good- should be scrutinized. We can’t say that something is good or bad without having taken the fallout into full account.

A ton of shark fins: overfishing and sustainability

One of the images captured this week in Hong Kong by the conservationist Gary Stokes.

My home of the San Francisco Bay Area was home to a huge bust of illegal shark fins– possessing and selling them is now banned as of last July. At over a ton, it’s the largest seizure by two orders of magnitude.

Shark fin soup is a famous Asian delicacy, and commands high prices. The law, however, makes this just a misdemeanor. Even with a record fine, it will be dwarfed by the value of the fins and how easily they can be sold given the right connections.

Of all the aspects of environmental protection, ocean management is among the most depressing. Here’s a fantastic animated video made by a European group that shows how much current fishing exceeds scientifically-determined limits for sustainability. European nations still overfish, while poorer nations have less regulation and more dependence on fish for day-to-day survival.

This is a dilemma that I have noticed, though I don’t know if it has a formal name. West Virginia is another example; like coastal towns they are built around a practice that is not healthy for the global environment. Mountaintop removal and coal mining sustain parts of the state, but coal is a huge cause of air pollution and contributes to climate change. Thus any attempt to advocate an environmentally sound approach is a “job killer.”

The anti-coal movement in America has been wildly successful, especially compared to approaches like cap-and-trade that can’t muster political support:

By the time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared the cap-and-trade bill dead in July 2010, the Beyond Coal campaign had helped prevent construction of 132 coal plants and was on the verge of defeating dozens more. It had imposed, noted Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, “a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.”

Stopping new coal plants may be “the most significant achievement of American environmentalists since the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act”

Overfishing, in comparison, has serious obstacles to overcome in all regions- and like opposing coal emission the most difficult step will be in the developing world. Besides redeveloping those places that depend on an unsustainable industry, improving the health of Earth’s oceans requires coastal countries to have food security. As with many big-picture problems, its solution is in fact a bunch of smaller, diverse solutions combined together.

Record cold reported, global warming still not debunked

Warning on Hwy 141 in Georgia.
Credit: John Amis/AP

Al Jazeera America has a nice compact feature about how the record low temperatures and unusual storm activity are evidence that climate change is real and an increasing threat. Peter Moscowitz also makes a distinction that is overlooked (or willfully ignored) by mainstream media outlets translating scientific information-

But those who think cold weather disproves climate change may be ignoring a solid and ever-increasing body of evidence.

Cold weather is just that — weather, which is defined by NASA as “conditions of the atmosphere…over a short period of time.”

According to most climate scientists, no weather condition can be linked to climate change.

Just as the cold snap can’t necessarily be linked to climate by itself, neither can the unprecedented heat wave currently hitting Australia. (It’s so hot, meteorologists have been forced to add new colors to their heat maps.)

But unlike individual events, weather patterns can be linked to climate change. And scientists point out that patterns suggest it’s getting hotter and weather is becoming more dangerous.

Individuals and groups bent on denying scientific consensus use a key dodge in cases like this- where bizarre weather strikes the Pacific Northwest, the Eastern seaboard , and now (again) the South. It is to conflate two related but different terms- global warming and climate change. Skeptical Science has a nice piece explaining the two, and debunking the myth that the former was phased out by political consultants like Frank Lutz.

Global warming is the increase in temperature associated with increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, and climate change are the visible effects of that change. Groups like Fox News and conservative column writers tend to say that record cold weather disproves global warming- when in fact it validates the concept of climate change. Also (probably) willfully ignored is the difference between short-term and long-term. A three-day storm in a region of one country does not reverse decades of planet-wide temperature increase. Perhaps it is a bit of American chauvinism that weather in the United States can prove or disprove global climate theories.

Also, to prove that the latest rabble about global warming being a hoax is regurgitated, here’s a Daily Show segment from almost exactly four years ago. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean we’re headed for Hoth. Just like when it gets dark at night, eventually the sun will come up.