For those of us who savor the sweetness of political irony, there was no need for Halloween candy yesterday when New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, proposed issuing an executive order to reschedule tonight’s festivities. What could be more delicious than a fat Republican making sure that America’s children will be able to learn the important life lesson that they are entitled to free hand-outs of sugary garbage and can obtain them merely by threatening to act up? Has he stopped to consider that he might be contributing to the corruption of our society by fostering a culture of dependency? Does he want the little ones to grow up to be forty-seven-percenters who believe they are entitled to food, shelter, and healthcare? Perhaps he does, given that the modern Republican narrative increasingly demonizes the permanent underclasses that their policies help to perpetuate. If we’re going to divide and rule, there must always be a “them” – whether abroad or at home.
Alas, there are deeper ironies here that are not sweet at all. We refer not to the bizarre sight of putatively government-hating Republicans suddenly finding a use for government or marching back any comments they might have made to particular audiences that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be devolved to the states or – profit alert! – privatized. No, the deepest irony here is the very idea of protecting our children from harm.
Choosing the Wrong Fear: Imaginary Hobgoblins and Real Killers
Clad in his emergency-situation fleece, Christie’s expressions of concern for the little ones rang as hollow as his futile attempt to emulate the manliness of California’s Last Action Hero. For while the Republican machine attempts to scare parents into voting for plutocracy by playing the sound effects of a big, bad debt monster, it carefully elides its pact with the very real carbon devil that presents a genuine threat to children and everything else. To paraphrase Mitt Romney’s “zinger” in the foreign policy debate that “We can’t kill our way out of this [terrorism] mess” – nauseatingly insincere given his wholehearted endorsement of the Obama Administration’s campaign of death against innocent Pakistanis – we sure as hell can’t drill our way out of the climate mess. Of course, Republicans will not acknowledge the veracity of such a retort, for the carbon industries have paid them well to deny the very existence of climate change. Intellectual integrity, it would seem, is just another commodity to be traded in the marketplace, and we all know by now that the market is never wrong – even when it’s killing us.
Climate scientists have been careful not to read too much into any one weather event, refraining from labeling this heatwave or that blizzard as conclusive evidence of climate change. But Hurricane Sandy has forced many experts to come off the rhetorical fence. As the number of extreme events across the globe multiplies – from Siberian heat that sets the tundra on fire, through the summer melting of arctic sea ice that has made the fabled Northwest Passage a new reality, to epic floods in Pakistan – the strange set of meteorological conditions that allowed the “Frankenstorm” to develop amounts to a compelling wake-up call that we have entered a new and dangerous era. The timing of this natural disaster is sublime, as is its trajectory across the political and financial heart of the United States. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is going to have to speak up a little more often, for most of her human children still aren’t listening.
A Middle Finger to the World
As Hurricane Isaac – one of the few named storms to actually make landfall in a deceptively busy Atlantic season – was pummeling New Orleans, Mitt Romney left no room for doubting his attitude toward climate change:
What a sick, stupid bastard. And the sheep in the audience are no better. Outside the plutocratic micro-climate of the Republican Party, it would be entirely appropriate to jeer at Barack Obama’s abject failure to deliver any meaningful progress on his 2008 campaign promises. Indeed, in a rational world, there should have been just such jeers of derision at the Democratic convention, assuming Barack Obama had even survived the primary challenges he so richly deserved for betraying the people who fell for his schtick. But Republicans inhabit a strange world of their own, coveting the material wonders (and weapons) that science has made possible, yet mocking the scientific research that undergirds the theory of evolution and the concept of anthropogenic climate change. Thus, these lemmings are actually cheering as they hurtle over the cliff. They congratulate themselves for improving their prospects when they are guaranteeing their own destruction. They consider themselves virtuous for enabling Big Oil to continue extracting massive profits from the global economy while impoverishing us all by disrupting the delicate natural balance that makes life possible. They think they are patriotic, but they undermine America’s claim to international leadership by proving that Americans don’t give a damn about anything but their own short-term gratification. But what else should we expect from the people who were taught, as children, how to demand and receive free candy?
The American Dream is becoming a global nightmare. Its incessant focus on materialistic expansion and acquisition is unsustainable. Someone needs to tell the children that they can’t have any more candy, and that it was never good for them anyway.
The Only Adult in the Room?
When Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate for president, debated Mitt Romney for the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002, the Boston Globe declared her “the only adult in the room.” The Green Party’s platform includes a Green New Deal, which would see massive public investment in cleaner alternatives to the dead dinosaurs that currently fuel the American Dream Machine. Obviously, the probability of such a plan being implemented in today’s United States of Ignorance is even lower than the survival prospects of polar bears swimming in an ice-free Arctic Ocean. And, unfortunately, even this platform, vastly superior though it is to the pro-corporate collusion of the elephants and the donkeys, makes tacit concessions to the very mentality that dooms the planetary ecosystem to certain death.
A real adult would tell the American people two things that are sure to provoke some serious temper tantrums from SUV-driving McMansion dwellers and all those dreamers who aspire to the same lifestyle. The first is that they need to stop having so many children. The United States was able to win World War II with a population of 150 million people. We have now doubled that number and are easily on course to reach 400 million by 2050. That also happens to be the same year by which the world’s oceans will be utterly devoid of fish (see The Death of the Oceans), so whatever else the American Dream might have to offer by then, seafood will not be on the menu. (Oh well. We can always kill a few billion more land-based animals instead. There are no problems there, either environmental or moral, are there?) While a few environmentalists have kicked up a bit of a fuss about “climate silence,” there is an even more deafening silence on the question of population policy. When even the Greens won’t talk about it in public, we know we’re dealing with a third rail that carries an awfully high current – or a zone of cognitive dissonance that is as dead as the hypoxia zones of the Gulf of Mexico.
The second, inextricably-related, unwelcome truth is the urgency of challenging our obsession with economic output. The root cause of all our environmental problems is the sheer scale of human economic activity. The kind of lifestyle that Americans think they deserve cannot be enjoyed by seven billion human beings (and of course it never will be). But it cannot be enjoyed by 400 million Americans, either, to say nothing of the Chinese or Indians who threaten to usurp us as the world’s biggest vandals. (If we want to scare voters about China, let’s talk about the impact on the earth of over a billion faux-communists eating Big Macs and driving Buicks.) Our energy-intensive, resource-hungry lifestyle might just possibly be viable if our numbers were drastically reduced. Alternatively, if we are not willing to refrain from imposing our genetic facsimiles on the planet, then we need to learn to live a less destructive lifestyle, reducing not just our carbon footprint but our entire footprint. Either way, GDP must be reduced. The intelligent way to do this would be to reduce population, enabling GDP per capita – if we’re still going to use that as our benchmark of living standards – to remain the same or even, given sufficient productivity gains from technical progress, to improve. But since a higher population provides opportunities for wealth concentration – at least in the short run before the ecosystem collapses and makes bank balances somewhat obsolete – that kind of intelligence will be priced out of the marketplace of ideas along with intellectual integrity.
The Green New Deal fails to adequately address these issues, and in so doing it reinforces the prevailing myths that America can continue to grow, both economically and demographically, with relative impunity. Emphasizing full employment through local public works and a bail-out of college students ahead of the financial sector, it is a laudable attempt to repackage the American Dream in progressive clothing. But as an environmental manifesto, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Dr. Stein is a lovely, courageous woman, and we wish her well. But if one is going to propose a platform that has absolutely no chance of being realized – including such wildly optimistic goals as the closure of all coal, oil, and nuclear power plants by 2025 – why not prescribe all the medicine that the patient really needs? The only contribution to the polity that Stein can realistically make is pedagogical, but we fear that the teacher is just telling her small group of students what they want to hear. The really hard lessons aren’t on the syllabus.
Entitled to the Earth
Regardless of which corporate stooge prevails on November 6th, the American Dream is on a collision course with reality. Hurricane Sandy was merely a foretaste of what is to come – a mini environmental 9/11, if you will, bringing to the precious Homeland the kind of suffering previously confined to the territories of strange brown people who barely register as human compared to the noble master race. (How else can one explain the American people’s passive acceptance of – and therefore complicity in – the continuing killing of innocents by American Predator drones?)
With an imperial war machine of globe-encircling scope – the sun never sets on the American empire – the rest of the world should be under no illusions, even if the supreme illusionist should be re-elected. The United States will wreck the planet. It will take the resources that it wants, and crush any nation that has the temerity to challenge its acquisitions. And it will not apologize. When Mitt Romney says that America will remain the “last hope of the earth,” he is absolutely right, for when there is no hope for the rest of the world, the Americans will continue to cling to their dreams.