It’s a cliche of Hollywood adventure movies — the rope and plank bridge over the deep chasm, already damaged when the hero arrives with the bad guys coming after him, that he has to herd his panicky friends across even as it disintegrates behind them.
That’s a perfect metaphor for where human society is right now. The chasm is ecological and economic collapse caused by the combination of climate change and the global capitalist crisis, with the death of billions by starvation, war, and disease at the bottom. On this side is fossil-fuel-based consumer society, run by an insatiable corporate oligarchy and policed by national governments, unsustainable and failing. On the far side is the possibility of a sustainable, equitable, “green” global economic and technological order. In between is the bridge. We, humanity, are headed for that bridge, with deranged enemies behind us trying to head us off and behind them an advancing wall of fire.
What is the bridge, so narrow, so fragile, already so damaged? It is the possible but increasingly difficult and risky transition between the old and the new. Getting across requires a strategy that does a few crucial things in a very short time.
–First, the strategy cuts carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions more rapidly and radically than any currently touted plan — because the targets of all these plans were formed before the recent research just aired around the Copenhagen conference, which recognizes new multiplier effects like the methane pool under the Arctic ice and reveals sea levels rising much faster than previous models predicted. It’s crucial to realize that the consequences of climate change, even if we cut carbon emissions by 50% tomorrow morning, are still going to be severe.
–Second, the strategy spends enormous amounts of government money to build a clean-energy infrastructure — including a shift away from the private automobile in any form and toward clean mass transit — and creates a system of incentives to phase out fossil-fuel use as fast as possible, beginning with electricity generation and a crash program in conservation via such measures as weatherproofing homes.
— Third, it undoes the corporate industrial agriculture system, which is inherently dependent on long distribution chains, on petrochemical fertilizers, and/or on genetically modified but uniform crops that severely threaten biodiversity, while gigantic machine-worked fields destroy species habitats. The strategy does this by forcing agriculture, like manufacturing, to face the real costs of production, and by supporting local skill-intensive organic farming.
–Fourth, the strategy lays the groundwork for a new flowering of scientific and technical talent to re-engineer the entire technological basis of society over the next half century or so, and at the same time create mass scientific literacy via a general overhaul and reform of public education from kindergarten through community college.
–Fifth, it reverses the trend to the rampant “offshoring” of manufacturing from the US both encouraged by Bush-era tax policy (and agreements like NAFTA) and fostered by unsupervised financial speculation where rates of profit were — for a time — so much higher than in the “real economy” of goods and services. It does this by recapturing an edge in new, sophisticated, post-fossil-fuel, biomimetic and fully recyclable technologies that work with the natural environment rather than against it.
–Sixth, in the longer term the least important part but in the short term the most crucial, the strategy restarts effective demand in the global economy so that capital circulates again and the system does not simply crash — which would not allow the rest of the transitional process to be happen.
It’s easy to see in this strategy — minus the plank about agriculture — the outlines of the plan now being pushed by the Obama administration in its fiscal 2009 budget and in the stimulus plan. As I said in an earlier post to this blog, Obama, like FDR before him, is trying to save capitalism from most of the capitalists and their myopic, avaricious stupidity.
But here’s the problem. Obama is operating within a political system so deeply corrupt, inbred, and insulated from the real lives of the immense majority in the US and the rest of the world that his proposals do not go far enough on their own terms. Obama is a very intelligent, very charismatic, and very tough politician — and seemingly a courageous man. By the standards of the times he is a true visionary. But his proposals, designed to navigate the sticky, stinking swamp of greed and idiocy that is late-capitalist political culture, are already too timid. Now they seem likely to be further weakened by the dragging opposition of Democratic “moderates” in Congress and by the open blockade of the now utterly nihilistic Republican leadership.
It has to be faced: our future as a species is being jeopardized by men (and a few women) who would rather see human civilization plunge off the cliff than admit that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt and that the entire system of exploitation, power, and privilege they have spent their lives defending is putrid to the core and about to collapse on itself like a rotten apple.
Meanwhile, the rope bridge is coming apart. Planks are falling off, cords are snapping. Many of us would like Obama to be the hero who holds off the enemy mindlessly intent on stopping us from getting across, even though the conflagration is pursuing them too. He is telling us, loudly and repeatedly, to get on the shaky structure and run across, because it is our only hope. But he cannot be that hero. However he meant it, his most famous campaign line, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” is true. We, collectively, the working people and the unemployed and the poor of America and the world, must be the hero. We have to fight off the enemies of humanity not with violence but with mass refusal to play by their rules — continual protest, constant pressure and exposure of lies using the new media, mass economic and social disruption, popular self-organization at all levels. In that way we can hold the bridge together while we get across.
What will be on the far side? A “sustainable” and more responsible version of transnational corporate capitalism, as envisioned by Obama & Co? Or something much freer, more beautiful, more cooperative, more democratic? Can we build a global society more truly sustainable and sustaining of us as living beings in a world of living beings, most of whom are not human and have, like us, the right to live?
First, either way, we have to get across the bridge. And we will have to fight like hell to get these corrupt, blind, conscienceless political mercenaries of the fossil-fuel death-economy out of our way. Once we get across, we can renew the struggle over what kind of world we will create there. I believe the best way to get across and hold the bridge together is to do, though in a somewhat different way appropriate to new conditions, what the century-old Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World calls for: to “form the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
“The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and time is short,
And History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.””
–W.H. Auden, “Spain 1937″