American Exceptionalism And Global Warming (Part 3)

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(Editors note: Read part one and two and four) I must admit, my friends, that at this point I do not have a handle on a compelling moral argument for what must be done to ameliorate our environment and how to do it justly. I know what I’d like to see done, and I know that at present very few would agree with me and willingly pick up the banner to march forward. Here is the problem in a nutshell, and it is the 2000 pound elephant standing in the room that few will acknowledge. Any effective and just solution to global warming necessitates an indefinite period of severe austerity within developed nations, and a substantial transfer of wealth to developing nations to put them on the path toward sustainable economies. We do not hear any call for austerity in the US, even among the most ardent supporters of global warming intitiatives, and the call is faint in Europe. All we hear from Gore et. al. is the word “opportunity”. Is there any argument that can convince the rich of this world to give up a large measure of the comforts they derive from their disproportionate consumption that they will do so willingly?

What I hear and read in the media is the acknowledgment of the elephant by indirection. It is in the constantly reiterated foolish insistence that technology will come to the rescue. This inanity reached new lows recently when Sir Richard Branson, with Al Gore standing beside him, announced a $25 million prize for a process that will remove carbon from the atmosphere “in an economically viable way”. Anyone with a smattering of thermodynamics would know that this is nonsense. The entropy of mixing CO2 emissions with the other atmospheric constituents (it can be calculated from Gibbs equation of mixing) is so large that it would take, at the minimum just to reverse the entropy increase, the energy equivalent of 1/4 of the annual output of electricity in the US to remove one billion tons of CO2. There are currently 2.92 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere of which it would be desirable to remove about 1 trillion tons.

What is needed to solve the global warming crisis is not new technology so much as a retrenchment of ethics, morality, and policy. There is a slogan that neatly summarizes the goal of the required policy initiatives: Contract and Converge. This slogan was originally a call to bring developed countries’ emissions in line with that of developing nations, but, in current usage, means bringing their economies in line. It goes right to the economic heart of the matter. Capitalism and market economics are based on the idea of continuous growth, and this idea is antithetical to the idea of sustainable economy. The other central thesis subsumed by the slogan is that contraction and convergence must be accomplished without doing violence to human nature.

With respect to avoiding doing violence to human nature, let me recommend reading “Visions of Utopia”, a collection of three essays by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Mushcamp, and Martin Marty. The essay by Rothstein, “Utopia and it Discontents” is very instructive in that it probes the irony that Utopian visions of societies that enjoy material plenty and social harmony, are necessary and useful as social criticism, but always bring forth violence and fascism whenever attempts are made to enact them. The social and material conditions during the violent and fascistic period are always worse than were extant in the society that is being restructured. Prime examples are Hitlerian Germany and Stalinist Russia.

The lesson is that whatever is done about global warming, it must respect existing social forms. The social and political adjustments must be within normative contexts. I take this as a constraint on my own thinking. What we need is reform, not revolution, and it must be understood that without the former, the latter will surely overtake us.

Our present day situation has an historical parallel. After the 1929 stock market crash and with the onset of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 24.9% by 1933, with no end in sight. Families were broken up as men “rode the rods” to distant places in search of work in the hope of keeping their families from starvation. Conditions were so intolerable that the country seemed ripe for revolution. The powers-that-be wisely embraced the idea of serious reform in place of revolution and permitted the election of FDR. After FDR instituted a program to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, the DuPont and J.P. Morgan empires attempted to stage a coup and install a fascist government, but were foiled when the general they chose to do the job, Smedley Butler, reported the plot to Congress. Instead of a coup or revolution we got a good dose of deficit spending on public works to put the unemployed back to work, the 40 hour work week, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to collective bargaining, and Social Security. As a consequence of having to pay workers a living wage, the US shot ahead as an industrial giant. The path to profits now lay in making capital investments to improve productivity. And, through 1970, the relative share of workers’ incomes steadily increased from its all time 1929 low. Since 1970 when the Gini coefficient stood at 0.394, the distribution of national income has tilted precipitously toward the most wealthy to stand at 0.469 in 2005. This means that much of the US middle class has been wiped out during the past 37 years. The counter-reforms, led by Ronald Reagan have been successful.

There are important distinctions to be made between the global warming crisis and the Great Depression:

1. The need in response to global warming is to curb economic activity that produces emissions (most economic activity in developed countries) rather than increase it.
1a.On average, as a result of needed reforms, people will have less rather than more, although the impact on the poor could be greatly mitigated.

2. There is rather less social cohesion now than there was in 1932.
2a. There is much greater diversity and a wider range of held values now than in 1932.

3. There was a superabundance of resources available including natural resources and established idle farms and factories in 1932. The problem was failure of institutions. Now, with 6 billion people alive, there is an ongoing global struggle to secure scarce remaining resources. And, the single most important resource, the earth’s atmosphere has been spent.

Given the above, the question today is very different from what it was in 1932. We don’t face a simple choice of reform or revolution (or repression, as the most conservative elements urged); rather, our choices are Business as Usual (which already entails repression), serious reform, or revolution. I’ve already given good reason to reject revolution, and this is not a hard sell. Most people understand that fighting power with even more power simply increases the amount of power in the world, and that
increase brings with it more violence and totalitarianism.

What is far more difficult to accomplish is the rejection of Business as Usual. Now that the conservative elements in the US acknowledge global warming, they will produce arguments against serious reform that pander to chauvinistic nationalism and greedy individualism. It will be argued very loudly (as already has been argued quietly) that everything must be done to preserve ourselves against the disruptions and economic losses that will accompany economic reform. It will be difficult if not impossible to get an acknowledgment from these quarters that continuing on our path means certain destruction for ourselves and much of the rest of the world. Once this defense has been breached, there is a second line of defense that is much more formidable: the US is justified in its actions because of our exceptional character as a people. We, because of the blessings of God, are a powerful nation, and we can do much to adapt to global warming. It is not our problem that other nations have not been so blessed. That they suffer is due to providence. That they have failed to prosper sufficiently in the past to have the wherewithal to adapt today is the direct consequence of their own actions, and of no concern to us.

It is my fear that this line of reasoning will resonate greatly in our society. Already, the conservative economists have run computer models showing the superiority of adaptation over mitigation.The intellectual spade work is in place for this push. Americans as a whole are insular, isolationist, and xenophobic. In much of US society, there is little knowledge or real experience of different cultures. Most people look upon non-citizens as “other”. These predilections can be exploited to convince Americans that it would be right to build Fortress America in response to global warming.

More significant is the pervasive acceptance of an extreme version of capitalism and free markets as the most desirable social arrangement. Americans embrace an economic system that is ruthless and merciless, and this accounts for people’s tolerance for economic crime in high places. It is a vision of life that places few limits on competition, where the winners are richly rewarded beyond dreams, and the losers ground into the dust. Failure to prosper is a sign of God’s judgment, and the losers deserve their wretchedness. In our country, failure is never an option.

This pervasive American sense that the righteous will prosper and the sinners will be punished with failure goes back to the Plymouth Colony. It is such a long term, deep feature of our national psyche that changing it would require a Utopian project.

At the same time, and in seeming contradiction, we possess a strong countervailing current of immense generosity. But, there is a constraint on this generosity that originated during the period when Rome adopted Christianity as its official state religion. During this period, contributing to
Christianity being embraced by the Emperor Constantine, the idea of Christian charity shifted profoundly.

The original Christians, in the belief that clinging to possessions might disbar them from heaven, gave freely to anyone in need. After 311 C.E., when, as the Roman established church, the Christian organization came into possession of vast amounts of property, giving became limited to “the deserving”, usually interpreted to mean other members of the church. With this change, Christianity was no longer seen as a threat to the social order, but, in fact conformed well to the policies of the Roman state, where every citizen was entitled to bread and circus, but property rights were well established.

Our largely Christian country continues to operate on the same principles as the ancient Roman church with respect to giving. A test of the worthiness of the recipient of largess continues in US religious charitable organizations and in state sponsored welfare. Giving is limited to those with whom one can identify. The most deserving are members of ones congregation, followed by other Americans, particularly white middle-class Americans. Witness the outpouring of largess to the families who lost earners of six figure incomes during the 9/11 attacks. This is followed by Americans of color, and then by white people in other countries, such as the former Yugoslavia. At the bottom of the list are indigenous peoples everywhere, who receive help only with strings attached, such as conversion to Christianity, or refraining from the use of birth control or abortion. American politicians have learned that they can safely ignore genocide of people of color in places where there is no oil.

The giving is most generous in response to natural disaster, epidemic, or war. The billions living day-after-day in misery are below the radar. Their condition is due to providence. They deserve their fate and are undeserving of our mercy.

I place my hope for serious reform to help solve the global warming crisis in Americans’ strong philanthropic impulse. With only a change in the idea of what it means to be deserving, Americans could be brought on board a program, sold as “the War on Global Warming”, that included elements of self-sacrifice and great generosity to the world’s poorest. People would have to become convinced that the crisis was great and could no longer be ignored.

9 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism And Global Warming (Part 3)”

  1. Once again Russ I am amazed, grand and wonderful work. This article got me to thinking, I felt like after 9-11 would have been the perfect time to shift the American people’s ideals. Bush could have come on TV and told the American people that it was a time of sacrifice and that we were going to as a nation remove ourselves from the downward spiral of oil use. Instead he asked people to continue to consume and go shopping.

    I really liked reading this it at once scared the shit out of me, and gave me hope for the future.

    I have to wonder however if some sort of plant based co2 removal system would get around the need of using 1/4th of the energy produced in the USA. Plants run on solar, and their is plenty of that falling every day that goes unused. It would be a matter of finding out how to keep the carbon trapped in plants from getting out again. No easy task, but it does get around the problem of reversing all that entropy by mechanical means.

  2. Great Article and a good analysis

    I’d like to respond to the challenge of Sir Richard Branson that is :
    -Removing large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere
    -Storing this carbon safely, possibly underground

    I DO have the perfect solution.
    We should simply separate O2 from carbon, and then bury block of solid carbon deep under the surface, that is MANUFACTURE COAL.
    This would consumes much more energy that what have been produced from burning this coal.
    As this may sounds silly, this is the chepeast and simplest way of doing it.
    So the idea of all those great thinking businessmen is “Why don’t we simply build coal so that we can continue burning it ?” The snake bits its tail.
    So goes for any “technological” solution, it will always be more expensive that we .

    It is not too late to engage ourselves in the switching to the “without oil era”. Corrupted politicians won’t do it for us. This has to come from the base.


  3. Thanks for the comment. Of course plants will do the
    trick of at least temporarily removing carbon dioxide.
    Close to a 500 million years of evolution have gone
    into perfecting them for just this purpose. The leaf
    canopy of trees presents a huge surface of chlorophyl
    containing cells to the atmosphere to maximize its
    contact with the relatively scarce CO2 and capture it
    in a conversion process powered by sunlight. The
    efficiency of the process is unlikely to be exceeded
    by anything we could invent. And plants are self

    But this was not what Branson was talking about.
    Simply planting vast forests would not qualify for the
    prize, as I read the rules. Branson has in mind some
    sort of industrial process, and that is likely to be
    energy intensive,probably causing more emissions than
    it removes, given the laws of thermodynamics.

  4. Russ:

    American sacrifices in WW II were motivated by war and a nation that was a visible enemy.

    Now, the war is against climate change and the enemy, if there is one, is ourselves. Self-sacrifice is not easy. It is reserved for the truly exceptional.

    I believe that we shall have to suffer before we shall act responsibly.

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