Is it writers’ block, or is it that the world is in such a mess that it has simply short-circuited my mind? So many bad news scenarios present themselves on several fronts that I am somewhat amazed and dumbfounded. Is there any order, any sense to be found in the current insanity of war, economic collapse, peak oil, and climate change?
The current global economic downfall reaps the majority of the headlines as one ineffective action after another only seems to increase the cynicism of the public towards governments and the institutions of finance that created the mess. The solutions to the problems are all coming from the very people who created the mess in the first place. Most scarily, there is a planned summit of world leaders to be held next month to try and remedy the situation and get the economic globalization ball rolling again. No wonder we have heard nothing from the World Trade Organization (the group that “colludes” for a “new global governance”), nor from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, their associated corporate think tank, nor very little of anything from the institutes of the “Washington Consensus,” the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. The latter is being considered by Iceland as the place to turn to borrow money to ease the crisis — welcome to the third world Iceland.
Could it be that all these organizations are simply sitting back and allowing the money to drop where it will, waiting to scoop it all up again, vacuum it up from all the poor peons kicked out of their houses and out of their jobs by the collapse of the markets (so much for trickle down theory)? Are they waiting for the economic summit to come along to further their tenacious grasp on the world’s flow of capital so that they will have truly established a new global governance, well beyond that of any state government, well beyond the democracy of any form of government, well beyond any definitions of transparency, openness, rule of law and fairness that they always demand of others?
The majority of mainstream pundits still seem to buy the line that this will be another cycle similar to the downturn of 1980, and the downturn of 1990, but not like the crash of 1929. The alternate media is not so positive, and as in the past with their correct prescient predictions as much as several years in advance of our current malaise, their arguments tend to favor a much longer and much more severe turn of events than the mainstream media is capable of contemplating.
With all the economic headlines hurtling along through the communications networks, the wars in the Middle East have apparently disappeared. Yet they are as much a part of the problems as anything else is. The U.S. economy relies significantly on the “social” contribution of the government’s military-economic establishments to keep parts of the economy gathering wealth to itself. The military budget is larger than all the others in the world combined, the cost of the Iraq war alone is estimated at the phenomenally incomprehensible figure of three trillion dollars, and both U.S. presidential hopefuls claim they will extend the war more significantly into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan as always is a losing proposition, easy enough to win a tactical battle, impossible to win the country and its people. Pakistan teeters on the edge of financial dissolution, with U.S. drones pounding on the Pashtun tribal areas, and those same tribal areas under attack from a perhaps reluctant Pakistani military, all this in a country of 173 million mostly secular Muslims — perhaps to be 208 million (est.) more radical Islamists by 2020. At the western end of the arc, Israel continues to imprison the Palestinian nation, with the unconditional support of the U.S. Congress and the blessings of the executive branch. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia consort with their U.S. benefactors, trying to appear supportive of the Palestinian cause while proving ineffective at doing anything about it.
Beyond these war zones the U.S. military has over 700 military bases scattered around the world with military personnel in over 150 countries. These comprise the “invisible hand” so beloved by Thomas Friedman that back up the U.S. drive to consume the wealth of the world and enforce its economic empire. They support the Washington consensus group and the neocon advisors from the Friedmanite school of economics that argues for no government interference in the markets. Which could come full circle back to the economic zone, but before that there is another arc to fill in, that of oil, the cause of much of the world’s turmoil — extending as far back as Rockefeller’s ruthless monopolistic practices with oil in the U.S., through the early problems with oil in the Middle East with the new founded Iraq, and Iran’s Mossadegh nationalizing Iranian oil, to today’s global war on terror centered in the oily country of Iraq — instead of Saudi Arabia where the 9/11 conspirators supposedly came from.
Oil is a multi-dimensioned problem. It is the main source of energy for the consumptive society represented by the freewheeling expansive society of the United States. This is pretty much literal, as the cities are grids of roadways and freeways, with suburbs connected/disconnected from the urban centers and containing the vast sprawl of shopping centers to feed the gluttony of consumption that passes for a stable economy. Oil is the energy for that consumption. It fuels the cars. It fuels the trucks and planes and ships that transport all those consumer goods. It provides the power to make electricity to light the malls and houses. It powers the industry that — or what is left of it — that makes the products. It creates the plastics that permeate every corner of our existence. It fuels the agricultural revolution, the maker of fertilizers.
Unfortunately, oil is at the center of two major crises, one of which remains within the realm of news networks as part of the economy. According to the cost of oil, the cost of everything else in society goes. The current downturn has dampened the demand for oil and decreased its value as a speculative investment for the future. Some pundits have ignorantly claimed that because the price of oil has gone down there is obviously no problem with supply. Unfortunately we are somewhere at peak oil now, just past, right on, or just about there, we won’t know yet for a while. And while there is still lots of oil, demand will increase again if the economy recovers, but regardless, future oil will be harder to obtain and more expensive because of that. That will cause ripple effects of higher costs for all products but more importantly, higher costs for food.
Certainly there are other alternatives to oil, but there are significant problems that need to be overcome before a society not based on oil can take over. One of those problems is the simple inertia that keeps everyone traveling the same paths as before, literally and figuratively, until imminent disaster forces changes upon them. The largest inertia comes from the largest masses, the corporations that are involved in the oil business and the associated politicians that garner financial support from them.
Next to the problem of oil supply is another seemingly disappeared news item, global climate change. There is far too much evidence supporting the idea that climate change is occurring and that the consumption of oil in its many forms is a major part of that problem. Although Canadian Prime Minister Harper believes that climate change is a socialist plot to redistribute money from wealthy countries and apparently cannot tell the difference between “weather” and “climate,” the Canadian north is full of signs of global warming, with collapsing ice sheets, thawing permafrost and disappearing summer ice.
If we are currently worried about economic collapse, try combining that with dramatic climactic shifts — and again it draws the circle around to the economy as our brave leaders still believe that our economy needs to keep growing and they need to find ways to renew consumer trust in the economy so that they start spending again so the corporations can maintain their wealth gathering while keeping the multitudes happy with their incessant desire created in large part by advertising propaganda and political exhortations to spend our way into a healthy economy. That sentence is way too long, but demonstrates the circularity of our beloved leaders’ arguments — no linear logic, just more rhetoric to keep spending, keep consuming, keep growing until our finite planet decides we cannot live this way any longer.
These problems are all interconnected, fully related, even though the media seldom if ever considers the impacts from one perspective to the other. Problems with oil, war, the climate, the economy, ignorant politicians, all stem from the consumptive desires of humanity, within a system that supports the creation of wealth for the very few regardless of its impact on other humans or the environment in which they live, in spite of grand rhetoric that does not stand up to the reality of how people act.
Our governments and financial institutions and corporations collude to make a new world re-ordered, presumably with another superstructure on top of the current non-democratic, non-transparent, non-rule-following institutions. It will be an attempt by the elites to remain as elites while the gap between rich and poor increases, while the climate continues to rapidly deteriorate, and wars, civil strife, and oppression remain the hallmark of much of the world’s population.
We do not need our current “leaders” leading us back into the same mess. When will the U.S. drastically reduce its military in recognition that the world is a much safer place without it, that U.S. “full spectrum dominance” using pre-emptive first strike advocacy of nuclear weapons is not a policy that creates global prosperity, democracy, freedom and equality? When will the U.S. stop supporting governments that despise international law as they have despised international law for so long? When will the global economic leaders truly start acknowledging that we live in a finite world, with finite resources, and then act on that knowledge regardless of its impact on their personal wealth or the wealth of their cronies and partners in corporate crime? Who will be the leaders who put the emphasis on reducing our consumption, reducing our expectations of continued future economic “growth” based on a monetarist system that exploits the majority for the comfort of the elite?
A human prosperity
Prosperity should not be measured in terms of GDP. It should be measured within the social constructs of society: medical care facilities and medical support programs universally applied; the education system, open, free and accessible to all; workers’ collective rights to participate in the design of the economy to which they apply so much energy and are generally receiving diminishing returns; safe work environments and healthy work environments; child care, senior care, care of the disadvantaged of society. Prosperity should also be measured in terms of the basics of life — clean air, fresh water, decent food daily, adequate housing and shelter. The dollar sign should not be the indicator of prosperity; instead the demographics of infant mortality, life expectation, literacy rates, crime and incarceration rates, incidence of diseases should all be considered as measures of how well a society is functioning. One might include poverty rates, but that remains a monetary definition and if all the other items are cared for, poverty will also be cared for.
Other changes are required for humanity to survive and prosper in a limited environment. There are many ways in which the global political/governance structures could change for the better — no colluding corporate governance, a highly modified U.N. without a security council, but perhaps an elected global cabinet, and a proportional representation in the General Assembly. Significant changes need to be made in the technological infrastructure that supports society especially as energy needs change from oil based to whatever alternates become practical. The urban-suburban-rural landscapes will need to be restructured to provide the necessary transportation structures and food resources to supply a population using different energy sources while protecting the environment.
Is it possible to make any changes as our governments stumble, stagger, and lurch from one thriller moment to the next, zombie-like in their incapacity to act in a forward progressive manner (it’s Halloween in North America, the metaphor fits)? Most mainstream pundits, being what they are, envision an economic world much similar to the one that has just crashed on us, but with more colluding governance at the upper levels. Perhaps we do need to go through a time of misfortune and large structural changes imposed on us by our own ignorance, greed, and power hunger.
I have, perhaps, fixed a few short circuits in my own mind while contemplating the global picture. Perhaps the sense to be found in the current insanity of war, economic collapse, peak oil, and climate change is that change will occur whether or not we are ready or capable of dealing with it. This could be read as a pessimistic train of thought, but I remain optimistic that somehow the basic common values of humanity will survive through all the machinations of the elite groups that wish to retain power, to retain the status quo. At the same time, I remain highly cynical of economists and politicians in particular, both being creatures of highly manipulative rhetorical emptiness without much of a foundation in the realities that the majority of the earth’s population must live with.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications. This article was originally published in The Palestine Chronicle and reprinted with the author’s permission.