People Forget, the Earth Does Not

Originally published on ZNet, March 22, 2014

“The Good News”

Last weekend I happened to glance at CNN long enough to hear a beautiful newscaster ask an airline industry expert if the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people aboard would hurt that airline’s profitability.

“I hope not,” the industry analyst answered. “The good news,” he observed, “is that people forget.” Since Malaysian Airlines has no real competition in Malaysia, he added, all the company needed to do was cut prices for a while and customers will return.

How’s that for bottom-line bluntness in the wake of horrific calamity?

Now, forget for a moment the crassness of going on television to say that you look forward to the forgetting of an accident or crime that killed 239 human beings – this even before the bodies have been found. The notion that mass forgetting is good news because it’s good for business is a longstanding capitalist sentiment. The business elite and its agents and allies always want capital’s transgressions thrown down Orwell’s “memory hole.”

Nothing Happening

And it isn’t just past business crimes – say, their profits from slavery or from dealings with the Nazis or from the theft of Native American lands (or…fill in the blank) – that they want us to overlook. We are also and above all supposed to forget present-day corporate and financial abuses and transgressions even as they (supposedly don’t) happen.

In his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, the British playwright Harold Pinter notes how Western cultural authorities were intensely conscious of the “systematic brutality” and “the widespread atrocities” of Stalinist Russia. When it came to the numerous governments subverted and the millions maimed, displaced, and murdered by the U.S. capitalist empire, however, Pinter observed that “you wouldn’t know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”[1]

That’s how U.S. big business wants its constant transgressions against democracy, justice, and the common good to be received today – as not mattering, as being of no interest and even as not really happening at all.Thus, for example, we are expected to understand that the Boeing Corporation is a noble and caring world citizen even as its cost-plus products help United States and its clients and allies inflict murder, mayhem, and terror across the world; and that Exxon-Mobil is a great friend of the environment as it wreaks regular havoc on livable ecology at home and abroad.. The “business community” boasts of its commitment to (the falsely conflated virtues of) democracy and the so-called free market even as it works around the clock to rig the games of politics and policy in their favor with giant campaign contributions, a vast army of highly-paid lobbyists (many of them former public officials), lucrative job offers to public officials eager to “monetize” their years in “government service,” the placement of industry agents in key government posts, and a vast private public relations, marketing, and propaganda empire that includes the “reality”-shaping mass media on which the population relies for public information.

 

Erasing the Authoritarian Absurdity of “Too Big to Fail”

Remember how the nation’s giant “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions precipitated the collapse of the national and global economy in 2007 and 2008 – this after many years of bribing, bullying, propagandizing, and infiltrating the federal government to win the sweeping deregulation of their conduct? When their reckless investment gambles finally and inevitably collapsed, they were rewarded for their epic irresponsibility by getting bailed out with trillions of dollars in taxpayer dollars – this even as tens of millions of ordinary Americans faced destitution without a hint of government assistance. As the incisive liberal-left journalist and author William Greider observed in the spring of 2009:

“People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”[2]

 

“The idea” behind the bailout of Wall Street behemoths, the left economist Richard Wolff has observed, “seemed to be that letting them collapse or default would have such devastating consequences for the larger economy that the government had to help them ‘in the national interest.’” But this idea was fraught with two dangerous and radical “implications that had to be blocked from public discussion, let alone action” as far as Wall Street was concerned. As Wolff explains:

“The first implication was that such larger enterprises should be broken up into smaller enterprises so that the failure of any one would not effectively blackmail the government into costly support….The second implication…was this: if big banks and other financial enterprises are too big to fail, then perhaps the solution was to nationalize them. Making their assets and liabilities fully transparent and publicly available would minimize the chance of behaviors that placed society at risk.”[3]

Both implications were kept safely forgotten by corporate media and the investor-beholden political class. The fundamental, underlying contradiction between the scale and power of the nation’s leading financial firms on one hand and democracy and the common good on the other hand was erased from “public discussion” so that (to quote Pinter) “it didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

Meanwhile the “moral hazard” of “too-big-to-fail” (the problem that a guaranteed government bailout of giant financial institutions encourages those institutions to persist in undertaking excessive risks in the blind pursuit of profit) has only increased: many of the leading U.S. banks are now significantly bigger than they were in 2007.

Business-as-usual must go on, unencumbered by dysfunctional popular memory of past capitalist transgressions and “mistakes” – until the next crisis permitted by the reigning amnesia.

“A Choice Between the Bottom Line and the Fate of the Earth”

Another and even more terrible problem we are supposed to forget about as it happens so that business can proceed and rule as usual is anthropogenic climate change (ACC), aptly described by the left philosopher John Sonbanmatsu as “the biggest issue of our or any time.” For many years now, the preponderant majority of earth and climate scientists have been telling us that the planet we all share is being made progressively uninhabitable for human and countless other sentient beings (and other living things) by global capitalism’s relentlessly wasteful, growth-addicted burning of fossil fuels. For just as many years, big U.S. coal, gas, and oil corporations and other parts of the carbon-industrial complex have waged a giant propaganda and “public relations” campaign dedicated to discrediting those warnings and the consensus science on which they are based. Big Carbon has taken a page out of Big Tobacco’s onetime war on the medical science that linked cigarette sales and smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, and other deadly ailments.

This time, however, it isn’t merely the health of just one segment of humanity (e.g. smokers and those who breathe in their vicinity) that is primarily at stake. ACC is slowly but surely and ever more rapidly undermining the fragile fabric of life on Earth. As we approach critical catastrophic tipping points in a dramatically warning planet being cooked to the limits of livability by ever-escalating greenhouse gas emissions, it is no exaggeration to say that a decent future depends on humanity moving quickly to get off fossil fuels. This is something that Big Carbon is determined to prevent, seeking to convince us that ACC either doesn’t exist or that if it does it doesn’t really matter all that much. As Rebecca Solnit notes in a widely circulated essay titled “By the Way, You’re Home is on Fire”:

 “As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves — those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be — have no intention of letting that happen….Given a choice between the bottom line and the fate of the Earth, the corporations have chosen to deny the scientific facts (at least publicly), avoid the conversation, or insist that retrenching is so onerous as to be impossible. At the same time, they have been up-armoring political action committees, funding climate change disinformation campaigns, paying off politicians, and, in many cases, simply manipulating governments to serve the corporations and their shareholders rather than humanity or even voters. It’s been a largely one-sided war for a long time.”[4]

Thanks to that “one-sided war,” a recent Gallup report shows that the percentage of Americans who feel that the seriousness of the threat posed to humans by global warming is “exaggerated” has risen over the last sixteen years (from 31% in 1998 to 48% in 2010 and 42% this March) of record-setting extreme weather and planetary ice loss. A different Gallup reports shows that Americans placed “climate change” next to last (right after “quality of environment” and above “race relations”) when asked to rank fifteen issue areas that cause them to “worry a great deal.” Most Americans doubt that global warming will have any significant impact on their lives.

These are victories for the great capitalist Denial, and Distraction Industry. The victory is not complete. A majority of Americans (56%) still think that the threat posed by global warming is either “as serious as reported” (23%) or “underestimated” (33%). A similar majority (57%) thinks that increases in Earth’s temperature over the last century are “due to pollution from human activities.” The Pew Center finds that two-thirds of the U.S. population thinks there is solid scientific evidence that the earth’s temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades. Even after the onset of the Great Recession, more Americans (50%) still think that protection of the environment should be given priority over economic growth than those who think the opposite (41%).[5] And 64% of Americans favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions.[6] Future extreme weather and related developments seem likely to fuel (no pun intended) popular ecological awareness.

The Earth Does Not Forget

We shall see. In the meantime, just as the human body never really forgets unresolved trauma, the Earth does not forget the pollutants that have been poured into it under the direction of concentrated power structures, including 81 corporations (50 investor-owned and 31 state-owned) that have combined with 9 “nation state producers” to generate nearly two-thirds of all carbon emissions since 1751. Horrifyingly enough, Solnit notes that 63% of those emissions have been sent into the atmosphere over the last 25 years, meaning that “nearly two-thirds have been emitted since the first warnings were sounded about what was then called ‘global warming’ and the need to stop or scale back. We on Earth now, we who have been adults for at least 25 years, are the ones who have done more than all earlier human beings combined to unbalance the atmosphere of the planet, and thus its weather systems, oceans, and so much more.” [7]

Forget that.

The bad news is that carbon collects in the air, water, ice, and soil to transform this beautiful planet’s delicately balanced ecosystems in ways that promise to make life ever more difficult and very possibly impossible in the not-so distant future.

The Nazis gassed millions to death in genocidal extermination camps, but even that monumental crime promises to pale before the toll taken by those working to destroy life on Earth through Greenhouse Gassing in the names of the “free market” and the holy capitalist grail of endless Growth. We the people have a generation at most to wake up and remember what these corporate exterminists are doing to our precious blue “spaceship Earth,” giving dark meaning to the “End of History” that Western ideologues trumpeted after the collapse of the Stalinist, state-capitalist (“socialist”) regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe[8]. That’s something worth keeping in mind as corporate-captive U.S. planners seek to exploit the current, significantly U.S.-instigated Ukraine-Russian crisis so that American producers of surplus, carbon-rich natural gas extracted from U.S. soil through the militantly eco-cidal practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) can increase their sales to Western Europe and remove government controls on the export of domestically produced gas.. As the left economist Jack Rasmus explains:

“The long term objective is to have Germany and Europe dependent on US natural gas, at the expense of Russian gas. The USA now has a surplus of natural gas as a result of ‘fracking’ and new exploration. That surplus is reducing the price of natural gas in the US, and therefore profits. It wants to export the gas, which will raise prices and profits in the US while increasing profits from sales abroad. However, current legislation prevents the export of that gas. A crisis in Europe and the latter’s need for natural gas provides the perfect excuse for lifting US gas export controls. Oil and energy companies, facing lower demand for oil, want to boosts profits by increased production of natural gas both domestically and to Europe.”[9]

Down the memory hole with that!

Such terrible details aside, there won’t be much worth remembering in future centuries unless we more deeply recover our capacity to process, feel, integrate, understand and act on our social and material reality past, present, and future. Nature bats last and Earth does not forget.

Paul Street is the author of many books. His latest is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, (Paradigm Publishers, 2014), which can be ordered athttp://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

References

1. Quoted in John Pilger, Freedom Next Time (New York: Nation Books, 2007), 4.

2. William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009.

3. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 76.

4. Rebecca Solnit, “By the Way Your Home is on Fire,” TomDispatch (March 11, 2014),http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175817/

5.Except for the Pew Center poll, all opinion data in the previous paragraph and this paragraph up to this sentence can be viewed at Gallup, “Climate Change” (March 12-March 20, 2014),http://www.gallup.com/tag/Climate%2bChange.aspx. The Pew survey: http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/15/more-say-there-is-solid-evidence-of-global-warming/

6. Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, “Poll: Americans Back Climate Change Regulation, Not Taxes.” February 7, 2013, http://news.sanford.duke.edu/news-type/news/2013/poll-americans-back-climate-change-regulation-not-taxes

7. Solnit, “By the Way.” Solnit takes her data from an important new study: Richard Heede, “Tracing Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide and Methane Emissions to Fossil Fuel and Cement Producers, 1854-2010,”http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-013-0986-y, full paper athttp://download.springer.com/static/pdf/371/art%253A10.1007%252Fs10584-013-0986-y.pdf?auth66=1395598806_2fc2756722b91e509cdf8dba957a147b&ext=.pdf

8. On the Soviet bloc as state-capitalist, see Wolff, Democracy at Work, 81-82.

9. Jack Rasmus,, “Ukraine Economic Crisis: Who Benefits, Who Pays?” ZNet (March 19, 2014),http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/ukraine-economic-crisis-who-benefits-who-pays/

 

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By | 2014-03-27T11:47:11+00:00 March 27th, 2014|Articles|