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September 20, 2015
Bulletin 207: Serious challenges need serious responses – food for thought
Dear friends and colleagues –
It is clear from the local discussions we have held over the past year and this summer, and more so from the discourse we see in the U.S. nonprofit community – not to mention the mainstream media – that many people do not comprehend the gravity or breadth of the crisis in which we find ourselves. Denial may even be growing. In some circles it is morphing into something more dangerous – magical thought of various flavors. If you find yourself there, come back.
I am not talking about mainstream America, whatever that means, but about the lack of comprehension and action in educated, engaged people of obvious good will, as well as senior serving government officials and experts and staff at our national laboratories, some of whom read these bulletins.
Recently James Hansen remarked that the most "relevant" people in power aren't aware of the climate situation's gravity. "Even people who go around saying, 'We have a planet in peril,' don't get it. Until we're aware of our future, we can't deal with it."
That is what I am talking about. Liberals, progressives, arms controllers – really reformers of all stripes – almost never understand that all the issues for which they are advocating solutions are relativized by advancing resource depletion, climate degradation, and the economic and foreign policy choices that are with them, just to highlight one or two of the main themes that define our possibilities today.
Our office is very close to our state’s flagship public university. We do not see any particular awareness of the content and gravity of our converging issues on the faculty, or in student groups. We don’t see much informed discourse in our state’s nonprofit community, though it may be happening quietly there and we just don’t know about it. “Quietly,” you see, is the problem. If it’s so quiet we can’t hear it, is it really discourse – let alone action?
The churches – Christian, Buddhist, whatever – are silent as tombs for all practical political purposes. We believe the churches are very important and we have, in the past, devoted decades of work in that belief. Today we see a few glimmers of light but they are mostly self-referential activities, invisible if they can be said to occur at all. I submit that at the present moment in history, congregations of any size without at least one full-time political organizer who is materially and spiritually supported by the members, are just fooling themselves about whatever they think they are accomplishing – religiously or politically. Yes, I am making that religious claim too. Who can respect pious inaction while the house next door burns down? Avoiding political action is not pure, not holy, not mature – and not necessary under U.S. tax laws for churches.
As antidote to the denial that creeps back in when we aren’t looking, you might want to review just one or two recent summaries about our climate situation by journalist Dahr Jamail, in which you can find links to other work (“The World on Fire: Record-Breaking Wildfires, Greenland Melting and Earth's Hottest Month Ever,” and “The New Climate "Normal": Abrupt Sea Level Rise and Predictions of Civilization Collapse”). The environmental news is bad but these are by no means the most alarming collections of links to the current state of knowledge that could be placed here.
What is equally if not more consequential than global warming in human affairs right now has been the loss of cheap oil. Beneath all the noise in the markets, depletion of the world’s petroleum reservoirs upon which our civilization depends continues, with the result that crude oil is now either too expensive for the world’s economies to grow or too cheap to acquire from marginal and expensive sources (as if the atmosphere could absorb the resulting CO2). The net cost, in dollars and in oil, of bringing new sources to market basically means real net economic growth is over. That’s a highly controversial statement, you may say. Well, I think it’s somewhat like a sailor reporting to the captain of the Titanic that the ship has struck an iceberg and is sinking. “That’s impossible!” is the instinctive reply. Well, that is the beginning of the discourse we need.
Is it necessary to point out that the flood of refugees we see today from the Middle East and Africa is a direct and indirect result of neocolonial destabilization, U.S. and NATO-led resource wars, and climate-driven drought, among other factors? They are the first migrations of the Anthropocene, but only the first.
What people don’t seem to understand, let alone act upon, is that our converging crises, taken together, mean our children’s and grandchildren’s lives are gravely threatened. I am talking about the human family and the primordial family of life, whose future we hold in our hands whether we know it or not.
Too many educated Americans think their career – or especially their retirement, when new possibilities of freedom open up for many people, health permitting – is more important than survival for their family and other peoples’ families. Too harsh? Not really. Responsible parents don’t just make a gesture of parenting, as many do of activism. Responsible parents don’t close their ears and eyes to violence that threatens their children. They don’t hide behind the deniers as some of our politicians do. They don’t propose ten cent solutions for ten dollar problems, as some environmental groups do all the time.
When we face a life-threatening danger, we have to do what it takes. In political terms, we have to win. We are just not seeing that spirit in very many places. Isn’t that spirit a defining part of any “wholesome, sane response?” Leaving aside the wickedness of capitalism and so on – all those problems out there – our most fatal flaw may be the ennui of the age, which all of us face in so many insidious ways.
Beneath these mighty crises we encounter, in the final analysis, just ourselves and our family and friends, confronting our own converging crises of conscience and organization. It is there that our identities, characters, and fate will be forged, and where we will find fulfillment, or not. For those with the health and the means to act, and the poisonous knowledge of the problem, there is no separate peace.
When there are floods or fires or other emergencies, it is quite typical for “ordinary” people to help others in extraordinary and often selfless ways, immediately and without question. Most people, when they see someone in danger, will help and do so appropriately if they see a way, and all the more so if they have some relevant training or experience.
It is the responsibility of the Study Group, of all our nonprofits, of our educational institutions, and the churches, to open up those ways and to provide that training. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of all who help form public opinion to stop downplaying the problems we face, so we can start talking about realistic responses, and find the collective will to act. We need to end the dangerous cult of optimism and “positive thinking” that makes us so passive and easily manipulated.
Most people are pretty well tied down, we know. The critical need is for leadership. It doesn’t take many people to effect major political change. There are 2.1 million people in our state. Suppose 10% of those people are adults or near-adults who are in a position to act as engaged citizens to one degree or another in the right circumstances. If just 1% of that 10% (2,100 people) or even 0.1% of 10% (210 people) undertook full-time climate and energy justice leadership roles, it would be enough. More than enough. We need to foster commitment, skills, and experience in just such a transformational, distributed leadership.
We will help you however we can.
It has been 14 weeks since Bulletin 206 – all summer, basically! This is a lot of water under the bridge, for all of us. So much so that we’ll have to come back to the issues one at a time in a more substantive and detailed way than we can do in this bulletin, but perhaps only for those who are most interested and active, or on the Study Group’s blog. This bulletin deals briefly with the broad strategic context only.
Over the summer we’ve sent a handful of updates to our core New Mexico members in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, about 200 people in all, in connection with local meetings. We’ve posted those letters here, in part because they contain elements of the discussion we’ve been having internally about how to foster effective political engagement in a time of national and global crisis. I have touched on some of those themes above.
As we wrote, these meetings have been marked with a wonderful spirit of respect and trust, anchored by a resilient network of relationships that in many cases span decades.
We provide daily news digests and work updates to our most active and trusted members, based on their interests and needs and our own.
We know this is far from an ideal pattern. I hope you understand that this pattern has evolved in response to the conditions in which we find ourselves, including very limited funding and staff time, strong demand for relatively detailed work from officials and journalists, and the many interactions we have with allied organizations and individuals that are necessarily private.
While we can and have done an enormous amount with very few resources, today I would like to emphasize clearly that we are to a great extent limited by a lack of money. To better leverage what we are doing, and to reach important new audiences we need more staff, just like everybody else.
For that, significantly more money is necessary, which requires that more of us talk to those people for whom larger gifts and grants are relatively easy to make. We know that many of you know such people, more than you may realize.
There are many other ways to help (see for example this list from a year ago) but overall a common limiting factor – hard to discuss because we have a “can do” culture around here that presses on in spite of such limits – is money.
It can be difficult to understand the many practical barriers that stand in the way of bringing in new talent even in large organizations – or the ease with which those barriers can be broken down when experience and commitment are augmented by money.
We would have accomplished nothing without you, but we all need to face the integrated effect of new realities, including severe declines in the politically-engaged middle class, increasing economic precarity in our communities, the depredations of age on yesterday’s leaders, the near-complete loss of democratic enfranchisement, the general failure of elite education to awaken consciences in the rising generations, and the profound intellectual and moral failures of the liberal class as a whole. If you are in that group I’m sorry, but you may want to jump out now. Jump to us, and reach out to others on our behalf. It’s a lot, but that is what I am asking. To decently leverage what you have made possible up to now, we need a few more of you to speak for us, and with us.
Be clear: we are not just asserting values here at the Study Group, or being some sort of “watchdog,” or building “awareness of the issues.” Our task is different. We see it as our duty to win, again, and over the long haul, and to do so in a way that brings people together. We can and very much want to help our many allies and friends, and not just on one or two isolated issues either. We are not a single-issue organization and we understand full well that the “nonprofit-industrial complex,” with its appalling groupthink, lack of accountability, and inherent conservatism, is not going to save the country or the planet. Quite creative responses are needed, in and outside of existing organizations.
I (Greg) was in Washington DC for a total of two weeks this summer, meeting with dozens of senior individuals in Congress and the Executive about a wide variety of nuclear weapons issues. While the Deep State – and deep pockets – largely control government these days there are still glimmers of light, and our briefings help at least a little to bolster the better angels of government and link people with each other and to information and background they do not have. And of course we learn a lot in the process. This past week we have been in correspondence and a conference call with government staff on plutonium issues, again.
As if this writing, 117 states have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, a simple treaty that would outlaw the possession and use of nuclear weapons. There is no time to write further about this now. Greg and Trish will be at the United Nations in October working with countries’ delegations to promote negotiations on a simple but powerful ban treaty.
In the announcement to a Ukraine crisis teach-in we hosted this summer at the UNM Law School, I mentioned a deeply disappointing meeting I had late this spring with a staffer in the National Security Council. From that meeting I learned, more than before, just how ignorantly the White House was approaching Russia and the Ukraine crisis. The apparent aim is (as Henry Kissinger of all people recently said), “breaking Russia.” That project cannot end well for any of us and is especially tragic for Ukraine. Needless to say there will be no nuclear disarmament while a hot proxy war rages in Eastern Europe, begun as an ethnic cleansing project by a Kiev government installed and supervised by the U.S. and our European allies. I will be speaking on the Ukraine conflict and related matters again in Albuquerque on September 26 at 1:00 pm, at the Highland Senior Center, 131 Monroe St NE, hosted by the Albuquerque Grey Panthers, and we will send out a bit more on this talk in a local announcement later this weekend.
The Study Group’s work has popped up occasionally in the mainstream media this summer. These articles may interest you:
Some of you may not have seen these two recent local guest editorials:
These guest editorials were compact. If you want to discuss more of what is behind them you will have to ask, in person, at a discussion that you organize.
In other Study Group news, the World Headquarters will soon have its own photovoltaic (PV) array, supplying all the electricity we use at work and at home. This has required rebuilding part of the roof at the Mello residence, which took us on “vacation” the week before last without warning. Fortunately a certain Pantex staff member, currently on strike, lent his capable hands (thank you)! A proficient local firm with which the Study Group has long been associated, Positive Energy, will do the installation in the coming weeks. As many of you know such installations pay for themselves, in addition to the economic, climate, and social benefits of the industry – and despite the anti-solar pricing policies of the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), allowed by state regulators despite the damage they do to the New Mexico. That’s another subject.
Let us not deceive ourselves, however. Renewable energy is critically necessary but far from sufficient to address our converging climate, resource, and economic crises. As we have discussed in meetings locally over the past decade, “first-world” living standards, and economic growth as we have known it, are incompatible with planetary survival, with or without the necessary leap we must take into renewable energy. Fortunately or unfortunately, true economic growth ended some years ago and has been replaced by the nominal appearance of growth – numbers on a screen – created by ever-increasing monetary promises that will not all be kept. It is critically important to build what is essential, and protect vulnerable humans and nature against the violence of our predatory financial system while we reject and change it – “change” being a mild euphemism.
It will not be possible for private investment, virtuous habits, or any array of “transition” activities that we might collectively undertake to make up for a lack of coercive public policy that keeps most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. To address our multiple crises citizens must be citizens first and foremost. We all need to conserve but the simple fact of the matter is that in the absence of policies that forbid doing so those with less conscience, acting through corporate boards that virtually require it under existing law, will mine, extract, and burn all the fossil fuels that the more conscientious folks don’t burn. We face a political problem, which is to say a problem of public morality and policy, not private. No amount of volunteer virtue will substitute, however valuable it in fact is.
To the extent such changes in public policy do not occur, resource shortages, economic failures, wars, social breakdown, and natural catastrophes will be our harsh tutors. We will learn to live within nature’s limits, or we will die on a large scale – the “we” being very much a contested pronoun and, for the world’s most violent country, a work in progress.