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Petroculture Overshoots

“We're all on the Titanic — with no captain, no navigator, and engines maxed out”

“Come on, climate change? Wasn’t it called 'global warming' just yesterday? What happened there? Warming not scary enough? How can you claim we have anything to do with that? Weather changes have been going on forever. And some scientists disagree with the notion that we are causing this climate change you are referring to.”

 

Of course, Jan knew perfectly well that there will always be some scientists who will contest the scientific consensus on a working theory, especially when sufficiently incentivized by private corporate interests.

 

I had been playing some light, jazzy cocktail-hour music on my guitar, while listening to the others talk. The discussion made me think about how this ‘free-market revolution’ — with its veneration of greed, individualism, and competition — has starved states of revenue to support public works and the social wage, precipitated several financial crises, and hastened ecological destruction globally; for it operates with a simple, cold, clear logic: take more than you give back.

The extremes of wealth and wealth inequalities that have been generated in the last 40 years have proven to have a corrosive effect on social institutions, political systems, and the living world.

 

Many climate change deniers, like Jan, are consciously or not, simply defending their cultural investment in this grand ideological project of extremist capitalism, which holds that ‘the market’ is always right, regulation is always wrong, private is good, public is bad, and taxes that support public services should be eliminated.

 

To admit that the climate crisis is real — that it poses a legitimate threat to civilizational survival as it tips us way out of balance from the relatively stable and predictable climate conditions we have always knows — would deal a major body blow to their economic worldview, crafted during an economically anomalous time in the latter half of the last century.

After the Cold War, the world accepted a new international system driven by three forces: American power, free markets, and the information revolution. And then the neoliberalist turn in the 1980s put the world on a direct path toward extremist capitalism by bringing deregulation of the corporate sphere, privatization of the public sphere, and corporate-friendly ‘free-trade deals’ on a global scale.

 

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration that ‘there is no alternative’ got lodged deeply in the psyche of capitalist society. As a result, a grotesque concentration of capital in private hands driven by all-out grabs for global resources has entrenched the power of transnational capital to dictate the trade and finance policies of most countries. These policies pit democracy against oligarchy as they battle for dominance. Viability of both the public sphere and the commons hang in the balance.

 

Also, as a result of political capture, the interests of economic elites in established democracies such as the US almost always prevail in government policy decisions — even when the vast majority of citizens do not favor them. In this sense, the US rather resembles a plutocracy more so than a true democracy.

 

Unsurprisingly, the patterns of extraction and exploitation that characterized colonization are still serving the interests of the global ‘takers’. But in this new era of transnational capital, there's a twist: resources are willingly being handed over by governments, rather than being taken by force, as many nation-states have been rendered dependent on foreign investment and themselves fallen victim to the growth imperatives of capitalism.

This system has generated so much economic inequality that a mere seven individuals now enjoy as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity — roughly four billion people.

 

Though it seems clear that the roots of growing inequality lay in the free-market excesses of the private sector, in many countries the response has not been a move to the left economically, but rather a move to the right culturally as economic anxiety breeds cultural anxiety, hostility to immigration, and a nostalgic desire to return to a familiar, tame, homogeneous, predictable past in the form of right-wing populism.

 

At the end of the day, though, this no-alternative neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than a sophisticated rationale — advocated by a fossil-fueled, debt-ridden, unaccountable international petroculture — for reckless and unfettered corporate greed This greed feeds off of a consumeristic global market economy that is currently over-consuming the world's resources.

As a result, we are facing widespread climate misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss. On a multitude of fronts, the human impact on Earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate.

 

Rising CO2 emissions, declining available freshwater, and expanding dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff are just a few of the dangerous environmental trends that have scientists sounding the alarm.

The momentum behind this highly sophisticated and tightly interconnected global market system, an economic juggernaut we have collectively created but cannot now seem to control, is driving humankind beyond the safe limits of several environmental planetary boundaries.

 

In recent years, thousands of scientists from every corner of the globe are all signaling the same message: We're all on the Titanic — with no captain, no navigator, and engines maxed out.

 

This global economic system is driven by the theoretical construct and practice of global finance. And though we are clearly in a state of ecological overshoot, we are in an even greater state of financial overshoot. After all, a finite biosphere cannot support a perpetually growing economy.

 

Nor can it support a perpetually growing global financial system, especially one that exploits and destabilizes debtor nations.

 

Free trade coupled with capital mobility has disrupted macroeconomic stability by permitting huge international payment imbalances and financial capital transfers resulting in debts that are excessive and not repayable in many cases.

 

Efforts to service these financial debts have led to unsustainable rates of exploitation of exportable resources. Countries loaded with old debts are under heavy pressure to deregulate logging and mining and other extractive industries, plundering ecosystems in order to meet their debt obligations.

 

Their government budget deficits grow along with monetary creation leading to runaway inflation. Inflation begets currency devaluations, foreign exchange speculation, capital flight, and ultimately disruption of the macroeconomic stability of the debtor nation.

 

And with a few notable exceptions such as land-rich Russia and Canada, many developed countries are in fact ecological debtors that require the biocapacity of others, either through imports or land leasing.

 

Sadly, low-GDP developing countries contribute about 80 percent of the global economy’s labor and resources, but receive only about five percent of the income generated.

 

The resulting ecological and financial overshoots and inequalities are particularly dangerous because of their relatively slow feedback loops.

 

So with no immediate negative feedback, human civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts from our ecological and financial ‘accounts.’ We treat these gains as interest income, not principal depletion, and naively celebrate our continuing ‘progress’.

 

Even with more direct and immediate feedback mechanisms, though, the perceived risks in abandoning ‘gray’ and ‘brown’ petroculture economic sectors for the promise of more fulfilling jobs in an emerging ‘green’ economy are very high.

 

Going green is untenable for the many workers, because their immediate financial stability is vested in the neoliberal fossil-fueled GDP-growth economy.

 

And, because GDP growth drives up total energy demand at such a rapid pace, greener fuels are just being added to the energy mix, not replacing ecologically damaging fossil fuels. So growth keeps outpacing the best efforts to decarbonize.

 

In the current context of high consumer debt, low savings, high cost-of-living, and job insecurity — all the products of late-stage capitalism — public enthusiasm for risky systemic change is understandably quite low.

 

Indeed, the financial and material insecurity created by the current global neoliberal capitalist system has insidiously chained many of us to it.

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