By John Lawrence
Ever since the Enlightenment, progress has been essential to civilization. Defined as steady improvement toward a goal, the progress of society or civilization has been synonymous with growth, inventions, growing gross domestic product.
The very US Constitution was a testament to the Enlightenment era notion of progress. Science and technology would create the conditions for the “pursuit of happiness.” Every day in every way human society would get better and better. Only now we’re at a crossroads where the very idea of progress and in particular continued progress is contributing to the destruction of the planet.
The more progress we have, the more growth of GDP, the more greenhouse gases (GHGs) are spewed into the atmosphere and the more our planetary ecology is corrupted. Progress as we’ve known it must come to a screeching halt or the planet is in jeopardy of becoming uninhabitable by the human species.
In the 1850s in Titusville, Pennsylvania oil was for the first time successfully extracted from the ground. Since then there has been steady growth and progress: the internal combustion engine, the automobile, the airplane, the AC motor, the Industrial Revolution in general. Each year machines powered by animals, the wind and water were replaced by machines and engines powered by oil or electricity which was produced by coal or oil and its derivatives. This was the essence of progress.
What went unnoticed or was disregarded was that the waste products of these oil based machines were offloaded into the atmosphere. It was thought that there was no limit to the gases that could be excreted into the atmosphere. It was a neverending sink for waste products.
But then a funny thing happened that turned the idea of progress on its head. The polar ice caps started to melt. Rivers dependent on glaciers started to dry up. All kinds of extreme weather anomalies costing billions of dollars such as Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan started to happen.
Scientists began to study the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and concluded that there would come a point at which the concentration of GHGs would change life on earth as we know it, even make it impossible for humans to continue to exist. In other words continued progress would doom civilization.
As soaring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drove global CO2 concentrations past 400 parts per million in May 2013, shell-shocked climate scientists warned that unless we urgently adopt “radical” measures to suppress GHG emissions (50 percent cuts in emissions by 2020, 90 percent by 2050) we’re headed for an average temperature rise of 3 or 4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Four degrees might not seem like much, but make no mistake: Such an increase will be catastrophic for our species and most others. Humans have never experienced a rise of 4 degrees in average temperatures. But our ancestors experienced a four-degree cooler world. That was during the last ice age, the Wisconsin Stage (26,000 to 13,300 years ago). At that time, there were two miles of ice on top of where I’m sitting right now in New York City. In a four-degree warmer world “Heat waves of undreamt-of-ferocity will scorch the Earth’s surface as the climate becomes hotter than anything humans have ever experienced. …
There will be “no ice at either pole.” “Global warming of this magnitude would leave the whole planet without ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.” Sea levels will rise 25 meters – submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world’s people presently live. Freshwater aquifiers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate – and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California. The “wholesale destruction of ecosystems” will bring on the collapse of agriculture around much of the world. “Russia’s harsh cold will be a distant memory” as “temperatures in Europe will resemble the Middle East. …
The Sahara will have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and be working its way north into the heart of Spain and Portugal. …
With food supplies crashing, humanity’s grip on its future will become ever more tentative.” Yet long before the temperature increase hits four degrees, the melting will have begun thawing the permafrost of the Arctic, releasing vast quantities of methane buried under the Arctic seas and the Siberian and North American tundra, accelerating GHG concentrations beyond any human power to stop runaway warming and sealing our fate as a species.
So this is what the result of continued progress will be – essentially the end of the saga of the human species, in other words homo sapiens will go extinct if we continue along the road of progress that we are currently on and have been on since the founding of the US. All the inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries, all the technological improvements, all the labor saving devices have served to put us on the road to the demise of the human species unless we do an abrupt 180 degree shift, put the notion of progress into a full reverse, stop progress in its tracks.
In order to do this we would have to have an across the board economic contraction in the industrialized countries and this is incompatible with the deeply imbued notions of capitalism and economic progress, all those cherished notions that we and our forefathers held so dear.
Going back to the days of water and wind generated power may be what we have to do to save the human species from extinction. And the internal combustion engines measured in horsepower might have to be replaced with actual horse power. The Amish, who never adopted electricity nor the internal combustion engine, but continue to plow their fields with horses and travel by horse and buggy just might be on to something.
But yet the whole economic system of capitalism is focused on short term profit making. Corporations are rated by how well they perform in the short term. How much money they make is correlated with their stock prices and CEO compensations.
The very idea that they should focus on the long term salvaging of the planet is something that never enters the corporate mind unless there’s a profit in it, and so far there hasn’t been. Since corporations aren’t used to paying for the pollution they create, they will lobby hard against having to pay for it in the future and thereby suffer the consequences of diminished profit margins.
In particular those associated with the oil and gas industry, like the billionaire Koch brothers, are deadset and determined that there shall be no diminution of oil and gas profits. They will do everything in their considerable economic and hence political power to see that fossil fuels and the usage thereof will continue to expand. They will countenance no decrease in profit margins.
The Kochs run the massive transnational conglomerate know as Koch Industries, dealing in everything from petroleum refining and distribution to chemical processing and ranching. Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in the US taking home nearly $100 billion in annual revenue. The Koch brothers occupy spot number 4 on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list each worth $31 billion. Together they are wealthier than Warren Buffet who is number 2 on the list.
Their latest thing is the export of the dirtiest form of energy on the planet know as petcoke. Petcoke is what is left over after the oil has been extracted from the Canadian tarsands which the Kochs have an investment in. It can’t be burned for energy in this country because of EPA regulations, but elsewhere in the world the environmental controls aren’t as strict, and there is money to be made from exporting it.
As Tim Dickenson says in his Rolling Stone article, How the US Exports Global Warming:
When the winds kicked up over the Detroit river last spring, city residents confronted a new toxic hazard: swirling clouds of soot taking flight from a mysterious black dune piled high along the city’s industrial waterfront. By fall, similar dark clouds were settling over Chicago’s South Side – this time from heaping piles along the Calumet River. The pollution in both cities made national headlines – and created a dubious coming-out party for petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” a filthy byproduct of refining gasoline and diesel from Canadian tar-sands crude. Despite the controversy over Keystone XL – the stalled pipeline project that would move diluted tar-sands bitumen to refineries on the Gulf Coast – the Canadian crude is already a large and growing part of our energy mix. American refineries, primarily in the Midwest, processed 1.65 million barrels a day in 2012 – up 40 percent from 2010.
When there is money to be made by increasing US exports which drive up GDP, no politician is against it even if, or should I say particularly if, the money all goes into a very few pockets. So is democracy essential for saving the planet? Not when billionaires, and not the people, control the democratic process.
So we can’t look to our politicians or our corporations or our inventors and technologists to lobby for decreased economic performance. They all want a piece of the pie, and controlling or regulating externalities such as atmospheric pollution detracts from the bottom line. Besides there are good jobs to be had as petroleum engineers. A four year college degree in petroleum engineering brings job offers over $100,000. the first year out of school.
The black gunk that’s refined out of the crude tarsands oil ends up as petroleum coke. Petcoke is like concentrated coal – denser and dirtier than anything that comes out of a mine. It can be burned just like coal to produce power, and it is considerably cheaper than coal, but petcoke emits up to 15 percent more climate pollution.
In Canada, the stuff is largely treated like a waste product; the country has stockpiled nearly 80 million tons of it. Here in the U.S., petcoke is sometimes burned in coal plants, but it’s so filthy that the EPA has stopped issuing any new licenses for its use as fuel. In terms of climate change it represents the dirtiest fuel on the planet. But there is money to be made by exporting it and the Koch brothers want to do just that.
A third Koch brother, Billy, is the petcoke king. William Koch is the CEO of Oxbow Carbon, which describes itself as “the worldwide leader in fuel-grade petcoke sourcing and sales” – trading 11 million tons per year. And most of this goes to China where it’s even cheaper than Chinese coal. The Big Guns of petcoke refining are located on the Gulf Coast.
This is why Big Oil wants so badly to complete the Keystone XL pipeline. The crude would be piped down there to be processed by Texas and Louisiana refineries which are capable of producing enormous piles of petcoke, which, when burned, will produce millions of tons of carbon pollution per year. And more profits would go into Billy Koch’s pocket. Global Warming be damned.
By the way the Kochs have funded think tanks, universities media outlets and various other ventures all aimed at encouraging global warming deniers. Koch Industries itself has spent more than $50 million lobbying since 1998. Their goal is to cultivate public doubt about the reality of human caused global warming. As long as the debate continues, there is no public mandate to do anything about it. At least that is their hope while they continue to profit and pollute. Their efforts helped to trashcan the relatively mild cap and trade carbon control legislation.
Energy independence is a wonderful thing. After being dependent on Saudia Arabia for oil for so many years the US is finally not only producing enough oil for its own needs but oil for export as well. However, just as this progress is finally being manifested, it becomes necessary to rain on the parade and say – wait a minute – do we want progress and economic well-being for three decades or do we want the planet to be habitable by human beings indefinitely. We can’t have it both ways.
In fact the US is now awash in oil, so much so that US refineries cannot refine it all. That’s why they want to export not only refined oil products but crude from Canada as well. Although there are laws against exporting US crude products, the tar sands crude is considered a “Canadian” product so they intend to skirt those laws.
So what difference do US environmental laws make if all the dirty coal and oil products can be exported to other countries which can then pollute the atmosphere by burning them? It’s one atmosphere, one planet. It doesn’t matter where the pollution is emitted. We all belong to the same atmospheric commons. Wherever it is emitted, it affects us all.
As Bill McKibben of 350.org says, the best thing we can do is to leave the oil and coal in the ground. Fossil fuels, the basis of all progress since the Industrial Revolution, now threaten the continuous existence of humankind. He wants President Obama to stand up to the oil industry and say no to the Keystone pipeline. But given capitalism, cuts in oil exports or oil consumption means a loss of jobs and diminished GDP.
In fact imposing big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means imposing big job cuts across industrialized economies around the world. That’s why, regardless of protests, no capitalist government on the planet will accept mandatory cuts in GHG emissions. After all, we have to compete with other countries, and we don’t want to give them an economic advantage. Concerns about global warming don’t have the urgency that increasing GDP does and maintainng the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Richard Smith says very articulately and eloquently:
As our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOs, capitalist economists, politicians and most labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that, so long as the global economy is based on capitalism and private property and corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to a collective social suicide – and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.
We can’t shop our way to sustainability, because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, regional, national and international economic planning to reorganize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. I conclude, therefore, that if humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned eco-socialist economy.
Extreme weather events will eventually take such a toll that governments will experience a state of paralysis trying to keep up with and pay for them. Great cities near oceans will probably go under. Paris and Berlin will probably be OK because they’re far enough inland. New york City and New Orleans not so much. The Thames Valley is already experiencing the greatest rainfall and flooding in UK history. The prognosis for London is not good. There is already approximately one billion dollar weather event per month. As global warming increases that will probably become one per week.
Semi-continent-wide weather systems are already effecting millions of people at a time. Power crews struggle to repair downed power lines. Travelers spend nights at the airport due to an avalanche of canceled flights. But still the pursuit of corporate profits uber alles continues unabated.
West coast cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego will eventually be under water. In San Diego and San Francisco the Embarcaderos will be flooded. Downtown San Diego including the Convention Center, the new library, Petco Park, Civic Center, Mission Valley all will be under water if the predicted sea rises occur. Banker’s Hill, Hillcrest, Cortez Hill and Sherman Heights will probably survive. The downtown high rises will have to be relocated there.
So progress as we know it must come to a screeching halt if human habitability on planet earth for future generations is at all a value for the present occupants. Gradualism is not an option. The good news, however, is that there is much work to be done in getting the planet in shape to power up without using fossil fuels. If only the economic system could be reconfigured to support that.
All the skyscrapers and large buildings with their donors’ names on them will not represent a lasting legacy if human civilization has only a limited number of decades left. They will just be colossal underwater wrecks. Like Ozymandias, the last humans will look on these mighty works and despair. Round the decay of those colossal wrecks, the lone seas will stretch away.
We who mock Mother Nature will get our just desserts. She will survive but will we?