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Looking For That Old Spark

Politics, climate change, and doom porn

Set side by side, two brand-new reports from two big international agencies—the UN climate-change committee and the International Monetary Fund—should induce acute mental distress in any person masochistic enough to look at them both. A third report, by a math student in Maryland, got re-issued just in time for the truly worried to nod nervously at what the guy’s numbers say is ahead—numbers that are very consistent with what a couple of economists who study income trends have been reporting year after year since they first started tracking winners and losers after the 2008 global economic meltdown.

What those guys have been saying should frame the rest: In the US, we have predators and we have prey. Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty say that since 2009, the 99 percent have actually seen their incomes shrink by about half a percentage point, but that the top one percent (really, the top 0.1 percent) have taken in just around 100 percent of all the new money in our “recovery.”

Our political discourse reflects this fact uncomfortably: A very few people feel prosperous and hopeful, while most don’t, and as former Obama advisor David Axelrod recently put it, if the president of the United States is talking about Ukraine or Putin or climate change, he’s not talking about economic growth, which is what voters overwhelmingly care about, because, frankly, we all still sense that the predators are out there, and whether we sympathize more with Occupy or with the Tea Party, lots of us feel like prey.

That’s why we tend to talk incessantly about economic growth. Happy people, one expects, are delighted to learn that the International Monetary Fund predicts 2014 global economic growth of 3.6 percent—which is a healthy rate of growth, sort of like what the US enjoyed in the 1960s, when all boats rose with the rising tide. Growth is strongest, says the IMF, in the US, Germany, Britain, China, and Canada. Hallelujah!

But politically? That claim of aggregate uplift is not going to induce behavioral change because too few people feel or experience any uplift.

And don’t expect any behavioral change in the wake of the new United Nations report on climate change, either. This report is not, repeat, not going to become a political fact. The assembled scientists of the United Nations committee reiterated their warnings about severe more weather, more droughts, more loss of the coral reefs that are so crucial to fish-spawning, more coastal erosion, and worse—but it is disempowered discourse.

This is not the age when we can expect scientists to change public policy the way that the University of California’s Professor Rowland did when he found that aerosol sprays were eating a hole in the global ozone layer. Rowland and his fellow researchers succeeded in convicing politicians all across the planet to take decisive action.

Nope. We’re now in the age when somebody’s new definition of economic growth is the goal even if that growth rewards financial speculators and capital-owners at the expense, literally, of everybody else—and as a consequence, science that sounds like it might interrupt returns to capital is science that has no policy legs.

Meanwhile, back home…

Locally, we’re in celebration mode. The environmentalists’ long-desired gift of near-complete ice cover on Lake Erie came true this past winter, meaning that the ugly evaporation and lake-shrinkage trend of recent years—when the weather was too warm for the freeze-over—was, happily, interrupted. The cold that used to stay way north in Canada came down here, leaving Arctic sea ice to shrink while Great Lakes ice grew. Locally, life is good. Globally? Not so much.

But that’s not our concern, right?

However, locally, the income-polarization trends look a lot like the national trends. Yet in our own version of the IMF report on how sweet things are in the aggregate, the Bureau of Economic Research reports that the Buffalo-Niagara metro economy grows and grows, overall. By their measure, there’s no disputing that the overall size of the economy here is on the rise, again—just as the overall size of the population here seems to have stabilized after decades of loss. Housing in the urban core, at least the upper-end slivers of the urban core, is in strong demand. A slight uptick in the population of Millenials here may have more to do with college graduates returning home from fruitless job searches elsewhere (internal US migration is off sharply since 2007), but hallelujah here, too. It’s good to be lucky, cheap, fashionable, the urban flavor of the month. This coming June, as the Congress for the New Urbanism conference meets in Buffalo, the celebration will spill out onto the streets. The major media here will quote our polite and learned visitors. Yay!

But because the system of redistributing all the new economic growth was broken in the 1980s, and because the distress profile of middle-income Americans is unchanged, here’s how the politics will work, nationally, and here: Barack Obama won’t get enough credit for the economic recovery, and so not enough people will be happy enough to vote for sufficient numbers of his progressive, pro-science, pro-urbanist friends. That will leave the New Urbanists speaking mainly to one another rather than to an audience encompassing all the commute-weary suburbanites. The likely November upshot is that Congress will be more anti-science and even more fervently anti-redistributionist than it already is.

Unless something goes terribly wrong.

A galvanizing disaster?

The UN report on climate change is a catalog of specific impacts that, all assembled, make for very alarming reading. But it doesn’t sound like news any more, not even a fortnight after it was released. California’s huge earthquake was news. Washington’s murderous mudslide was news. Then those events were over, and we went back to asking about the economy again.

The central thesis of the climate-change observers, of course, is that there will be dire economic consequences not if, but as we continue to pump carbon-dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. It’s not about the weather at all: it’s about the money.

But the debate in Washington is not whether, but when Barack Obama—or his successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton—will allow climate-altering Canadian tar-sands oil to flow through the Keystone pipeline. The debate is not whether steps should be taken to arrest the production of greenhouse gases—it’s about how to spread economic growth around so that more people can participate in the American automobile paradigm. The progressive discussion is about the gender-equity pay gap, and about a national Living Wage or at least a $10 minimum wage. The “conservative” discussion is about how more people can get jobs, jobs, jobs, and not need the burden of Obamacare, or regulation, or any law at all in a perfected predator-prey paradigm that is, don’t you know, in the Bible itself!

And the debate locally, as everywhere else, is about economic growth—not whether the Medical Corridor will produce all the jobs that state government is inducing, subsidizing, and facilitating with all that new construction, but when, precisely, those jobs will arrive. The closest Western New York gets to a climate-change preparedness discussion, or to a carbon-emissions situation report, is not very close at all.

Yet are these issues intimately connected, and they do connect here.

Doom in a dozen years

Making the local connection is going to be hard. Our ice is back, and now our spring is coming, and there’s no disaster on our horizon. Yet it is a fruitful read to dive into a paper that asks, “How real is the possibility of a societal collapse? Can complex, advanced civilizations really collapse?”

That’s the question asked by University of Maryland graduate student Safa Motesharrei and the co-authors of a newly revised paper that sets out to weigh, with a mathematical model, all the major risk factors for complete social collapse—risk factors including the 1 percent taking in almost all, or (by another measure) just simply all the new money in our economic recovery.

Safa and his friends concluded, unhappily, that the collapse is probable, and that it will come in 15 years (okay, a dozen years, since their first run-through of the numbers came a couple of years ago). Why? Mainly because of what we already know: A tiny portion of the planet’s people taking in insanely disproportionate shares of total income; over-use of natural resources; social polarization; overpopulation.

Happily, the scholars conclude, “[c]ollapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.”

Got that?

If we stop letting the top one percent take in all the new income of the economic recovery, and if we pay attention to the UN scientists on climate change, and if we stop pumping endless quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and stop the Keystone pipeline, and click our heels three times, we can avoid catastrophe. So says the Human and Nature Dynamics model, which presumes that humanity still conforms to the “predator-prey” pattern of human interaction with the environment.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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