Friday, December 18, 2009

The Decade of Nothingness

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

         -Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act III, Scene 2

I heard, or rather read, the decade that's now coming to a close referred to as the aught's the other day. Looking back at the disastrous past ten years makes we think we need a more descriptive moniker. The Brits say noughties but maybe we should have something with zero in it seeing as the world hasn't put any points on the scoreboard over the decade, I guess the double zeros would do, or double oh's, the oh-oh's. (Is it the teens next before the 20's, the tens?) For a variety of reasons no one seems to even try to understand the problems we face anymore, instead they rely on some talking head's opinion or blogger's spin. Ten years ago we had the Kyoto Protocol, hopes for a final Mideast peace agreement and an economic boom with no end in sight. How did it all go so wrong? Fear could be one explanation. Fear that our beliefs are wrong, fear that our lifestyles are destroying our world and fear of the other. Fear, the old fight or flight, paralyzes and poisons as it confuses, robbing us of our self-control. Most frustrating of all, faced with the triple threat of climate, finance and terrorism, instead of focusing on facts and solutions, the rhetoric of fear has driven us onto a self-destructive path through lies and misinformation.

The decade of fear brought many global threats, from SARS and swine flu to Jenny McCarthy and Osama Bin Laden. The shadow of 9/11 pushed terrorism into our everyday lives with threat level updates and two intractable, open-ended conflicts. While acknowledging that we were dealing with a new kind of enemy, our leaders responded in the traditional manner, war and increased defence spending. The jingoistic fear factory pumped up the rhetoric as Dubya and his cronies fed a nation's desire for revenge with the Bush Doctrine which imperceptibly altered an entire country's mindset, guiding a bloodthirsty nation to war.
Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.

-Otto von Bismarck
In Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the window that opens between a shock and analysis, a disorientation gap where a new set of beliefs find fertile ground. When planes hit the WTC on September 11th, 2001, that window was blown wide open and a new narrative was created. First in Afghanistan, the "With Us or Against Us" doctrine provided the justification for not only pursuing Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but also for deposing the Taliban. If you ever wonder why no one knows the reason we're still in Afghanistan, don't worry you're not alone, that was the idea. While Condi Rice first came up with the "no distinction" idea, it was Darth Cheney who first started calling it the "Bush Doctrine" in public. Blurring the lines between terrorists and states that harbour them was a propaganda coup. In a November 2001 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cheney offered this definition: "We will hold those who harbor terrorists, those who provide sanctuary to terrorists, responsible for their acts."

It wasn't until the anthrax and smallpox threat hysteria broke out that the justification for war in Iraq achieved critical mass. With a leap of faith, and a huge dose of fabrication (think WMD's and "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."), Iraq was linked with every terror plot ever hatched against the US, giving birth to the war of preemption. Even today, many would link Saddam and Osama in their minds as one and the same threat. Only now, after Obama has picked up his Nobel Peace Prize, do we realize the extent to which the public have become disoriented. Instead of seeing the honour as an incentive to change and repudiate the disastrous actions of the last decade, the US press and public responded like a wounded animal, lashing out, forcing Obama's hand into escalating a war he cannot win.

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We've entered the truly bizarro world where putting an end date on a war is wrong after having wasted more that 8 years ensuring there can be no resolution to the conflict. The cognitive dissonance involved when claiming to promote liberal democracy on the one hand while supporting a corrupt leader who stole an election with the other at a cost of a million dollars per soldier must be painful (yes, 30,000 extra troops will cost about $30 billion a year). I guess it's nothing having fundamentally shifted from the knowledge that torture was wrong with even Reagan signing the UN Convention on Torture to a society that produces Abu Ghraib and believing torture can now be justified and certainly not prosecutable.

Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist
-Warren Buffett
The efficacy of fear as a manipulator has been further tested in the financial world, selling us the need to put capitalism on permanent life support. Taking a page out of the terrorism playbook, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson played a little game of fear tag team with Geithner, Bernanke, Bush, the IMF and Warren Buffet to pull off the greatest transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to the rich in history. Somewhere between $4.7 and $23.7 trillion in the US alone. Buffet, the world’s sometimes richest man, threw his weight behind the programme in order to avoid "an economic Pearl Harbour", then going further, saying "...we were at the brink of something that would have made anything that’s happened in financial history pale...I’m not saying the Paulson plan will eliminate the problem but it’s absolutely necessary, in my view, to avoid going off the precipice." Wasn't there a line about fear during the real Depression, yeah, some Roosevelt quote, er, what was it again? Oh yeah, "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself". How adorable, so folksy, but then again, that was another time. A time when instead of handing the economy over to those who ruined it, rules and policies were implemented to try to ensure it didn't happen again.

This time, normal legislative procedures were bypassed as congressmen were warned of civil unrest, martial law and stock market collapse if they failed to pass the bank bailout. Never mind the true cause of the failure of the economic model, an over-concentration of wealth and power brought about by globalization, tax-policy and focus on short term profits. Instead of fixing the inequity brought about by the failed policies of the past, the world was hoodwinked into transferring trillions over to those who caused the problem. A decade that began with the internet bubble and merger between AOL and Time Warner is ending with their quiet divorce and the entire financial world on life support. The warnings were there all along if we'd of just paid attention and connected the dots from WorldCom to Enron, Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, Tyco to Parmalat (a list of corporate scandals in 2000-2002 only!), putting power in the hands of the few as the world rushed to embrace the madness of the markets. Instead, every action seemed to reinforce bad behaviour; as CEO pay and bonuses grew, taxes were sliced for the privileged few. Those left behind saw their power shrink along with their wages until a breaking point was reached, inequality not seen since the Great Depression. The top 1% of earners now earn a higher percentage of income than anytime since 1928 while income mobility, the chances of being born poor and becoming rich, has shrunk to pre-Horacio Alger levels. Somehow though there isn't enough evidence to convince the true corporate shills, those Ayn Rand dreamers, who wholeheartedly believe in the superiority of the rich, that their financial pyramid is all an illusion. Fear of collapse seems to be enough to keep us all chasing our tails.
"They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent… Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences…. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”
- Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936
Fear has been the sales tool of the decade. It's worked great for the military industrial complex, selling us two wars. It's worked even better convincing us that we need to have rich, large, powerful corporations controlling our lives. Sadly, we can be fooled into killing foreigners and giving money to bankers but we can't be 'tricked' by those pesky fear-mongering scientists into any kind of real action to prevent a global catastrophe resulting from climate change. It's become clear that this marketing tool doesn't always work as witnessed by the dismal failure to sell the world on the need to save it from ourselves. We've been inundated with stories of melting glaciers, shrinking ice caps, sinking islands and polar bears eating their cubs for the past decade in an attempt to convince the world that we're hurtling towards disaster. So why has shock and awe environmentalism failed so miserably? Why does it seem more important to the deniers that Al Gore may profit from green energy than Goldman Sachs profited from the bailout or Blackwater and Haliburton from the wars of preemption? How can we justify subsidizing an oil based economy that enriches kings in Saudi Arabia over investing in new technologies at home to lessen our reliance on others and spark a real economic recovery? Why is Obama labeled as 'dithering' for delaying a decision to send young men to die in a futile effort while the reality is he's playing the part of the prototypical Danish procrastinator Hamlet in his native land, trying to sell us some more smoke and mirrors wrapped in hope and change and carbon trading, driving us all to the inevitable tragic conclusion of the play?

God, time and money. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein claims to be "doing God's work while the same deity guided Dubya "'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did.". Meanwhile, those pesky scientists are once again questioning the divine by saying that man may actually be influencing his environment. Typical human arrogance, thinking we hold god-like influence over our planet. Fear also fails here due to the time scale, to work it cannot be an implied threat of something too far in the future, or people will lose interest. This is especially true as climate gets mixed up with weather all too easily in people's minds and there are too many cold winter days between now and the tipping point for people to feel any urgency. Given enough time and resources one can convince the majority of folks just about anything. The most remarkable aspect of the deniers success is that they've convinced a large segment of the population that they are really smart because they can recite the rhetoric the global plutocracy has tricked them into believing instead of actually believing in science. Such beauties as: "Remember global cooling", "Medieval Warm Period", "No warming since 1998", "Faulty evidence", "Solar energy output", "Plants need CO2", "Water Vapour is a greenhouse gas"; most have truth to them, but all have been misused and disseminated to the public in order to confuse the masses.

All the while the ultimate fear card is played over and over. "Climate-change policies will destroy jobs and growth". It's here that the real irony starts to hit home. Not only can sharp reductions in emissions be attained with limited impact on growth at low costs, but an agreement in Copenhagen could have been the recipe for real economic recovery. But here's the real kicker. The fear factory may have already cost itself its place at the top of the global pecking order by refusing to see the obvious. Climate change feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles; problems that echo off each other and quickly spiral out of control. Here’s how it goes: Melting tundra in Siberia releases methane into the atmosphere, which raises the water temperature, which melts sea ice, causing more solar heat to be absorbed by the oceans. As the Arctic has been melting and America has been acting the part of a 2-year old who can close his eyes and make the world go away, Russia and China have put themselves in position to reap the resource rewards, a sort of global power feedback loop. The last lie has been that we'll run out of cheap oil soon enough forcing the market to solve the problem for us. But the effects of a warmer planet are not only making it easier to dig up northern Alberta, it's also thawing the cover off of the final poisoned payload. Not only will we be sailing across the pole, a quarter of the world's mineral wealth will also be accessible, ensuring that we'll keep burning until we're truly burning. At the same time, China has positioned herself to lead the world, if not through some kind of carbon treaty, then she has at least bought up enough of Africa and South America to feed herself during the coming droughts and to maintain a steady supply of resources. Droughts? Let's not even get started on freshwater.

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought 

-Shakespeare Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

Put it all together with the latest "Climategate" (nice name-calling propaganda technique wouldn't you say?) scandal involving the hacked emails and public confidence in climatology is probably at its lowest point in at least the past decade. The facts are simple though. The planet is warming; for 150 years we've known that CO2, even in low concentrations, acts as a greenhouse gas; man is contributing to the increase in CO2. No, we don't know for certain that we are driving the warmth, but as then-Vice President Dick Cheney said when faced with concerns that a Pakistani scientist was offering nuclear-weapons expertise to Al Qaeda "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." Well Dick, I'd say that we're at least 1% sure about us playing a part in global warming, so, shouldn't we respond?

Cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? About $1 trillion to date
Cost of the financial bailout? About $5 trillion
Cost to save the planet? You guessed it...priceless


Project Savior said...

Excellent Post.
I have a name for this last decade, "The decade of Hell".

Shane said...

Good name PS, but I think Time Magazine beat you to it, well almost, they called it the Decade From Hell! Anyway you call it though, it can't get any worse in the coming decade, can it?