The Unseen Crisis

The medical dictionary defines crisis as “the turning point of a disease for better or worse.” Doctors with cool heads understand their procedures may produce recovery or death for their patients. The mainstream economic crisis “experts,” however, have offered Washington politicians a less than helpful way of responding to catastrophe: panic and denial. Indeed, the gurus and politicos apparently made their diagnosis without even glancing at the larger context or at recent foibles.

After the November election, liberal Democrats began to scream for rapid bailouts and threw money at bankers who then shocked the lawmakers by behaving like bankers. They took the taxpayers’ money and spent it on themselves. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” (“The Rich Boy,” 1926)

In mid November, the very rich of the auto industry flew in lush corporate jets to DC to beg money from the impoverished public. The car CEOs displayed an unusual candor in revealing their stupidity, arrogance and greed at Congressional hearings. They characterized as “unfair” their competitors’ (Japanese carmakers) tactics — like innovation.

No Senator asked, even rhetorically: “Why not gradually phase out rather than immediately bail out this industry? Even by producing ‘green’ cars as the core of the US economy, doesn’t the future of the automobile seem incompatible with the future of life on the planet?” The most environmentally friendly car still needs for its production massive amounts of steel and other metals, rubber, plastic (petroleum products) and acids – not to mention the ingredients needed to build levels of parking garages, highways and other quintessentially un-green operations associated with this so 20th Century transportation.

The legislators did not refer to the larger crisis. The worsening environment has become the context not only for current economic collapse, but will induce devastating hardship in the near future. Think of the hits that the insurance and reinsurance businesses will take, the serious shortages of food and other needs. Respected scientific bodies have stated unequivocally that burning fossil fuels (like coal, oil and natural gas) and cutting down forests have created a global peril. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which in 2005 the White House called “the gold standard of objective scientific assessment,” issued a joint statement with 10 other National Academies of Science: “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action… that all nations identify cost-effective steps … to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions.” (Joint Statement of Science Academies: Global Response to Climate Change [PDF], 2005)

The stimulus bill does not address the need to decrease – now — heat-trapping pollution. Scientists have now reduced their internal debate to how much and how fast the heat-trapping emissions will bring doom.  They project devastating impacts on the economy from rising seas flooding coastal cities and contaminating water supplies; extreme heat, droughts and floods will increase in frequency and strength. People will die; property will be destroyed: agriculture will become problematic.

The raging February fires of Australia offer Nature’s most recent illustration of human helplessness when flames and high winds combine. A display of such destructive power –along with hurricanes and California fires — should help to end the idiotic babble about the virtues of man controlling the “free market. For those who think tax cuts for corporations and dribble down economics will work, Disney should make a new film called “The Flintstones Return,” where both animals and people work for the giant entertainment corporation in a deregulated world.

As Nature demonstrates, human inability to “control” it for fashioning economic production models, the US President assumes greater power in national security affairs. Obama comes to office at a time when the idea of the United States controlling other areas of the world has become ridiculous. It’s time, as Pat Buchanan wrote, to “liquidate the empire.”

Congress follows the same foolish path. Instead of placing the present economy and foreign policy in its larger and more vital environmental context, without which all else becomes moot, deal-making Members of both Houses bickered about cutting a couple hundred billion here and there from the stimulus package as economic indicators – and voter fear and anger — continued to flash disaster signs. Republican Senator John McCain righteously mounted an attack from the Senate floor on February 6, parroting Rush Limbaugh. “This is a not a stimulus bill. It’s a spending bill.” McCain and fellow Republicans still demand tax cuts, which have failed to stimulate anything more than the prostates of a few very rich and old men.

“Are you kidding?” replied the Democrats. “When the government spends money it automatically stimulates the economy, stupid.” But to what end? The righteous Democrats like the blinder mice across the aisle did not address the greater crisis within which exists the downward spiraling world economy.

Aside from pitying the poor polar bears deprived of food by arctic melting and the thousands of other species now endangered by the warming and melting, the venerable Solons appear to have gone not back to their home states, but rather to the state of denial. By limiting debate on Obama’s stimulus to how much spending and where it was going and not to the environment, the context for all economic and other activity, Congress took a virtual leave of absence from its responsibility – to say nothing of its oath of office.

Indeed, it took a federal lawsuit to force government agencies to address global warming implications of their overseas financing activities. In August 2002, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the city of Boulder, Colorado, sued (Friends of the Earth, Inc., et al. v. Spinelli, et al.) the US Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation for illegally spending $32 billion to finance and insure decade long fossil fuel projects without assessing the projects contribution to global warming as demanded under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Between 1990 and 2003 these projects “produced cumulative emissions that were equivalent to nearly eight percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, or nearly one third of annual U.S. emissions in 2003.” So much for the environmental consciousness of two Bushes and Clinton!

Finally, in August 2005 a federal judge allowed “cities suffering economic and other damages from climate change” to sue the government. Shockingly, the court heard expert testimony that climate change is both real and caused by human activities, and therefore “pollutants can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.”

“We can no longer consume the world’s resources without regard to effect,” Obama declared on January 20. The February 2009 settlement of the global warming lawsuit should compel federal agencies to stop backing fossil fuel projects. It should compel the President to put such guidelines into the stimulus plan.

Obama alone, however, cannot challenge the inapplicable axioms that Congress and the media still assume work as guidelines to policy. Few of these brilliant observers and actors seem to reflect on their immediate surroundings.

Look at Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, or downtown Mumbai. In almost every major city of the world, monstrously tall office buildings dominate the area. Those who work in the millions of offices inside the edifices produce nothing useful for the world – certainly not food or clothing. Yet, the corporate lawyers, brokers, advertisers, accountants, etc. require their space to be heated and or cooled 24/7, 365 days a year. Even if sun and wind energy eventually replaced harmful fossil fuels, one would think that a few visionaries would ask questions about why immense investments should continue to pour into such non-productive entities.

Does President Obama need a “Department of Future Planning and Office of Dealing With the Crisis of Climate Change” to assemble a team of thinkers to put questions to the public and challenge law makers to deal with the overarching crisis that threatens the future of life?

Indicators point instead to him amassing a national security management team to run the empire. Escalating the US military presence in Afghanistan, for example, might well turn the man who admired President Lincoln into a caricature of Emperor Napoleon – but without scoring the initial battlefield victories. If, however, he returns to the humility that characterized many of his campaign speeches and his Inaugural Address, Obama could not only help save this economically depressed nation; he could inspire the world.

SAUL LANDAU received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from the Republic of Chile for his work on human rights. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch Press).


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.