“It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.”
— Gandalf, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring
Income inequality has been rising in the United States for the last forty years and has become especially drastic since 2008. This state of affairs is no accident. Since the late 1970’s, regardless of which party holds the White House, public policy has favored redistribution of wealth upwards through a variety of means including tax cuts, deregulation and, starting in 2008, simply handing out cash, in the case of the bank bail-outs.
Big money has always dominated US politics of course but its level of domination has grown to the point where government is now essentially a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate power, specifically of the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate). As David Rosen put it in CounterPunch: “Capitalism is evolving from an international system of nation states to a global system of financial plunder.” Economist Michael Hudson echoes this sentiment, saying, “The Wall Street economy has taken over the economy and is draining it.” (For those interested in the details, Hudson explains the process very well in this interview with Gordon Long.)
Popular awareness of income inequality led to the popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US presidential race (but not of the many “third parties” who have long included it in their platform). Taking advantage of ground broken by the Occupy movement, Sanders explicitly drew attention to Wall Street. Trump spoke openly about how politicians are bought by wealthy people, pointing to his own personal experience as proof. The media was forced to break its silence on topics it prefers to ignore. Now the reality of the richer getting richer and spending their lucre on political bribes can no longer be credibly denied.
But almost totally absent in discussions about how the economic pie has been divided is any acknowledgement of the nature of the pie itself. Where does it come from? The material and financial wealth of the United States is not produced without cost: it is extracted from the global environment in processes that require much suffering and destruction. Every dollar in the US economy represents exploited labor, degraded ecosystems and the viability of the future being sacrificed for profit in the present.
The US pie is 20% of the world’s resources being consumed by 5% of the world’s population. According to the Pew Research Center, “on a global scale, the vast majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income. And many Americans who are classified as ‘poor’ by the U.S. government would be middle income globally.” Using data from the World Bank and the Luxembourg Income Study database, Pew notes that by world standards, only 2% of Americans are poor, 3% low income and 7% middle income. Fully 56% of the US population is in the top bracket, “high income,” with the remaining 32% being “upper middle.”
The Pew study adds that “the majority of Americans are part of the global high-income population that resides almost exclusively in Europe and North America. These two regions accounted for 87% of the global high-income population in 2011.” In other words, Americans are, by and large, a highly privileged bunch, including this writer, who is currently living out of the back of a pickup truck.
The economic might of the US was historically attained and is currently maintained by the power of its military. Our wealth is literally the spoils of war. It started with the theft of land from the Indians, was built on the backs of black slavery, and became a global imperial force through two world wars, the second of which ended with the only use (so far) of nuclear bombs on civilian populations. The slaughter continues to the present, with “peace candidate” Obama carrying on open warfare against at least seven countries, having not ended a single conflict begun by his predecessors. If one wants to see a graphic example of the price paid by some people to support US privilege, Google “Fallujah birth defects.”
Making the world safe for US corporate resource extraction has been the driving force of American foreign policy. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler revealed that this business was going on a century ago: “I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.” Nothing has changed. The nation’s pie of wealth is still the product of global exploitation.
This situation is not tenable. The ethically-minded might label it “immoral.” And now there is scientific consensus about the consequences: Climate Change, the existential crisis that threatens all life on earth. Its main causes are electricity generation, burning of transportation fuel, big agriculture (the majority of it devoted to meat production) and deforestation (much of it for agriculture, including “green” biofuels). These are the mainstays of our lifestyle. That burning fossil fuel would lead to warming of the planet through the greenhouse effect was first predicted by Svante Arrhenis, a Swedish chemist, in 1896, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.
The enabler of US consumption–the US military–is also the world’s single largest institutional contributor to Climate Change. Exact figures are impossible to come by since the carbon emissions of the military are exempt from international reporting due to strong-arming by the US delegation to the Kyoto Convention on Climate Change in 1997 and, later, by an executive order issued by the duplicitous Obama. However, the Pentagon did state that in 2013 it used 90,000,000 barrels of crude oil, which was 80% of the federal government’s total consumption. However, this figure does not include the oil used by its many contractors overseas or by the “defense industry” domestically. Nor does it account for carbon pollution from the acts of war, such as fires from bombings. Researcher Barry Sanders, author of “The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism,” describes the Pentagon’s contribution to carbon pollution as “the worst BP oil spill every day.”
The solution is not to make the US war machine more “green.” As with electric cars, carbon emissions are not the only issue. Replace the entire US automobile fleet with Teslas and we would still be left with cities dominated by dangerous machines and a landscape of isolating suburbia. If fighter jets could fly on solar power and bombs manufactured with wind generation, the US government would remain what Martin Luther King accurately called, “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
And here is a point I rarely see addressed in environmental circles: responding to Climate Change requires global cooperation, and, the biggest obstacle to such cooperation is American imperialism. As long as the US insists on maintaining its dominance, through war and economics (which has been called, “war by other means”), no meaningful progress can be made. The only solution is for the US to radically change course, attempt to make amends with its victims, and choose a path of benevolence rather than violence. To really drive this point home: climate activists must be anti-war, unequivocally.
The Arctic ice is melting. The oceans are dying. The weather is becoming more extreme. The Sixth Great Extinction of the planet’s flora and fauna is underway. This is not the time to demand the means to consume more. It is well past the time to choose to live with less.
The electoral arena offers no solutions. Hillary Clinton is war-hawk beholden to Wall Street and though a number of Trump’s foreign policy statements, such as they are, have been to the left of hers, he’s a wingnut as well as being a member of the 1% and he won’t betray his own interests. If Sanders had risen to the top of the Democratic field, he would not have offered any hope either. As a classic liberal, he is for welfare at home and warfare abroad, regardless of a “no” vote he has cast here or there. A politician who puts F-35s in their home state “for jobs” is not at all serious about Climate Change.
As Ken Butigan put it, in an essay celebrating the life of the recently-deceased peace activist, Daniel Berrigan: “We live in a culture of death — and it is up to us to resist it.”
This resistance needs to start with acknowledging our privilege, declaring “enough is enough!” and making very big changes. As for the 1%, well, they’re outnumbered, aren’t they? When the 99% becomes motivated, they won’t be able to stand in the way. I’m personally in favor of bringing back the stockade in the village square and handing out rotten tomatoes and afterwards assigning them hard physical labor to help clean up the mess they made, but others of the 99% who are less pacifist might note that there’s no shortage of lamp posts and rope.
In short, there can be no economic justice in an economy that is fundamentally unjust, and there can be no effective response to Climate Change without discarding that economy and dismantling the war machine that supports it. Rather than trying to divide the pie more equitably, we must toss the pie out and make something not just fresher but much, much, much smaller. If we don’t, there will be nothing at all to eat in the future, probably sooner than has been predicted.