Grabby Joe and the Problem of Environmental Decline

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The American political establishment seems determined to go down in flames and take the rest of the world with it. Under the delusion that neoliberal, neoconservative corpse-in-waiting Uncle Joe Biden is ‘what voters want,’ the Democratic Party has once again substituted marketing logic for a political program. On the plus side, Grabby Joe’s ‘Make America Moral Again’ harkens back to the year 1492, or thereabouts, through its allusion to an earlier period in which it might have been applicable. In the detriment column, yet another well researched report has been released documenting catastrophic environmental decline, suggesting that the citizens of the world don’t have time for this nonsense.

With the ascension of Mr. Biden as hair-transplant-apparent of the Democratic Party, the groundwork is being laid to return the nation to the militaristic, oligarchic state where the whims of capital determine the realm of political possibility. Should this sound vaguely familiar, like not at all a departure from the current state of affairs, you may be on to something. However, ‘our’ increasingly ossified political culture is targeted in its non-response. Of current interest is Mr. Biden’s bold plan to deny four decades of climate science through environmental inaction.

Lest the impression be conveyed that he really has no plan, Mr. Biden intends to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and work for higher vehicle emission standards. For the young, and the young at heart, this is the type of non-plan that allows the illiberal bourgeois to sleep well at night secure in the knowledge that Dad will be bringing gifts home from his trip to enslave the subcontinent. It’s almost as if Democrats have yet to acknowledge their own role in the rise of Donald J. Mussolini-Hitler. (The hyphen is a nod to his years spent sleeping through class at prestigious universities). Here Democrats can stand tall with Mr. Biden’s classier grabbage.

This might all be even more entertaining were it not for the desperate straits that American interests (a/k/a oligarchs) have left the world in. Around the time that Uncle Joe was announcing his most recent intentions, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its report on species extinction. It seems that a mass extinction of species crucial to the continued existence of life on Earth is underway. And while I suspect that these species neither pay taxes nor vote, this may be an opportune time to mention that the world doesn’t begin and end in the lobbyist ghettoes of the capital’s nation.

It is agreed that the first vehicle emissions standards enacted in 1970 were both innovative and disruptive. Mr. Biden should recall, because this was about when he began his political ascent as an opponent of the integration of white-only schools in Delaware. With the IPBES (species extinction) report coming so quickly on the heels of the IPCC report that provided copious evidence that humanity has twelve years from a year ago to massively reduce ‘our’ carbon footprint, circumstances have changed. In this context, Mr. Biden’s plan isn’t merely irresponsible, it is potentially genocidal. Either Grabby Joe doesn’t believe a word of the two reports or he doesn’t believe that the continued existence of humanity polls well. There is no third way.

More troubling still, Mr. Biden’s climate ‘plan’ appears to have a constituency amongst senior Democrats. In fact, Mr. Biden’s plan appears to be the establishment Democrat’s plan. And the Democrat’s plan appears to be the oligarch’s plan. Thinking reverse-wise here for a moment, could it be that the oligarch’s plan is the fount of all plans emerging from D.C. land? Following this thought, Donald J. Mussolini-Hitler is an oligarch, the oligarch’s have a climate plan, the establishment Democrat’s plan is the oligarch’s plan, ergo you follow the logic.

As alarming as the headlines that have emerged from the IPBES report may read, they barely capture the scale and scope of the environmental decline detailed within. The world’s oceans that aren’t already dead are being catastrophically overfished. One quarter of the earth’s arable land is substantially degraded. The species extinction underway is both unprecedented in human history and is accelerating. And the economic exploitation of the planet has so reduced its regenerative capacity that adverse events risk creating a cascade effect from which environmental recovery may not be possible.

In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished. Source: UN / IPBES.

The political posture that inaction is mature, centrist, reasonable, and/or reflects a consensus view, is evidence of the political class’s unwillingness to govern. This may seem unfair given Mr. Biden’s brave stance in favor of racial segregation. Considered askew, policies including the launch of gratuitous and murderous wars, engineering massive transfers of social wealth upward through bailouts, subsidies and tax cuts and perpetuating their own lock on power by systematically excluding political competition, is the everyday business of the political class. The pretense that its ‘hands are tied’ is evidence that the public interest is antithetical to the official interest.

Environmental crisis lays bare this clash of interests. In environmental terms, that which lines the pockets of the rich is what has been taken from the world’s people. The political ‘center’ is social mediation that facilitates this process of taking. It is accomplished through environmental degradation. There was a livable environment. And now, not so much. ‘Nature’ didn’t take it. A class of people did. And they did so to enrich themselves. With the environment now substantially degraded, demands for restoration are posed as extortion, as taking away the right of the rich to destroy the livable environment.

This is Grabby Joe’s home turf. The political center that establishment Democrats lay claim to is the space between the public and a livable world. ‘We’ can’t ask the oligarchs to stop killing the planet because that is their right. If we do, we’re going to have to pay up. And there are some debts that can never be fully paid. They give us employment and let us live indoors. If we’re nice, they may even let us buy health insurance. A thin grey line is the only thing standing between us and the Russians, the Iranians, and inconvenient black youth. Everyone loves the Paris Climate Accord in springtime. And why add eco-guilt to every seven-hour commute in a greenhouse gas emitting vehicle?

Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom. Source: UN / IPBES.

A paradox not addressed by the political center is that social mechanics— say, the logic used to organize workers and resources to create a product in the technology, pharmaceutical or oil and gas industries, is nowhere to be found when considering solutions to the problems created by these industries. This isn’t to suggest that it should be. But it is to argue that the logic runs in only one direction. With global problems like climate change and mass extinction, one might imagine that the organizing logic that creates them would be applied to solving them.

For instance, the steps toward making a computer, changing out a toilet or fixing a car are motivated by the function of the computer, toilet or car. In a mechanistic sense, these either work as intended or they don’t. Taking ‘steps toward’ getting them to function without intending to do so is gratuitous, a waste of time. Conversely, solving problems in this mechanistic frame proceeds from the premise that they are self-generated. Otherwise, the most straightforward solution is to stop causing them. Consider this with respect to climate change and mass extinction.

Granting for the moment sincerity of intent, the centrist approach to environmental woes proceeds from the premise that doing something is better than doing nothing. The question of what is necessary to solve them is nowhere to be found. None but the dimmest, and / or most cynical, Democratic Party hacks would argue that rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and implementing more rigorous vehicle emissions standards would materially impact climate change or mass extinction. Mr. Biden’s environmental ‘program’ isn’t intended to solve environmental problems. And it won’t.

More broadly, the Democratic establishment’s poll-based political marketing is a cynical feint. Through the control exerted by ‘private’ media corporations, the so-called free press is a group of businesses posing product advertising as information that they put forward in the public interest. (Turn off your television for a year and you will be stunned at how transparent this ploy is). Polling is a measure of how effective this system of private propaganda is at conveying information and opinions conducive to political somnambulance.

Furthermore, polling turns the idea of politics on its head. A century and more ago candidates for public office held public debates on crucial issues that lasted for hours. These types of debates are still held outside of the U.S. (I watched a three-hour debate on French television in the early days of George W. Bush’s catastrophic war against Iraq). Woodrow Wilson led the shift from debates to the use of political propaganda around 1914 to sell WWI to reluctant Americans. The political lobotomy needed to make Grabby Joe’s ‘Make America Moral Again’ more than a punch line for D-list comics takes years to accomplish.

More pointedly, if establishment Democrats aren’t ‘denying the science’ behind the IPCC and IPBES reports, they have a moral and political obligation to insist that swift, bold and large-scale action is needed if grave environmental consequences are to be avoided. They have political cover from enough experts to fill sports stadiums around the globe. But the plan is, as Mr. Biden has indicated, to put forward bluster and bullshit until waves from the Atlantic Ocean are crashing in Cleveland. Unfortunately for the good people of Cleveland, seafood won’t be on the menu because the oceans will have been depleted of fish.

As 2.5 years of Donald J. Muss-Hit + a lifetime of even more ordinary Republicans have made known, they just don’t give a shit. Global warming will make it easier for them to cook steaks on the Texas interstate. Democrats pretend to care until it is time for action, and then they wilt. However, if they cared, they wouldn’t wilt. Their schtick is to pretend to care. When it comes to serving the oligarchs, they always rise to the occasion.

As Uncle Joe Biden and a lifetime of even more ordinary Democrats have made known, they just don’t give a shit. They care about plenty. None of it has to do with the public interest, except inasmuch as it is a useful vehicle for serving the oligarchs. The largest impediment to environmental resolution will be establishment Democrats concern trolling about overreach.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.