A World of Shadows

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna – Public Domain

The Allegory of the Cave

Some 2,500 years ago, Plato warned us of the invisible chains tying us to a distorted world of deception, ignorance and powerlessness.

In the beginning of book 7 of The Republic, Plato explains how people chained to the dark floor of a Cave can only look ahead of them. They cannot turn around. There is a lighted fire, a narrow path, and a stone wall behind them. The chained Cave dwellers see shadows of what is going on behind them. Those broken and disorienting images become the truth and reality of their world.

Some outsiders entered the Cave. They cut the chains of a prisoner in order to enable him to see who manipulated the images behind him. The liberators  then dragged him out of the Cave to the Sun-bathed surface of the land. The exciting challenge, Plato said, was for the enlightened and free Cave dweller to return to the Cave to convince his colleagues to  abandon their dark, imaginary, and distorted world. There was a new world out there. This world was real and was illuminated by the Sun.

21st Century Mall

Our 21stcentury world fits Plato’s Cave parable. Most people today live in a gigantic Cave-like Mall. Immoral leaders have been manipulating images and information for the brainwashing of the populations of the planet.

Systematic propaganda (from television, radio, education, politics and religion) has been convincing the vast majorities of the world population they need petroleum, coal, and natural gas as much as air. They would have no job without the machines, factories, cars, airplanes and defense establishments fueled by fossil fuels. What the bosses fail to report is that fossil fuels are threatening their health and the health and viability of the planet.

Tiny Organisms, Huge Effects

For example, scientists recently (June 18, 2019) published a consensus statement in which they put humanity on notice about the crucial role of microorganisms in regulating climate change. These one-cell organisms are essential to life. They are also affecting climate change.

Marine phytoplankton fixes as much carbon dioxide as terrestrial plants. This means that human activities that disrupt and diminish marine microbial photosynthesis, say pollution of the oceans, disturb the global carbon cycle and, therefore, exacerbate global warming. On the other hand, microorganisms are responsible for greenhouse gases in a big way.

The key to balancing these positive and adverse effects of microorganisms is for humans to abandon the Mall: get their energy from the Sun, and raise their food the way their grandparents did. In other words, diminishing and eliminating our anthropogenic footprint on the global environment will make the beneficial effects of microorganisms all that much more sustainable in adapting to and diminishing the consequences of global warming.

The Trump Factor

However, the message of the scientists has yet to reach the brainwashed population in the global Mall.

Billions of powerless workers earn a miserable living in factories and agricultural enterprises fueled by petroleum.

The owners of fossil fuels, meanwhile, keep spreading misinformation, denying global warming and convincing world leaders to dance to the sounds of their music.

In the United States, for example, the fossil fuel magnates have president Donald Trump in their pockets. He denies global warming. He hired billionaires for running the federal government. It’s as if thieves were installed in the national treasury.

But Trump is doing much more harm than licensing medieval barons in the looting of the country. His “deregulation” is not a program of abstractions but a program of extractions. It is raising the stakes of who lives and who dies.

Polluters now have a dear friend in the White House. They ignore the flimsy protective laws enforced by Trump’s predecessors. They open the spigots of pollution all over America. Their deadly effluents now seep into groundwater, aquifers, rivers, creeks, lakes and seas.

When I was teaching at the University of New Orleans in 1991-1992, the students in my class from Baton Rouge (capital of Louisiana) were telling me the petroleum refineries used to dump their wastes into the Mississippi River after eight o’clock in the evening.

The gas poisons of polluters reach the atmosphere daily. They originate from countless sources such as: petroleum drilling and refineries, chemical factories, thousands of warplanes and commercial aircraft flying all over America and the world 24 hours a day, millions of cars travelling billions of miles every day of the year, animal farms raising and slaughtering billions of animals every year, pesticides sprayed over hundreds of millions of acres, energy power plants, and military bases.

No one really has a handle on the killing power of this vast air pollution. But the effects could not be innocuous.

The colossal amounts of largely invisible poisons fill the sky and mix with the soup of long-lasting pollutants that capture solar heat and raise global temperature.

Poisons in the air we breathe are likely responsible for much undocumented ecological and human damage, sickness, and death. They are worth trillions of dollars to polluters, “developers,” landscapers, hospitals, and doctors.

The World Health Organization figured that in 2016 alone, air pollution killed 4.2 million people.

Many Americans are getting sick and die from contaminated food, drinking water, droughts, violent storms, forest fires, and the impoverishment of the natural world.

Deregulation legitimizes these calamities. It ties even more strongly people to the deceptive images of the Mall. Now, in 2019, they hear and see Trump telling them things could not be better because of what he has done, which, in substance, is the world upside down. He and his administration have been responsible for increasing pollution, increasing authoritarianism in this country and the world, increasing international tension in the Middle East – threatening war with Iran — and adding unnecessary tension in this country’s relations with China, North Korea, and Mexico.

Trump is also behaving like a monarch primarily because he purchased the allegiance of the Republican Party with a trillion dollar tax cut to the rich and to large corporations, and no taxes on several million dollars of inheritance. Only rich people inherit property and cash.

This cash has shut the mouths of the Republican-majority senators. It does not matter what Trump does. It’s fine with them. Trump owns the Republican politicians.

Trump flies to foreign capitals negotiating agreements of unknown content and purpose. He acts as if he were the state. But he is not Louis XIV of France. He keeps firing and hiring senior staff in his administration.

Trump demonizes his American critics, and especially Democrats in the House and Senate. He tells Americans let’s make the country great again. And those listening to his siren song fall deeper in a comatose state. They are oblivious that Trump is not what they think he is. They fall in the trap of television propaganda, still seeing Trump as a TV actor with a magical touch and powers.

Another consequence of not regulating business is more corruption that spreads like a plague all over the country and the world.

I witnessed deregulation at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. Both America and the EPA paid a heavy price for the decline of justice, science, and morality that drive environmental and human health protection.

Agency scientists became suspicious of the political appointees who overlooked their studies and recommendations. The best of them left EPA. Lobbyists became aggressive in their requests or demands. Oversight Congressional staff looked the other way. And EPA staff that continued to cite facts and ecological decay spoke to the wind. They no longer were “team players.”

The Reagan and the Bush administrations were by far the most supportive of the deregulation fever in Washington. Now that fever is, once again, in ascendancy because of Trump.

For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 demonstrated an exceedingly dangerous trend in rising inequality and consumer debt. America began to look and behave like France on the eve of the French Revolution. Wall Street bankers were the new royal nobility.

Elizabeth Warren’s Dream

Despite the obscene plutocratic tendencies of the point one percent owning most American wealth and power, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) managed to sponsor the creation of a new agency to diminish the predatory temptation and policies of banks and lenders, especially exploiting the very poor Americans struggling to make a living on $ 25,000 salary.

The Obama administration adopted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama men and women filled its senior ranks. It tried to put a break on unethical lenders, but to no avail. Easy credit for buying stuff simply papered over shamefully stagnant and inadequate wages that had barely changed since the 1970s.

According to Nicholas Confessore, writing for the New York Times Magazine, the debt-financed consumption boosted “an epidemic of social misery, bankruptcy and lost homes, anxiety and shame.”

In addition, borrowing probably increased self-killing, especially among those crushed by debt and lenders.

The irony of this national tragedy is that suicide is highest among the powerless white workers who voted for Trump in 2016.

Rajan Menon, professor of international relations at the Powell School, City College, New York, says, in 2017, some 47,000 Americas committed suicide. Furthermore, he adds: “Trump has been AWOL. In fact, to the extent that economic strain contributes to the alarming suicide rate among white workers, his policies are only likely to exacerbate what is already a national crisis of epidemic proportions.”

Inevitably, Trump also put an end to the dream of Senator Warren. What was her dream? Simply, to prevent lending vultures from taking advantage or extremely weak and struggling Americans on the verge of hunger and homelessness. But billionaire-aspiring Trump had other ideas. He did not think poor people deserved a chance. He appointed a Republican politician from South Carolina, Mick Mulvaney, who was already director of the White House Office of the Management and Budget, to dismantle the tiny Bureau, and, indirectly, hurt the most vulnerable in American society.

How did Mulvaney do the killing of the Bureau? Exactly in the same way Reagan’s Anne Gorsuch corrupted the EPA in the early 1980s. The same recipe: disrupt the work of the legal staff; fire them; stop enforcing the law; put your own men and women over honest bureaucrats; declare a hiring freeze; and fund outsiders to come up with “data” the agency is harming business.

This is psychological warfare of the worst kind. It sparks civil conflict. It blasts the agency from within. Deregulation becomes the norm. Mouthpieces of polluters like Trump can then demand more money from the beneficiaries of dismantled human health and environmental protection.

It should be easy to dethrone Trump, however. He is not the Pantokrator (ruler of everything) he thinks he is. The man is a puff of hot air. His former personal attorney Michael Cohen called him a “con man.” Cohen should know. The Washington Post blames Trump for making 10,796 “false or misleading claims.”

The Democratic presidential candidate who speaks the truth about America and the priorities of the vast majority – well-paying jobs here at home, free education and healthcare for all, and a healthy environment, including distancing himself / herself from Wall Street, will defeat Trump. Americans can see through the hypocrisy and acting of Trump.

Building a Just Society

The difficulty will be with a Democratic Senate, House and White House abandoning their Wall Street connections. If they do, they should recover all the money that subsidies and tax cuts have been depositing in the coffers of the zero point one percent. Take all those trillions and invest them in a just society without billionaires and polluters.

Renew the infrastructure of the country. Tax the rich. Address global warming and return to strict regulation of business and polluters: outlaw fossil fuels and industrialized farming and the genetic engineering of crops; harvest the endless energy of the Sun, bring family farmers back to rural America and redesign the EPA to protect human and environmental health.

Finally, downsize the presidency. The president should not have the powers of a monarch.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.