Better management won’t change society

Published online 16 May 2011.

Here is an essay for those of you who are clinging to the status quo, who imagine that a few mild reforms, instituted by a managerial elite, will change society significantly enough to “make a difference” and “put America on the right track.”  Let me be clear about this: I’m sure we have a lot of the same goals — but I am looking for a clear and unequivocal repudiation of “progressivism.”

Better management won’t change our society.  Its problem is the one John Lennon sang about forty years ago: how can I go forward if I don’t know which way I’m facing?

If society is “facing the wrong way,” and headed for crisis for reasons internal to its functioning, then the point of planning within that social context is lost.  Better management will then merely mitigate the resultant disaster without offering any real resistance to its happening.  The fundamental reality is this: global capitalist society, which organizes the world economy to benefit 793 billionaires and ten million millionaires while marginalizing that half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50/day, is headed toward more growth, more intensive and more extensive exploitation of resources, toward an ultimate crisis of exhaustion.  These tendencies are all built into the system.  And you are all going to “plan around” this?

Below the fold I will give you all a short list of reasons why our managers don’t know which way they’re facing, and also of why real social change is more effectively accomplished by social movements than by managers.

Let’s start with abrupt climate change as a problem deserving immediate attention but which is impervious to management and planning.  Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide stand at about 393 parts per million of atmosphere, and increasing by 2.3 parts per million per year.  Raupach et al. tells us that this increase is itself accelerating.  Meanwhile, James Hansen reminds us that we need to get that down to 350 parts per million to avoid the climate disaster I discussed in this diary.  I have more or less reviewed the situation here.

If we are to accept Hansen’s challenge, we’re going to create a society capable of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide — we will, in essence, have to replace industrial growth with forest growth.

So let me guess.  The managers will recommend for us some sort of cap-and-trade system to “solve” the problem, as exists in the Kyoto signatory nations, and in the end they will hide our excess emissions through elaborate accounting schemes.  Or there is going to be some carbon tax, but not so high that it will interrupt the growth economy.  At any rate, when the La Nina situation with the weather pattern ends and we start to experience climate chaos bigtime, there will be a great plethora of plans — accompanied by great blog posts advertising how you can support the bureaucrats and planners in their efforts to solve the climate change problem!  Contact your Senator today!

It appears, however, that we’re so confused about the problem of climate change because we continue to think in terms of management and planning, while allowing a reckless capitalist system to run amuck.  Past results are revealing: a short look at the actual results of the Kyoto Protocol will reveal that it isn’t even getting anywhere for its signatory nations.  A real focus upon the problem, I argue here, would turn up different means of solution.

Let’s first take a look at our economy, since our efforts and our elections are driven first and last upon the dependence of labor upon money.  The fundamental contradiction of the present-day capitalist economy is that the corporate profit rate is set higher than the global growth rate, so that the rest of the economy must steadily shrink to permit corporate expansion.  I have explained all of it in detail, and in context, in this diary, my third for DailyKos.com back in 2006.  Since government under the neoliberal regime of political economy regards its primary duty as the protection of the corporate profit rate, all legislative measures to deal with global warming will be shell games, largely played to prop up that profit rate while giving the appearance of doing something good.

Speaking of the neoliberal regime, do the managers here on this blog “plan” for the triumph of regimes such as the two terms of George W. Bush we all just endured?  Did you plan for the next denialist who will reach the White House?  How is it you’ve figured that political life is stable enough to allow your wishes to come true?

At any rate, let’s take a look at what the managers are doing in real life.  I know!  They’re encouraging coal burning.  And then you have this recent tidbit:

The White House will take a series of steps — including expediting drilling plans on government lands in Alaska — designed to show that the administration is serious about expanding domestic oil production and lowering gas prices.

Never mind that it will take a while for any of Alaska’s oil to become available, that (relatively speaking) there isn’t a lot of oil there — if publicity is needed to fend off Republicans, then publicity it is.  The point is that, to the extent that the system is guided by planning at all, it isn’t the sort of planning which accurately forecasts the future and attempts to cope with the forecast.  Rather, planning within the existing system seeks to maintain the political advantages of those on top — regardless of how toxic their rule happens to be.  And the primary emphasis in such planning is that of catering to the interests who pay for election campaigns, while addressing gut-level concerns about “expensive gasoline” and such.

But let’s take the issue of “green planning” as it comes from one of the White House’s supporters, shall we?  Here is what we’re being promised by the government, as regards its own facilities:

Reducing direct greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. vehicle emissions) and certain indirect greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. purchased electricity) by 20 percent by 2020Reducing other indirect greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. airline business travel) by 9 percent by 2020

Ensuring that at least 15 percent of our existing buildings and building leases meet “green” standards by 2015 (5,000 gross square feet threshold for existing buildings and building leases)

Reducing potable water consumption intensity by 26 percent by 2020

Reducing industrial landscaping and agricultural water consumption by 20 percent by 2020

Diverting at least 50 percent nonhazardous solid waste and construction and demolition debris by 2015

Ensuring that 95 percent of all new contract actions include green requirements

So is Obama going to be in the White House by 2020?  Well, no.  It’s easy to make promises where you don’t have to be there to say whether or not you didn’t fulfill them.  It’s also important to remember that these are rather small-time goals when compared to what is actually needed to “save the Earth.”

At any rate, here are some principles which might help in our search for an alternative to “planning” as the solution to the climate change problem, and as a general panacea solution entwined with what we today call ‘environmentalism”:

1.  Society moves dialectically, in the tensions between popular revolt and elite power.  Thus the “progressive” ideal of minimizing tensions by voting for “lesser of two evils” candidates and trying to gain influence byschmoozing with the possessors of power will result in more and more traumatic failures.  Frederick Douglass had it right — here’s a larger quote:

Those who profess to favor freedom
and yet deprecate agitation,
are like men who want crops without
plowing up the ground.They want rain without thunder and lightning.
They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.

This struggle may be a moral one;
or it may be a physical one;
or it may be both moral and physical;
but it must be a struggle.
Power concedes nothing without a demand.

It never did, and it never will.

Thus planning will do us no good, but outlines of fundamental rights can be the basis for movements to demand them.  From John Bellamy Foster:

The truly planetary crisis we are now caught up in, however, requires a world uprising transcending all geographical boundaries. This means that ecological and social revolutions in the third world have to be accompanied by, or inspire, universal revolts against imperialism, the destruction of the planet, and the treadmill of accumulation.

2.  Real sustainability involves indefinite, stable throughput.  The question of abrupt climate change is fundamentally a question of sustainability — of whether or not our society is really sustainable in its economic behaviors.  If you want to see the term “sustainability” debunked, this old piece from Capitalism Nature Socialism still carries some weight: “Who Cares About The Commons,” pp. 1-42 of Capitalism Nature Socialism, December 2003 (14(4)).  “Sustainability” for the corporations means sustainable profits, at least up until the time when the whole system collapses and the corporations can say “we’re sorry” and disappear like Enron did.  Real sustainability means eliminating categories such as “trash” and “resource depletion” entirely.  A good starting point for the measurement of real sustainability is that science which we today call agroecology.

Agroecology is the point at which the modern university starts to study Earth’s ecosystems as if human beings were deserving participants in their ongoing activity.  Ostensibly agroecology is about farm ecosystems.  Its main goal is to create “agroecosystems,” farms which produce indefinite yields using the materials which exist “on-site,” without significant external inputs beyond sunshine, rainfall, and that sort of thing.  The idea is to have the world’s farms produce indefinitely, as they do in Tabasco in Mexico, where (according to researcher Stephen Gliessman) soil fertility has been maintained with traditional agricultural practices for thousands of years.  Indefinite, stable, throughput.

The idea, though, is that in studying both human endeavor and ecological balance at the same time, agroecology’s focus upon farming can be broadened to the practical arts in general.  Agroecological investigation can thus form the basis for sustainability studies across the board in all areas of human production.  The point of agroecological thought, moreover, is to erect models of sustainability which can form the basis for further demands to be placed upon our political and economic systems.  Community gardens for everybody, for instance, could significantly reduce the global carbon footprint.  Universal local production for local use could eliminate dependency upon corporations.

There might be “agroecological management” or “agroecological planning,” someday, but such management or planning is at present hypothetical.  Such a thing could exist if the biodiversity crisis were to end and there were no longer to be an extinction rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times the norm for periods of stable biodiversity in natural history.  Changing this reality, as John Vandermeer suggests in his book on agroecology, depends upon activism (see page 291).

3.  To save the Earth, change the society.  The main reason “alternative energy” will not solve our carbon problem is that “alternative energy” will only supplement the mainstream society’s dependence upon carbon-based energy sources.  The problem is that the other energy sources have a much lower energy return on energy invested (EROEI, or ER/EI, expressed hopefully as an improper fraction, a fraction greater than 1) than does oil or coal.  Thus our consumption of oil and coal goes away not with “sustainability regulations,” as decreed by planners, but either when a) the price of coal and of oil increases to the point where other energy sources become comparatively cheaper or b) when our society chooses, as a whole society, to forswear the burning of coal and of oil.  a) requires that we wait for a “price signal” to change our energy habits, which by that time might be too late, and b) requires that we change our society so that it is no longer dependent upon “price signals.”  I vote for b).

If we focus our activist energies upon creating a new, conserver society in which energy appetite is less voracious, then conservation becomes much more of a possibility than it would be under the current framework, and the stress of having to create the energy equivalent of 85 million bbls./day of crude oil (or its equal carbon-equivalent in coal) disappears.  The new conserver society will be a “union of free producers” as idealized more or less here.

ConclusionHere is what I expect.

a) For the next year and a half America’s political space will largely be occupied by the Re-Elect Barack Obama campaign.  In short, there will be no real traction on issues which do not receive prior permission from the existing system, and this will include energy and climate change issues.

b) On a smaller level, in the interstices, the political “cracks in the pavement,” small-scale efforts to create a movement for genuine sustainability will take place, among tiny groups of dedicated activists.

c) Life will go on.

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