Can realism avert global catastrophe?

Published online 1 October 2007.

This is an attempt to unmask the paucity of thought implied in political “realism” as typically portrayed on DKos and elsewhere.  It concludes with a plea for “unrealism” in politics.  Realism has punted in Iraq, civil rights, health insurance, and education; can we expect it to do any better with climate change?

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Realism as a philosophy: introduction

What is the philosophy which we call “realism”?  And what does it declare to be “realistic”?

I remember being in a graduate class in geography at The Ohio State University “learning” from a professor who subscribed to a philosophy of science he called “critical realism.”  We were told that “critical realism” was the right way to “do science” — and that it would replace inferior philosophies (say, racism and sexism) which were not “based on reality.”

Now, I have no problem with the “critical” part.  It’s important to be critical of bad science.  It’s the idea that science needs to be based on “realism” that makes me wonder.

Now, science is of course a way of understanding reality.  But realism is a philosophy, and most importantly a political philosophy.  And this I feel obliged to question.

In its political philosophy variant, realism judges possible political actions according to whether they are or aren’t “realistic.”  Of course, there are several criteria for what counts as “realistic,” criteria which vary from situation to situation.  Let’s take a look at a variety of political situations to see what realism will get us.

Realism in the political sphere

What kind of Iraq policy can we expect from the advocates of realism?

Is it realistic to expect the United States to cut its losses and get out of Iraq, so that it can focus upon the creation of a global, ecologically sustainable society?

Of course not!  What’s realistic is the expectation that the US will deficit-spend itself into currency collapse while (at great expense) maintaining troops in Iraq up to 2013, or whenever the dollar collapses, whichever comes first.

We must, therefore, be realistic, and support candidates who want to keep the troops in Iraq, rather than supporting unrealistic candidates who want them out.


What kind of civil rights policy can we expect from the advocates of realism?

Is it realistic to expect Congress to defend our rights all by itself?

Of course not!  What’s realistic is expecting Congress to help Bush abrogate our rights.  We should of course petition Congress like crazy before the votes, but in the end we should vote for Congressmembers who voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, Justices Roberts and Alito, and other threats of mass bodily harm.


What kind of health care policy can we expect from the advocates of realism?

Is it realistic to expect the US to create a single-payer healthcare system, thus ending the financial juggernaut in which the US pays far more than any other nation for its health care while getting far less?

Of course not!  Our favorite politicians need to take money from health “insurance” interests and HMOs in order to stay “competitive,” so we must continue to vote for them while they propose ineffective substitutes for single payer.  Meanwhile we can expect that other realistic outcome; the consuming public increasingly resists paying for an insurance establishment which increasingly resists paying for health care.


What kind of education policy can we expect from the advocates of realism?

I can’t even imagine the alternative here, so thorough is the hold realism has over American educational policy at present.  The No Child Left Behind Act is the ultimate end of realist philosophy in education.

Generally, realism distrusts teachers, as what is taught can also (theoretically) be learned without teachers.  What teachers do, of course, is to have constructive dialogues with students about the world, a truth realized in revolutionary fashion by unrealists like Paulo Freire.  But, of course, there’s no way of quantitatively measuring a dialogue to see if it actually teaches, which is what realist taxpayers need to do if they are to know if they’re getting their “money’s worth.”  So teaching in the public schools must be reduced to the promulgation of some ultimate educational content, reduced to numbers (math) and letters (reading/ writing), which is measured through NCLB’s yearly testing requirements to make sure each teacher makes the grade.  (This, of course, is what Freire calls the “banking model” of education.)

The “choice” and “accountability” provisions of NCLB follow from the same realist logic.  If the teachers can’t do the job they’re hired to do, parents must be allowed to send their kids to other schools, with other teachers.  Complaints about the inaccuracy of the tests are met with the realist insistence upon accountability: if the state were to make the tests less reductionist, they wouldn’t hold the teachers accountable.

So there you have it.


Now here’s the tough one:

What policy should we expect from the realists as regards abrupt climate change?

The world consumes somewhere around 86, maybe 87 million barrels of crude oil every day, a figure which rises 2% or so every year, with “alternative energy” plans reduced to suggestions that maybe we’ll get 20% of our energy from clean sources by 2050 or so.  Most of this crude oil-burning is used to maintain the capitalist system; it is, after all, cheap oil that allows the multinationals to pick and choose sources of cheap labor, product markets, and global headquarters.  And all this capitalist development benefits a mere few: the system produces a few hundred billionaires as well as a bottom 40% living off of less than $2/ day.

Meanwhile, the global addiction to oil will eventually produce a situation in which the rising price of oil forces traumatic contractions in the global economy itself – this is the reality of “peak oil.”

Should we, then, think of another system of political economy running the world’s affairs, a system that might actually be able to create a global, ecologically sustainable society rather than a tragedy of the commons (as expected by realist Garrett Hardin)?

Of course not!  That would be unrealistic.  What’s realistic is to expect the current system to consume the whole world’s oil reserves (since alternative energy won’t be as economically cheap as cheap oil for quite some time to come), creating a raging abrupt climate change effect (which some claim is already reached the “too late” stage) and at that point extreme weather events will do damage to much of the world’s food-producing capability.  The sum result will be along the lines of the “collapse” which Jared Diamond warned us about in his last book.

See, even though a Pentagon study has declared abrupt climate change to be the Number One Security Threat, there’s no profit to be made off of it.  So it stays a low priority.  When it affects the aggregate rate of profit, that’s when they’ll pay attention.

The other realist response to abrupt climate change was the Kyoto Protocol, and you can see from the above Monthly Review article how that worked out:

The truth is that addressing the global warming threat to any appreciable degree would require at the very least a chipping away at the base of the system. The scientific consensus on global warming suggests that what is needed is a 60–80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels in the next few decades in order to avoid catastrophic environmental effects by the end of this century—if not sooner. The threatening nature of such reductions for capitalist economies is apparent in the rather hopeless state at present of the Kyoto Protocol, which required the rich industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008–2012. The United States, which had steadily increased its carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 despite its repeated promises to limit its emissions, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 on the grounds that it was too costly. Yet, the Kyoto Protocol was never meant to be anything but the first, small, in itself totally inadequate step to curtail emissions. The really big cuts were to follow.

So can realism avert global catastrophe?  At least some of the evidence says “no.”  In the conclusion I will explore reasons for why I think this might be so.

Philosophical Critique of Realism

So this is the question: will realism prevent global catastrophe?  I don’t really see why the answer can’t be “no.”  You see, realism only looks at the world from a spectator’s point of view.  It extrapolates a future from current trends that is projected to have the uniform color of “more of the same.”  Realists never get up and change the dominant trends because they’re incapable of imagining change on that level.

Realist strategy must also be called into question.  Realist voting strategy, on both sides of the aisle, goes by a familiar name: “voting for the lesser of two evils.”  There’s also a realist mode of discourse: it is generally opposed to “purity trolls” and the like.  There is nothing unrealistic about realist strategy; what we must call into question is the place from which realist strategy begins to strategize.  Realist strategy comes from a place that dismisses, a priori, the possibility that unrealistic occurrences may actually “come true,” or that we may in fact be able to inspire their occurrence through our own well-thought-out “unrealism.”

It is more important at this time than at any in history that we call realism into question.  After all, the realists are overwhelmingly in power, their ideology having achieved near-universal acceptance.  One should remember how the realists successfully nominated John Kerry, out of the realist notion that we should fight one Skull-and-Bones fraternity member with another, hoping that this would cause discord among the inner sanctum of the ruling class.  Meanwhile, during the election run-up, prospective spoiler candidate Ralph Nader, in a characteristic moment of naivete, complained at one point that “the progressives demand nothing from Kerry.”  Silly Ralph, who earned a mere 0.4% of the vote that year, was just observing political realism in practice: this is its modus operandi, its business as usual.  Moreover, after the election, the unrealists in the Green and Libertarian Parties, having wasted the year in hopeless campaigns, contested the election after Bush had it rigged.  (Perhaps it would be realistic for us to expect some sort of similar outcome in 2008, too.  Don’t you think?)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not rise to fame by becoming an exceptional realist.  The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is, especially, a testament to King’s opposition to realism.  One can see this in one of King’s most forceful statements in the letter:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.

The realist shuns violence when calculations indicate a high risk of losing; after all, Black people were a minority in the Deep South; they were outnumbered, and risked losing out in a violent struggle.  Against this, King appeals to the high moral ground occupied by previous unrealists whose names are today included in the canon of philosophy; Socrates and Jesus, among other purity trolls.  Remember how their lives ended, and quaver.

On the other hand, imagine how history would have turned out had King believed in something like the Weinberger Doctrine — “Ready to pay that poll tax next year?”

(of course, if King were alive today, he’d probably be speaking to masses of unlistening consumers hooked into their iPods…)

Conclusion: A plea for unrealism

“Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world” — John Lennon

(please click on, and watch, the “Imagine” video before continuing)

The realist response to the challenge posed by abrupt climate change is inadequate because, as I suggested before, its starting point for action precludes the “unrealistic.”  Garrett Hardin, in “Tragedy of the Commons,” imagines that if we all think like capitalists, or possessive individualists, “sharing all the world” will lead to its utter depletion; he couldn’t quite get to the point of “imagine no possessions.”  His starting point for action on the commons was as follows:

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Our predominant notions of dealing with abrupt climate change share Hardin’s starting point.  If we are privileged First World residents, we think we are doing something by using “clean” energies, or conserving; this just means more “dirty” energy for the rest of the world, which is not as privileged as we are and is trying to catch up with our capitalist “standard of living” under less privileged circumstances.  Can we blame them for wanting what we have, or for getting it any way they can?

A better starting point might be to presume that ecological solutions need to adopt the Lennonist (pun intended) strategy of “sharing all the world.”   Then, of course, I could talk to you about unrealists like Joel Kovel all day and all evening, and you would still be left with the rejoinder, “But, realistically…”  Go back and think about how we got to this point, both historically and philosophically.  Then consider: how can realism really solve any of the problems that arose in our journey to the present moment?  Isn’t it time we tried something else?


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