Author and editorialist Alan Weisman has reviewed Bill McKibben’s most recent book on the environment, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” McKibben, an author-turned-activist, has been leading the campaign at 350.org to combat the resistance of oil companies to addressing the issue of climate change. In his review, Weisman cites this remark by McKibben concerning the fossil fuel industry: “There should be a word for when you commit treason against an entire planet.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An act of betrayal against one’s homeland and its government, which, during a period of history dominated by individual nation-states that define themselves as the unique source of political and moral authority, excludes both the planet and humanity from consideration when they are being shamelessly betrayed
Having reviewed Exxon’s internal documentation dating back to 1982, McKibben observes that “the company’s scientists concluded that heading off global warming would ‘require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion’ or risk ‘potentially catastrophic events.’” In other words, Exxon’s managers were faced with a choice between betraying the vocation of a powerful commercial company and the expectations of its shareholders and their presumed loyalty to the human race, to which they belong, and the integrity of the planet which they inhabit.
What did they choose? This might be the obvious question to ask, but it makes sense only if there is a choice to be made. But there is none for Exxon’s executives other than resolving to change jobs. They are paid to obey the supreme law under which humanity now lives and labors: a law that requires, under pain of exclusion, to promote growth, expansion and profit. Any director who dared to choose against those interests would immediately be replaced by someone willing to comply with the law.
But surely governments will be able to get something done and the experts have plenty of suggestions they could turn into policy. McKibben cleverly suggests that the West could imitate African countries that are successfully managing with mobile technology to compensate for their underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure. Inspired by their example, the West could choose to banish the omnipresent and invasive “wires tethering us to an energy sector that’s killing us.” That would also seriously improve our urban and rural landscapes.
McKibben criticizes many of the technological solutions presented as silver bullets, but he still believes humanity has the power to change things. “Every day,” Weisman writes, “some trending new gizmo or beguiling advance distracts us from the climate disaster by promising to make our lives easier, even as our future grows shorter.”
McKibben aptly “argues that neither artificial intelligence nor genetic engineering will improve our odds for survival,” but sees a possible solution by “acting together to do remarkable things.” That is the essential condition of any viable solution since the scale of the challenge is global. But achieving it will require making it feasible to “act together.” In the current historical context, that may turn out to be an exceedingly tall order.
History has played a perverse game against the interest of humanity over the past 500 years. It has provided the means for rapid and constantly accelerating technological progress and the creation of material wealth on an obscene scale, but in so doing it has paralyzed humanity’s ability to manage the progress and equitably share the wealth.
Whereas throughout human history different groups of people have been able to organize themselves into communities — occasionally even growing into empires by connecting people and regions economically and politically for limited periods of time — the political authorities of past cultures and empires lacked the technology to control and seriously modify anything beyond local environments. They also lacked what might be somewhat abusively called today’s “scientific” focus on productivity (and profit) that has brought about economic concentration and led to the ever-riskier specialization of industrial and agricultural production, a phenomenon ultimately responsible for diminishing or destroying the capacity of localities and regions to balance the nature of their economic activities as a response to the needs of their populations.
For millennia, political empires rose and declined, giving way to a more local distribution of political power. The pattern changed, however, when the model of the European nation-state began to emerge, most clearly in 16th-century Europe. A series of political transformations led to the eventual acceptance across the globe of an idealized model of representative democracy. The abstraction of the search for profit replaced the dynastic ambition to control and tax to define the goal of empire.
The nation-state came to represent the highest level of political authority, replacing religion and neutralizing the looser but very real force of moral philosophy. In a very real sense, Ayn Rand replaced Aristotle to create the modern world. As Bill McKibben, who holds Ayn Rand responsible for much of what’s wrong with the world today, remarks in an interview: “People who have made a whole lot of money and don’t want to be bothered in any way find her enormously appealing.” This isn’t just a change of philosophical style; it’s the banishment of moral consciousness and the well-financed triumph of the will.
In the 19th century, European governments completed their effort of subduing regional authorities, cultures and languages to arrive at a state of solid territorial control within fixed boundaries. The feudal notion of allegiance — which during the Middle Ages implied a possible choice or even sudden shift of fealty — now applied to the nation-state morphed into a simple requirement of all citizens to respect and obey the government of a nation whose boundaries stretched far beyond any citizen’s region. Americans even today formally “pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands,” but not because they might — like some feudal lord — choose another authority to obey. Instead, it serves as a reminder that they have no choice. The “indivisible” nation-state doesn’t readily admit divided loyalties.
That is how nearly all governments now teach their people to think. At the same time, their very status as nation-states functioning in a global marketplace built on capital investment has created a culture of competition appropriate to capitalism, which means that the natural inclination of every nation is to suspect the intentions of any other authority — including supranational authority — and to some degree deny its reality. This applies to global authorities, such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court but also, as Brexit so aptly demonstrates, to regional alliances or more formal political structures such as the European Union.
Another significant historical factor contributes to the obstacle to solving the climate problem constituted by the nation-state. Let’s call it the prevailing financial culture, the same one that prevents oil companies from changing course and that underlies Ayn Rand’s thinking. Modern representative democracies constitute their authority through elections that require heavy financing, meaning that deep pockets, especially in the corporate world, have the most impact not just on the outcomes of elections, but also on the culture of “allegiance” of most of the elected officials who handle the reins of power.
The inevitable corruption of such a system derives less from direct transfers of funds than from the deep-seated belief that the corporations with the most clout can be counted on to supply not just money for electoral campaigns, but also jobs to political constituencies. Wall Street lives by Gordon Gekko’s credo: “greed is good.” Main Street has been lulled to sleep by the politicians’ conviction that jobs are good. This often means, not just that it doesn’t matter who creates the jobs and to what purpose, but also that the most wasteful, socially unproductive and environmentally destructive sources of jobs — those dedicated to military-related industries — are the ones politicians will typically favor, principally because they can be funded by the government. Call it military-industrial socialism. The oil industry is closely connected to it. Together their power over political decision-making is overwhelming.
That is how the rich nations of the world work today. They need to protect the largely invisible flow of money through a political economy always heavily focused on energy. In such a society, McKibben’s hope that the world may one day soon “act together” will require somehow instilling a notion of allegiance that goes beyond the current global capitalist system governed, at the highest level of authority, by the competing interests of nation-states. Only when that happens can the idea of treason against the planet become a viable — and enforceable — concept.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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