The Anti-Empire Project Episode 51: What is Ecological Economics? With Peter Victor.

Ecological Economics with Peter Victor

I talk to Ecological Economist Peter Victor, author of Managing Without Growth, about the idea of the economy taking place within a biological envelope, what is required for market prices to reflect value, and the pitfalls of the valuation of natural capital.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 49: Beyond the Green New Deal, with Stan Cox

Beyond the Green New Deal with Stan Cox

I talk to Stan Cox about his new book, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can. We talk about the good aspects of the Green New Deal (especially the New Deal aspects), some of the assumptions that will have to be revised (that good fuels will automatically crowd out bad, that we can grow our way out of the emergency, etc.) and discuss some policies that could actually work.

Civilizations Series Episode 8: Ideas – Scientific Revolution – Enlightenment

Ideas – Scientific Revolution – Enlightenment

We talk about the scientific revolution – Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and others; and take a tour of the Enlightenment as well, and the importance of Enlightenment ideas in the revolutions that would soon follow it.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 41: The magic bullet for COVID-19 with Drs. Thomson and Loubani

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 41: The magic bullet for COVID-19 with Drs. Thomson and Loubani

I talk to nephrologist Ben Thomson and ER doc Tarek Loubani about the magic bullet for COVID-19 (there isn’t one). The key messages: medical people – switch to reusable masks. Everyone: social distancing works, don’t lose your nerve. So do social democratic reforms, like having a public health system. 

Economists’ solutions to health crises can be disastrous

Famine memorial in Dublin. Taken by AlanMC 2006.

Classical economics helped kill millions in the British Empire’s famines; following economic orthodoxy today could be just as deadly

I’m writing this at 585,000 worldwide active cases, 26,000 deaths, and with only China and South Korea seemingly under some sort of control (using a social metric tool, Worldometer). The stimulus package announced by the US government is at $2 trillion, but without job protections, rent freezes, or meaningful income support for most people. Where to reach for analogies to help us understand the moment? The AIDS crisis? The 2008 economic crisisSARS?

Every analogy can capture a part of the story. On March 23, US President Donald Trump floated the idea of sending everyone back to work within weeks, ignoring the advice of public health scientists. This echoed Jair Bolsonaro’s denialism in Brazil and Boris Johnson’s early talk of seeking “herd immunity” by “taking it on the chin,” which his ministers walked back a few days later. On this specific issue, the prioritizing of economic projections over scientific ones, there is one clear analogy with the last great empire: the British Empire, with its special penchant for the mass starvation of millions.

As the British Empire expanded in the 18th century, its intellectuals developed the perfect set of ideas for an empire: classical economics. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, after numerous genocidal wars against indigenous peoples in the Americas and at the beginning of the Empire in India.

David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill all made their contributions to the classical theory. As soon as the imperialists consolidated their control, they dismantled local governmental systems for preventing mass starvation and the famines across India began. Shashi Tharoor listed them in his book Inglorious Empire: starting with Bengal in 1770, and on to Madras, Delhi and Bombay through 1943. In the 20th century alone, 35 million people were killed by British-administered famine in India.

In the name of the same doctrines, the British also starved the Irish. The potato famine of 1845-49 fell in this period, and the Irish were victims of the same doctrines. Edward O’Boyle in 2006 linked classical economics to the Irish famine and identified the tenets of classical economics as: 1. the law of self-interest; 2. the law of free competition; 3. the law of population; 4. the law of demand and supply; 5. the iron law of wages; 6. the law of rent; and 7. the free-trade doctrine.

Taken together, these laws, as critic Karl Polanyi wrote of the self-adjusting market, “could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.”

During one of the many Indian famines (Southern India, 1876-78), the British viceroy Lord Lytton declared, “there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of government with the object of reducing the price of food.” Johann Hari tells the story of one British official, Sir Richard Temple, who, when he imported some food to give to the starving during another famine, was denounced by the Economist magazine for giving Indians the notion that “it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive.”

During that empire, classical economic theory and famine combined seamlessly with racism in a toxic brew. O’Boyle quotes an 1875 lecture by classical economist William Stanley Jevons: “a famine comes to be looked upon as a kind of natural event … war is … a normal state of things, in early societies. The North American Indians, for example, their only serious occupation, their only amusement, was war … the way the Irish live, especially, in some of our large towns and in some parts of their own country, makes it a priori probable that they die fast.”

The British had an empire of famine. We live in an empire of sanctions. As Iran, Venezuela and Gaza crack under the simultaneous strain of pandemic and siege, diplomats beg the US to suspend the sanctions until the current crisis passes. To no avail: Remote-control mass murder is too solid a plank of US policy to be suspended over something so small as a global pandemic.

To what extent has economics been refined over the centuries? To what extent has it become more rooted in evidence? An abundance of literature from scholars just outside of mainstream economics argues, “not very much.”

Back in 2001, heterodox economist James Galbraith wrote an article listing five widely accepted propositions of today’s economics profession (“Inflation is … a monetary phenomenon”; “Full employment without inflation is impossible”; “Rising pay inequality stems from technological change”; “Rising minimum wages cause unemployment”; “Sustained growth cannot exceed 2.5% per year”), how each of them was discredited by the economic evidence, and how they continued to be held despite the evidence. The same year, Australian heterodox economist Steve Keen published Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, about the theoretical and empirical failures of mainstream orthodoxy.

A decade later, in the book ECONned, Yves Smith collected a litany of the ways the assumptions on which economic models are built don’t hold up to the data (from market equilibrium to the demand curve). Similar works abound, as do interesting approaches to real economies that are rejected by the economics mainstream.

The mainstream is reported to be so closed off to alternative ideas that in universities, heterodox economists are sent to different types of programs like political economy at Stanford, or economics and policy studies at Notre Dame, which was split off from the Economics Department in 2003 and then closed in 2010. At the University of Manitoba, the conflict between orthodox and heterodox economics got so dramatic that the Canadian Association of University Teachers did an investigation of the department in 2015.

Science works differently. As Albert Einstein put it, science is the refinement of everyday thinking. To me, science is the systematic use of the human quality of curiosity.

There are many scholars who think scientifically – who use transparent assumptions and a systematic approach to reasoning and drawing conclusions from evidence – about economies. But these scholars are excluded from the economics profession, and it is the economics profession – with its untenable assumptions and disdain for economic realities – that builds the models that set policy during disasters and pandemics.

Trump’s announcement that he wants businesses to open again in a few weeks prompted a discussion of whether to listen to the economists or the doctors. This isn’t a dispute between two sciences – only the doctors are doing science here.

Previous viruses and previous crises can only give us hints. The most meaningful data that we have about this crisis come from the countries it hit worst early on – China, South Korea, Italy, Iran. Any modeling we do has to start from these data, and any good ideas for how we could get through this must pass through the study of these examples.

Trump and the global right that follow him (Bolsonaro, Johnson, etc) despise epidemiological science just as they despise climate science, and for the same reasons: Science is about realities that conflict with their ideologies and is disruptive to their propaganda. Science is clear that saving lives will involve some interruption in the march of the super-wealthy to the destruction of society and the environment.

What science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson said a decade ago about climate science is true in this moment: “What’s been set up and is playing out now is a huge world historical battle between science and capitalism. Science is insisting more emphatically every day that this is a real and present danger. Capitalism is saying it isn’t, because if it were true it would mean more government control of economies, more social justice (as a climate stabilization technique) and so on.”

If we listen, science can help us through this moment. Following the economic models, on the other hand, will get people killed as certainly as it did a century ago.

This article was produced by Globetrottera project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

The Ossington Circle Episode 24: How the World Breaks with Stan Cox and Paul Cox

The Ossington Circle Episode 24: How the World Breaks with Stan Cox and Paul Cox

I talk to Stan Cox and Paul Cox, authors of How the World Breaks: Life in Castastrophe’s Path from the Caribbean to Siberia. We discuss how we think and talk about disasters, the aid industry, and the uses and excuses associated with the concept of ‘resilience’.

El Circulo Ossington Episode 23: El Caso de Parex y la Extraction en Colombia desde Canada

El Circulo Ossington Episode 23: El Caso de Parex y la Extraction en Colombia desde Canada

El primer episodio del Circulo Ossington en castellano. Hable con Manuel Rozental, Oscar Sampayo, y Anna Zalik sobre la compania Parex y sus actividades de fracking en Colombia.

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 2 – Syria, Environment, War, and Refugees

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 2 – Syria, Environment, War, and Refugees

This episode of the podcast is a lecture given on a panel at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies on January 28, 2016. The panel was on Environment, War, and Refugees, and the lecture was on Western policy and the war in Syria.

Vaccinations and the war on science: Donald Trump’s championing of the “anti-vaxer” cause takes advantage of scientific illiteracy

Science is a massive, ongoing human undertaking. It is a creative endeavour: the greatest scientific discoveries have involved wild guesses and hypotheses. But it also depends on rigor, self-criticism, and self-correction. The wild guesses must be tested against evidence. Science is the most dynamic of endeavours: the accepted claims of today may be overturned tomorrow. Ambitious scientists dream of changing our understanding of the world.

So how can someone make decisions that rely on science? If science is always changing, if claims are being tested and overturned, if tomorrow’s discovery could change our whole way of looking at things, why should we believe anything scientists say today? How can a creative and dynamic endeavour become a source of legitimate authority to be followed? Most of us are not going to collect and analyze atmospheric data to test whether burning fossil fuels causes climate change, but we have to decide whether to press for reduced emissions based on what scientists are saying.

This decision of the ordinary person to trust scientific authority is made even more difficult because scientific authority can be abused, and has been abused in the past. Take scientific authority in the area of mental illness. The manual of mental illness produced by the American Psychiatric Association is the famous DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We are currently (as of 2013) on the DSM-V. Prior to a change made in the DSM-II in 1973, ‘homosexuality’ was defined as a mental illness. Before the DSMs, in the 19th century, an American physician defined ‘drapetomania’: a mental illness that caused African-American slaves to try to escape. Diagnoses of ‘hysteria’, ‘frigidity’, and many others were used to control women since the 19th century. Psychologist Bruce Levine has argued that diagnoses of ADHD and ODD are similar tools that “psychopathologize” and “medicate” people who are “natural anti-authoritarians”, “before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.”

In this fraught space of mental illness, where scientific authority has been abused and politicized and where scientific understanding is desperately needed, a debate on the causes of autism is taking place in a way that is harmful to public health. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in the DSM, and diagnoses of autism have been going up and up. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows a prevalence of 6.7 per thousand in 2000 and 14.7 per thousand in 2010. The simplest explanation for this huge increase turns out to be the most likely: that it is the result of changes in the way autism is diagnosed (Science for discussion of the US, Forbes for discussion of a study from Denmark).

Like so much in the field of mental illness, autism is very poorly understood. The diagnosis is based on a checklist of behaviors. Psychologist Enrico Gnaulati wrote sensitively in Salon about a case of “overdiagnosis”, in which a “brainy, introverted” boy was incorrectly diagnosed with autism – something Gnaulati believes is happening all the time.

The solution to the problems caused by trying to treat illnesses we don’t understand is to try to improve our understanding. The discovery of the “overdiagnosis” issue with regards to autism, for example, came from the scientific community. Bruce Levine’s critique of the overdiagnosis of ADHD and ODD is also one grounded in scientific principles. A major recent study has linked antidepressant drugs in pregnancy to increased risk of autism. The way to correct scientific errors, in other words, is to do better science.

But the self-correcting mechanisms of science are slow. While scientists struggle for answers, suffering people have difficulty waiting. They turn to online communities that do not use the methods of science, communities that attack the failures of scientific authority and the limitations of scientific knowledge. A large community has arisen that claims a connection between vaccinations for preventable diseases and autism. The community has grown so large and has convinced enough parents not to vaccinate their kids that public health impacts are beginning to be felt and preventable diseases may be making a comeback. It has seized on a study from the 1990s that found a correlation in a small sample group, a study whose conclusions were later overturned by massive studies of huge sample groups. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination, or “anti-vaxer” movement, was not placated by scientific self-correction. With celebrity endorsements and a genuine online community, the anti-vaxers have become so numerous that they are being courted by politicians, most famously Donald Trump.

Trump’s rise has been characterized by the willingness to say ever more outrageous things. The Republican debates have seen candidates compete to see who is most willing to diverge from scientific and moral principles, and who is willing to diverge the furthest. With the anti-vaxer claims, Trump is taking advantage of scientific illiteracy.

Scientists are not without blame in all this. Whenever scientists fail to explain science in simple language, whenever scientists rely on authority rather than trusting people to understand scientific argument and evidence, they create space for people like Trump. People need to feel empowered, like science is something that belongs to them, not something that is done to them by alien creatures in mysterious laboratories. In the case of vaccines and many others, popular science, and going further, people’s science, are actually matters of life and death. The only long-term protection against Trump and pseudo-science on the one hand, and illegitimate scientific authority (whether it’s “drapetomania” or diagnosing anti-authoritarians with ODD) on the other, is if ordinary people are able to reach an understanding not just of specific scientific claims, but of how to think scientifically. It’s a huge responsibility for proponents of science. If we’re not up to the task, the Trumps of the world will be waiting.

First published TeleSUR English January 12, 2016

A review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for “the revolution” in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker’s unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything is a step towards such a synthesis. It is interesting that the synthesis came from a writer of the left who spent years studying and working with the environmental movement, and becoming a part of it. Though Klein’s personal journey to meeting and joining the environmental movement, is described in the book, it is fundamentally an analysis and synthesis of the problem of climate change as a problem for social movements (or, in other words, as a problem for leftists).

Klein’s method of writing, which was followed in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, is to carefully study the words and ideas of those in power, and then to travel the world and see what people are doing, learning from the analyses of movements that are contesting state and private power and combining them, revealing connections that, for those heavily involved in local struggles, can be hard to see. The result, in this book as in The Shock Doctrine, is to reveal a common enemy, to reveal common methods that the enemy uses, and to share methods of resistance that might prove promising.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein described how the most vicious neoliberal doctrines were thought of as crazy ideas in the decades following WWII. The neoliberals persisted with their crazy ideas, and today we are all living under their heel. In the same spirit, This Changes Everything starts with an analysis of some of the crazy ideas of this moment, presented at right-wing climate-denying conferences which she attended and reports on. The deniers, Klein notes, deny the science of climate change because they don’t like its implications: that in order to prevent environmental catastrophe, societies will have to make massive changes to the economic system, a system that is serving the deniers and their funders very well. Klein argues that in their recognition that deep changes in the direction of equality would be needed to stabilize the climate, the right-wing deniers are not wrong. Indeed, they grasp something that many in the environmental movement fail to grasp: that economic changes deep enough to stabilize the climate are too deep to leave existing inequalities completely intact. In order to tackle climate change, Klein argues, we have to return to many of the social-democratic, Keynesian policies that are so despised by neoliberals: economic planning, regulation, progressive taxation, and redistribution, led by democratic governments playing a major role in the economy, with active movements pressuring them.

To recap: the book observes that the reason for climate denial is not that the political right lacks an understanding of the facts and the science, but instead that they deny the facts because they recognize better than most what the facts actually mean. Building on this observation, This Changes Everything proceeds to try to help readers in the environmental movement discard some bad ideas that have plagued the discussion of solutions to climate change.

The first illusion to discard is that the environment is an issue that unites the wealthy and the poor, an issue that transcends inequality.

“Environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor,” writes Klein on page 52. “Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further … divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather … and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.”

But there are many others. Reviewing the record of environmental organizations making alliances with corporations, This Changes Everything finds that compromises beget compromises. The most dramatic example is the story of the extinction of the prairie chicken, whose breeding grounds, after being gifted to the Nature Conservancy, were destroyed by drilling by the Nature Conservancy. This Changes Everything also discards the current fashionable idea that philanthropists can stabilize the climate at the last minute.

The cautionary tale in this section is the story of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, who saw the light after watching Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation and proceeded to make grand promises and then to do absolutely nothing of any use for the climate, expanding his highly pollutant industries in the meantime. The brief and completely ineffectual history of cap-and-trade, carbon markets, and other climate market mechanisms that created speculative markets while emissions continued to increase, is also reviewed in the book.

The most terrifying section, however, is a crazy idea that is still sitting on the shelf. However, it’s inclusion in the book is more than merited in order to help inoculate readers before it becomes more prominent, as it likely will: the idea of manipulating the atmosphere directly, spraying toxins into the atmosphere on an ongoing basis to reduce sunlight reaching the earth, instead of trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The risks of this lunacy (it would be insulting to call it a strategy) are catastrophic, and the potential benefits would be extremely unequal. The book notes that, when presented with geoengineering-type solutions to climate change, right-wingers who would ordinarily deny climate change are more inclined to believe in it — another piece of evidence that it is the implications that are really being denied, rather than the facts.

Geoengineering is only one of the high-tech bad ideas that are currently on offer to environmentalists. Bioengineering, carbon-capture and storage, ocean “fertilization,” and, of course, nuclear power as an alternative, are all put forward by one or another environmentalist as possible solutions. Because nuclear is an existing technology and perhaps the least crazy of the options, Klein handles it quite gently, advocating a gradual phase out of nuclear power; “prioritizing fossil fuels for cuts because the next decade is so critical,” she writes on page 138, proposing “a moratorium on new nuclear facilities a decommisioning of the oldest plans and then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels.”

I agree with her conclusions here, but I believe that nuclear advocacy by environmentalists has been another diversion that has lost us precious time, like the others discussed in the middle section of This Changes Everything.

The problem with all of the bad ideas presented in the middle of the book is that they take for granted the world-view criticized in the book’s first section, a world-view that, following anti-mining activists, Klein summarizes as extractivism. In the third and final section of the book, Klein showcases many examples of resistance to extractivism from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, India, Nigeria, and many other places. Those who are fighting against the destruction of ecosystems, the basis of life where they live, are having to do so without institutional support and find themselves having to build their own systems of community and of survival, drawing on old traditions and on new experiments. In Greece, some of these activists used the term Blockadia, which Klein suggests could be seen as the changing, dynamic network of people resisting extractivism anywhere in the world. This section is a breath of fresh air (atmosphere pun intended). Where most environmental books present packages of policies, technologies, or laws, Klein presents the voices of people who are fighting for the lands and communities they live in and love.

The conclusion of the book is in her own voice, and returns to the Shock Doctrine parable of crazy ideas sitting on the shelf.

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect,” she writes on page 460.

Read them, and when the opportunity arises, as it will, reach for them, and not for geoengineering, nukes, philanthrocapitalists, and climate markets.