In part I, I had discussed mass consumption that you can read here. Let us now move forward, with Progress.
Progress As Paradox
Progress is a promise—for a better life. Some contemporary critics, however, have framed Progress as a modern myth. Philosopher John Gray’s book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), and writer Chris Hedges’ recent lecture “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies” (26 January 2014), are notable examples.
In the pursuit of Progress, freedom is perhaps the most desirable aspiration. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated people; and tops the list on the rate of incarceration, with Rwanda occupying the second spot. With more than two and a quarter million people in prison (at year–end 2011); nearly seven million adults in correctional supervision (in 2011); more than 70,000 juveniles in detention (in 2010); and inmates in offshore gulags like Guantánamo—to think that America is the “land of the free” is an illusion. So, yes, Progress is a myth.
For the purpose of interpreting the climate impasse, however, I’d frame Progress, not as a myth, but as a paradox. Progress is as real as an apple, and it can also hold contradictions.
When I was growing up in India, I used to take bath with exactly one bucket of water. All aspects of taking a bath—pre–soak, putting body soap and shampoo, and finally rinse—would get accomplished with about twenty litres of water. Then, when I came to America, twenty–three years ago, in the desert of New Mexico, I started taking bath by standing underneath a modern invention, called shower, where a combination of hot and cold water flowed. The shower had significantly improved my experience of taking a bath. I tasted Progress. But that Progress came at what cost? By the time I finished taking a bath, I had no idea how many litres I had used, maybe 100, maybe less, maybe more, no one was counting.
Many activists and scholars point out that fresh water is becoming the scarcest resource, which will have severe consequences for human and nonhuman life on earth. As you can see Progress improves the quality of life for some, while degrades or destroys the same for others. In this sense, Progress is a paradox. I can also give examples where Progress simultaneously improves and degrades the quality of life for the same individual. But let’s move on to climate impasse.
Greed Is Good
“Aren’t the super rich worried about global warming?”
“Do they not care about the future of their children and grandchildren?”
Those two questions have been on the minds of many people lately. The one answer I’ve come across more often than any other is: “Super rich are greedy bastards.”
To begin with, it’s a myth that super rich are not worried about global warming. They are. How else do you explain the fact that the not–climate–denying left–leaning philanthropist Bill Gates is perhaps the lead financier of geoengineering, and the climate–denying right–wing institutions, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute are among the grand plan’s cheerleaders? In part III, I’ll say more about this nexus.
Secondly, there is no such thing as climate deniers anymore; it’s a myth, a farce. The so–called climate deniers, do believe that global warming is happening, that this time it is anthropogenic, that it is getting worse by the day, and that money could be made from the crisis. The tobacco industry was never worried that smoking that increases the risk of cancer could actually destroy that industry. The climate denying industry, however, is probably convinced by now that unless a quick fix is found (geoengineering is a candidate), anthropogenic global warming will destroy global capitalism, the very foundation that makes super rich—richer. In fact, anthropogenic global warming is the only thing that can destroy predatory capitalism. In this sense, the climate deniers are different than all the other Merchants of Doubts of the yesteryears. If you prefer calling people out by names, then I’d suggest that you start using ‘climate imposters’ instead.
Now, back to the “greedy bastards”. How did that subspecies evolve? To understand that evolution we need to look at three distinct phases of American consumption: consumption that shows that a person is rich; consumption that shows that a nation is rich; and finally, mass consumption.
In part I, I said much about mass consumption. Let us now turn our attention to the first two forms of consumption.
More than a century ago, in his pathbreaking book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), economist–sociologist Thorstein Veblen had introduced the dark side of American consumption. It was the first in–depth socio–economic analysis of American consumption. That book isn’t an old relic, however, but a book of immense contemporary relevance, as the latest edition suggests (Oxford University Press, 2007). In that landmark study, Veblen had introduced the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’, which is the form of consumption that makes visible that a person is indeed rich. While a rich person shows off with ‘conspicuous consumption’, the nation embraces the notion that ‘greed is good’.
The next phase of consumption shows that the whole nation is indeed rich. That concept was brilliantly articulated by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his influential book, The Affluent Society (1958). That book isn’t an old relic either. The 40th anniversary edition is still in print (Mariner Books, 1998), and being read by many, including this writer. It isn’t Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, however, but instead, an eleven–page rather obscure essay he wrote in that same year, in 1958, to which we will turn our attention soon.
The Tragic Story of Joe
To understand climate impasse, we have to cast a net large enough to catch much more than just the “greedy bastards”. If you blow the dust away, and scrape the surface a bit, you will see that there is a common ground among…climate imposters, climate not–imposters, climate activists, and climate scientists. This common ground is commonly known as Progress. Of course, the motivations and aspirations of those four groups vary widely. Nevertheless, they are connected at the umbilical cord through their faith in Progress.
“Give me good statistics, hard facts, and hyperlinks that work, to back up your outrageous accusation,” an editor might shout. But, I’m neither a statistician, nor a politician; as a rhetorician, the best I can do is to begin with a fable instead: the tragic story of Joe. Joe is a glutton, loves potato, has diabetes.