2024: Dread and hope

Saving our civilization from impending environmental disaster is perhaps the one issue capable of uniting us.



It seems inconceivable that the entire social reality we Americans take for our birthright may soon collapse, but history shows this happens not just cyclically but often and unexpectedly. The countless farmsteads, villages, towns, and cities destroyed and massacred by rampaging armies or falling bombs; the far more countless women raped and children incinerated; the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions, of soldiers fallen in battle throughout the millennia; the timeless toll of natural disaster, famine, and plague—a good portion of humanity has always been expendable to history and to those whose gods are power and money. 

The  human capacity for denial is monumental, especially in the face of overwhelming threats. Climate change, for instance represents a systemic assault against earth’s environment that has saturated our air, ocean and fresh water, and soil. This can only end in a breakdown of our global civilization. We know the culprit is fossil fuel, but suddenly abandoning oil, gas, and coal will plunge us into chaos. Hopes for a gradual switch to alternative energies has been blatantly obstructed by profit-hungry corporations and the politicians whom they pay to do their bidding. But how do we influence those amorphous entities run by near-invisible committees? And as the consequences of our addictions accumulate, so many of us wonder why all the warnings went  unheeded. Why didn’t we act?” 

In fact, a near-consensus of scientists across every relevant discipline and grass-roots activists did warn, protest, initiate projects, and document the reality of climate change. Without them we wouldn’t have a wing or a prayer or a hope. But there is also a strong counter-force to their efforts. And its roots have taken deep hold in American politics.

When traditional family, power, and economic relations unravel, things fall apart. When there’s an easily identifiable enemy, we can be rally to meet the threat. Often, though, the problems are so entangled with the systems that support everyday life, it is difficult to identify a single cause. Systemic collapses represent pervasive, multiple threats acting all at once. We feel helpless and hopeless. In the face of this, many find solace in bypassing reality’s complexity, seizing upon soothing certitudes that promise to ease distress quickly and easily. Often, too, we direct our rage and violence at anyone who does not accept those certitudes.

In our current rage-fueled society, this may seem a basic fact of human nature. Many of us likely feel some measure of that anger but it is tempered by our better impulses. We may be inspired to work with one another to adjust to and even shape the new conditions. Simply deciding to behave with dignity, tolerance, and kindness to others caught in the same web goes a long way to preserving community. So often, though, we are split by enmities that devolve into widespread violence. This too, may appear “human nature” to us but that’s too glib an answer. Because in one historical instance after another, we find that hatred, fear, and paranoia are funded and strategically guided by the concerted efforts of wealthy individuals, extremist political blocs, and corporations aiming to profit from their ability to exploit the  financial and political systems.

That has certainly been the case for decades in the United States. A consortium of extremist billionaires, right-wing religious fanatics, and opportunistic politicians have engaged in a long-term campaign to shift America far to the right. This is not a battle between “liberals” and “conservatives”, or the typical adjustment towards the center that pundits long mistook it for. It has a clear ideology whose goal is to turn the U.S. into an authoritarian state in which fundamentalist religion is manipulated to further the interests of the real gods, Money and Power, with 90% of the population deemed expendable. Health care, infrastructure, stable employment, education, the environment, provisions for the elderly or the hungry—all steadily squeezed for the past forty years until now we’re on the verge of a hydra-headed crisis. The economy runs on debt and threat (if we crash, so goes the world); poverty and hunger are increasing; college is an invitation to lifelong debt; and rural America is turning into a vast depopulated zone.

For decades Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Carlson, Coulter, and dozens of others spewed propaganda that demonized liberalism (including moderate positions once embraced by Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon). Their hysterical rhetoric gradually expanded to include the federal government; science and the very notion of verifiable facts; and the majority of Americans who do not fit the narrow, often-racist demographic of the Tea Party-Maga crowd.

Yet these people don’t come up with this ideology on their own. Behind them is an expansive empire of think tanks, lobbyists, consultants, right-wing educational activists, and extremists who serve as the movement’s shock troops (thus the close ties of many Republicans with white supremacist groups). Their agenda is directly responsible for impoverishing the very people who support their puppet-candidates. They don’t need a majority, only a critical mass that grows ever more ignorant, fanatical, and violent while the rest of us dither and argue over who is more liberal, sensible, or politically correct.


Is there an effective political response other than waiting for election day and hoping rationality and fairness prevail? 

The Democratic Party and any sane Republicans left in power have to campaign as if we are under a dire internal, seditious threat. They cannot fall into the trap of debating Republican positions as the GOP defines them. Go behind the curtain. How?

Attack the real GOP agenda: enrichment of the wealthy, religious tyranny, racial conflict, severe restriction of Constitutional protections of civil liberties, environmental ruin. Describe what that agenda has and will cost the vast majority of Americans, including those who represent the GOP’s base. The red states’ dire economy of plant closings and unemployment, death rates and hospital closings, and widespread impoverishment, offer a bonanza of campaign issues, sound bytes, and fund-raising opportunities. We need a rhetoric that treats today’s Republicans with the same contempt they have shown moderate Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives for decades, only a language backed by facts and delivered with the confidence and dignity suitable to a substantive, constructive agenda.

The Democratic Party should engage in good old fashioned anti-profit-gouging corporate arm-twisting, a version of what Republican President Theodore Roosevelt called “trust-busting”. The Democrats’ message to Wall Street might boil down to this: “You will invest—big time—in solutions to excess atmospheric carbon and methane; dying oceans; alternative energy sources; and health care, such as developing antibiotics for a new breed of ‘super-bugs’. You will do this because if this system breaks you and your children and grandchildren are going down with the rest of us. We don’t want to hear about seven million dollar solar initiatives. Try this. Whenever you’re about to propose a token program to polish up your public image, add at least two zeroes to what you’ll invest.”

Forgiving student debt will pump up over two trillion dollars ($1.75 trillion in current debt plus undetermined interest payments) in future income into the economy. Infrastructure desperately needs intensive investment that would also raise employment and help wean us off the war and weapons economy, which is a dead-end economically and militarily. Regulate small business less and big business more. Bring a measure of order to the banking system and the derivative economy. Abandon obsolete Cold War formulas that divide nations and governments into enemies and friends, a habit that, along with Trump’s dismantling of our diplomatic system, has handed China global leadership on a silver platter. It is also time to meet the gun, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, racist, anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist lobbies head-on with a fierce, values-based language.

As for those who feel removed from the channels of power and influence, if we are not involved as informed citizens, the Constitution might as well be toilet paper. Saving our civilization from impending environmental disaster is perhaps the one issue capable of uniting us in an effort that can, if properly managed, restore the economy, create jobs, reduce global tensions, and just cool us off. Our biological clocks are ticking. Time to act.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.

Previous articleThe army we don’t see
Next articleHow urban planners disenfranchised black communities in west Oakland
Barton Kunstler, Ph.D., writes about creativity, social justice, education, technology, and leadership. His book, The Hothouse Effect, describes the dynamics behind history's most creative communities. Other published work includes poetry, numerous academic articles, and fiction. His monograph for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence addresses leadership's future in light of the human singularity. He writes for www.huffingtonpost.com and his writings, including a column on communication strategy, appear at www.bartonkunstler.com. He can be reached at barleeku@comcast.net.