His latest gesture is even nuttier than the windmill tilt against the Keystone XL pipeline. Now, the proposition is to get universities to “divest” from “fossil fuel” corporations.
ROFLMFAO, Bill. Divesting from things that depend on subsidies and special treatment — things like the not-so-great state of Israel — makes powerful sense. Divesting from the world’s most internally profitable organizations is, well, a pointless gesture.
It’s also, of course, a misdiagnosis. Fossil fuel corporations are where they are today not because of simple corruption, but because of the reign of cars-first transportation policy. To peddle the notion that you can somehow do something about the former without fighting the latter is just plain stupid. It is also, alas, the hallmark of McKibbenism.
“Do the math” indeed. This kind of shallowness and misdirection — C. Wright Mills called it, aptly, “liberal practicality” – is worse than good old inaction. There is only so much time and energy available for organizing and political action. To spend that time and energy in ways that are patently hopeless and silly is a major sin against the future.
Given global warming’s impact on established farming patterns, the federally mandated diversion of a huge chunk of the United States corn crop into automotive gas tanks is under some unusual scrutiny. If present, late-stage trends hold and the estimates are correct, the corn-to-ethanol mandate will require using about half of this year’s crop on cars. Among the assured impacts of that will be sharply higher food prices and increased rates of malnutrition in areas of the world where food access is unreliable.
Under such circumstances, any decent, democratic society would obviously recognize the foolishness of the corn-to-cars rule and cancel it without delay.
The left-liberal blogosphere is rightly abuzz over the fact that such recognition and cancellation are not only not being done now, but appear to not be in the cards at all. Indeed, President Obama has gone out of his way to travel to none other than Iowa to appear to be taking sides with beleaguered corn farmers as he upholds the corn-to-cars mandate.
Amid some attempt at sorting through the “debate” over the topic, which pits corn farmers and ethanol refiners against the (usually vilified) oil industry and hunger activists, the overwhelming opinion on the left is that the failure to cancel the corn-to-cars mandate is some combination of mistake or scam, a failure of insight and honesty in national government. More generally, that mistake/scam tends to be explained, in this piece by George Monbiot, as a matter of the rich world versus the poor world, with “the rich world” being defined as all of us who reside in automobile-intensive societies, as if cars-first transportation is of equal importance to all of us “rich worlders.”
Even those who have a great deal of useful information about energy use tend to talk in such “Oops, we did it again!” terms. Consider Robert Bryce, whose piece today on Counterpunch explains the practical implications of the corn-to-cars rule, but then chalks it all up to bumbling and simple corruption:
Last year, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of the Swiss food giant Nestle declared that using food crops to make biofuels was “absolute madness.”
He’s right, of course. But what is so maddening about the madness is that all of this was so easily predictable. The leaders in Congress who foisted the ethanol scam on the American people should have known that droughts happen, that corn crops cannot, will not, grow to infinity.
The only question is whether the feckless bureaucrats in the Obama administration and their willing enablers in Congress will finally put an end to the ethanol madness.
Such naive analysis forgets that cars are the lifeblood of the entire corporate capitalist order, and the “biofuels” ruse is vital to preserving the strategic lie that cars-first transportation is sustainable on planet Earth. It also forgets, as somebody once said, that some portion of the role of politicians is to serve as the executive committee of the overclass, i.e., to make decisions that preserve the conditions required to keep profit-making maximal and maximally secure for all business factions.
Obama is certainly a sell-out, but the world “feckless” simply doesn’t apply to this highly skilled and calculating social climber. As he himself admitted, he is the main pitchfork catcher for the status quo, and he knows it. That’s where the money for elections and wealthy retirements comes from.
Cancellation or even suspension of the corn-to-cars rule is certainly a matter of contesting interest groups and pressing social concerns. But, at the larger level, even a temporary withdrawal of the ethanol mandate would constitute a very bad precedent within overclass-owned political marketing operations, aka government and public policy as we now know it. Without complete freedom to push cars-first transportation above all else, the system enters a zone of serious potential risk. Allowing any consideration — including ballooning food prices and mass starvation — to become a higher priority, even for one year, than that freedom is something close to anathema for the powers-that-be.
Hence, DbC hereby predicts that the Obama (and Cameron) strategy of preserving the corn-to-cars mandate while raising food aid expenditures will continue to win the day, unless and until the public enters the scene and demands a change.
One very interesting aspect of the actual history is the connection between sponsored right-wing labor unions and the imposition of cars-first infrastructure.
Take the case of Dave Beck, the President of the Teamsters union who preceded the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. When Eisenhower asked his old buddy Lucius Clay to head a Presidential Commission to organize automotive-industrial capitalists to ram through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, Clay appointed five cronies to what quickly became known as the Clay Committee.
Dave Beck was one of those five appointees.
Mr. Beck’s Wikipedia page makes it rather clear why he was asked to help formulate the plan for completing the last major segment of the cars-first project. Beck, who had risen to power as a successful opponent of political unionism, had impeccable credentials:
In 1937, Beck formed the Western Conference of Teamsters as a means of counteracting the [complacent] leadership of Joint Councils in San Francisco. Beck persuaded Teamsters president Daniel J. Tobin that the Western Conference of Teamsters was no threat to the power and authority of the international union. Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), had led a successful four-day strike in 1934. Bridges was now leading “the march inland”—an attempt to organize warehouse workers away from shipping ports. Beck was alarmed by Bridges’ radical politics and worried that the ILA would encroach on Teamster jurisdictions. But Teamster joint councils in Los Angeles and other California ports seemed unconcerned. As an end run around the complacent joint councils, Beck formed a large regional organization. Beck engaged in fierce organizing battles and membership raids against the ILA, effectively stifling the “march inland.” The Western Conference of Teamsters, and Beck, emerged significantly stronger from these battles.
Beck became Teamsters national president in 1952 and a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1953 — i.e. right at the pinnacle of the Red Scare. However, by 1957 (a year after the Clay Committee had finished its work with total success), Beck’s history of embezzling from his own union had become a matter of public knowledge. Having reduced the already anemic level of democracy inside the Teamsters union, Beck opted not to seek another term as its head. He was sent to federal prison for tax evasion in 1962.
Such is the stuff of the “labor” voice of the Clay Committee.
Meanwhile, contemplate the way in which Beck ended it all:
After his release from prison, Beck lived in a basement in a house he himself had built for his mother and sister in the 1940s. He retained his $50,000-a-year Teamster president’s pension and became a multimillionaire investing in parking lots.
I’ll say it again: Orwell couldn’t surpass this real-world material.
Part of the reason corporate capitalists are addicted to selling automobiles is the fact that, once the inherently sprawling, alternative-discouraging infrastructure for cars-first transportation is fully built, that infrastructure renders car ownership almost literally necessary. To forgo a car is to add extra risk and time constraint to lives already unfolding amid insecure and decaying economic and social conditions.
I mention this because of this interesting story from today’s edition of the mighty USA Today.
Seems that, among the population who incur both forms of debt (and the rich pay cash for cars, by the way), people are four times more likely to make late payments on their mortgages than on their car loans.
Felicia Young of Tampa says paying her auto loan became more important in the last two years.
“When my credit scores declined and I was facing removal from my house, my car suddenly became the only item I had worth anything,” says the 45-year-old, who holds both full- and part-time jobs as an administrative officer.
Young adds that she needs her car “to get to work and make money. Period.”
“If push comes to shove, you can live in your car,” Becker says. “But you can’t drive your house to work.”
No wonder the overclass insists that the current American lifestyle is non-negotiable.
In one of the least surprising pieces of news you’re likely to hear, Zerobama spiked Bill McKibben today. Obummer went to Cushing, Oklahoma and, posing in front of stacked pipes, announced he is expediting construction of the southern segment of the much publicized Keystone XL oil pipeline. Once that happens, what would you say are the odds the northern section gets blocked by McKibben’s windmill tilters? Only slightly better than those of McKibben admitting he has been multiply wrong in this whole tempest in an irrelevant teapot, I’d say.
Speaking of being epically wrong, here is McKibben’s latest analysis of the meaning of today’s move by Zerobama:
It’s clear that the power of the oil industry drives political decision-making in America–that’s why we need to go after them directly. The first step is an effort to remove the subsidies that they and the rest of the fossil fuel industry enjoy. 350.org is helping coordinate protests at Ohio State University this afternoon, where students will call on President Obama to stop Keystone XL, fracking, and other “extreme energy” projects
As ever, McKibben makes nary a mention of the actual reason for the centrality of the oil industry — cars-first transportation policy. “Doc, I’m worried I might have lung cancer.” “Not to worry,” assures good Dr. McKibben, “we’re going to stop that chronic cough of yours!”
Alas, mere superficiality and woefully erroneous target selection are not enough for McKibben. Having been clearly slapped down, he now promises to squander further political energy pursuing a blend of gestures both hopeless — stopping Keystone and fracking — and simply absurd — taking away a small tax subsidy from one of the planet’s most profitable industries and suggesting that will somehow change a damned thing.
What a flippin’ nightmare.
Fortunately, it looks like the Occupy proto-movement might be heading in the proper direction, albeit rather timidly. Check out the plans for April 4.
This is one of my early favorites from my dig into the history of capitalist dictation of transportation policy in the United States. As we at DbC know, the general public has never been seriously included in the making of said policy, except on the margins and after the main choices have been made. Certainly, there has not been a rich, sustained debate and menu of choices offered to ordinary citizens in the area.
The exhibit at left speaks rather clearly to what has instead happened. The image is a flyer issued in October 1947 by the National Highway Users Conference via its Highway Highlights trade magazine. The National Highway Users Conference was, of course, not in the least an authentic organization of actual highway users. On the contrary, it was one of the several front groups set up by the core corporate capitalists of the automotive-industrial complex. Indeed, guess who was President of the NHUC as of October 1947? The highway-user-in-chief just then happened to be one Alfred P. Sloan!
The humor and scandal in this flyer is the obvious falseness it reveals about the NHUC. On one hand, the purpose of the leaflet is to convince ordinary schmoes that “you and everybody else are highway users.” Meanwhile, not only is it patently absurd for a supposedly democratic, purportedly bottom-up advocacy group to have to tell its own alleged members that they fit into the group in question, but the flyer itself proceeds to acknowledge that the NHUC is composed not of individual citizens, but “organizations and companies which recognize [the] truth” that it’s either cars-first transportation or barbarism.
Such shameless, self-interested demagogy has always been the real engine of the “car culture” that thinkers across the political spectrum — without ever bothering to look at the actual evidence — have attributed to the spontaneous wishes and “national character” of the American masses.
It’s enough to make a cat laugh.
That, my friends, is my stack of photocopies from a week of digging into the Library of Congress’s archives on the history of capitalist propagandizing and lobbying on behalf of cars-first transportation. Believe me when I say it would be cars-only, if these people had gotten 100, rather than 95, percent of their way. Stay tuned for reportage and analysis, both here and in the Courting Carmageddon book.
It’s that time of the year again — the day the Orwellianly-named National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announces its official count of the number of people who died in U.S. automotive collisions last calendar year.
As always, the news this year is good: In 2010, only 32,885 people were killed in car crashes! Isn’t that heart-warming?
How is this good news, you ask? What would we be saying if 2,740 among us were dying each month in war, terrorism, or some other kind of accident? Would those deaths ever be reported as happily reduced? Or would the absolute number be portrayed as a scandal, a dire emergency, or an outrage?
Would we tolerate a governmental agency supposedly charged with reducing the deaths instead playing logical tricks with the numbers — say by reporting that, while a war was killing 2,740 people a month, there were fewer deaths per enemy bullet fired? No? Then why is the NHTSA’s habit of reporting automotive crash deaths as a number per mile driven — as if what matters is the risk per distance, rather that the risk per day — not taken as its own outrage?
The answer, of course, is that because cars-first transportation is the lifeblood of corporate capitalism, its inherent dangers simply must be packaged in a favorable light, the millions of dead be damned.
This point cropped up for me again when, prompted by my good friend Douglas Pressman, I looked at a recent piece from Forbes magazine titled “Watching The Wheels Come Off The Green Machine.” This op-ed by one Bill Frezza, a self-described “free market advocate,” conveys news of the less-than-underwhelming results of the ongoing efforts to peddle “electric” cars. Much of what Frezza reports will be unsurprising to DbC readers:
Few seemed to notice last week when the electric vehicle maker A123 Systems—poster child for successful clean tech investing—“temporarily” laid off 125 workers at its flagship manufacturing plants in Michigan on the eve of the Thanksgiving media break. It also reduced its earnings guidance for 2011 by $45 million, because its anchor customer, Fisker Automotive, “unexpectedly” delayed the production ramp-up for its Karma luxury electric car—again.
Environmentally correct planners put all this public money to work to relieve the technology bottleneck they believed held back our transition to electric cars. So they invested my money and yours into building the largest lithium ion automotive battery plant in North America—to supply a Finnish electric car manufacturer backed by Al Gore’s venture capital fund and which received $529 million in federal loan guarantees. That Finnish manufacturer was supposed to begin production in 2009, but to date has only shipped 40 cars into the U.S. Those cars were delivered to a handful of millionaires and billionaires like Leonardo DeCaprio and Ray Lane who received tax credits because they bought an electric car.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Now, DbC considers it a high priority to spread such news. Every time a potential realist gets snookered into advocating electric cars instead of directing attention to social power and the need for radical transportation reform and conservation efforts, the human race takes another step toward Carmageddon.
But, as we work to peel off as many people as we can from the prevailing supply-side campaigns, it is important to remember that this effort in no way makes us allies with those who call themselves conservatives.
Take a look at Mr. Frezza’s essay, and you’ll see why: Frezza, like all conservatives, refuses to recognize that, foolish and corrupt as it is, the push for green cars is an attempt to rescue cars-first transportation from its own fatal flaws. Could we really, seriously conclude that the existing transportation arrangement in the United States is even imaginably sustainable for more than another few decades? If anybody can tell me how that could happen, please write in.
Meanwhile, not only does Frezza refuse to contemplate that little question, he also — again, like all conservatives — pushes the idea that existing reality is somehow a result of the reign of pure free choice. Frezza treats the green car push as proof of the inherent stupidity of “central planning.” He implies that the existing U.S. automotive fleet is full of “car[s] that customers actually want.”
Of course, the actual history of transportation choice in America is rather different from what Frezza alleges it to have been. From the moment the car was perfected as an object of assembly line manufacture, the corporate capitalist overclass was beyond smitten. Addicted, in fact, is the proper descriptor of their bond with the automobile. In actual history, once the car became a viable corporate product, all hope for genuine transportation choice — how many people would nowadays choose to own no car at all, if we’d built our cities to make that choice convenient? — was up in smoke. In reality, GM is now 100 years old, and so, with the arms of government fully subordinate all along the way, is transportation dictatorship in the United States.
“Drive on!,” say the “conservatives.”
Tom Murphy of Do the Math walks us through a topic that’s as crucial to the future of progressive, science-and-communications aided, modern society as anything could be: the comparative energy efficiency of human muscled-powered locomotion.
Corporate capitalism presumes the continuation — and, hence, the sustainability — of present mobility arrangements in at least its core areas. Under that arrangement, a large percentage of everyday, local-area travel is accomplished via automobile. This is due to the unique demand- and profit-stimulating effects (read: wastefulness) of cars-first transportation orders.
From an energy point of view, cars-first transportation means that fueling automotive engines is a major bottleneck for normal social existence. As such, the obvious question is how well does and could the cars-first arrangement compare to its major alternative, the reconstruction of towns and cities to encourage bicycling and walking?
Tom Murphy’s conclusion: On a diet of normal, mixed foodstuffs (rather than pure lard or some other means of maximizing the energy density of the comestible), short-distance bicycling yields an MPG equivalent of 290, or about 6 times the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius. Walking, meanwhile, delivers about 160 MPG.
There is, Murphy says, one fly in the ointment here: the energy intensity of current agricultural and food delivery arrangements. Factoring that in, Murphy figures that the MPG of cycling drops to 130 and that of walking to 34.
So, even without altering the food system (via increased organic farming, localization of supply chains, moves away from food processing/packaging, improvement of the veggie/meat intake ratio, etc.), bicycles are almost four times more energy efficient than Priuses, and walking is right in the same ballpark. A blend of the two — surely a main feature of any genuinely sustainable, modern human future — would be far more energy efficient than any conceivable cars-first arrangement.
(All this, of course, leaves aside the question of the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructures involved. Cars-first requires huge streets, large parking areas, scattered building patterns, and gigantic, ornate fuel-delivery processes. Muscles-first living would imply much smaller streets, less need for parking, dense building patterns, and comparatively simple fuel-delivery processes.)
Muscles-first would, of course, also be a far healthier arrangement: Using one’s own body, rather than 3,000-pound electrical or fossil-fuel combusting machines, to achieve the desired movements, would have radically positive impacts on public health, as would the accompanying reduction in exposure to the chemicals and large collisions involved in cars-first living and breathing.
Need we mention which society would be more fun and sociable and sane?
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