Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mike Byron Introduces “Infinity’s Rainbow” at S.D. Library

How Global Warming, Peak Oil, Corporate Personhood and Fundamentalism Interact


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I had been reading a lot about global warming, energy policy, peak oil [the theory that humans have already used up half the world’s available petroleum and the remainder will become increasingly difficult, environmentally destructive and expensive to extract], religious fundamentalism and what’s wrong with our foreign policy,” author and political science professor Mike Byron told the San Diego Humanist Association at the downtown library May 20, “and I hadn’t seen much about how every one of these issues relates to everything else. The more I thought about these diverse issues, the more I felt that to deal effectively with those problems, you have to consider how they interrelate.”

Byron’s search to put his concerns about war, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, the power of corporations over the political system and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of the human race running out of energy and having to deal with global warming simultaneously led him to a two-year research project that produced a book he called Infinity’s Rainbow. Its basic thesis is that the combination of global warming and the imminent exhaustion of the world’s fossil fuels presents the world in general and the U.S. in particular with a major crisis that threatens the very existence of humanity — and we’re ill-equipped to handle it for two reasons: the iron grip corporations have on the U.S. political system and the rising power of religious fundamentalists who see environmental disaster and conflict in the Middle East over oil as good things: fulfillment of the quasi-Biblical prophecies of Armageddon and the Rapture.

“Basically, I began by looking at a couple of problems,” Byron explained. “One is the fact that human activity affects the climate. We’ve assumed that whatever we do will not affect the biosphere, and for most of human history that has been correct. The problem is that civilizations tend to burn out their local environments. For example, the very first human civilization, the Sumerians in what is now Iraq, used the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as sources for canals for irrigation water, and so the land between them became lush and fertile. Today, what you find there is a lunar landscape with giant mounds standing in the middle that are what’s left of the Sumerian cities. Irrigation water contains salts and other minerals which eventually so saturated the soil that nothing has grown there for about 3,000 years — and it will take another 10,000 years before anything can grow there again.”

In the days of the Sumerians, and throughout the history of human civilization until the industrial revolution began almost 200 years ago, burning out one part of the earth wasn’t much of a problem because people could always move and re-establish their civilization somewhere else, Byron explained. In fact, he said that this was the beginning of imperialism, as the most successful and militarily powerful civilizations used their armed might to take over new lands that were still fresh and capable of supporting them. “Unfortunately, human industrial civilization is now so large, and so powerfully able to impact the biosphere, that not only is there no longer anywhere else to go, but its impacts are worldwide,” Byron said. “We’re disrupting the long-term climate and rainfall patterns of the entire planet.”

Byron stressed that, as much as modern humans like to pretend that they are no longer dependent on the natural world for their survival, in fact the very ability of the human race to feed itself requires an awareness of natural weather patterns and an ability to predict them. “Agriculture is a bet that you understand the climate and rainfall well enough to grow crops and feed your population,” he explained. “If you randomly alter these conditions in ways so complicated we can’t predict them, the ability to grow food decreases as the population still increases.”

At the same time as our overuse of hydrocarbon fuels is creating global warming and threatening the weather patterns on which agriculture depends, Byron added, we’re also exhausting our supply of these irreplaceable sources of energy. “Worldwide industrial civilization is based on hydrocarbon energy,” he said. “First it came from coal, which powered steam engines. Then it came from oil. A barrel of oil, which is 42 gallons, contains the energy level of a person’s labor for 20 years. That is how much energy is concentrated in that substance. Your car weighs thousands of pounds, and if you try to push it for 25 miles, that will give you a really deep understanding of how much energy there is in a gallon of gasoline.” Unfortunately, in releasing all that energy hydrocarbon fuels also release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which unites with oxygen molecules to create carbon dioxide.

What’s more worrisome is that at the very time we’re starting to screw up the climate by our long history of relying on hydrocarbons for up to 80 percent of all our energy needs, we’re also starting to run out of them, Byron explained. “Very detailed studies by energy geologists and physicists show that the total amount of recoverable oil that has ever existed on earth is two trillion barrels, and we’ve already used one trillion,” he said. “We seem to be at a plateau of oil production. Production peaked in 2005 at 80 million barrels a day, and it has declined slightly since then.” Byron pointed out that as the supply of oil decreases, economic law dictates that its price will go up — and as the price of oil goes up, “the cost of everything in our civilization will increase very dramatically.”

According to Byron, our last chance to handle this problem and achieve a smooth transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energy was in the late 1970’s. The OPEC-engineered oil price spikes of 1973 and 1979 actually had a beneficial effect, he said — they delayed the peak of oil production from the mid-1980’s (when it was predicted in the 1970’s) to the mid 2000’s, as people drove less, bought smaller cars and generally conserved energy — but when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as President, “he tore down the solar panels Carter had put on the White House roof,” thereby symbolically encouraging the American people to go back into denial about the long-term consequences of their energy use. Today, Byron added, the Bush administration is actively impeding the efforts of other countries to address the twin issues of global warming and peak oil, and Americans generally are in a state of denial about their (and the world’s) climate and energy future.

Why isn’t the U.S. government aggressively moving to address these issues? Byron has two answers: the power of corporations over U.S. government and politics, and the rise of the radical religious Right to a position of prominence in the American political system. Byron traces corporate power back to 1886, when corporations won from the U.S. Supreme Court the right to be regarded as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Originally passed in 1868, just after the Civil War, to safeguard the rights of the newly freed African-American slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment became a shield for corporate power and from 1886 to 1935 was repeatedly used by a Right-wing Supreme Court to strike down minimum-wage laws, laws to ensure workers’ health and safety, environmental regulations and just about any attempt by the government to tame the most blatant abuses of lassiez-faire capitalism.

What’s more, said Byron, the Supreme Court itself never actually decided that corporations were “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment. The key phrase was simply inserted into the abstract of an opinion by a Supreme Court law clerk who’d formerly been a railroad attorney. Usually, passing statements in judicial opinions are called “dicta” and aren’t considered valid precedents — but not this one. Over the next 50 years, the statement that corporations were “persons” was routinely cited to hold that corporations could basically do whatever they liked — and while the Court backed away from that somewhat during the New Deal, in recent years, as more Right-wing judges from the so-called “Law and Economics” movement have been appointed, mostly (but not always) by Republican presidents, the Supreme Court has once again taken on its historic role under the Fourteenth Amendment and the doctrine of corporate personhood to block attempts to regulate the economy and put brakes on corporate power.

Byron cited the recent documentary film The Corporation and its companion book for their analyses of what’s wrong with letting corporations run things without any attempt at regulating them. The major point of The Corporation is that a corporation is required by its charter and its legal responsibility to single-mindedly pursue short-term profit, no matter what the long-term consequences: behavior that in an individual would be diagnosed as psychopathic. “The only reason a corporation exists is to provide profits for its shareholders,” he explained.. “The corporations are reifications of our deepest wishes. We all want wealth and riches, and they exist because we are what we are and we have the values we do, including the belief that there’s always wealth for the taking. From the beginning of civilization, we’ve assumed that the earth is a cornucopia and we can’t affect the biosphere. The consequences are potentially fatal for human civilization, and we’re in total denial.”

And as if the corporate attitude of pursuit of short-term profit, damn the long-term consequences, weren’t threatening enough, Byron identified another political and social force in today’s U.S. that’s even more dangerous for our long-term survival: Christian fundamentalism, particularly the movement within it known as “dispensationalism.” Based on a reading of the New Testament, particularly its final book — the Revelation of St. John the Divine — that was first articulated towards the end of the 19th century, dispensationalism holds that the prophecies of Revelation are being fulfilled in our own time. Dispensationalists look towards the battle of Armageddon, the final struggle between heaven and hell, to take place in the modern Middle East, to be followed by the “Rapture,” in which the faithful, as Byron put it, “get to be beamed up, like on Star Trek, just before the world collapses.”

Byron said that the dispensationalists within the radical Christian Right are skewing political decision-makers to regard rationally dangerous policies as desirable because they will supposedly hasten the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies. “Since the timetable to the Rapture is set up by catastrophic war in the Middle East, if you’re a dispensationalist you’ll want there to be catastrophic war in the Middle East,” he said. “You’ll want the U.S. not only to invade Iraq but also Iran, and conquer that part of the world which has at least one-eighth of all its known energy resources. Tens of millions of Americans now believe that we have to fight in the Middle East. They think they’re doing God’s work, but they’re actually doing Exxon-Mobil’s and Shell’s.”

What is to be done? According to Byron — who admitted his current book is light on proposed solutions, and is writing another one that will focus more on the ways out of the four-sided crisis he describes — “what’s needed is a broad-based movement” of people organizing and campaigning, mostly outside the existing political system but also within it, to demand positive change. Byron said that until 2006 he was active within the Democratic party — he even ran for U.S. Congress against Darrell Issa in 2004 — but he’s since dropped out of party politics because, “While the parties at the local level are filled with idealistic people, the higher you get the less eager people are to do anything that challenges the status quo.”

For a number of reasons — the most important being that both Republican and Democratic parties are dependent for their survival on money from corporations or their stockholders and executives — “the political parties are incapable of bringing about change,” Byron said. He cited the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s — a movement “from outside and inside the parties, that would accept nothing less than that we do what we need to do” — as the model for the kind of activism we need. Byron also said that we have to be willing to put our own money where our mouths are; he said that he personally spent $10,000 on solar panels for his home. Joking that this expenditure “probably horrified my wife” (who was at his San Diego library presentation with him), he said, “I needed to put my research into action.”

A good part of Byron’s prescription is for Americans to move away from the incredible consumerism and acquisitiveness we’ve been encouraged in by a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. “As long as we keep wanting more wealth and more stuff, we aren’t going to change until it’s too late,” he said.