15 April 2017
You may have heard, above the din of the flabbergasted masses on election day last November, that plastic grocery bags were banned in the entire state of California. Given that plastic pollution is basically clogging up massive areas of all the earth's oceans and waterways, choking wildlife to death, and leaving microscopic particulate to toxify the entire food web of the planet, the bold move by at least one state in the U.S. may have sounded too good to be true. Well it is. Plastic bags are still thriving in California.
True, the supposed plastic grocery bag ban went into immediate effect on November 9, 2016. Most grocery stores had already eliminated their plastic bags by that morning and had paper bags available for 10 cents each if customers neglected to bring their own reusable sack. I thought I witnessed the quickest act of democracy I had ever seen. A store cashier and I applauded the expediency of this policy, yet seeing the ecological devastation that these idiotic plastic creations have caused for decades, I couldn't help but comment that it was about thirty years too late.
Imagine my dismay when, perhaps a week after California enacted the ban, I saw this:
Soon after plastic bags were "banned," they were right back again, albeit in a transformed iteration - slightly thicker, decorated, shaped differently, now costing 10 cents, and touted as "reusable" (weren't the others too?) but still plastic. Clearly, the plastic manufacturers' lobby groups and associations would not concede to a real ban.
We see this maneuver over and over again with environmental protections as well as other pro-social policies: either the policy is a ruse or it does little to truly alleviate the problem it is supposed to tackle. The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) which is used in plastic products and on thermal receipt paper is a known endocrine disruptor and has shown reproductive and developmental toxicity in animals. As an endocrine disrupting chemical it is also potentially carcinogenic. Though the U.S. EPA has decided not to regulate BPA, many manufacturers have responded to public pressure not by eliminating unnecessary products containing BPA, but by substituting a "safer" alternative chemical, BPS, in its place. And guess what? Turns out that BPS is an endocrine disrupting chemical as well, possibly even more potent than BPA.
This bait-and-switch is emblematic of our so-called "win-win" solutions; they are little more than subterfuge. This is what happens when we try to fix the environment but preserve capitalist interests.
When it comes to environmental protection, ecological sustainability, human health and safety, income inequality and poverty reduction, educational opportunity, and global warming there is no doubt that the current presidential administration does not care. They and most of their GOP counterparts have no objective but the accumulation of greater amounts of wealth and power for themselves and their cohort. So, let us leave them out of the discussion right now. I previously wrote about the failure of half measures during the Wisconsin state uprising of 2011. What is perhaps even more pernicious and more unethical than the utter psychopathy of Trump and his cronies is the duplicity of, and the conciliatory deals proposed and enacted by, those who purport to actually care about the pressing issues we face.
These alleged win-win, non-solutions apply to a variety of societal issues in the U.S. Here are a few exemplified:
Regardless of the fact that the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) provided more health insurance to more people than before, it is a wholly deficient measure that enhances the coffers of the health insurance companies, just as it was meant to do ("win-win"). The ACA maintained the highly profitable yet completely inefficient and overpriced U.S. health care industry. While more citizens gained health insurance, they did not necessarily gain affordable access to health care. They still faced the burden of high costs, lack of providers, long waits for appointments, scant coverage for eye and dental care, and often the need to travel great distances to obtain any service at all. The threat of bankruptcy over health care costs still looms for the majority of Americans. There is no viable reason that Universal Single Payer Health Coverage, which would save the country billions of dollars in costs, could not be implemented in the richest in the world, But this is what happens when we try to fix health care but preserve capitalist interests.
The Fight for $15 movement deserves tremendous applause for bringing attention to the plight of low-wage workers, who, despite working one or more jobs, face erratic work schedules, unpredictable conditions, and an almost complete lack of benefits, rendering them unable to make ends meet for themselves and their families. We should have nothing but praise for all in the movement, particularly those whose work to raise awareness and change labor laws represents an additional burden to their already difficult conditions. But the fact that this country does not have a minimum wage of at least $22, which is what the minimum wage should be in 2017, adjusted for inflation and productivity, is shameful Better yet, the U.S. should implement a Universal Basic Income and guaranteed full-time employment with benefits like sick leave, maternity/paternity leave, ample vacation, and pensions. These seemingly idealistic goals are entirely possible if the country taxed the wealthy at previous historical rates, if industrialists paid for all of their externalities - which are currently covered by taxpayers - and if bulk of the U.S. economic budget and discretionary spending was not allocated to the military industrial complex. But instead, the best we can hope for is to raise hourly wages to $15, which is even more than most politicians (both Democrat and Republican) will allow. This is what happens when you try to fix wages but preserve capitalist interests.
I have written about education before and I have worked in both secondary and higher education. There is no doubt that the U.S. public education system is troubled, but the solutions are clear - smaller class sizes, more resources (mainly books), better classrooms and environments, more autonomy for teachers, better working conditions for teachers, less emphasis on technology and tests, and a decrease in child poverty. However Democrats and Republicans alike, instead of paying attention to the underlying problems in so-called "low-performing" schools, have chosen to privatize education through charter schools. While charters do not perform better than public schools, they do have fewer regulations. That climate allows for the funneling of public funds through the school to the people at the top of the corporate charter, often large, for-profit enterprises. The overall charter endeavor leaves the majority of students in the same predicament as before, but can bring great profits to those enterprising educational entrepreneurs. This is what happens when you try to fix education but preserve or augment capitalist interests.
Need it even be said? The United States has done little to nothing to tackle climate change. President Obama signed on to the non-binding U.N. Paris Agreement in 2016, but the U.S. was already set to exceed its carbon emission targets even before the Trump administration policies ensured that the whole accord would be kaput. President Obama and Candidate Hillary Clinton supported fracking and subscribed to an "all-of-the-above" (meaning fossil fuels, solar, wind, hyrdro, nuclear, etc.) policy on energy, which might have been semi-sufficient if we started this attempt at slowly adopting renewable, cleaner energy sources in 1960 or 1970. But all-of-the-above is completely unacceptable in terms of maintaining our planetary existence now. Nevertheless, this is what happens when you try to fix the problem of global warming but preserve or augment capital interests.
Can the U.S. do better? Let's see what other countries are doing:
Kenya is currently joining a number of African nations including Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Malawi in banning the manufacture and import of ALL plastic bags.
According to the New York State Department of Health, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom all have universal health coverage. And this list does not even include all of the African nations that have nearly full, supplemented, and/or sliding-scale health care access.
Finland's routinely ranks as the top education system in the world. Though a few independent public schools exist, there are no private schools and nearly all schoolchildren are afforded the exact same educational opportunities. Of note, there is not the large economic gap between Finnish children as there is for America children, and though Finnish teachers do not have higher salaries, they have myriad state-supplied benefits and far superior working conditions than their American counterparts.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a model of sustainability for the world. Their political and social infrastructure is premised on Gross National Happiness rather than a Gross Domestic Product. Their emphasis is on simplicity, sustainability, environmental preservation, and the overall quality of life of its citizens. Not only has Bhutan already become a carbon-neutral country, wherein it absorbs as much carbon as emits, it has become a carbon-sink, actually absorbing carbon in excess of its emissions. In addition, it is progressing toward becoming a zero-waste nation with 100% organic agriculture - an ambition to which the entire world should aspire.
We're Not Really Even Trying
The continued existence of the human species on the planet is questionable at this moment in history. The pollution, waste stream, impoverishment, and sickening of people and the planet plough ahead almost unabated in the United States as in most of the world. While some in the country deny or neglect the problems and plunge forward with their lives, business as usual, there are others who see, feel, and experience the signs of utmost distress and hope to do something about it. Unfortunately, our collective stance on taking action is not one of ambition but one of conciliation, rationalizing that addressing the pressing issues in our society is "complicated" or "complex." Translated, "it's complicated" simply means that we can only do what will not impede capitalism and the accumulation of increased profits.
With any viable solution proffered in the U.S., there are always caveats, always concessions to ensure that the suggestion meets the standards of "win-win" - which really just means that we citizens cannot tackle any issue unless the answer involves a win for corporations and industries. Consequently, even as we proclaim otherwise, we aren't really even trying to provide health care, alleviate poverty, enhance education, minimize the effects of climate change, or rid ourselves of plastic bags; we are merely trying to placate the complainers, alleviate our own guilt, and rationalize our pathetic inaction on the moral atrocities that we have normalized in our culture. As long as our underlying assumption and purpose is the preservation and augmentation of capitalism, just as with the plastic bag "ban" in California, our solutions will always fall short.
Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the Mad Dog General. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kristinemattis
24 January 2017
Once, at a check-up in Wisconsin, a nice young dental hygienist asked me if I followed the Green Bay Packers. She happened to be a huge fan, bristling with excitement about the upcoming game. I hail from a different state, have lived in a number of cities, and never cared much for football. No, I was not a fan. In fact, I always enjoyed playing sports more than watching them. Nevertheless, the woman went on to talk about her team for the entire time she cleaned my teeth.
Americans, by and large, are infatuated with their teams. Look at the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry or the jubilation over the Cubs winning the world series this past year. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a sea of red-clothed enthusiasts washed over the streets on Badger game days.
But we choose teams in more than just sports. The recent Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix had viewers arguing over whether they were "Team Jess" or "Team Logan." Movie fanatics ally with Team Star Wars or Team Star Trek. Consumers join Team Coke or Team Pepsi. And the majority of the American population forge an allegiance to Team Democrat or Team Republican.
In our increasingly fragmented, screen-obsessed society, we all long to be a part of a community. Teams make us feel like we belong, like we matter. But team loyalty is often as insipid as the endless entertainment we devour as a country. It is based on personality, proximity, and style rather than substance - very apropos in our hyper-consumerist culture. It is an identity that seemingly enriches the egos of the disciples, but in reality, it only serves to enrich those at the top.
Team alliances in such trivial matters as sports and pop culture may be of little significance, save for the time, effort, and money spent on these trivialities which could be better spent on matters of consequence. However, strict team alliances in politics serve to manipulate the masses and obfuscate the issues. What results is a highly polarized, divisive society in which the suffering of the people and the crumbling of our ecological life support system go on almost unabated. Those at the top of Team D and Team R forge forward, reaping the rewards of our toils on the bottom.
Dichotomous political teams exist to provide an illusion of choice. Real life, real issues are messy and multifaceted. Tackling climate change, for example, is much more than merely a matter of choosing between Team Prius versus Team Hummer. But teams provide a simple heuristic so that people can avoid the difficulty of analyzing and considering complex matters. We choose teams so that we can spend our time chasing careers, wealth, and a host of other shallow pursuits rather than participating in building a better world every day. Finally, teams allow those in power to go about their self-serving, often destructive, business while the powerless squabble with each other over which side they are on.
When we are aligned with a particular team, we tend to excuse and rationalize that team's bad behavior, because that team becomes attached to our own ego. We project our beliefs and feelings onto that team and its representative leader. Thus, any attack on the team becomes a personal affront, regardless of the fact that the team seldom cares about us.
Consequently, Democrats rarely balked at Bill Clinton's roll-back of welfare, repeal of Glass-Steagall, enactment of an excessively harsh crime bill, passing of NAFTA, and deregulation of the Telecommunications industry. In addition, many Democrats justified or ignored Obama's increase in foreign wars, bail out of Wall Street, expansion of offshore oil drilling, extension of Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy, and promotion of free trade agreements that empower and enrich corporations. There is no direct Republican corollary to the actions of the Democrats because Republicans do not implement policies that would be otherwise considered Democratic. However, what occurs with Republicans is that when confronted with such policies from Clinton and Obama - policies that are inherently Republican in nature - the Republicans reject rather than support them because they originate from the wrong team. All of this refusal to address the actual political issues stems from blind adherence to teams (and in the case of Republican repudiation of Obama, sometimes blatant racism).
The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., the ACA or Obamacare) serves as an apt illustration of the nonsensical political team activity. This sometimes helpful but deeply flawed health care initiative - in that it protects and expands the coffers of the unnecessary health insurance industry - bears far too many striking similarities to the plan conceived at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the plan enacted in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Any wonder why the Republicans have no other ideas now that they are poised to repeal the ACA? Because the Democrats stole their idea. But both teams deny this fact. Moreover, Democrats will argue the spurious claim that Obamacare is the best we can do, that we could never enact universal single-payer health coverage (which would save the country billions).
In order to fight the fascist and regressive Trump regime, we would do well to learn from past mistakes. We cannot battle Trump with the goal of simply switching the team in power. In 2011, the co-option of a populist rebellion in Wisconsin by the Democratic party signaled doom for the movement. Likewise for Occupy. In the aftermath, several Democrats won while the rest of us continued to lose.
Some attending the historic Women's March expressed the opinion that those who voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson - i.e., not Team Hillary - were not welcome. This team sentiment is highly destructive. In a similar vein, it does women no good to decry Trump's misogyny and history of sexual assault without at least acknowledging that a number of President Clinton's numerous past indiscretions amount to sexual harassment as well. While these behaviors may not necessarily be equivalent, neither behavior should be condoned based upon team loyalty.
Democrats and Republicans and their anointed leaders such as Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump are brands and personalities. There is a reason that the Obama campaign won Advertising Age's award for marketer of the year in 2008. Part of belonging to a particular team involves the cult of celebrity. Charming, good-looking, dignified, witty team leaders cultivate that sense of belonging even more so. But even the most distinguished leaders come replete with empty rhetoric and broken promises. It is important that we see through the charismatic character, that we analyze the practices rather than embrace the platitudes.
The political dichotomies are a means to divide those who should be united, and so they have. I received numerous notes from people and heard tales from friends who recounted fractured relationships - some permanently - arising from the divisiveness between teams in this past 2016 election. By choosing teams, we were forced to defend the indefensible, whether it be Hillary's war mongering and pro-corporate agenda on one side, or Trump's immaturity, racism, and probable psychopathy on the other (again, not that they are necessarily equivalent). People are tired of hypocrisy and lies, but these emanate from both teams. To circumvent this foible, we could acknowledge the positive (in those rare instances) and speak out vehemently against the negative of all parties and all politicians - in short, speak the truth. Defending your team despite its flagrant deficiencies is a vacuous, disingenuous endeavor that we should all find intolerable.
Furthermore, when it comes to teams in presidential elections, we forget that we've been manipulated into choosing a president from what are often limited and very poor choices provided by the rich and powerful. These choices (in this case, both Hillary and the Donald) may not reflect the citizenry of the country at all. Even so, we fall in line, bickering over the unfavorable choices thrust upon us, rather than come together against them both and defend our democracy and the policies that would be best for us all.
It's amazing how nonplussed people become when you raise issues without the context of the major political parties - when you do not affiliate with a team. Sometimes they deflect the subject or try to pinpoint your nonexistent team. Then, they are loath to agree with you if they conclude they are on a different team, even though you assure them that you do not belong to one. This default team position needs to end if we want any chance of combating the most pressing concerns facing all of our citizens including poverty, income inequality, and wholesale environmental degradation.
For any real democracy, our alliances need to shift from superficial teams to substantive ideas. We want to be a part of a group, yet we fail to recognize our more salient connections to the majority of humanity. Our delusions about the Team D and Team R blind us to the largest struggle of all: the oppressed versus the oppressors. And currently, in that war, you know what team both the Democrats and the Republicans represent.
Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the Mad Dog General. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kristinemattis
11 January 2017
|Credit: B. Coady|
Clearly not. In fact, not many people live in Meryl Streep's America. Most of those that do were in that Golden Globes ballroom with the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award winner, cheering her triumphant anti-Trump speech in which she never even had to utter the ignoramus's name. And right on cue, Trump retorted with a ridiculous attack on the ability of one of the most deservedly honored actors of our day, surprisingly refraining from a crack about her looks or age.
Thank goodness we are all still entitled to free speech, for the time being, at least. Though their voices are unduly and unfairly amplified, celebrities have a right to their opinions. Likewise, my muted voice has a right to call celebrities out on their hollowness. Streep's speech was perfectly suited for Hollywood, believing itself to be important, but lacking the necessary depth from which most meaningful things come.
Let's be clear. There is good reason for Meryl Streep to use her public platform to lament the incoming sociopath-in-chief and to encourage resistance to the upcoming fascism. There is good reason to be fearful of the future. But while Meryl and her peers have been blissfully unaware of the destination toward which humanity has been heading for at least four decades now - with every single Democrat and Republican at the helm - others of us have been watching each presidential administration lead us closer to the proverbial cliff. Actually, far too many citizens have already fallen to their deaths. For the rest of us, the only difference now is that the velocity at which we approach the precipice is merely accelerating.
It is not hard to call out Trump for mocking a disabled person, as Streep did. Anyone with half a heart felt horrified at the sight of Trump's deplorable impression. But it is hard to abide the shallowness of scorning the corrupt and contemptible president-elect without also admonishing the equally corrupt and contemptible institutions from which he emanated, including the two-party political system and the entertainment industry.
Streep spoke of the inclusively of her industry, remarking on the diverse backgrounds from which so many of her colleagues came. It was a typical telling of the popular Horatio Alger myth that anyone can find success in America. But we all know the truth: that the accomplishments of people like those at the Golden Globes are one in a million - and it just so happens that the success tales come from those very ones-in-millions. We do not hear the stories of the failures. So-called successes are products of luck, timing, ambition, connections, nepotism, often corruption and compromised ethics, and sometimes, hard work and/or talent. "Making it" in Hollywood is a windfall, yet for the majority of the hard-working and talented people who do not, the entertainment industry is emblematic of the rampant income inequality in this nation. Many worthy artists never make it and never even have a chance. It's a lottery and a crapshoot, but it does not have to be. It does not have to reward few and leave the majority to struggle.
No one deserves the massive wealth that these people enjoy. That wealth is always at the expense of those who have little. Furthermore, if everyone in America lived so lavishly - as do both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as well - the earth would be destroyed because it could not sustain such wealth and excess.
(Speaking of sustainability, most of those in the entertainment industry like to tout themselves as concerned about the environment, but their industry itself is awash in almost unbridled energy and resource use, waste, and pollution.)
Streep stressed the importance of the profound artistry produced by Hollywood. Granted, I admit watching some select television series and the occasional film. There is quality to be had; there are some very worthwhile endeavors. But that does not mitigate the fact that the entertainment industry produces complete and utter crap in far excess of its products of value. And because it follows the corporate capitalist model that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton support full throttle, it also exacerbates economic inequality and environmental devastation.
As fitting at the Golden Globes, where the awards are given by the Hollywood Foreign Press, Streep underscored the obligation of a vibrant fourth estate, saying, "We need the principled press to hold power to account." Actors like Meryl echoed the same sentiments during the George W. Bush administration, but why did we not hear those sentiments from them when Nobel peace prize-winning Obama started dropping bombs in seven foreign countries, when he escalated drone warfare - killing untold numbers of innocent civilians, when he deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history, when he rubber-stamped the surveillance state, when just a couple of weeks ago he passed a law that amounts to enacting an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, when he and Clinton pushed for the TPP, when he and Clinton supported fracking, when he and Clinton derided and jailed whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning? If we are to hold one power to account, we should hold ALL powers to account, Meryl.
Furthermore, Streep called for support for the Committee to Protect Journalists, perhaps forgetting that the Obama administration has sentenced more whistleblowers than all other previous presidents combined. These whistleblowers committed the grave act of leaking to the press, and thus to the public, the immoral and nefarious deeds of our government. You know, holding power to account. Obama will now pass on his legacy of attacking and imprisoning journalists and their sources to the unhinged Trump.
One could claim that the burden of the failure of American democracy is partially at the hands of the entertainment industry. Arguably, the man who was the progenitor of the modern systemic decline of America was none other than Ronald Reagan, a product of Hollywood whose political rise was enabled by his star power. Similarly, Donald Trump only became a household name because of his stint on the Apprentice. His nationwide name recognition "bigly" aided his campaign - and, to be sure, he conducted his campaign not unlike the Hollywood campaigns at this time of year for the much-coveted Oscars. Everyone in New York business circles already knew what a misogynist, racist, con-artist the Donald was. No doubt, everyone in Hollywood soon learned the same when Trump embarked upon his reality show. But no one dared speak out when Trump was a cash cow for their respective industries.
Meanwhile, one of very few principled "mainstream" presidential candidates in my lifetime emerged with great fortitude in the 2016 race. Bernie Sanders could very well have been elected President and we could all be ushering in a whole new promising era of equity, inclusion, and justice not seen for scores and scores of years. His primary loss could be blamed partly on an archaic election process in which voters are disenfranchised through ridiculous rules, including registering months ahead of elections and closed primaries, not to mention voter suppression due to erroneous purging of registry lists, and many other undemocratic practices. But mostly, Bernie lost due to the concerted effort, through unethical and illegal tactics of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to provide Clinton the Democratic nomination at all costs, the will of the people be damned.
It is likely that we can thank the very unpopular Hillary Clinton, who, like most Democrats of the modern era, promulgated neoliberal, corporatist, Republican policies (militarism, privatization, deregulation, and austerity - to name but a few) for the election of Trump. Soon too, we may be able to thank the Democrats for sending us all to nuclear annihilation, as their unverifiable, evidence-free blaming of Russia for Trump's election may send us into a wholly preventable nuclear war. (At which point, we will always then be left wondering why the Democrats did not fight to eliminate the electoral college after Gore won the popular vote in 2000.) Yet Streep has held fast to propping up Clinton and these very same Democrats, who have laid the foundation for this unfettered plutocratic regime, hiding its support structure behind their dignified, yet duplicitous faces.
Meryl, while I appreciate the gravity of this moment in U.S. history and your calling attention to it, I cannot refrain from questioning your collaboration with and support of the very people and systems that laid the groundwork for this doom. Like them, your superficial examination of the issues we are facing only perpetuates the phony political partisanship under which the nation and the world are being utterly destroyed. Perhaps the best thing that you and your comrades could do, instead of making speeches that fall far from the mark, is to cancel all of your extravagant and wasteful ceremonies of the season and join the hoi polloi in the community and in the streets to fight against the plutocracy. At this crucial moment in time, we need less superficiality and more substance, especially from Hollywood.
Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kristinemattis
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