The failure of capitalism to solve our biggest problems is prompting many to question one of its basic precepts.
October 14, 2020
No wonder many in the US and Europe have begun questioning the underpinnings of capitalism—particularly its devotion to free markets and its faith in the power of economic growth to create prosperity and solve our problems.
The antipathy to growth is not new; the term “degrowth” was coined in the early 1970s. But these days, worries over climate change, as well as rising inequality, are prompting its reemergence as a movement.
Calls for “the end of growth” are still on the economic fringe, but degrowth arguments have been taken up by political movements as different as the Extinction Rebellion and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy. “And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” thundered Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, to an audience of diplomats and politicians at UN Climate Week last year.
At the core of the degrowth movement is a critique of capitalism itself. In Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, Jason Hickel writes: “Capitalism is fundamentally dependent on growth.” It is, he says, “not growth for any particular purpose, mind you, but growth for its own sake.”
That mindless growth, Hickel and his fellow degrowth believers contend, is very bad both for the planet and for our spiritual well-being. We need, Hickel writes, to develop “new theories of being” and rethink our place in the “living world.” (Hickel goes on about intelligent plants and their ability to communicate, which is both controversial botany and confusing economics.) It’s tempting to dismiss it all as being more about social engineering of our lifestyles than about actual economic reforms.
Though Hickel, an anthropologist, offers a few suggestions (“cut advertising” and “end planned obsolescence”), there’s little about the practical steps that would make a no-growth economy work. Sorry, but talking about plant intelligence won’t solve our woes; it won’t feed hungry people or create well-paying jobs.
Still, the degrowth movement does have a point: faced with climate change and the financial struggles of many workers, capitalism isn’t getting it done.
Even some economists outside the degrowth camp, while not entirely rejecting the importance of growth, are questioning our blind devotion to it.
One obvious factor shaking their faith is that growth has been lousy for decades. There have been exceptions to this economic sluggishness—the US during the late 1990s and early 2000s and developing countries like China as they raced to catch up. But some scholars, notably Robert Gordon, whose 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth triggered much economic soul-searching, are realizing that slow growth might be the new normal, not some blip, for much of the world.
Gordon held that growth “ended on October 16, 1973, or thereabouts,” write MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize, in Good Economics for Hard Times. Referencing Gordon, they single out the day when the OPEC oil embargo began; GDP growth in the US and Europe never fully recovered.
The pair are of course being somewhat facetious in tracing the end of growth to a particular day. Their larger point: robust growth seemingly disappeared almost overnight, and no one knows what happened.
Duflo and Banerjee offer possible explanations, only to dismiss them. They write: “The bottom line is that despite the best efforts of generations of economists, the deep mechanisms of persistent economic growth remain elusive.” Nor do we know how to revive it. They conclude: “Given that, we will argue, it may be time to abandon our profession’s obsession with growth.”
In this perspective, growth is not the villain of today’s capitalism, but—at least as measured by GDP—it’s an aspiration that is losing its relevance. Slow growth is nothing to worry about, says Dietrich Vollrath, an economist at the University of Houston, at least not in rich countries. It’s largely the result of lower birth rates—a shrinking workforce means less output—and a shift to services to meet the demands of wealthier consumers. In any case, says Vollrath, with few ways to change it, we might as well embrace slow growth. “It is what it is,” he says.
Vollrath says when his book Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success came out last January, he “was adopted by the degrowthers.” But unlike them, he’s indifferent to whether growth ends or not; rather, he wants to shift the discussion to ways of creating more sustainable technologies and achieving other social goals, whether the changes boost growth or not. “There is now a disconnect between GDP and whether things are getting better,” he says.
Though the US is the world’s largest economy as measured by GDP, it is doing poorly on indicators such as environmental performance and access to quality education and health care, according to the Social Progress Index, released late this summer by a Washington-based think tank. In the annual ranking (done before the covid pandemic), the US came in 28th, far behind other wealthy countries, including ones with slower GDP growth rates.
“You can churn out all the GDP you want,” says Rebecca Henderson, an economist at Harvard Business School, “but if the suicide rates go up, and the depression rates go up, and the rate of children dying before they’re four goes up, it’s not the kind of society you want to build.” We need to “stop relying totally on GDP,” she says. “It should be just one metric among many.”
Part of the problem, she suggests, is “a failure to imagine that capitalism can be done differently, that it can operate without toasting the planet.”
In her perspective, the US needs to start measuring and valuing growth according to its impact on climate change and access to essential services like health care. “We need self-aware growth,” says Henderson. “Not growth at any cost.”
Daron Acemoglu, another MIT economist, is calling for a “new growth strategy” aimed at creating technologies needed to solve our most pressing problems. Acemoglu describes today’s growth as being driven by large corporations committed to digital technologies, automation, and AI. This concentration of innovation in a few dominant companies has led to inequality and, for many, wage stagnation.
People in Silicon Valley, he says, often acknowledge to him that this is a problem but argue, “It’s what technology wants. It’s the path of technology.” Acemoglu disagrees; we make deliberate choices about which technologies we invent and use, he says.
Acemoglu argues that growth should be directed by market incentives and by regulation. That, he believes, is the best way to make sure we create and deploy technologies that society needs, rather than ones that simply generate massive profits for a few.
Which technologies are those? “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “I’m not clairvoyant. It hasn’t been a priority to develop such technologies, and we’re not aware of the capabilities.”
Turning such a strategy into reality will depend on politics. And the reasoning of academic economists like Acemoglu and Henderson, one fears, is not likely to be popular politically—ignoring as it does the loud calls for the end of growth from the left and the self-confident demands for continued unfettered free markets on the right.
But for those not willing to give up on a future of growth and the vast promise of innovation to improve lives and save the planet, expanding our technological imagination is the only the real choice.
Rewriting capitalism: some must-reads
Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, BY REBECCA HENDERSON The Harvard Business School economist argues that companies can play an important role in improving the world.
Good Economics for Hard Times, BY ABHIJIT V. BANERJEE AND ESTHER DUFLO The MIT economists and 2019 Nobel laureates explain the challenges of boosting growth both in rich countries and in poor ones, where they do much of their research.
Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success, BY DIETRICH VOLLRATH The University of Houston economist argues that slow growth in rich countries like the United States is just fine, but we need to make the benefits from it more inclusive.
Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, BY JASON HICKEL A leading voice in the degrowth movement provides an overview of the argument for ending growth. It’s a convincing diagnosis of the problems we’re facing; how an end to growth will solve any of them is less clear.
Despite warnings, American and European officials gave up leverage that could have guaranteed access for billions of people. That risks prolonging the pandemic.
In the coming days, a patent will finally be issued on a five-year-old invention, a feat of molecular engineering that is at the heart of at least five major Covid-19 vaccines. And the United States government will control that patent.
The new patent presents an opportunity — and some argue the last best chance — to exact leverage over the drug companies producing the vaccines and pressure them to expand access to less affluent countries.
The question is whether the government will do anything at all.
The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines, achieved at record speed and financed by massive public funding in the United States, the European Union and Britain, represents a great triumph of the pandemic. Governments partnered with drugmakers, pouring in billions of dollars to procure raw materials, finance clinical trials and retrofit factories. Billions more were committed to buy the finished product.
But this Western success has created stark inequity. Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90 percent of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far. Under current projections, many of the rest will have to wait years.
Growing numbers of health officials and advocacy groups worldwide are calling for Western governments to use aggressive powers — most of them rarely or never used before — to force companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their know-how and ramp up manufacturing. Public health advocates have pleaded for help, including asking the Biden administration to use its patent to push for broader vaccine access.
Governments have resisted. By partnering with drug companies, Western leaders bought their way to the front of the line. But they also ignored years of warnings — and explicit calls from the World Health Organization — to include contract language that would have guaranteed doses for poor countries or encouraged companies to share their knowledge and the patents they control.
“It was like a run on toilet paper. Everybody was like, ‘Get out of my way. I’m gonna get that last package of Charmin,’” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist. “We just ran for the doses.”
The prospect of billions of people waiting years to be vaccinated poses a health threat to even the richest countries. One example: In Britain, where the vaccine rollout has been strong, health officials are tracking a virus variant that emerged in South Africa, where vaccine coverage is weak. That variant may be able to blunt the effect of vaccines, meaning even vaccinated people might get sick.
Western health officials said they never intended to exclude others. But with their own countries facing massive death tolls, the focus was at home. Patent sharing, they said, simply never came up.
“It was U.S.-centric. It wasn’t anti-global.” said Moncef Slaoui, who was the chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, a Trump administration program that funded the search for vaccines in the United States. “Everybody was in agreement that vaccine doses, once the U.S. is served, will go elsewhere.”
President Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive branch, are reluctant to change course. Mr. Biden has promised to help an Indian company produce about 1 billion doses by the end of 2022 and his administration has donated doses to Mexico and Canada. But he has made it clear that his focus is at home.
“We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first,” Mr. Biden said recently. “But we’re then going to try and help the rest of the world.”
Pressuring companies to share patents could be seen as undermining innovation, sabotaging drugmakers or picking drawn-out and expensive fights with the very companies digging a way out of the pandemic.
As rich countries fight to keep things as they are, others like South Africa and India have taken the battle to the World Trade Organization, seeking a waiver on patent restrictions for Covid-19 vaccines.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have promised to fill the void as part of their vaccine diplomacy. The Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, for example, has entered into partnerships with producers from Kazakhstan to South Korea, according to data from Airfinity, a science analytics company, and UNICEF. Chinese vaccine makers have reached similar deals in the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Indonesia.
Addressing patents would not, by itself, solve the vaccine imbalance. Retrofitting or constructing factories would take time. More raw materials would need to be manufactured. Regulators would have to approve new assembly lines.
And as with cooking a complicated dish, giving someone a list of ingredients is no substitute to showing them how to make it.
To address these problems, the World Health Organization created a technology pool last year to encourage companies to share know-how with manufacturers in lower-income nations.
Not a single vaccine company has signed up.
“The problem is that the companies don’t want to do it. And the government is just not very tough with the companies,” said James Love, who leads Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit.
Drug company executives told European lawmakers recently that they were licensing their vaccines as quickly as possible, but that finding partners with the right technology was challenging.
“They don’t have the equipment,” Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said. “There is no capacity.”
But manufacturers from Canada to Bangladesh say they can make vaccines — they just lack patent licensing deals. When the price is right, companies have shared secrets with new manufacturers in just months, ramping up production and retrofitting factories.
It helps when the government sweetens the deal. Earlier this month, Mr. Biden announced that the pharmaceutical giant Merck would help make vaccines for its competitor Johnson & Johnson. The government pressured Johnson & Johnson to accept the help and is using wartime procurement powers to secure supplies for the company. It will also pay to retrofit Merck’s production line, with an eye toward making vaccines available to every adult in the United States by May.
Despite the hefty government funding, drug companies control nearly all of the intellectual property and stand to make fortunes off the vaccines. A critical exception is the patent expected to be approved soon — a government-led discovery for manipulating a key coronavirus protein.
This breakthrough, at the center of the 2020 race for a vaccine, actually came years earlier in a National Institutes of Health lab, where an American scientist named Dr. Barney Graham was in pursuit of a medical moonshot.
‘We’d already done everything’
For years, Dr. Graham specialized in the kind of long, expensive research that only governments bankroll. He searched for a key to unlock universal vaccines — genetic blueprints to be used against any of the roughly two dozen viral families that infect humans. When a new virus emerged, scientists could simply tweak the code and quickly make a vaccine.
In 2016, while working on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, another coronavirus known as MERS, he and his colleagues developed a way to swap a pair of amino acids in the coronavirus spike protein. That bit of molecular engineering, they realized, could be used to develop effective vaccines against any coronavirus. The government, along with its partners at Dartmouth College and the Scripps Research Institute, filed for a patent, which will be issued this month.
When Chinese scientists published the genetic code of the new coronavirus in January 2020, Dr. Graham’s team had their cookbook ready.
“We kind of knew exactly what we had to do,” said Jason McLellan, one of the inventors, who now works at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’d already done everything.”
Dr. Graham was already working with Moderna on a vaccine for another virus when the outbreak in China inspired his team to change focus. “We just flipped it to coronavirus and said, ‘How fast can we go?’” Dr. Graham recalled.
Within a few days, they emailed the vaccine’s genetic blueprint to Moderna to begin manufacturing. By late February, Moderna had produced enough vaccines for government-run clinical trials.
“We did the front end. They did the middle. And we did the back end,” Dr. Graham said.
Exactly who holds patents for which vaccines won’t be sorted out for months or years. But it is clear now that several of today’s vaccines — including those from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, CureVac and Pfizer-BioNTech — rely on the 2016 invention. Of those, only BioNTech has paid the U.S. government to license the technology. The patent is scheduled to be issued March 30.
Patent lawyers and public health advocates say it’s likely that other companies will either have to negotiate a licensing agreement with the government, or face the prospect of a lawsuit worth billions. The government filed such a lawsuit in 2019 against the drugmaker Gilead over H.I.V. medication.
This gives the Biden administration leverage to force companies to share technology and expand worldwide production, said Christopher J. Morten, a New York University law professor specializing in medical patents.
“We can do this the hard way, where we sue you for patent infringement,” he said the government could assert. “Or just play nice with us and license your tech.”
The National Institutes of Health declined to comment on its discussions with the drugmakers but said it did not anticipate a dispute over patent infringement. None of the drug companies responded to repeated questions about the 2016 patent.
Experts said the government has stronger leverage on the Moderna vaccine, which was almost entirely funded by taxpayers. New mRNA vaccines, such as those from Moderna, are relatively easier to manufacture than vaccines that rely on live viruses. Scientists compare it to an old-fashioned cassette player: Try one tape. If it’s not right, just pop in another.
Moderna expects $18.4 billion in vaccine sales this year, but it is the delivery system — the cassette player — that is its most prized secret. Disclosing it could mean giving away the key to the company’s future.
“There should be no division in order to win this battle,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said.
Yet European governments had backed their own champions. The European Investment Bank lent nearly $120 million to BioNTech, a German company, and Germany bought a $360 million stake in the biotech firm CureVac after reports that it was being lured to the United States.
“We funded the research, on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Udo Bullmann, a German member of the European Parliament. “You could have agreed on a paragraph that says ‘You are obliged to give it to poor countries in a way that they can afford it.’ Of course you could have.”
A People’s Vaccine
In May, the leaders of Pakistan, Ghana, South Africa and others called for governments to support a “people’s vaccine” that could be quickly manufactured and given for free.
They urged the governing body of the World Health Organization to treat vaccines as “global public goods.”
Though such a declaration would have had no teeth, the Trump administration moved swiftly to block it. Intent on protecting intellectual property, the government said calls for equitable access to vaccines and treatments sent “the wrong message to innovators.”
World leaders ultimately approved a watered-down declaration that recognized extensive immunization — not the vaccines themselves — as a global public good.
That same month, the World Health Organization launched the technology-access pool and called on governments to include clauses in their drug contracts guaranteeing equitable distribution. But the world’s richest nations roundly ignored the call.
In the United States, Operation Warp Speed went on a summertime spending spree, disbursing over $10 billion to handpicked companies and absorbing the financial risks of bringing a vaccine to market.
“Our role was to enable the private sector to be successful,” said Paul Mango, a top adviser to the then health secretary, Alex M. Azar II.
The deals came with few strings attached.
Large chunks of the contracts are redacted and some remain secret. But public records show that the government used unusual contracts that omitted its right to take over intellectual property or influence the price and availability of vaccines. They did not let the government compel companies to share their technology.
British and other European leaders made similar concessions as they ordered enough doses to vaccinate their populations multiple times over.
“You have to write the rules of the game, and the place to do that would have been these funding contracts,” said Ellen ’t Hoen, the director of Medicines Law and Policy, an international research group.
By comparison, one of the world’s largest health financiers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes grant language requiring equitable access to vaccines. As leverage, the organization retains some right to the intellectual property.
Dr. Slaoui, who came to Warp Speed after leading research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, is sympathetic to this idea. But it would have been impractical to demand patent concessions and still deliver on the program’s primary goals of speed and volume, he said.
“I can guarantee you that the agreements with the companies would have been much more complex and taken a much longer time,” he said. The European Union, for example, haggled over price and liability provisions, which delayed the rollout.
In some ways, this was a trip down a trodden path. When the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic broke out in 2009, the wealthiest countries cornered the global vaccine market and all but locked out the rest of the world.
Experts said at the time that this was a chance to rethink the approach. But the swine flu pandemic fizzled and governments ended up destroying the vaccines they had hoarded. They then forgot to prepare for the future.
The International View
For months, the United States and European Union have blocked a proposal at the World Trade Organization that would waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. The application, put forward by South Africa and India with support from most developing nations, has been bogged down in procedural hearings.
“Every minute we are deadlocked in the negotiating room, people are dying,” said Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat who is involved in the talks.
But in Brussels and Washington, leaders are still worried about undermining innovation.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden’s team gathered top intellectual property lawyers to discuss ways to increase vaccine production.
“They were planning on taking the international view on things,” said Ana Santos Rutschman, a Saint Louis University law professor who participated in the sessions.
Most of the options were politically thorny. Among them was the use of a federal law allowing the government to seize a company’s patent and give it to another in order to increase supply. Former campaign advisers say the Biden camp was lukewarm to this proposal and others that called for a broader exercise of its powers.
The administration has instead promised to give $4 billion to Covax, the global vaccine alliance. The European Union has given nearly $1 billion so far. But Covax aims to vaccinate only 20 percent of people in the world’s poorest countries this year, and faces a $2 billion shortfall even to accomplish that.
Dr. Graham, the N.I.H. scientist whose team cracked the coronavirus vaccine code for Moderna, said that pandemic preparedness and vaccine development should be international collaborations, not competitions.
“A lot of this would not have happened unless there was a big infusion of government money,” he said.
But governments cannot afford to sabotage companies that need profit to survive.
Dr. Graham has largely moved on from studying the coronavirus. He is searching for a universal flu vaccine, a silver bullet that could prevent all strains of the disease without an annual tweak.
Though he was vaccinated through work, he spent the early part of the year trying to get his wife and grown children onto waiting lists — an ordeal that even one of the key inventors had to endure. “You can imagine how aggravating that is,” he said.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting.
Last Updated: March 10, 2021 at 5:59 p.m. ET First Published: March 10, 2021 at 8:28 a.m. ET By
Vincent H. Smith and Eric J. Belasco
Congress has reduced risk by underwriting crop prices and cash revenues
Bill Gates is now the largestowner of farmland in the U.S. having made substantial investments in at least 19 states throughout the country. He has apparently followed the advice of another wealthy investor, Warren Buffett, who in a February 24, 2014 letter to investors described farmland as an investment that has “no downside and potentially substantial upside.”
There is a simple explanation for this affection for agricultural assets. Since the early 1980s, Congress has consistently succumbed to pressures from farm interest groups to remove as much risk as possible from agricultural enterprises by using taxpayer funds to underwrite crop prices and cash revenues.
Over the years, three trends in farm subsidy programs have emerged.
The first and most visible is the expansion of the federally supported crop insurance program, which has grown from less than $200 million in 1981 to over $8 billion in 2021. In 1980, only a few crops were covered and the government’s goal was just to pay for administrative costs. Today taxpayers pay over two-thirds of the total cost of the insurance programs that protect farmers against drops in prices and yields for hundreds of commodities ranging from organic oranges to GMO soybeans.
The second trend is the continuation of longstanding programs to protect farmers against relatively low revenues because of price declines and lower-than-average crop yields. The subsidies, which on average cost taxpayers over $5 billion a year, are targeted to major Corn Belt crops such as soybeans and wheat. Also included are other commodities such as peanuts, cotton and rice, which are grown in congressionally powerful districts in Georgia, the Carolinas, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and California.
The third, more recent trend is a return over the past four years to a 1970s practice: annual ad hoc “one off” programs justified by political expediency with support from the White House and Congress. These expenditures were $5.1 billion in 2018, $14.7 billion in 2019, and over $32 billion in 2020, of which $29 billion came from COVID relief funds authorized in the CARES Act. An additional $13 billion for farm subsidies was later included in the December 2020 stimulus bill.
If you are wondering why so many different subsidy programs are used to compensate farmers multiple times for the same price drops and other revenue losses, you are not alone. Our research indicates that many owners of large farms collect taxpayer dollars from all three sources. For many of the farms ranked in the top 10% in terms of sales, recent annual payments exceeded a quarter of a million dollars.
Farms with average or modest sales received much less. Their subsidies ranged from close to zero for small farms to a few thousand dollars for averaged-sized operations.
So what does all this have to do with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and their love of farmland as an investment? In a financial environment in which real interest rates have been near zero or negative for almost two decades, the annual average inflation-adjusted (real) rate of return in agriculture (over 80% of which consists of land) has been about 5% for the past 30 years, despite some ups and downs, as this chart shows. It is a very solid investment for an owner who can hold on to farmland for the long term.
The overwhelming majority of farm owners can manage that because they have substantial amounts of equity (the sector-wide debt-to-equity ratio has been less than 14% for many years) and receive significant revenue from other sources.
Thus for almost all farm owners, and especially the largest 10% whose net equity averages over $6 million, as Buffet observed, there is little or no risk and lots of potential gain in owning and investing in agricultural land.
Returns from agricultural land stem from two sources: asset appreciation — increases in land prices, which account for the majority of the gains — and net cash income from operating the land. As is well known, farmland prices are closely tied to expected future revenue. And these include generous subsidies, which have averaged 17% of annual net cash incomes over the past 50 years. In addition, Congress often provides substantial additional one-off payments in years when net cash income is likely to be lower than average, as in 2000 and 2001 when grain prices were relatively low and in 2019 and 2020.
It is possible for small-scale investors to buy shares in real-estate investment trusts (REITs) that own and manage agricultural land. However, as with all such investments, how a REIT is managed can be a substantive source of risk unrelated to the underlying value of the land assets, not all of which may be farm land.
Thanks to Congress and the average less affluent American taxpayer, farmers and other agricultural landowners get a steady and substantial return on their investments through subsidies that consistently guarantee and increase those revenues.
While many agricultural support programs are meant to “save the family farm,” the largest beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies are the richest landowners with the largest farms who, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are scarcely in any need of taxpayer handouts.
Cal Newport explains how Slack and Gmail are making us miserable — and what to do about it.
Friday, March 5th, 2021
Well, I’m Ezra Klein. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Before we get into it, a bit of housekeeping. We are looking for an associate producer. That job is still open, but not for much longer. If you have two years of audio experience and want to work on the show, go check out the link to the job listing and show notes. But to the show today, I want to begin here with a concept that’s going to be important throughout the episode — the hyperactive hive mind. That’s the idea at the center of Cal Newport’s new book, “A World Without Email.” And it’s the idea he says at the center of how a lot of us are working and living these days. He defines the hyperactive hive mind as a workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools, like email and instant messenger. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but if you’re someone working in an office, maybe a remote one now, where there’s just a constant stream of digital work-like chatter, that you kind of always need to be keeping up with, but also you sense it’s distracting you from doing your work and also from seeing your family and just relaxing pretty often, that you’re in a hyperactive hive mind. And a lot of us — not all of us, but a lot of us — are in this now. I’ve been a fan of Newport’s work for years, going back to his book, “Deep Work.” Newport has been circling this idea that all of the digital wonder around us has come with a cost. We’re losing our ability to concentrate. These remarkable vistas of information that have been opened to us have also been polluted by endless distraction. And so, we’re not benefiting from any of this the way we thought we would. Instead of getting more done in less time, we feel like we have less time than ever and are never getting enough done. It’s really weird. Something is wrong here. And one reason I like Newport’s work is I think he is right on this. I think we have a lot of trouble seeing the cost of technology, at least when that technology comes with a lot of good, as the internet and digital communication, of course, does. But we have to be able to step back and look at it because the way we adopt a technology at the beginning is never going to be — never going to be — particularly when it is harnessed to firms trying to sell it all to us. It is never going to be the way we ultimately should use it. But the weakness, I would say, of Newport’s previous book — so a weakness he agrees with — is that they were about individuals. They were sometimes the equivalent of giving diet advice to somebody who lives in the chips and cookies aisle of the supermarket. There’s not a lot you can do around that much temptation, but even more so when your built environment is decided for you, when so many choices about how you have to work and what you have to be part of are already made for you. But this book is a step forward in that way. This book is about systems, and in particular, about workplaces. Newport is making a radical argument here, that companies that obsess about efficiency, that think of themselves as rational economic actors, they are utterly failing to question and experiment with their own workflows, like the fundamental nature of how they do their business. And in that, they are making their employees unhappy. They are making their products worse, and they are just contributing to an overall degradation of society. It’s a pretty stunning indictment. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. But I think there’s really something to it. As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Always interested to know who you’d like to see on the show next, so send me your guest suggestions. Here’s Cal Newport.
So this is a book about how the information technology revolution went wrong in the workplace. What went wrong?
Well, once we had the arrival of email in the workplace, it very quickly gave rise to a really new way of organizing large groups of people to work together. It’s what I call the hyperactive hive mind. But essentially, we said, OK, now that we have low friction, low cost digital communication, we can just figure things out on the fly. We’ll plug everyone into an inbox, or later, into a Slack channel, and ad hoc unstructured back and forth messages, just figure things out with people as you need them. And that swept basically the entire knowledge sector. And I think that ended up being a disaster.
Why? What is your evidence it’s a disaster?
Well, I have two main threads. So the first thread of evidence is that it makes it essentially impossible to work. And essentially, the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right? There’s biological things going on here. You have to suppress some networks. You have to amplify other networks. It takes some time. When you glance at an inbox or when you glance at a Slack channel, as is required that you do constantly, if back and forth messaging is how you organize most of your work, you begin to trigger all these network shifts, so all of these complex biological cascades initiate. And you see all these unresolved issues and things you can’t get back to. And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it. And so essentially, the hyperactive hive mind, on paper, had this really good attribute, which is it’s flexible and it’s easy and it’s cheap. You just kind of figure things out on the fly. But the biological reality is it made us really bad at doing our work. And then we have the second thread, which I think had been somewhat unexplored, which is this way of working makes us miserable. It just clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this nonstop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with. And that hits all of these deeply rooted social networks in our brain to take this type of thing seriously. No matter how much the frontal cortex tells us it’s OK, we don’t have to answer these emails right away. There’s a deeper part of our brain that’s worried. And so it makes us miserable, and it makes us terrible at work. But other than that, though, it’s been pretty good.
I want to pick up on this question of whether or not it’s making us miserable. Because one way of looking at this is that it is a triumph of workers who don’t want to work all that hard and want lots of opportunities for distraction over bosses who want them to work really hard. So Slack is just an amazingly deceptive piece of enterprise software, in my mind. I was at an organization that we didn’t have it. And then I helped bring it to that organization. And now, it’s completely clear to me that Slack makes organizations less effective. It’s very well built to help workers slack off, right? To help me slack off. I enjoy slacking off on Slack. I mean, it’s literally right there in the name. It’s called Slack. And they’ve made all these wonderful — you can put GIFs in so easily and little reaction emoji. It’s a great way to bullshit around the water cooler digitally. And so there’s one perspective on this, which is that we’re seeing a failure, and then another that we’re seeing a kind of success of people taking their time back and having more socializing at work. Why should that not be the attitude or conceptual frame I put around this?
Well, no, I think you’re getting at some truth there. I had a recent New Yorker piece that was titled, “Slack is the right tool for the wrong way to work,” where I was trying to really grapple with this notion that there’s a reason why Slack is popular, and there’s also a reason why we hate it. It’s serving two purposes, which kind of complicates the story. I think it’s absolutely true that one of the benefits of the hive mind is it gives you obfuscation. So say you don’t want to work as hard. Let’s say I don’t want to do as much, or I’m in a situation maybe where I can’t work as hard. There is an obfuscation you can get because it’s so ambiguous and ad hoc and on-demand that you can basically generate smokescreens by rapid responses and being on active on the Slack channels. And there’s also a social component to it. And I think those are both really interesting aspects of the hive mind. But I don’t think either justify the hive mind is the right way to work.
A point you make in the book is productivity growth across the economy is not way better today than it was before the widespread adoption of email or before the widespread adoption of Slack. One might have thought that speeding communication would make it so we could get a lot more done a lot quicker. That does not appear to be happening. What problem does interoffice communication solve, and at what point does it become too much?
Well, so what Slack was trying to do — or at least, this was my argument in that former piece — is, Slack said, OK, if we’re going to use the hyperactive hive mind as our primary workflow — that is, if we’re just going to work things out on the fly with back and forth messaging, email is not that great at it. We can do it better with Slack. So when I called Slack the right tool for the wrong way to work, I mean, it’s a tool that is optimized. If we’re going to do the hive mind, this is a better tool for implementing constant chatter than email was, which is why we both love and hate it. We love it because if our organization runs on constant chatter, it does a better job as a tool of that than an inbox does with email. We hate it because this way of working has fundamental issues. But if we go back in time, what problem was email solving? I mean, my ultimate argument is that the original rise, which I document, came from the reality that having fast, but asynchronous communication was sort of a productivity silver bullet. It was an issue that rose once the rise of large offices emerged in mid century, this notion that you might have 1,000 people working in a non-industrial manner for the same company. How do they communicate? And the telephone, the interoffice telephone introduced a synchronous option, but there’s a lot of overhead to getting someone on the phone at the same time. Memos and mail carts, this gave us an asynchronous option, but they were slow. There was people involved. You had to put things on carts. It could take all day. So email was solving a really real problem. I want to do asynchronous communication. I want to do it fast and with low overhead. But once it was there in a way that was unintentional, unplanned, no one thought this was a good way to work, it spiraled us into this hyperactive hive mind, where we basically threw out any other processes or structures for organizing our work and said, why don’t we just figure it out on the fly? And there’s a lot of reasons why that happened. But what I want to underscore here is that shift was unintentional and unplanned. We live in this hive mind not because some corporate consultant said this will make us more productive. It’s actually a lot more accidental.
From an economic perspective, what you’re positing here is not just a very big market failure, but a really big failure of firm organization and management. What you’re saying is that the people in charge of these firms, certainly the people in charge of the digital structure internally at these firms, have actually failed at a very profound level. They’ve brought in these tools. These tools have gotten out of control. They’re reducing worker productivity and firm productivity. They’re reducing worker happiness and firm overall happiness. All that seems basically true to me, but then what is your explanation for why so very, very few major firms have come up with some really, really aggressively alternative way to work? If this is all working so badly, why is it spreading so ubiquitously?
This was one of the big ideas I did some original reporting on for the book. We have a big explanation from this from the late management theorist, Peter Drucker, who coined the term “knowledge work” and really helped American industry in particular understand how this type of work was different than industrial work. He sort of set the trajectories in place. One of the big ideas he emphasized was autonomy. Knowledge workers, unlike industrial workers, need autonomy on how they get their work done. You cannot tell them how to work, how they organize themselves productivity. So he was really pushing autonomy. He introduced this very influential notion of management by objectives. Don’t tell me how to work, just give me clear objectives, and leave it up to me how to actually get things done. And there’s a lot of truth in that, right? I mean, he was right in the sense that you can’t tell an ad copywriter or a computer programmer, you know, how to write ad copy or how to program a computer in the way that you could go to an assembly line in a car plant, because he used to study GM, and say, OK, here’s the step-by-step process for building a steering wheel. So he was right about that. But I think it went too far. My argument is that we are so insistent on autonomy on how we execute work, we accidentally expanded that envelope to mean autonomy on how we also organize our work, how we assign our work, how we figure out who should be working on what. And so we fell into this autonomy trap where we feel as managers or entrepreneurs or people who run companies, like, look, it’s not our job to try to figure out the best way to organize work. We’ll just let individuals do that. And when you leave it entirely up to the individuals, you end up with the hyperactive hive mind because it’s the kind of the easiest, least common denominator thing, that if you have no other control, that’s where we’re going to end up. So I think we’re in a trap because we took truckers’ autonomy maybe a little bit too literally.
I want to try out an alternative explanation I knew that I’ve been thinking about. And this one comes more from the incentives of enterprise software companies like Slack or Microsoft in making Teams. Or I guess, Facebook has Blue Jeans as their Zoom competitor and so on and so forth. Which is that you might think the way productivity software, firm level productivity software, gets marketed is that you go to the people who run IT for a big firm and you show some studies about how your software will make the firm work better, and they compare that to the other people trying to sell them something and then go with you if your studies are best. But actually, particularly once you hit a critical mass of other firms using something, there’s actually pressure from employees. And the employee pressure comes from, I would enjoy this software, so I could be good. We would prefer — I remember pushing for Gmail at The Washington Post because we were using Lotus Notes at that point, or Lotus mail, whatever the Lotus level mail software was. And of course, Gmail made it easier to be on email all the time. And so, there’s a funny way in which what we think of as enterprise software is actually sold for the ones that are the real winners in the space through employee demands. But the incentives are misaligned. Then what you’re actually trying to do is win over employees, and you’re going to do that through software that’s more fun to use.
That actually just underscores this interesting autonomy trap we’re in. I mean, you want to imagine a car factory, right? How is it that might be the more fun way to build the cars, right? So in other sectors, people are more process engineering focused, right? What’s the evidence? What’s the best way to do this? And in the knowledge sector, you can imagine a similar thought about how should brains collaborate, what’s the right way for brains to work, how much work should be on everyone’s plate, where should we store things, what’s the right way to communicate. Should it be back and forth messages? Should it be more synchronous meetings? You would think that we could be doing tons of thinking and engineering like that. But we don’t because we’re in this autonomy trap. We’re like, look, that’s not up for us. We put up the OKRs. You guys figure out how to work. And if you tell us you think Slack is more fun, then maybe we’ll buy Slack. But if you step back, I think the metaphorical house is on fire here. We’re at a point now where it’s completely common in a lot of knowledge ware companies that not only do you spend a lot of time doing things like email and meetings, you now spend all of your time doing that, every working hour. And actual work has to get done in these hidden second shifts that happen in the morning or happen in the evening, which creates all of these unexpected inequities. I mean, the fact that that is happening now should be alarm bells ringing, but instead, we’re like, it’s busy. It’s modern times. We’re high tech. That’s just what life is like. We have acceded to it, which I find surprising.
So there’s a thread here that I think is interesting. So you go back to more of the period you’re talking about. Well, let’s call it the early 2000s. So now you’re seeing the very sharp rise of your Google’s. Apple’s already pretty big, but you begin to see Facebook, et cetera. And you remember all this. There was a real vogue for, can you believe all these Silicon Valley firms have ping pong tables? Just like, it’s ping pong tables everywhere. And, right, Google had all of these features done on their workplace culture. And there were slides in a bunch of the offices and on-site laundry and these beautiful lunches with fancy chefs and cafeterias. Initially, this was all presented as paradise for a worker. And then, slowly, this alternative narrative began to take hold, which is, no, this is actually a quite insidious kind of trap. This is a way of making workers spend all of their time at work. It’s a way of making it so people don’t go home easily at night. It’s a way of blurring the lines between what is fun and social and community, which we normally think of as not happening in your office, and what is your office. And it’s a way of getting people to put in 10, 12-hour days. And a lot of the software that emerges out of these companies and out of this period actually seems to me to take that physical insight, that by blurring the line of fun at work, you could allow work to colonize spaces that hadn’t colonized before, and it becomes a software insight. And so then, as you say, things that look like fun at the front end, right — we can chatter with our employees all day — now begin to overwhelm things that actually would have been more fun or more restful or more fulfilling. Like, you have Slack pings hitting your phone at night when you’re supposed to be with your family, or you’re sitting with your friends, and you’re looking at your phone because you’re just so used to being in that constant communication. That the blending of work and fun, which I do think of as a distinctive work culture thing of our era, has actually been really toxic for real fun — and maybe for work, too.
Well, it certainly doesn’t help. And I agree that it’s really a culture of 20 to 30 somethings living in the Bay Area during a certain period, who had emerged with this lifestyle that was entirely integrated with the digital, especially once you get post-smartphone, post-constant connectivity. And you do see that trend move into these tools. But there’s also countervailing trends. So I’ll give you a counter example. I was fascinated working on the book on this notion of extreme programming. So it’s like a workplace methodology and the guy who was telling me about it is a real zealot. His company had been bought by Google, and he had gotten disillusioned that Google wasn’t hardcore enough about his methodology. So he left to start his own lab. But if we think about extreme programming as like an extreme case study, what they do in these shops is all built around, OK, we have brains that can produce good code. If that’s really what we want to maximize, how do we do it? So there’s no email, there’s no Slack. You come in, you sit at a screen with another programmer. If you have two brains working on the same thing, you push each other, and you get more insights. But also, you take less breaks. You slack less, right? Their project leads handles all communication on their behalf. You have no inbox, you have no whatever, and they just code. And it’s so intense that they’re done by 3:00 or 4:00. And there would be no notion that you would stay there late. It would be impossible to. We work really hard, and then when we’re done, we’re done. They said when people are newly hired here, they end up having to go home and take naps for the first couple of weeks, just to adjust to the load. Now that is rightfully called extreme, but what boggles my mind is why aren’t there dozens and dozens of experiments of all these different ways of working? Clearly, you can change the way you work. When you start thinking about, OK, how do you get value out of human minds? How do you stop the human mind from burning out? How do we stop people from being miserable? There’s all of these options. And the fact that it’s so unexplored, that something like an extreme program is this weird outlier case study, to me, I think that’s very striking, right? I mean, to me, it’s a revolution waiting to happen. We’ve seen this in past intersections of technology and commerce, that there’s these long simmering revolutions, where we’re not doing things the way that would be smart. We’re doing what’s convenient. We’re doing what the momentum pushes us. We’re following inertia. And then, overnight, suddenly, we have electric motors and factories. Overnight, they don’t build cars craft method anymore. They do it the assembly line. So these tend to be non-contiguous, right, so these kind of discontinuities when we have these jumps. I just think something like this is coming for knowledge work. This constant back and forth chatter, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And so something has to change.
Let me pick up on the cars example. I love the way you tell the very oft told story of Henry Ford and the Model T and the assembly line. Because I’ve read a version of that story I don’t know how many dozen times in productivity and management and innovation books. But it often feels like there was bespoke artisanal car manufacturing, and then all of a sudden, here comes Henry Ford and the Model T. And you focus on what is happening between those two moments, right? This period when Ford is experimenting, how difficult the experimentation must have been, how frustrating it must have been, and that there are a bunch of experiments that failed. Can you talk a little bit about that, the path from one to the other?
Yeah, I think it’s very, very illustrative. So, Ford, when he was first running his factory, when you have the early days, let’s say, of the Highland Park Factory, the craft method did dominate, right? So they took this bespoke method, where just some craftsmen would build a car. And the way they scaled it is they just had more teams working on more cars. They put them up on sawhorses, and you would surround it, you and five other guys. And you would build a car. And so he started experimenting. OK, this seems like it’s not that fast. And so he went through a whole series of experimentations, which I thought were really interesting once you uncovered them. They tried lots of things. Like, what if we have one guy who is the wheel guy, and he just goes from sawhorse to sawhorse and puts on the wheels? Well, what if we put the materials in the ceiling so that they can come down chutes? And then you could have it come right down to where you are without having to take on space on the floor. Well, what if we have a whole team that moves from car to car? So he was doing all of these experiments to try to figure out, is there a better way to actually take all this material, and then on the other end, have a car built? And the two things I like to emphasize is, one, the way they were building cars before was very easy and very convenient and very natural. And we actually see this story come up a lot in the history of industrial manufacturing, that when you had early factories, you built things the way that was convenient and natural because it seemed too foreboding to try to figure out something else, right? And this goes back to sort of the history of industrial manufacturing. And, two, it was a huge pain to get past that. It was all those experiments, but the assembly line was a huge pain. Once it got running, they had to hire a lot more people. They had to spend a lot more money. I’m sure no one liked the notion who was an investor in Ford. Like, you’re doing what? We’re going to double the amount of floor managers who don’t build things, but just watch things? And it would get stuck all the time. When you’re trying to figure out how to make this thing work, if the steering wheel guy is a little bit too slow, the whole assembly line would stop. So it was really inconvenient. It was a pain, and it cost more money at first. But it was 10 to 100x more productive once they figured it out, which, to me, is a good metaphor for we gravitate towards what’s easy and convenient. And it can be a pain to move to what works better at first. There is an upfront cost to figuring out, let’s say, better ways of producing things.
So you’ve been studying this over the course of your last two or three books. You’ve been circling this book, I would say. And for this book, you’ve spoken to a lot of firms that were trying to change the way they worked pretty radically. They’re the exceptions. And then I’m sure you’ve spoken to a lot of people in firms that weren’t. What is your explanation for why firms are more loath to experiment? Is it just the Peter Drucker thing at this point? Or do you see more happening in terms of the status quo bias, the lock in, the power dynamics of firms that make this kind of experimentation hard for managers to try?
So there’s sort of three hypotheses on the table I was looking at. So there’s the Peter Drucker autonomy trap. There is the — it just been hard, right? Let’s call this the Henry Ford lesson, right, that it’s actually a real pain to figure out what works better. This is convenient, this is cheap. When I was interviewing Gloria Mark, she told me about how, when she was in the computer supported collaborative work scene back in the early 1990s and computer networks were new, there was all this exciting research about look at all these tools we’re going to build that are going to sit on networks, and we can access them on networks. And it’s going to make our work so much more effective and productive. And she said the whole field basically went away once email spread because it was just cheaper to buy an email server. It’s like, look, we can just do this all with file attachments and CCs and it’s fine. We don’t need it. And then the third reason would be power dynamics, right? Which is something I heard hypothesized a lot that maybe that for a boss or something, this them more power. It could be either productivity power play, like I’ll get more out of my workers. Or it could be a sort of egotistic self-regard. I like people answer me, sort of powerplays. All three hypotheses play a role. As far as I can tell, though, it’s a combination of the first two that probably play the biggest role. So, the bosses, manager, C suites, at all these levels, I think there’s this growing awareness that this is terrible. It’s a terrible way to work. Our output as a company is lower, and employees turnover and leave the workforce because it makes them miserable. So the power dynamics didn’t show up to be as important as they once suspected. But I think it’s a combination of the autonomy bias and just the fact it’s hard. The companies I document that do replace the hyperactive hive mind with more bespoke processes that reduce all this constant back and forth, it wasn’t easy to do. It’s like figuring out how to make the assembly line work. There’s going to be false starts. There’s going to be experiments. It’s going to cost more overhead. Bad things are going to happen temporarily. And you have to be willing to go through that. And that’s a big hurdle.
So one of the obvious objections to your theory here is that if this is a market failure, if most firms are running this wrong, then it should be relatively easy to correct in the sense that firms will emerge that are working off of more Cal Newportian theory of the case. And they will come to overwhelm the market because their productivity will be higher, their output will be better. They will get better employees because it’ll be more fun to work there. When I read through the book, it obviously seems some of these firms are more fun, right? So you spend some time in firms that have shorter work weeks. You have firms that have way better work-life balances. I know some of those firms, and they don’t dominate their industry. Their practices are not spreading like wildfire. And that implies to me that something is wrong somewhere in the model because if this is such an economic drag, or at least, such a drag on worker happiness, then there should be a really huge competitive advantage to the firms who have figured out a better way or who are wandering around it. What’s your theory there?
I think it’s coming. There is a huge competitive advantage. It’s why I think we’re going to experience a punctuated equilibrium here. The shift is going to seem to be practically overnight when the shift does come. And a couple of reasons to believe it’s coming — one I like to emphasize that the timeline here is not unusual. I mean, how long did it take from the beginning of industrial car manufacturing to the change that was the assembly line? It was about 20 to 25 years. We’ve had email as a large presence for about 20 to 25 years. If you look at the electric dynamo, its integration into factory construction, it took about 50 years, even after we had generators who could generate electricity and we had electric motors. And clearly, the right thing to do was to put electric motors on the factory equipment, as opposed to having all these overhead cams and belts that were powered off of old steam engines. It still took 50 or 60 years until there was this moment where, OK, everything shifted over, and there was a lot of reasons about inertia and infrastructure that’s already been invested. So my argument is, you basically should hold this to me, right? So I’m making a falsifiable — this is my Karl Popper moment here. I’m saying, let’s look in five years. I think we’re going to see a big difference. Now partially what I’ve noticed is between when I started talking to people about this for my 2016 book, Deep Work, and now, there’s a notable shift in some of the CEOs I talked to. There’s a notable shift in some of the investors I talked to. This is on the radar, I should say, of these communities. Because they’re beginning to realize there might be hundreds of billions of dollars of GDP on the table, and that is a really rich pie. There’s been a lot of investment activity in the last couple of years on companies that are trying to better help extract this. In the conclusion of my book, I quote anonymously but a relatively well known CEO, who’s saying, like, this is going to be the moonshot of the next decade, is figuring out how to get past the hive mind and have much more sustainable productive ways of working. He calls it the moonshot because there is so much value there, but also it’s going to require so much energy to figure it out. So I would say five years from now, things will look different. And that’s a falsifiable hypothesis. I mean, if we’re in the same place five years from now, then maybe not. But we’re basically on track. This is a very normal timeline in technology and commerce. For a new technology comes, we do what’s easiest. We finally have this moment of punctuated equilibrium. We’re like, OK, enough is enough, and we shift to a different phase. [MUSIC PLAYING]
One of the things that I think about in the difficulty here because we’ve known each other a long time, and you know that I’m a believer in the Cal Newport oeuvre on these subjects. I care about deep work. Back when I was at Vox, we had a little deep work icon you could put on in Slack. And you’d be doing deep work, and nobody should bother you.
That’s a very ironic thing you just said, by the way, a deep work icon on Slack.
Listen, it’s all ironic. I’m aware of that. One of the things that I notice in myself as a worker — and others for that matter, too, but I’ll be the example here — is that as much as I know I get more done if I don’t flick over to Twitter, if I don’t flick over to Slack or my email, and I use freedom and I cut myself off from those things when I’m trying to get things done, there’s still a big part of me that wants to. And one of the tricky parts of this is, is that it’s not one of these things that is good for us and it feels good when we do it. It’s incredibly tiring to work in a sustained, focused way without getting those little dopamine hits of distraction. And the more often you get those little hits, the more you crave them. I mean, this is part of Deep Work, that you begin to train your brain to demand these little bits of feedback. And so it becomes very hard to change the way your firm works or to even just change the way you work, not because you don’t think you should, but because you are so trained to do the other thing, right? You’ve come to expect it. Then once you do it, you kind of fall back into old patterns. I’m curious how you think about that part of it, that retraining of our own expectations and rhythms.
Well, so one of the changes I’ve had in my thinking, let’s say between “Deep Work” and this book, is thinking about the individual. I think one of the issues people had — let’s say you read something like “Deep Work.” You’re like, OK, I get it. Like, concentration produces more than non-concentration. I try to spend more time in the deep work. And so then, as an individual, you should try to put more time on that. And you’re talking about how that’s very difficult. Well, that’s difficult in part because not a failure of will, you as an individual, but because it is a necessity of this underlying hyperactive hive mind workflow that this inbox is where everything’s happening. Like, there’s people who need you. Everything you’re involved in is taking place in that inbox. This back and forth messaging is how this is getting figured out and that is getting resolved and how this issue is also getting handled. And so this urge to, I need to go back and check this, I think we too often think of it as a failure of will, but it’s a failure of workflow. And it’s the reason why I think a lot of people had a hard time executing ideas of deep work. It’s the reason why I think moves to have email-free Fridays, or let’s have better norms about response times, the reason why this has failed to really calm any issues with inbox or email overload is because this is where the work happens, and when you’re away from it, it causes problems. Which is, this is my big revelation, is that we can’t solve these problems in the inbox. We have to solve these problems below the inbox. We actually have to go and take the implicit work processes that are generating all these back and forth messages and expectation of ad hoc unstructured communication, and we have to replace them with things to generate many fewer messages. We need to make the inbox a lot less interesting. I think that’s more important than trying to convince people to ignore the interesting nature of the inbox. And so, that’s something I’ve really been thinking about. Because it’s not helping to keep all of our focus on — and by our, I just mean the culture that deals with email overload — to keep all the focus on hacks and tips and how to better engage with your inbox. The problem, I think, is below.
And one of the difficulties here, too, is that there are some — advantages may not be exactly the right word, but benefits that come out of being personally engaged and sorting through the information flow. So I believe — you can tell me if I’m wrong. I believe I make an anonymous appearance in this book. And there’s this moment where you say I was talking to the editor-in-chief of a new media, a new journalism company.
This is you, yes, OK.
It is me, yeah. And I was saying to him, why didn’t you just have somebody checking Twitter on behalf of your staff and telling them if anything interesting is coming. And you say, well, this unnamed journalism EIC had never thought of this before and thought, well, what if — and that’s actually not how I remember that conversation. I’m going to give you some shit about this. And so I remember the issue there, what I said, it’s true I thought about that. That’s not a lie, but is that the difficulty with having somebody else check Twitter on my behalf, is that I am doing the information processing. And only I know what I find interesting. And only I see the things in it that I will see. And even worse for journalists — and this might be distinctive to my industry, but it is a problem in my industry — Twitter is an important place where you build your own brand. And so, I think collectively, it would make sense if we’re not all herding on there and thinking the same way and talking to each other. But for any individual to leave is a little bit irrational because you deprive yourself of mindshare and the people who could give you future jobs. And in the sort of ways your peers understand you as fitting into the firmament, which is very important for the future of your career. And so this is a situation where not every but a lot of journalists I know do not like how much time they spend on Twitter. There’s a lot of talk about this health site, all of that. And people drop off and they’ll come back because to not be there feels like it has worse consequences, even though to be there is very unpleasant. So I want to hear your response to my more nuanced explanation of why journalists are on Twitter.
Yeah, no, I remember you having that response, and I still don’t buy it. I think it’s — [LAUGHTER] I think Twitter is melting journalist brains. I mean —
I’m not arguing that.
Yeah, it’s making journalists miserable. I still hold by my original stance. Like, there’s got to be a way that the — I mean, you mentioned it was like breaking news was important. And hearing from sources was important, so that went over to email a little bit. And that’s where I figured —
No, I don’t think — I will say I don’t think the breaking news function is that important. I think a lot of journalists will tell you it is, but I don’t agree with them on that.
I think it’s actually more esoteric things one sees that can be important.
Right, but at the time, I think the breaking news was a thing that — and I think we’ve in general, as a culture, I think have evolved on that because we realize like, oh, wait, we’re not getting on the ground AP reports from Twitter. We’re getting a lot of randomness and a lot of false information, too. I would still argue there’s got to be a way — I mean, this is like digital minimalism 101. So let’s say there is something about direct encounter with the esoterica of Twitter that helps sort of you gain a better zeitgeist understanding of cultural trends, which will then inform your writing. OK, let’s say we buy that premise. Minimalism would say, great. What’s the right way to get that benefit while minimizing the cost? It would probably be like, I have my Twitter hour, where I go. The thing that I think was killer for a lot of journalists is this notion of, I always am on this thing, and I’m always checking this thing. And Twitter has its own emotional issues. It has its own issues like you’ve talked about. And I heard you talk about this with Zeynep Tufekci recently on your podcast. It has idea hurting issues, but it also has the issues I talk about, which it significantly reduces your cognitive capacity. You can’t think as clearly. You feel tired. You feel anxious. The work you produce as a journalist, all of that is worse as well. When I was doing the digital minimalism promotion a couple of years ago, there was one — I’ll leave this anonymous. And it’s not you, though — I will say that. There was one interview I did with a well-known journalist. And this journalist producer admitted to me, I didn’t really have you on for the audience, I wanted the host to hear these ideas because I think this person is going insane. I have to get them off of Twitter, so.
Did it work?
Oh, no. Oh, no. It got worse.
[LAUGHS] You say something, though, around this issue that I think is really wise, which is that one thing that a lot of these mediums do is that they make us all think we should be generalists. They make us all think that we should and can do everything. So something about the way Twitter does news is that it feels like you should be on top of everything. And I think actually something that I try very hard as a journalist to do is say, there are some things that I’m just not going to know that much about because I need to know a lot about the things I write on. And so, I need to let other things pass me by. But in general, you have a section of the book — this is more towards the end, but where you talk about specialization as an answer here and how one of the odd effects of hyperactive hive mind thinking is that it has cut against specialization. Could you talk a little bit about specialization, why you think we’ve lost it and what kinds of ways we could get it back?
One of the claims I try to back up in the book is that when you remove the friction required to communicate with people inside your organization, both the amount and diversity of things that’s on their plate that they have to deal with explodes. Right? So now you just have many more things you have to do. You have many more, some of it administrative and some of it non-administrative. But if you just look at the sheer variety of things that the knowledge worker has on their proverbial task list — and I say proverbial because they probably don’t actually have a real task list. It probably is just all mungled in their inbox, which is its own issue. It’s huge, right? So there’s a really interesting notion from the literature on this. And it’s this idea of diminishment of intellectual specialization. And it’s a term that was coined by an economist named Peter Sassone, and he was at Georgia Tech. And he wrote this paper back in the ‘90s that I cite all the time because I think it’s just really fascinating. But he studied earlier technologies arriving. He had five companies, 20 departments within these companies, more like the personal computer, right? So this would have been the late ‘80s. So not email, but we can extrapolate from this. And what he documented happened in these companies is that these computers had time-saving, quote unquote, software, word processors and early email and these type of things. And so these companies say this is great. We can fire support staff. We don’t need a typing pool. We don’t need secretaries. We can fire support staff because now everything is kind of easy enough. The friction’s low enough that the executives or the employees themselves can just do the work. The problem was, is, all this work now shifted onto the plate, so that the people that maybe were doing five main things for the company now had 15 things on their plate, so they could get less of the original value producing work done. So they had to hire more of these higher priced employees to actually keep up with the same amount of output. And Sassone crunched the numbers and said, actually, their salary costs ended up, after all this was done, 15 percent higher. So they cut the salaries of support staff, but then they had to add more of these higher priced salaries because people were less productive, and they ended up worse off than they were before. And he called this the diminishment of intellectual specialization. I think this is something that’s just really being amplified right now in our age of the hyperactive hive mind. Every unit in your company, every vendor, every client, every other team that might need your time and attention, can just easily grab you, grab that time and attention, put more and more things on your plate. It makes everyone’s life a little bit easier in the moment. But we get so much less done of the primary things that originally produce value, is that you’re not actually getting ahead. And in the end, you’re producing less. So I think this notion that we all do a lot more, we all can do a lot more, is not necessarily compatible with trying to get the most out of people. And I’m going to real argue that we need to return to much more specialization. I do very few things.
One of my criticisms of some of your past books — and we’ve talked about this — is that they felt to me very much about the individual creator, that it felt to me sometimes like you are really creating a structure that made sense for Cal Newport, university professor, or even maybe Ezra Klein, article writer. But that there were managers in this world that were collaborative workers in this world, and it wouldn’t work for them. You have more on that in this book in a way that I find persuasive. But something you talk about here is that management has to be about more than responsiveness, and that one of the things happening with a lot of these tools is they are changing the expectations of managers. They are changing how responsive their employees expect them to be. They are changing sort of the work that management is actually able to do. And so probably degrading or at least changing the way firms are managed. Can you talk a little bit about this from the manager’s perspective?
Yeah, and there’s research on this. I mean, I found this interesting study where they could look at inbox levels. Like, how much email is managers having to answer? And they could correlate this with what they call leadership activities. So the type of activities are important for getting the most out of your team, moving your team to where it needs to be, seeing issues that are coming from down the road and make sure that you’re around them, giving the support that individual team members need to thrive. All these leadership activities significantly decrease as you increase the amount of email that managers have to answer. And what these researchers documented is that as the email load increases, managers retreat into a task-oriented productivity mode. And they’re just like human network routers. Like, I’m just trying to take care of small things to come at me via email, answering questions, moving things around. And a lot of the managers I talked to when I was working on this book just have this vision of themselves as, I’m like an operator. And little questions and concerns come to me, and I try to answer them as quickly as possible. And one of the big points is, that’s not really good management. There’s some of that have to figure out how to do. Of course, questions need to be answered. But if all you’re doing is just trying to keep up with a hyperactive hive mind flow of all these ongoing conversations, the real important stuff doesn’t happen, that managers, too, need to be able to do one thing at a time, give things the attention they deserve. And that’s basically impossible if the hyperactive hive mind is the main way that your team coordinates and organizes. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So I want to ask a little bit about solutions here. And you go into sort of some granular detail on different ways different firms end up doing Trello boards and other things. But I want to talk about it in more high level. Let me start here. Let’s say you are somebody running an existing firm right now. You’re not starting something new. You have 100 employees or used to certain ways of doing things. You have all the accoutrements of modern enterprise software. You have Slack, you have Gmail. You’re an advertising firm, a media firm, whatever it might be. Where do they start implementing the ideas of this book?
Well, so the big idea is, whether you name it or not, you have processes that repeatedly happen that produce the stuff that has to happen in your company. Now if you don’t have names for them, if you haven’t thought about them, you’re probably implementing most of these processes with the hyperactive hive mind. Just, let’s figure it out on the fly. So the first step is just to identify what these things are. We have a deal with client question process. We have an article production process. We have a strategizing for future business moves process, right? You name them. You see what they are. What are the things that we actually do on a repeated basis? And what I recommend is what you really want to do is, process by process, say, OK, how do we actually want to implement how this happens? And the metric that I push, it’s not like how much time is it going to take or how hard is this particular method, but to what degree can we minimize unscheduled back and forth communication? So how can we implement this particular process, like responding to client questions, producing articles, whatever it is, in a way that does not require the sort of asynchronous back and forth messaging that, in turn, will require check after check after check after check to kind of keep that ping pong ball bouncing. Once you know that what you’re looking at is processes and what you’re trying to do is reduce unscheduled back and forth messaging, it opens up endless innovations. Like, oh, there’s all sorts of different ways we might do this, right? But if you don’t have the right metrics in mind, if you’re not looking at the right target, you’re just going to get stuck looking at these overcrowded email inboxes and sending around memos about, let’s have better norms on response times, or let’s write better subject lines or something like that. You’re putting your energy into the wrong process. So that’s that process oriented thinking. Optimize, optimize one by one. Back and forth messages, that’s the killer. That’s what we want to reduce. You just do that, and you’ll begin to see, I think, almost immediate results. It reduces the pressure on the inbox, as opposed to have better organizational tactics for dealing with the inbox.
And how about if you’re somebody starting a new firm or at a new firm? If you buy the Cal Newport theory that there are huge gains to be unlocked by building a radically different culture of communication and process, how do you unlock them? How do you keep focus on that, particularly when people are going to come in, expecting it to work or the way they’ve known other places to work?
It’s not easy. I mean, first, there’s a general culture that you want to try to instill, which is a culture that really thinks about tools like email are great for sending information. I’d rather send you a file with an email than a fax machine. They’re terrible for interaction. We should not be trying to collaborate or coordinate ourselves with back and forth messages. Two, you really have to separate execution from how we organize the work. Execution has to be really autonomous. You have to be very careful that you’re not stepping on the toes of creative skilled professionals about how they actually write their ad copy or how they actually write their code, that making that sacrosanct is what allows knowledge work to be much more satisfying and meaningful and allows us to avoid the drudgery that industrial work fell into. You’re putting your focus on the workflows that organize that work. What are the processes by which information moves? We make decisions. We agree on things. Where do files go? Where do we take them from? So make sure that execution is sacrosanct. It’s all of the organization around the execution that you’re trying to optimize. And then, two, lead by example. So even if it’s really convenient for you just to grab that purse and be like, OK, let me not do that. Let me try to think about these processes. And I document somewhat in the book what it’s like to try to get these things in place. They need buy-in. They have to be bottom up. Everyone involved in the process has to be involved in making it. And you have to have a culture of evolution. It’s not quite working, let’s tweak it. So put those things into place, it’s still not easy. But, again, it was a pain to build the assembly line. So at least there’s incentives to push you through that pain.
And one of the things that is a little bit counterintuitive about this book is, I think people building new things, meetings, in-person meetings, phone meetings, they have a really bad reputation. I often say to people, like, let’s try to just make this an email, which means I have a lot of emails bouncing back and forth. You have a little bit higher of an opinion about what it means to save more things for meetings than I think the dominant culture holds. So if you were to preach the value of actual meetings as opposed to having things be done through communication, how would you tell a CEO or tell a CEO to tell their employees that they should think about meetings with a little bit more affection, and email with a little bit less?
Well, any time you have to make a decision or have back and forth — there’s interaction that has to occur — real time is exponentially better than asynchronous, right? It’s better to be able to just talk with you on the phone or on Zoom or in person to go back and forth. The amount of bits of information that’s able to be established in a back and forth conversation is of a different order of magnitude than when you’re in a purely linguistic medium. Like, I put some text in an email, it goes to you. Later that day, you send an email back that has some more text. That type of asynchronous communication has huge overheads, and it’s not very effective. So I’m a huge believer in real time interaction as a highly effective and efficient way to get things done, to reach decisions that do interactions. The problem with meetings people have is that they’re not coupled with well thought through processes, right? So if you look at a software development firm, where they think a lot about this type of stuff, and if it’s a software development team that’s running an agile methodology like Scrum, they will have these daily stand-up meetings. They only last 20 minutes. They fit very clearly into an overall structure of how tasks are identified, assigned, and reviewed, right? So they have these 20-minute meetings that incredibly efficiently people figure out, here’s what I did. Here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what I need from you. I need it by now. Great, we’re on the same team. Go right, right? It’s a meeting done well. That’s way more effective than try and do that over email. What happens I think in a lot of hyperactive hive mind style knowledge firms is that we throw meetings as issues as a proxy for productivity. I don’t really want to think about this. If I put a meeting on my calendar, then at least I know that has to happen. So at least I won’t forget it. I think meetings are often used because people don’t have systems where they trust themselves to remember or make progress on things. Like, well, if it’s a recurring meeting, then I do look at my calendar. They’re not tied to other processes. They’re not tried to optimize ways to get things done. So, meetings not connected to processes can make work really unbearable. I think a lot of pandemic workers have discovered that doing Zoom all day long can’t possibly be the best way to organize. But a meeting tied to a really smart process can actually save you a lot of time.
I guess a good place to come to a close. So end of the show, I always ask for a couple of different book recommendations, and let me start here. What’s a book that’s done the most to inspire your work and your explorations?
Well, it probably depends on the topics that I’m reading, but when it came to these explorations of email, I was really taken by a lot of these books that were the 20th century techno determinists. So there was all this interesting philosophy of technology thinkers in the 20th century that were really trying to understand a way that if you introduce a new technology into an ecosystem, it can actually really unsettle this ecosystem in ways that are unpredictable and unintentional. And that opened up a lot for me because it got me out of this mindset of, well, if we’re all doing email, it must be because it’s helping somebody. There must be a reason why we’re doing this. It’s got to be maybe adversaries versus the good guys and what’s the battle going on. But the idea that technology itself can just have these ecological changes I think is really important. So probably Lewis Mumford’s “Technics and Civilization,” that’s an early 20th century book that really pushed those ideas. I think that’s really interesting. A lot of Neil Postman — Postman was a very famous techno determinist. I actually cite a speech from Postman at the end of the book that was influential to me. It wasn’t a book that he wrote. It was a summary of his thoughts on technology. And it’s really rich, and I put it in the citation in the book. But that’s where he made really clear this notion that technology is not additive, it’s ecological. He was like the Middle Ages plus the — once you got the printing press, it was not just the Middle Ages plus printing presses. It was an entirely different world. And that notion really shaped the way I thought about email. The arrival of email did not give us the 1990 office plus now we had email. It gave us an entirely different notion of what work meant. And so any of these writers who were writing in this vein of technological determinism were very influential. I think it comes through in a lot of my thinking.
You talk a lot about the difference between the kinds of products one creates and the hyperactive work worlds many of us exist in and the slower, more thoughtful, more deeply creative spaces of “Deep Work.” What’s a fiction book or piece of art that you think is what it looks like when “Deep Work” works, the kind of thing that you’re not going to be able to do checking Twitter every couple of minutes?
Well, I mean, basically, any award caliber literary fiction has to be created in that mindset. So whatever your favorite sort of award caliber literary fiction novel is, there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it. I’ll say it’s not a book, it’s a video. I actually wrote an essay about a blog post about not too long ago. It was a stone carver. A young woman, I think she’s based in the — near you, actually. I think she’s she’s based in the Bay Area. And it was just this video they had put up on Vimeo that just captured what it is to carve a statue out of stone. And something about that was really affecting to me. It’s just all you do all day long, and she’s looking at the stone and she has the bust. And then it’s manipulating the material and manipulating the real world. And it’s in this warehouse, and the doors open out into some trees or something like that. And I don’t know — there was something very affecting to me about that story. But it’s someone that’s just, they are 100 percent in the world of trying to take this block of stone, and from it, make manifest some sort of intention that exists just in their mind. I mean, that’s human depth personified, and the opposite, I would say, of Slack.
So my son just came home and is crying in the background. So this final one feels apropos. What’s your favorite children’s book?
When my first kid was born, my literary agent sent me a bunch of books. And there’s one that all of my kids have loved. It’s called “Andrew Henry’s Meadow.” And it’s an older book. It’s illustrated. And the premise is this young boy who builds things. It’s beautifully illustrated. And he’s not sort of — it feels like he’s not appreciated by his family, so he leaves. And all the kids follow him across the creek and through the woods and to Andrew Henry’s meadow. And they build these elaborate, beautifully illustrated houses. There’s like a castle, and there’s like a tree house. It’s all built from sort of found objects. And then the parents realize at some point that they’re gone, and they’re all panicking. And they go and they find them. And when they finally bring them back, they make a space for Andrew Henry in the basement to be able to build his contraptions. Kids love it because of the illustrations. It somehow just gets into the psyche of kids. But there’s kind of a nicer message lurking in there. I’ve always kind of liked that message of understanding what it is to drive your kids and then making room for it. So that’s my underground favorite because almost no one’s heard of it. And we’ve gone through a couple of copies now.
Cal Newport, thank you very much.
Thanks, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]
That is the show. Thank you for listening. I always appreciate you being here. Give us a review on whatever podcast app you’re listening on if you’re enjoying it, or send it to a friend. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.
We were promised, with the internet, a productivity revolution. We were told that we’d get more done, in less time, with less stress. Instead, we got always-on communication, the dissolution of the boundaries between work and home, the feeling of constantly being behind, lackluster productivity numbers, and, to be fair, reaction GIFs. What went wrong?
Cal Newport is a computer scientist at Georgetown and the author of books trying to figure that out. At the center of his work is the idea that the technologies billed as offering us more productive, happier, socially rich lives have left us more exhausted, empty and stressed out than ever. He’s doing something not enough people do: questioning whether this was all worth it.
My critique of Newport’s work has always been that it focuses too much on the individual: Telling someone whose workplace communicates exclusively via Slack and email to be a “digital minimalist” is like telling someone who lives in a candy store to diet. But his new book, “A World Without Email,” is all about systems — specifically, the systems that govern how we work. In it, Newport makes a radical argument: We are living through a massive, rolling failure of markets and firms to rethink work for the digital age. But that can change. We can change it.
To listen to the full conversation, subscribe to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or click the player below.
(A full transcript of the episode can be found here.)
Sem medo de ser naïf, feminista negra norte-americana debate sentimento crucial na experiência humana. Propõe libertá-lo das ilusões românticas, praticando-o em desafio às relações alienadas e em busca de intimidade cúmplice e libertadora
Publicado 17/02/2021 às 20:16 – Atualizado 17/02/2021 às 20:52
Por Silvane Silva | Imagen: Egon Schiele
MAIS: Este texto é o prefácio de: TUDO SOBRE O AMOR, de bell hooks Publicado pela Editora Elefante, parceira editorial de Outras Palavras
Escrever este prefácio em meio à pandemia de covid-19, vivendo em isolamento social meses, foi um exercício ao mesmo tempo doloroso e libertador. Em certa altura de Tudo sobre o amor, bell hooks diz que, se não pudéssemos fazer mais nada, se por algum motivo a leitura fosse a única atividade possível, isso seria suficiente para fazer a vida valer a pena, porque os livros podem ter uma função terapêutica e transformadora. Particularmente, não tenho dúvidas a respeito disso, pois a leitura sempre teve esse importante papel em minha vida. Alguns textos nos fazem reviver memórias impressas em nosso corpo e espírito e, dessa maneira, têm o poder de nos transformar e curar.
Em uma sociedade que considera falar de amor algo naïf, a proposta apresentada por bell hooks ao escrever sobre o tema é corajosa e desafiadora. E o desafio é colocarmos o amor na centralidade da vida. Ao afirmar que começou a pensar e a escrever sobre o amor quando encontrou “cinismo em lugar de esperança nas vozes de jovens e velhos”, e que o cinismo é a maior barreira que pode existir diante do amor, porque ele intensifica nossas dúvidas e nos paralisa, bell hooks faz a defesa da prática transformadora do amor, que manda embora o medo e liberta nossa alma. Ela nos convoca a regressar ao amor. Se o desamor é a ordem do dia no mundo contemporâneo, falar de amor pode ser revolucionário. Para compreendermos a proposta da autora e a profundidade de suas reflexões, o primeiro passo deve ser abandonar a ideia de que o amor é apenas um sentimento e passar a entendê-lo como ética de vida. É sabido que bell hooks evidencia em toda a sua obra que o pessoal é político. Este também será o caminho trilhado por ela neste livro, pontuando o quanto nossas ações pessoais relacionadas ao amor implicam uma postura perante o mundo e uma forma de inserção na sociedade. Ou seja: o amor não tem nada a ver com fraqueza ou irracionalidade, como se costuma pensar. Ao contrário, significa potência: anuncia a possibilidade de rompermos o ciclo de perpetuação de dores e violências para caminharmos rumo a uma “sociedade amorosa”.
Tudo sobre o amor: novas perspectivas, publicado nos Estados Unidos no ano 2000, é o primeiro livro da chamada Trilogia do Amor, seguido de Salvação: pessoas negras e amor, de 2001, e Comunhão: a busca feminina pelo amor, de 2002. bell hooks é o tipo de pensadora que, quando atraída por um assunto, tende a esmiuçá-lo, observá-lo por todos os ângulos e explorá-lo por completo. Se ao longo de toda a sua obra o tema do amor aparece, em diversos momentos, como algo que tem um lugar significativo para nossa vida e cultura, é na Trilogia do Amor que a autora nos apresenta suas teses sobre o tema e, mais do que isso, nos oferece lições práticas de como agir.
Ao descrever as maneiras pelas quais homens e mulheres em geral, e pessoas negras em particular, desenvolvem sua capacidade de amar dentro de uma cultura patriarcal, racista e niilista, bell hooks relaciona sua teoria do amor com os principais problemas da sociedade. Apesar de falar a partir da sociedade estadunidense, suas reflexões servem para nós brasileiros, já que também sofremos dos males que a autora tanto procura ver superados: racismo, sexismo, homofobia, imperialismo e exploração.
Seguindo os passos de pessoas que ofereceram o amor como arma poderosa de luta e de transformação da sociedade, como Martin Luther King Jr., por exemplo, bell hooks reposiciona o amor como uma força capaz de transformar todas as esferas da vida: a política, a religião, o local de trabalho, o ambiente doméstico e as relações íntimas. Aprofundando as ideias trazidas por Cornel West referentes às “políticas de conversão” para tratar o niilismo presente na sociedade, hooks coloca a ética do amor no centro dessas políticas. E, nessa perspectiva, compreende que o pessoal sobrevive por meio da ligação com o coletivo: é o poder de se autoagenciar (self-agency) em meio ao caos e determinar o autoagenciamento coletivo.
Tudo sobre o amor: novas perspectivas procura mostrar como somos ensinados desde a infância a ter suposições equivocadas e falsas em relação ao amor e ressalta o quanto nossa sociedade não considera a importância e a necessidade de aprendermos a amar. Tendemos a acreditar que já nascemos com esse conhecimento, mas bell hooks demonstra que o amor não está dado: ele é construção cotidiana, que só assumirá sentido na ação — o que significa dizer que precisamos encontrar a definição de amor e aprender a praticá-lo.
Em “Clareza: pôr o amor em palavras”, primeiro capítulo deste livro, bell hooks afirma que em nossa sociedade o amor costuma servir para nomear tudo, pulverizando seu significado. Nessa confusão em relação ao que queremos dizer quando usamos a palavra “amor” está a origem da nossa dificuldade de amar. Por isso, saber nomear o que é o amor é a condição para que ele exista. Se os dicionários tendem a enfatizar a definição dada ao amor romântico, bell hooks nos mostra que o amor é muito mais que uma “afeição profunda por uma pessoa”. A melhor definição de amor é aquela que nos faz pensar o amor como ação — conforme diz o psiquiatra M. Scoot Peck, trata-se da “vontade de se empenhar ao máximo para promover o próprio crescimento espiritual ou o de outra pessoa”. Nota-se que o espiritual aqui não está vinculado à religião, mas a uma força vital presente em cada indivíduo. Nesse sentido, a afeição seria apenas um dos componentes do amor. Para amar verdadeiramente devemos aprender a misturar vários ingredientes: carinho, afeição, reconhecimento, respeito, compromisso e confiança, assim como honestidade e comunicação aberta. Uma das contribuições fundamentais trazidas por bell hooks é nos fazer pensar que são as ações que constroem os sentimentos. Dessa maneira, ao pensar o amor como ação, nos vemos obrigados a assumir a responsabilidade e o comprometimento com esse aprendizado.
O segundo capítulo, “Justiça: lições de amor na infância”, demonstra que o impacto do patriarcado e a forma da dominação masculina sobre mulheres e crianças são barreiras para o amor, algo pouco presente na bibliografia sobre o tema. Nós aprendemos sobre o amor na infância, e quer nossa família seja chamada funcional ou disfuncional, sejam nossos lares felizes ou não, são eles as nossas primeiras escolas de amor. Neste capítulo, bell hooks levanta a importante discussão sobre a necessidade de valorizar, respeitar e assegurar os direitos civis básicos das crianças. Caso contrário, a maioria delas não conhecerá o amor, tendo em vista que não existe amor sem justiça. Nesse ponto, a autora demonstra o quanto o lar da família nuclear é uma esfera institucionalizada de poder que pode ser facilmente autocrática e fascista. Dessa maneira, continua ela, se queremos uma sociedade eticamente amorosa, precisamos desmascarar o mito de que abuso e negligência podem coexistir com amor. Onde há abuso, a prática amorosa fracassou. Não se pode concordar que a punição severa seja uma forma aceitável de se relacionar com as crianças. “O amor é o que o amor faz”, e é nossa responsabilidade dar amor às crianças, reconhecendo que elas não são propriedades e têm direitos que nós precisamos garantir.
No terceiro capítulo, “Honestidade: seja verdadeira com o amor”, bell hooks afirma que a verdade é o coração da justiça. Somos ensinados desde a infância que não devemos mentir, que devemos jogar limpo. Entretanto, na prática, quem diz a verdade normalmente é punido, reforçando a ideia de que mentir é melhor. Homens mentem para agradar às mães e depois às mulheres. Mentir e se dar bem é um traço da masculinidade patriarcal. Meninos e homens são encorajados a todo momento a fazer o que for preciso para manter sua posição de controle. Por sua vez, as mulheres também mentem para os homens como forma de agradar e manipular. Vivemos em uma sociedade em que a cultura do consumo também encoraja a mentira. A publicidade é um dos maiores exemplos disso. As mentiras impulsionam o mundo da publicidade predatória e o desamor é bênção para o consumismo. Além disso, manter as pessoas em um estado constante de escassez fortalece a economia de mercado. Dessa maneira, hooks enfatiza que a tarefa de sermos amorosos e construirmos uma sociedade amorosa implica reafirmar o valor de dizer a verdade e, portanto, estarmos dispostos a ouvir as verdades uns dos outros. A confiança é o fundamento da intimidade.
Partindo do pressuposto de que não é fácil amar a si mesmo, no quarto capítulo, “Compromisso: que o amor seja amor-próprio”, bell hooks nos ensina que, quando somos positivos, não só aceitamos e afirmamos quem somos mas também somos capazes de afirmar e aceitar os outros. E o movimento feminista ajudou as mulheres a compreender o poder pessoal que se adquire com uma autoafirmação positiva. Quando temos de fazer um trabalho que odiamos, por exemplo, isso ataca a nossa autoestima e autoconfiança. O trabalho, quando percebido como um fardo, por se realizar em empregos ruins em vez de aprimorar a autoestima, deprime o espírito. Como lidar com essa questão se a maioria de nós não pode fazer o trabalho que ama? Um dos modos de experimentar satisfação seria nos comprometermos totalmente com o trabalho a ser realizado, seja ele qual for. Trazer o amor para o ambiente laboral pode criar a transformação necessária para tornar qualquer trabalho que façamos um meio de expressarmos o nosso melhor. Quando trabalhamos com amor, renovamos nosso espírito, e essa renovação é um ato de amor-próprio que alimenta nosso crescimento. E não devemos confundir amor-próprio com egoísmo ou egocentrismo. O amor-próprio é a base de nossa prática amorosa, pois, ao dar amor a nós mesmos, concedemos ao nosso ser interior a oportunidade de ter amor incondicional. É o amor-próprio que garante que nossos esforços amorosos com as outras pessoas não falhem.
No quinto capítulo, “Espiritualidade: o amor divino”, hooks chama a atenção para o fato de que a crise na vida estadunidense não poderia ser causada por falta de interesse na espiritualidade, tendo em vista que a imensa maioria das pessoas diz seguir alguma religião. Isso indicaria que a vida espiritual é algo importante nessa sociedade. No entanto, esse interesse é cooptado pelas forças do materialismo e do consumismo hedonista, traduzido na lógica do “compro, logo sou”. A religião “organizada” falhou em satisfazer a “fome espiritual”, e as pessoas procuram preencher esse vazio com o consumismo. A autora questiona: “Imagine como nossa vida seria diferente se todos os indivíduos que se dizem cristãos, ou que alegam serem religiosos, servissem de exemplo para todos, sendo amorosos”. A atualidade desse questionamento para o Brasil de hoje é desconcertante, tendo em vista os milhões de ditos “cristãos” que, ao invés de amar o próximo como a si mesmos, destilam ódio e preconceito.
“Valores: viver segundo uma ética amorosa” é o título do capítulo 6, no qual bell hooks reforça que o despertar para o amor só pode acontecer se nos desapegarmos da obsessão por poder e domínio. Para nos tornarmos pessoas mais alegres e mais realizadas, precisamos adotar uma ética amorosa, pois nossa alma sente quando agimos de maneira antiética, rebaixando o nosso espírito e desumanizando os outros. Viver dentro de uma ética amorosa é uma escolha de se conectar com o outro. Isso significa, por exemplo, se solidarizar com pessoas que vivem sob o jugo de governos fascistas, mesmo estando em um país democrático. Neste ponto, hooks retoma a afirmação de Cornel West de que uma “política de conversão” restaura a sensação de esperança. E reafirma que abraçar a ética amorosa significa inserir todas as dimensões do amor — “cuidado, compromisso, confiança, responsabilidade, respeito e conhecimento” — em nossa vida cotidiana.
“Ganância: simplesmente ame”, o sétimo capítulo do livro, demonstra que o isolamento e a solidão são as causas centrais da depressão e do desespero. O materialismo cria um mundo de narcisismo no qual consumir é a coisa mais importante. Nessa reflexão, a autora analisa como a participação ativa dos Estados Unidos em guerras globais colocou em questão o compromisso desse país com a democracia, sacrificando a visão de liberdade, amor e justiça em nome do materialismo e do dinheiro. Ela aborda também o desespero que tomou conta das pessoas quando líderes que lutavam pela paz e pela justiça foram assassinados, no final da década de 1960. Nesse momento, as pessoas perderam a conexão com a comunidade, e a atenção voltou-se para a ideia de ganhar dinheiro, o máximo possível. Os líderes passaram a ser os ricos e os famosos, as estrelas do cinema e da música. As igrejas e os templos, que antes eram espaços de reunião da comunidade, com o advento da teologia da prosperidade, tornaram-se lugares onde a ética materialista é respaldada e racionalizada. O que vale a partir de então é a cultura do consumo desenfreado. Pessoas também são tratadas como objetos e são esses os valores que passam a orientar as atitudes em relação ao amor. Isso se reflete também nas políticas públicas, como no fato de os Estados Unidos serem um dos países mais ricos do mundo e não possuírem um sistema universal de saúde que possa oferecer serviços aos menos favorecidos. Dessa maneira, bell hooks convida as pessoas à escolha de viver com simplicidade. Isso necessariamente intensifica a nossa capacidade de amar, nos ensina a praticar a compaixão e afirma nossa conexão com a comunidade.
O oitavo capítulo, “Comunidade: uma comunhão amorosa”, afirma, conforme as palavras de M. Scott Peck, que “nas comunidades e por meio delas reside a salvação do mundo”. Para desenvolver suas reflexões sobre essa questão, bell hooks lembra que o capitalismo e o patriarcado, juntos, como estrutura de dominação, produziram o afastamento das famílias nucleares de suas respectivas famílias estendidas. Por essa razão, aumentaram os abusos de poder no ambiente familiar, pois a família estendida é um lugar onde podemos aprender o poder da comunidade. Outra possibilidade importante dessa experiência de comunidade é a amizade, que para muitos é o primeiro contato com uma “comunidade carinhosa”. hooks reforça que amar em amizades nos fortalece de tal maneira que nos permite levar esse amor para as interações familiares e românticas. E, embora seja comum afrouxarmos os laços de amizade quando criamos laços românticos, quanto mais verdadeiros forem nossos amores românticos, menos teremos de nos afastar das nossas amizades, pois “a confiança é a pulsação do verdadeiro amor”. Ao nos engajarmos em uma prática amorosa, podemos estabelecer as bases para a construção de uma comunidade com desconhecidos. Esse amor que criamos em comunidade permanece conosco aonde quer que vamos, diz hooks.
“Reciprocidade: o coração do amor”, o nono capítulo, se inicia com os dizeres: “O amor nos permite adentrar o paraíso”. Para falar da construção amorosa entre casais, a autora parte dos equívocos ocorridos nos seus dois relacionamentos afetivos mais intensos, de um lado devido à falta de definição do que seria o amor e, de outro, pela confusão de esperar receber do companheiro o amor que não recebeu da família. Aponta que, mesmo em relacionamentos não heterossexuais, a tendência é o casal assumir uma lógica de que um dos parceiros deve sustentar o amor e o outro, apenas o seguir. Acrescenta ainda o fato de que as mulheres são encorajadas pelo pensamento patriarcal a acreditar que deveriam ser sempre amorosas, porém, isso não significa dizer que estão mais capacitadas do que os homens para fazer isso. Por essa razão, é comum que mulheres procurem livros de autoajuda para aprender a amar e manter o relacionamento. No entanto, grande parte desses livros normalizam o machismo e ensinam a manipular, a jogar um jogo de poder que nada tem a ver com o amor.
No décimo capítulo, “Romance: o doce amor”, bell hooks afirma categoricamente que poucas pessoas entram num relacionamento romântico possuindo a capacidade de realmente receber amor. Isso porque criamos envolvimentos amorosos que estão condenados a repetir os nossos dramas familiares. Comentando sobre o romance O olho mais azul, de Toni Morrison, ela diz que “a ideia de amor romântico é uma das ideias mais destrutivas na história do pensamento humano”. Esse amor que se dá num “estalo”, num “clique”, que não necessita de construção e depende apenas de “química” atrapalha o nosso caminho para o amor. O amor é tanto uma intenção como uma ação. Nossa cultura valoriza demais o amor como fantasia ou mito, mas não faz o mesmo em relação à arte de amar. Ao não atingirem esse mito, as pessoas se decepcionam. No entanto, é preciso entender que essa decepção é pelo amor romântico não alcançado. O amor verdadeiro, quando buscado, nem sempre nos levará ao “felizes para sempre” e, mesmo se o fizer, é preciso que saibamos: amar dá trabalho, não é essa história perfeita e pronta dos contos de fadas.
Em “Perda: amar na vida e na morte”, o décimo primeiro capítulo, a autora trata do medo coletivo da morte, apresentando-o como uma doença do coração para a qual a única cura é o amor. Da mesma maneira, somos incapazes de falar sobre a nossa necessidade de amar e sermos amados. Por medo de que nos vejam como fracos, raramente compartilhamos nossos pensamentos sobre a mortalidade e a perda. É isso que bell hooks nos convida a fazer
O capítulo 12, “Cura: o amor redentor”, nos leva a refletir sobre nossas dores, pois, ainda que tenham nos ensinado o contrário, sofrimentos desnecessários nos ferem. A escolha que temos é não permitir que tais sofrimentos nos deixem cicatrizes por toda a vida. O que faremos dessas marcas está em nossas mãos. O poder curativo da mente e do coração está sempre presente, e nós temos a capacidade de renovar nosso espírito e nossa alma. No entanto, é bastante difícil conseguirmos nos curar em isolamento: a cura é um ato de comunhão. bell hooks diz que precisamos conhecer a compaixão e nos envolver num processo de perdão para nos livrarmos de toda bagagem que carregamos e que impede a nossa cura. O perdão intensifica nossa capacidade de apoiarmos uns aos outros. Fazer as pazes com nós mesmos e com os outros é o presente que a compaixão e o perdão nos oferecem. A autora nos ensina que ser positivo e viver em um estado permanente de esperança renova o espírito e que, quando reavivamos nossa fé na promessa do amor, a esperança se torna nossa cúmplice.
O capítulo 13, “Destino: quando os anjos falam de amor”, fecha o livro apresentando a relação de bell hooks com os anjos. Anjos são aqueles que trazem as notícias que darão alívio ao nosso coração. São os guardiães do bem-estar da alma. Revelam nosso desejo coletivo de regressar ao amor. A autora relata que as primeiras histórias de anjos lhe foram contadas ainda na infância, quando frequentava a igreja, onde aprendeu que os anjos eram consoladores sábios nos momentos de solidão. E, conforme foi crescendo, hooks passou a descobrir muitos anjos em seus autores preferidos, cujos livros permitem entender a vida com mais complexidade. Ela finaliza dizendo que, depois de tanto ficar sozinha, no escuro do quarto, agarrada à metafísica do amor, tentando entender seu mistério, pôde finalmente alcançar uma nova visão do amor. E a essa prática espiritual disciplinada ela chama de “prática de abrir o coração”. Foi isso que desde então a levou a seguir o caminho do amor e a “falar cara a cara com os anjos”.
Na teoria sobre o amor de bell hooks é possível perceber inspirações das igrejas cristãs negras do sul dos Estados Unidos e também da filosofia budista, especialmente com base no mestre zen vietnamita Thich Nhat Hanh, cuja atuação disseminou o conceito de “budismo engajado”, que diz respeito a somar a observação dos preceitos básicos do budismo com uma prática cotidiana socialmente comprometida. Ao lermos Tudo sobre o amor, podemos encontrar também diversos pontos de contato com as ideias trazidas pela filósofa burquinense Sobonfu Somé, em seu livro O espírito da intimidade: ensinamentos ancestrais africanos sobre maneiras de se relacionar, sobretudo no que se refere ao conceito de comunidade. Nesse sentido, ao propor que as transformações desejadas para a sociedade ocorram por meio da prática do amor, bell hooks nos afasta dos paradigmas eurocêntricos e coloniais que construíram a sociedade ocidental, baseada em exploração, injustiça, racismo e sexismo, e (re)direciona o nosso pensamento e a nossa prática rumo à ancestralidade.
A tradução deste livro, trazendo a ideia do amor como transformação política, chega num momento muito oportuno e necessário. Por aqui, essa semente já brotou. Existem pessoas pensando o amor para além do “amor romântico”, como o pastor Henrique Vieira, que destaca a força poderosa do amor para a destruição de preconceitos e a construção de uma sociedade mais justa em seu livro O amor como revolução, ou como o professor Renato Noguera, especialista em estudos africanos, que se dedica a produzir reflexões sobre o amor e é autor do livro Por que amamos: o que os mitos e a filosofia têm a dizer sobre o amor. Nesse caminho segue também a pensadora Carla Akotirene que, ancorada nos estudos do feminismo negro e na ancestralidade, discute o papel político das afetividades, inserindo no debate a urgência do combate à violência doméstica. Pesquisadores voltados para a filosofia africana têm (re)construído conhecimentos que dialogam diretamente com o pensamento de bell hooks em sua Trilogia do Amor. Exemplos disso são os trabalhos de Katiúscia Ribeiro e Wanderson Nascimento. Este último tem um artigo escrito em parceria com Vinícius da Silva, com o título “Políticas do amor e sociedades do amanhã”. Sendo assim, acredito que as lições de bell hooks sobre o amor, apresentadas em português pela Editora Elefante, servirão para difundir e fortalecer ainda mais essa construção. O futuro é ancestral.
Silvane Silva é doutora em história social pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (puc-sp) com a tese O protagonismo das mulheres quilombolas na luta por direitos em comunidades do Estado de São Paulo (1988-2018). Em 2018, participou do Programa de Incentivo Acadêmico Abdias do Nascimento como pesquisadora visitante no Centro de Estudos Latino-Americanos da Universidade da Flórida, nos Estados Unidos. É co-organizadora do livro Narrativas quilombolas: dialogar, conhecer, comunicar (Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo, 2017). Atua como professora e pesquisadora nas temáticas história e cultura afro-brasileira, educação para relações étnico-raciais e educação escolar quilombola. É pesquisadora do Centro de Estudos Culturais Africanos e da Diáspora (Cecafro) da puc-sp e integrante do Grupo de Estudos em Educação da Faculdade de Educação da Universidade de São Paulo (usp).
Os juristas romanos sabiam perfeitamente o que significa “profanar”. Sagradas ou religiosas eram as coisas que de algum modo pertenciam aos deuses. Como tais, elas eram subtraídas ao livre uso e ao comércio dos homens, não podiam ser vendidas nem dadas como fiança, nem cedidas em usufruto ou gravadas de servidão. Sacrílego era todo ato que violasse ou transgredisse esta sua especial indisponibilidade, que as reservava exclusivamente aos deuses celestes (nesse caso eram denominadas propriamente “sagradas”) ou infernais (nesse caso eram simplesmente chamadas “religiosas”). E se consagrar (sacrare) era o termo que designava a saída das coisas da esfera do direito humano, profanar, por sua vez, significava restituí-las ao livre uso dos homens. “Profano” — podia escrever o grande jurista Trebácio — “em sentido próprio denomina-se àquilo que, de sagrado ou religioso que era, é devolvido ao uso e à propriedade dos homens”. E “puro” era o lugar que havia sido desvinculado da sua destinação aos deuses dos mortos e já não era “nem sagrado, nem santo, nem religioso, libertado de todos os nomes desse gênero” (D. 11, 7, 2).
Puro, profano, livre dos nomes sagrados, é o que é restituído ao uso comum dos homens. Mas o uso aqui não aparece como algo natural; aliás, só se tem acesso ao mesmo através de uma profanação. Entre “usar” e “profanar” parece haver uma relação especial, que é importante esclarecer.
Pode-se definir como religião aquilo que subtrai coisas, lugares, animais ou pessoas ao uso comum e as transfere para uma esfera separada. Não só não há religião sem separação, como toda separação contém ou conserva em si um núcleo genuinamente religioso. O dispositivo que realiza e regula a separação é o sacrifício: através de uma série de rituais minuciosos, diferenciados segundo a variedade das culturas, e que Hubert e Mauss inventariaram pacientemente, ele estabelece, em todo caso, a passagem de algo do profano para o sagrado, da esfera humana para a divina. É essencial o corte que separa as duas esferas, o limiar que a vítima deve atravessar, não importando se num sentido ou noutro. O que foi separado ritualmente pode ser restituído, mediante o rito, à esfera profana. Uma das formas mais simples de profanação ocorre através de contato (contagione) no mesmo sacrifício que realiza e regula a passagem da vítima da esfera humana para a divina. Uma parte dela (as entranhas, exta: o fígado, o coração, a vesícula biliar, os pulmões) está reservada aos deuses, enquanto o restante pode ser consumido pelos homens. Basta que os participantes do rito toquem essas carnes para que se tornem profanas e possam ser simplesmente comidas. Há um contágio profano, um tocar que desencanta e devolve ao uso aquilo que o sagrado havia separado e petrificado.
O termo religio, segundo uma etimologia ao mesmo tempo insípida e inexata, não deriva de religare (o que liga e une o humano e o divino), mas de relegere, que indica a atitude de escrúpulo e de atenção que deve caracterizar as relações com os deuses, a inquieta hesitação (o “reler”) perante as formas — e as fórmulas — que se devem observar a fim de respeitar a separação entre o sagrado e o profano. Religio não é o que une homens e deuses, mas aquilo que cuida para que se mantenham distintos. Por isso, à religião não se opõem a incredulidade e a indiferença com relação ao divino, mas a “negligência”, uma atitude livre e “distraída” — ou seja, desvinculada da religio das normas — diante das coisas e do seu uso, diante das formas da separação e do seu significado. Profanar significa abrir a possibilidade de uma forma especial de negligência, que ignora a separação, ou melhor, faz dela um uso particular.
A passagem do sagrado ao profano pode acontecer também por meio de um uso (ou melhor, de um reuso) totalmente incongruente do sagrado. Trata-se do jogo. Sabe-se que as esferas do sagrado e do jogo estão estreitamente vinculadas. A maioria dos jogos que conhecemos deriva de antigas cerimônias sacras, de rituais e de práticas divinatórias que outrora pertenciam à esfera religiosa em sentido amplo. Brincar de roda era originalmente um rito matrimonial; jogar com bola reproduz a luta dos deuses pela posse do sol; os jogos de azar derivam de práticas oraculares; o pião e o jogo de xadrez eram instrumentos de adivinhação. Ao analisar a relação entre jogo e rito, Émile Benveniste mostrou que o jogo não só provém da esfera do sagrado, mas também, de algum modo, representa a sua inversão. A potência do ato sagrado — escreve ele — reside na conjunção do mito que narra a história com o rito que a reproduz e a põe em cena. O jogo quebra essa unidade: como ludus, ou jogo de ação, faz desaparecer o mito e conserva o rito; como jacus, ou jogo de palavras, ele cancela o rito e deixa sobreviver o mito. “Se o sagrado pode ser definido através da unidade consubstanciai entre o mito e o rito, poderíamos dizer que há jogo quando apenas metade da operação sagrada é realizada, traduzindo só o mito em palavras e só o rito em ações.”
Isso significa que o jogo libera e desvia a humanidade da esfera do sagrado, mas sem a abolir simplesmente. O uso a que o sagrado é devolvido é um uso especial, que não coincide com o consumo utilitarista. Assim, a “profanação” do jogo não tem a ver apenas com a esfera religiosa. As crianças, que brincam com qualquer bugiganga que lhes caia nas mãos, transformam em brinquedo também o que pertence à esfera da economia, da guerra, do direito e das outras atividades que estamos acostumados a considerar sérias. Um automóvel, uma arma de fogo, um contrato jurídico transformam-se improvisadamente em brinquedos. É comum, tanto nesses casos como na profanação do sagrado, a passagem de uma religio, que já é percebida como falsa ou opressora, para a negligência como vera religio. E essa não significa descuido (nenhuma atenção resiste ao confronto com a da criança que brinca), mas uma nova dimensão do uso que crianças e filósofos conferem à humanidade. Trata-se de um uso cujo tipo Benjamin devia ter em mente quando escreveu, em O novo advogado, que o direito não mais aplicado, mas apenas estudado, é a porta da justiça. Da mesma forma que a religio não mais observada, mas jogada, abre a porta para o uso, assim também as potências da economia, do direito e da política, desativadas em jogo, tornam-se a porta de uma nova felicidade.
O jogo como órgão da profanação está em decadência em todo lugar. Que o homem moderno já não sabe jogar fica provado precisamente pela multiplicação vertiginosa de novos e velhos jogos. No jogo, nas danças e nas festas, ele procura, de maneira desesperada e obstinada, precisamente o contrário do que ali poderia encontrar: a possibilidade de voltar à festa perdida, um retorno ao sagrado e aos seus ritos, mesmo que fosse na forma das insossas cerimônias da nova religião espetacular ou de uma aula de tango em um salão do interior. Nesse sentido, os jogos televisivos de massa fazem parte de uma nova liturgia, e secularizam uma intenção inconscientemente religiosa. Fazer com que o jogo volte à sua vocação puramente profana é uma tarefa política.
É preciso, nesse sentido, fazer uma distinção entre secularização e profanação. A secularização é uma forma de remoção que mantém intactas as forças, que se restringe a deslocar de um lugar a outro. Assim, a secularização política de conceitos teológicos (a transcendência de Deus como paradigma do poder soberano) limita-se a transmutar a monarquia celeste em monarquia terrena, deixando, porém, intacto o seu poder.
A profanação implica, por sua vez, uma neutralização daquilo que profana. Depois de ter sido profanado, o que estava indisponível e separado perde a sua aura e acaba restituído ao uso. Ambas as operações são políticas, mas a primeira tem a ver com o exercício do poder, o que é assegurado remetendo-o a um modelo sagrado; a segunda desativa os dispositivos do poder e devolve ao uso comum os espaços que ele havia confiscado.
Os filólogos não cansam de ficar surpreendidos com o dúplice e contraditório significado que o verbo profanare parece ter em latim: por um lado, tornar profano, por outro — em acepção atestada só em poucos casos — sacrificar. Trata-se de uma ambigüidade que parece inerente ao vocabulário do sagrado como tal: o adjetivo sacer, com um contra-senso que Freud já havia percebido, significaria tanto “augusto, consagrado aos deuses”, como “maldito, excluído da comunidade”. A ambigüidade, que aqui está em jogo, não se deve apenas a um equívoco, mas é, por assim dizer, constitutiva da operação profanatória (ou daquela, inversa, da consagração). Enquanto se referem a um mesmo objeto que deve passar do profano ao sagrado e do sagrado ao profano, tais operações devem prestar contas, cada vez, a algo parecido com um resíduo de profanidade em toda coisa consagrada e a uma sobra de sacralidade presente em todo objeto profanado.
Veja-se o termo sacer. Ele designa aquilo que, através do ato solene da sacratio ou da devotio (com que o comandante consagra a sua vida aos deuses do inferno para assegurar a vitória), foi entregue aos deuses, pertence exclusivamente a eles. Contudo, na expressão homo sacer, o adjetivo parece designar um indivíduo que, rendo sido excluído da comunidade, pode ser morto impunemente, mas não pode ser sacrificado aos deuses. O que aconteceu de fato nesse caso? Um homem sagrado, ou seja, pertencente aos deuses, sobreviveu ao rito que o separou dos homens e continua levando uma existência aparentemente profana entre eles. No mundo profano, é inerente ao seu corpo um resíduo irredutível de sacralidade, que o subtrai ao comércio normal com seus semelhantes e o expõe à possibilidade da morte violenta, que o devolve aos deuses aos quais realmente pertence; considerado, porém, na esfera divina, ele não pode ser sacrificado e é excluído do culto, pois sua vida já é propriedade dos deuses e, mesmo assim, enquanto sobrevive, por assim dizer, a si mesma, ela introduz um resto incongruente de profanidade no âmbito do sagrado. Sagrado e profano representam, pois, na máquina do sacrifício, um sistema de dois polos, no qual um significante flutuante transita de um âmbito para outro sem deixar de se referir ao mesmo objeto. Mas é precisamente desse modo que a máquina pode assegurar a partilha do uso entre os humanos e os divinos e pode devolver eventualmente aos homens o que havia sido consagrado aos deuses. Daí nasce a promiscuidade entre as duas operações no sacrifício romano, na qual uma parte da própria vítima consagrada acaba profanada por contágio e consumida pelos homens, enquanto outra é entregue aos deuses.
Nessa perspectiva, tornam-se talvez mais compreensíveis o cuidado obsessivo e a implacável seriedade de que, na religião cristã, deviam dar mostras teólogos, pontífices e imperadores, a fim de garantirem, na medida do possível, a coerência e a inteligibilidade da noção de transubstanciação no sacrifício da missa, e das noções de encarnação e omousia no dogma trinitário. Ali estava em jogo nada menos que a sobrevivência de um sistema religioso que havia envolvido o próprio Deus como vítima do sacrifício e, desse modo, havia introduzido nele a separação que, no paganismo, tinha a ver apenas com as coisas humanas. Tratava-se, portanto, de resistir, através da contemporânea presença de duas naturezas numa única pessoa, ou numa só vítima, à confusão entre divino e humano que ameaçava paralisar a máquina sacrificai do cristianismo.
A doutrina da encarnação garantia que a natureza divina e a humana estivessem presentes sem ambigüidade na mesma pessoa, assim como a transubstanciação garantia que as espécies do pão e do vinho se transformassem, sem resíduos, no corpo de Cristo. Acontece assim que, no cristianismo, com a entrada de Deus como vítima do sacrifício e com a forte presença de tendências messiânicas que colocaram em crise a distinção entre o sagrado e o profano, a máquina religiosa parece alcançar um ponto limítrofe ou uma zona de indecidibilidade, em que a esfera divina está sempre prestes a colapsar na esfera humana, e o homem já transpassa sempre para o divino.
O capitalismo como religião é o título de um dos mais profundos fragmentos póstumos de Benjamin. Segundo Benjamin, o capitalismo não representa apenas, como em Weber, uma secularização da fé protestante, mas ele próprio é, essencialmente, um fenômeno religioso, que se desenvolve de modo parasitário a partir do cristianismo. Como tal, como religião da modernidade, ele é definido por três características: 1. É uma religião cultual, talvez a mais extrema e absoluta que jamais tenha existido. Tudo nela tem significado unicamente com referência ao cumprimento de um culto, e não com respeito a um dogma ou a uma ideia. 2. Esse culto é permanente; é “a celebração de um culto sans trêve et sans merci” . Nesse caso, não é possível distinguir entre dias de festa e dias de trabalho, mas há um único e ininterrupto dia de festa, em que o trabalho coincide com a celebração do culto. 3. O culto capitalista não está voltado para a redenção ou para a expiação de uma culpa, mas para a própria culpa.
O capitalismo é talvez o único caso de um culto não expiador, mas culpabilizante […] Uma monstruosa consciência culpável que não conhece redenção transforma-se em culto, não para expiar com ele a sua culpa, mas para torná-la universal […] e para, ao final, envolver o próprio Deus na culpa […] Deus não está morto, mas foi incorporado ao destino do homem.
Precisamente porque tende com todas as suas forças não para a redenção, mas para a culpa, não para a esperança, mas para o desespero, o capitalismo como religião não tem em vista a transformação do mundo, mas a destruição do mesmo. E o seu domínio é em nosso tempo tão total que também os três grandes profetas da modernidade (Nietzsche, Marx e Freud) conspiram com ele, segundo Benjamin, sendo, de algum modo, solidários com a religião do desespero. “Esta passagem do planeta homem, através da casa do desespero, para a absoluta solidão do seu percurso é o ethos que define Nietzsche. Este homem é o Super-Homem, ou seja, o primeiro homem que começa conscientemente a realizar a religião capitalista.” Também a teoria freudiana pertence ao sacerdócio do culto capitalista: “o removido, a representação pecaminosa […] é o capital, sobre o qual o inferno do inconsciente paga os juros”. E em Marx, o capitalismo “com os juros simples e compostos, que são função da culpa […] transforma-se imediatamente em socialismo”.
Procuremos continuar as reflexões de Benjamin na perspectiva que aqui nos interessa. Poderíamos dizer então que o capitalismo, levando ao extremo uma tendência já presente no cristianismo, generaliza e absolutiza, em todo âmbito, a estrutura da separação que define a religião. Onde o sacrifício marcava a passagem do profano ao sagrado e do sagrado ao profano, está agora um único, multiforme e incessante processo de separação, que investe toda coisa, todo lugar, toda atividade humana para dividi-la por si mesma e é totalmente indiferente à cisão sagrado/profano, divino/humano. Na sua forma extrema, a religião capitalista realiza a pura forma da separação, sem mais nada a separar.
Uma profanação absoluta e sem resíduos coincide agora com uma consagração igualmente vazia e integral. E como, na mercadoria, a separação faz parte da própria forma do objeto, que se distingue em valor de uso e valor de troca e se transforma em fetiche inapreensível, assim agora tudo o que é feito, produzido e vivido — também o corpo humano, também a sexualidade, também a linguagem — acaba sendo dividido por si mesmo e deslocado para uma esfera separada que já não define nenhuma divisão substancial e na qual todo uso se torna duravelmente impossível. Esta esfera é o consumo. Se, conforme foi sugerido, denominamos a fase extrema do capitalismo que estamos vivendo como espetáculo, na qual todas as coisas são exibidas na sua separação de si mesmas, então espetáculo e consumo são as duas faces de uma única impossibilidade de usar. O que não pode ser usado acaba, como tal, entregue ao consumo ou à exibição espetacular. Mas isso significa que se tornou impossível profanar (ou, pelo menos, exige procedimentos especiais). Se profanar significa restituir ao uso comum o que havia sido separado na esfera do sagrado, a religião capitalista, na sua fase extrema, está voltada para a criação de algo absolutamente Improfanável.
O cânone teológico do consumo como impossibilidade do uso foi fixado no século XIII pela Cúria Romana no contexto do conflito em que ela se opôs à Ordem dos Franciscanos. Na sua reivindicação da “altíssima pobreza”, os franciscanos afirmavam a possibilidade de um uso totalmente desvinculado da esfera do direito, que eles, para o distinguir do usufruto e de qualquer outro direito de uso, chamavam de usus facti, uso de fato (ou do fato). Contra eles, João XXII, adversário implacável da Ordem, escreve a sua bula Ad conditorem canonum. Nas coisas que são objeto de consumo — argumenta ele —, como o alimento, as roupas etc., não pode haver um uso diferente daquele da propriedade, porque o mesmo se define integralmente no ato do seu consumo, ou seja, da sua destruição (abusus). O consumo, que destrói necessariamente a coisa, não é senão a impossibilidade ou a negação do uso, que pressupõe que a substância da coisa permaneça intacta (salva rei substantia). Não só isso: um simples uso de fato, distinto da propriedade, não existe naturalmente, não é, de modo algum, algo que se possa “ter”. “O próprio ato do uso não existe naturalmente nem antes de o exercer, nem durante o tempo em que se exerce, nem sequer depois de tê-lo exercido. O consumo, mesmo no ato do seu exercício, sempre é já passado ou futuro e, como tal, não se pode dizer que exista naturalmente, mas apenas na memória ou na expectativa. Portanto, ele não pode ter sido a não ser no instante do seu desaparecimento.”
Dessa maneira, com uma profecia inconsciente, João XXII apresenta o paradigma de uma impossibilidade de usar que iria alcançar seu cumprimento muitos séculos depois na sociedade dos consumos. Essa obstinada negação do USO percebe, porém, a sua natureza mais radicalmente do que eram capazes de fazê-lo os que o reivindicavam dentro da ordem franciscana. Isso porque o puro uso aparece, na sua argumentação, não tanto como algo inexistente — ele existe, de fato, instantaneamente no ato do consumo — quanto, sobretudo, como algo que nunca se pode ter, que nunca pode constituir uma propriedade (dominium). Assim, o uso é sempre relação com o inapropriável, referindo-se às coisas enquanto não se podem tornar objeto de posse. Desse modo, porém, o uso evidencia também a verdadeira natureza da propriedade, que não é mais que o dispositivo que desloca o livre uso dos homens para uma esfera separada, na qual é convertido em direito. Se hoje os consumidores na sociedade de massas são infelizes, não é só porque consomem objetos que incorporaram em si a própria não-usabilidade, mas também e sobretudo porque acreditam que exercem o seu direito de propriedade sobre os mesmos, porque se tornaram incapazes de os profanar.
A impossibilidade de usar tem o seu lugar tópico no Museu. A museificação do mundo é atualmente um dado de fato. Uma após outra, progressivamente, as potências espirituais que definiam a vida dos homens — a arte, a religião, a filosofia, a idéia de natureza, até mesmo a política — retiraram-se, uma a uma, docilmente, para o Museu. Museu não designa, nesse caso, um lugar ou um espaço físico determinado, mas a dimensão separada para a qual se transfere o que há um tempo era percebido como verdadeiro e decisivo, e agora já não é. O Museu pode coincidir, nesse sentido, com uma cidade inteira (Évora, Veneza, declaradas por isso mesmo patrimônio da humanidade), com uma região (declarada parque ou oásis natural), e até mesmo com um grupo de indivíduos (enquanto representa uma forma de vida que desapareceu). De forma mais geral, tudo hoje pode tornar-se Museu, na medida em que esse termo indica simplesmente a exposição de uma impossibilidade de usar, de habitar, de fazer experiência.
Por essa razão, no Museu, a analogia entre capitalismo e religião se torna evidente. O Museu ocupa exatamente o espaço e a função em outro tempo reservados ao Templo como lugar do sacrifício. Aos fiéis no Templo — ou aos peregrinos que percorriam a terra de Templo em Templo, de santuário em santuário — correspondem hoje os turistas, que viajam sem trégua num mundo estranhado em Museu. Mas enquanto os fiéis e os peregrinos participavam, no final, de um sacrifício que, separando a vítima na esfera sagrada, restabelecia as justas relações entre o divino e o humano, os turistas celebram, sobre a sua própria pessoa, um ato sacrifical que consiste na angustiante experiência da destruição de todo possível uso. Se os cristãos eram “peregrinos”, ou seja, estrangeiros sobre a terra, porque sabiam que tinham no céu a sua pátria, os adeptos do novo culto capitalista não têm pátria alguma, porque residem na forma pura da separação. Aonde quer que vão, eles encontrarão, multiplicada e elevada ao extremo, a própria impossibilidade de habitar, que haviam conhecido nas suas casas e nas suas cidades, a própria incapacidade de usar, que haviam experimentado nos supermercados, nos shopping centers e nos espetáculos televisivos. Por isso, enquanto representa o culto e o altar central da religião capitalista, o turismo é atualmente a primeira indústria do mundo, que atinge anualmente mais de 650 milhões de homens. E nada é mais impressionante do que o fato de milhões de homens comuns conseguirem realizar na própria carne talvez a mais desesperada experiência que a cada um seja permitido realizar: a perda irrevogável de todo uso, a absoluta impossibilidade de profanar.
É possível, porém, que o Improfanável, sobre o qual se funda a religião capitalista, não seja de fato tal, e que atualmente ainda haja formas eficazes de profanação. Por isso, é preciso lembrar que a profanação não restaura simplesmente algo parecido com um uso natural, que preexistia à sua separação na esfera religiosa, econômica ou jurídica. A sua operação — como mostra com clareza o exemplo do jogo — é mais astuta e complexa e não se limita a abolir a forma da separação para voltar a encontrar, além ou aquém dela, um uso não contaminado. Também na natureza acontecem profanações. O gato que brinca com um novelo como se fosse um rato — exatamente como a criança fazia com antigos símbolos religiosos ou com objetos que pertenciam à esfera econômica — usa conscientemente de forma gratuita os comportamentos próprios da atividade predatória (ou, no caso da criança, próprios do culto religioso ou do inundo do trabalho). Estes não são cancelados, mas, graças à substituição do novelo pelo rato (ou do brinquedo pelo objeto sacro), eles acabam desativados e, dessa forma, abertos a um novo e possível uso.
Mas de que uso se trata? Qual é, para o gato, o uso possível do novelo? Ele consiste em libertar um comportamento da sua inscrição genética em uma esfera determinada (a atividade predatória, a caça). O comportamento libertado dessa forma reproduz e ainda expressa gestualmente as formas da atividade de que se emancipou, esvaziando-as, porém, de seu sentido e da relação imposta com uma finalidade, abrindo-as e dispondo-as para um novo uso. O jogo com o novelo representa a libertação do rato do fato de ser uma presa, e é libertação da atividade predatória do fato de estar necessariamente voltada para a captura e a morte do rato; apesar disso, ele apresenta os mesmos comporta-mentos que definiam a caça. A atividade que daí resulta torna-se dessa forma um puro meio, ou seja, uma prática que, embora conserve tenazmente a sua natureza de meio, se emancipou da sua relação com uma finalidade, esqueceu alegremente o seu objetivo, podendo agora exibir-se como tal, como meio sem fim. Assim, a criação de um novo uso só é possível ao homem se ele desativar o velho uso, tornando-o inoperante.
A separação dá-se também e sobretudo na esfera do corpo, como repressão e separação de determinadas funções fisiológicas. Umas delas é a defecação, que, em nossa sociedade, é isolada e escondida através de uma série de dispositivos e de proibições (que têm a ver tanto com os comportamentos quanto com a linguagem). O que poderia querer dizer: profanar a defecação? Certamente não encontrar nisso uma pretensa naturalidade, nem simplesmente desfrutá-lo como forma de transgressão perversa (o que, aliás, é melhor do que nada). Trata-se, sim, de alcançar arqueologicamente a defecação como campo de tensões polares entre natureza e cultura, privado e público, singular e comum. Ou melhor, trata-se de aprender um novo uso das fezes, assim como as crianças estavam tentando fazer a seu modo antes que interviessem a repressão e a separação. As formas desse uso só poderão ser inventadas de maneira coletiva. Como observou certa vez Italo Calvino, também as fezes são uma produção humana como as outras, só que delas nunca se fez uma história. Por esse motivo, qualquer tentativa individual de profaná-las pode ter apenas valor de paródia, a exemplo da cena da defecação em volta de uma mesa de jantar no filme de Buñuel.
As fezes — é claro — aparecem aqui apenas como símbolo do que foi separado e pode ser restituído ao uso comum. Mas é possível uma sociedade sem separação? A pergunta talvez esteja mal formulada. Profanar não significa simplesmente abolir e cancelar as separações, mas aprender a fazer delas um uso novo, a brincar com elas. A sociedade sem classes não é uma sociedade que aboliu e perdeu toda memória das diferenças de classe, mas uma sociedade que soube desativar seus dispositivos, a fim de tornar possível um novo uso, para transformá-las em meios puros.
Nada é, porém, tão frágil e precário como a esfera dos meios puros. Também o jogo, na nossa sociedade, tem caráter episódico, depois do qual a vida normal deve retomar seu curso (e o gato a sua caça). E ninguém melhor do que as crianças sabe como pode ser atroz e inquietante um brinquedo quando acabou o jogo de que era parte. O instrumento de libertação converte-se então em um pedaço de madeira sem graça, e a boneca para a qual a menina dirigiu seu amor torna-se um gélido e vergonhoso boneco de cera que um mago malvado pode capturar e enfeitiçar para servir-se dele contra nós.
Esse mago malvado é o grande sacerdote da religião capitalista. Se os dispositivos do culto capitalista são tão eficazes é porque agem não apenas e nem sobretudo sobre os comportamentos primários, mas sobre os meios puros, ou seja, sobre comportamentos que foram separados de si mesmos e, assim, separados da sua relação com uma finalidade. Na sua fase extrema, o capitalismo não é senão um gigantesco dispositivo de captura dos meios puros, ou seja, dos comportamentos profanatórios. Os meios puros, que representam a desativação e a ruptura de qualquer separação, acabam por sua vez sendo separados em uma esfera especial. Exemplo disso é a linguagem. Certamente o poder sempre procurou assegurar o controle da comunicação social, servindo-se da linguagem como meio para difundir a própria ideologia e para induzir a obediência voluntária. Hoje, porém, tal função instrumental — ainda eficaz às margens do sistema, quando se verificam situações de perigo e de exceção — deu lugar a um procedimento diferente de controle, que, ao ser separado na esfera espetacular, atinge a linguagem no seu rodar no vazio, ou seja, no seu possível potencial profanatório. Mais essencial do que a função de propaganda, que diz respeito à linguagem como instrumento voltado para um fim, é a captura e a neutralização do meio puro por excelência, isto é, da linguagem que se emancipou dos seus fins comunicativos e assim se prepara para um novo uso.
Os dispositivos midiáticos têm como objetivo, precisamente, neutralizar esse poder profanatório da linguagem como meio puro, impedir que o mesmo abra a possibilidade de um novo uso, de uma nova experiência da palavra. A Igreja, depois dos dois primeiros séculos de esperança e de expectativa, já tinha concebido sua função com o objetivo essencial de neutralizar a nova experiência da palavra que Paulo, ao colocá-la no centro do anúncio messiânico, havia denominado pistis, fé. Da mesma maneira, no sistema da religião espetacular, o meio puro, suspenso e exibido na esfera midiática, expõe o próprio vazio, diz apenas o próprio nada, como se nenhum uso novo fosse possível, como se nenhuma outra experiência da palavra ainda fosse possível.
Essa aniquilação dos meios puros evidencia-se no dispositivo que, mais que qualquer outro, parece ter realizado o sonho capitalista da produção de um Improfanável. Trata-se da pornografia. Quem tem alguma familiaridade com a história da fotografia erótica sabe que, no seu início, as modelos mostram uma expressão romântica e quase sonhadora, como se a objetiva as tivesse surpreendido, e não visto, na intimidade do seu boudoir. Às vezes, preguiçosamente estendidas sobre um canapé, fingem estar dormindo ou até mesmo lendo, como acontece em alguns nus de Braquehais e de Camille d’Olivier; outras vezes, o fotógrafo indiscreto flagrou-as precisamente quando, sozinhas consigo mesmas, se estão olhando no espelho (é a mise-en-scène preferida por Auguste Belloc). Muito cedo, no entanto, acompanhando a absolutização capitalista da mercadoria e do valor de troca, a expressão delas se transforma e se torna desavergonhada; as poses ficam complicadas e adquirem movimento, como se as modelos exagerassem intencionalmente a sua indecência, exibindo assim a sua consciência de estarem expostas frente à objetiva. Mas é apenas em nosso tempo que tal processo alcança o seu estágio extremo. Os historiadores do cinema registram como novidade desconcertante a seqüência de Monika (1952) na qual a protagonista Harriet Andersson mantém improvisadamente fixo, por alguns segundos, o seu olhar voltado para a câmara (“aqui, pela primeira vez na história do cinema”, irá comentar retrospectivamente o diretor Ingmar Bergman, “estabelece-se um contato despudorado e direto com o espectador”). Desde então, a pornografia certamente banalizou o procedimento: as pornostars, no preciso momento em que executam suas carícias mais íntimas, olham resolutamente para a objetiva, mostrando maior interesse pelo espectador do que pelos seus partners.
Dessa maneira, realiza-se plenamente o princípio que Benjamin já havia enunciado em 1936, ao escrever o ensaio sobre Fuchs: “o que nestas imagens atua como estímulo sexual não é tanto a visão da nudez quanto a idéia da exibição do corpo nu frente à objetiva”. Um ano antes, a fim de caracterizar a transformação que a obra de arte sofre na época da sua reprodutibilidade técnica, Benjamin havia criado o conceito de “valor de exposição” (Ausstellungswert). Nada poderia caracterizar melhor a nova condição dos objetos e até mesmo do corpo humano na idade do capitalismo realizado do que esse conceito. Na oposição marxiana entre valor de uso e valor de troca, o valor de exposição sugere um terceiro termo, que não se deixa reduzir aos dois primeiros. Não se trata de valor de uso, porque o que está exposto é, como tal, subtraído à esfera do uso; nem se trata de valor de troca, porque não mede, de forma alguma, uma força-trabalho.
Mas é talvez só na esfera do rosto humano que o mecanismo do valor de exposição encontra o seu devido lugar. É uma experiência comum que o rosto de uma mulher que se sente olhada se torne inexpressivo. Saber que está exposta ao olhar cria o vazio na consciência e age como um poderoso desagregador dos processos expressivos que costumeiramente animam o rosto. Trata-se aqui da descarada indiferença que, antes de qualquer outra coisa, as manequins, as pornostars e as outras profissionais da exposição devem aprender a conquistar: não dar a ver nada mais que um dar a ver (ou seja, a própria e absoluta medialidade). Dessa forma, o rosto carrega-se até chegar a explodir de valor de exposição. Mas exatamente através dessa aniquilação da expressividade o erotismo penetra ali onde não poderia ter lugar: no rosto humano, que não conhece nudez, porque sempre já está nu. Exibido como puro meio para além de toda expressividade concreta, ele se torna disponível para um novo uso, para uma nova forma de comunicação erótica.
Uma pornostar, que presta seus serviços em performances artísticas, levou recentemente tal procedimento ao extremo. Ela se faz fotografar precisamente no momento de realizar ou sofrer os atos mais obscenos, mas sempre de tal maneira que o seu rosto fique bem visível em primeiro plano. E, em vez de simular o prazer, segundo a convenção comum nesses casos, ela simula e exibe — como as manequins — a mais absoluta indiferença, a mais estóica ataraxia. A quem fica indiferente Chloé des Lysses? Certamente ao seu partner. Mas também aos espectadores, que, com surpresa, se dão conta de que a star, mesmo sabendo perfeitamente estar exposta ao olhar, não tem com eles sequer a mínima cumplicidade. O seu semblante impassível rompe assim toda relação entre o vivido e a esfera expressiva; não exprime mais nada, mas se dá a ver como lugar imaculado da expressão, como puro meio.
O que o dispositivo da pornografia procura neutralizar é esse potencial profanatório. O que nele acaba sendo capturado é a capacidade humana de fazer andar em círculo os comportamentos eróticos, de os profanar, separando-os do seu fim imediato. Mas enquanto, dessa maneira, os mesmos se abriam para um possível uso diferente, que dizia respeito não tanto ao prazer do partner mas a uni novo uso coletivo da sexualidade, a pornografia intervém nessa altura para bloquear e para desviar a intenção profanatória. O consumo solitário e desesperado da imagem pornográfica acaba substituindo a promessa de um novo uso.
Todo dispositivo de poder sempre é duplo: por um lado, isso resulta de um comportamento individual de subjetivação e, por outro, da sua captura numa esfera separada. Em si mesmo, o comportamento individual não traz, muitas vezes, nada de reprovável e até pode expressar uma intenção liberatória; reprovável é eventualmente — quando não foi obrigado pelas circunstâncias ou pela força — apenas o fato de se ter deixado capturar no dispositivo. Não é o gesto impudente da pornostar nem o rosto impassível da manequim, como tais, que devem ser questionados; infames são, isso sim — política e moralmente — o dispositivo da pornografia, o dispositivo do desfile de moda, que os desviaram do seu uso possível.
O Improfanável da pornografia — qualquer improfanável — baseia-se no aprisionamento e na distração de uma intenção autenticamente profanatória. Por isso é importante toda vez arrancar dos dispositivos — de todo dispositivo — a possibilidade de uso que os mesmos capturaram. A profanação do improfanável é a tarefa política da geração que vem.
O médico sanitarista Gonzalo Vecina Neto defendeu a instituição de uma fila única para o atendimento de pacientes de Covid-19 em hospitais públicos e privados. Nas suas palavras: “Dói, mas tem que fazer. Porque se não brasileiros pobres vão morrer e brasileiros ricos vão se salvar. Não tem cabimento isso”.
Ex-diretor da Agência de Vigilância Sanitária e ex-superintendente do hospital Sírio Libanês, Vecina tem autoridade para dizer o que disse. A fila única não é uma ideia só dele. Foi proposta no início de abril por grupos de estudo das universidades de São Paulo e Federal do Rio.
Na quarta-feira (29), o presidente do Conselho Nacional de Saúde, Fernando Zasso Pigatto, enviou ao ministro Nelson Teich e aos secretários estaduais de Saúde sua Recomendação 26, para que assumam a coordenação “da alocação dos recursos assistenciais existentes, incluindo leitos hospitalares de propriedade de particulares, requisitando seu uso quando necessário, e regulando o acesso segundo as prioridades sanitárias de cada caso”.
Por quê? Porque a rede privada tem 15.898 leitos de UTIs, com ociosidade de 50%, e a rede pública tem 14.876 e está a um passo do colapso.
O ex-ministro Luiz Henrique Mandetta (ex-diretor de uma Unimed) jamais tocou no assunto. Seu sucessor, Nelson Teich (cuja indicação para a pasta foi cabalada por agentes do baronato) também não. Depois da recomendação do conselho, quatro guildas da medicina privada saíram do silêncio, condenaram a ideia e apresentaram quatro propostas alternativas. Uma delas, a testagem da população, é risível e duas são dilatórias (a construção de hospitais de campanha e a publicação de editais para a contratação de leitos e serviços). A quarta vem a ser boa ideia: a revitalização de leitos públicos. Poderia ter sido oferecida em março.
Desde o início da epidemia os barões da medicina privada mantiveram-se em virótico silêncio. Eles viviam no mundo encantado da saúde de grife, contratando médicos renomados como se fossem jogadores de futebol, inaugurando hospitais com hotelarias estreladas e atendendo clientes de planos de saúde bilionários. Veio a Covid-19, e descobriram-se num país com 40 milhões de invisíveis e 12 milhões de desempregados.
Se o vírus tivesse sido enfrentado com a energia da Nova Zelândia, o silêncio teria sido eficaz. Como isso era impossível, acordaram no Brasil, com 90 mil infectados e mais de 6.000 mortos.
A Agência Nacional de Saúde ofereceu aos planos de saúde acesso ao recursos de um fundo se elas aceitassem atender (até julho) clientes inadimplentes. Nem pensar. Dos 780 planos só 9 aderiram.
O silêncio virótico provocou-lhes uma tosse com a recomendação do Conselho Nacional de Saúde. A fila única é um remédio com efeitos laterais tóxicos. Se a burocracia ficar encarregada de organizá-la, arrisca só ficar pronta em 2021. Ademais é discutível se uma pessoa que pagou caro pelo acesso a um hospital deve ficar atrás de alguém que não pagou. Na outra ponta dessa discussão, fica a frase de Vecina: “Brasileiros pobres vão morrer e brasileiros ricos vão se salvar”. Os números da epidemia mostram que o baronato precisa sair da toca.
A Covid-19 jogou o sistema de saúde brasileiro na arapuca daquele navio cujo nome não deve ser pronunciado (com Leonardo DiCaprio estrelando o filme). O transatlântico tinha 2.200 passageiros, mas nos seus botes salva-vidas só cabiam 1.200 pessoas. 34% dos homens da primeira classe salvaram-se.
The final Democratic presidential debate of 2020 was a dispiriting affair for reasons that went far beyond the politics of it. The specter of COVID-19 lent a stark gloominess to the occasion, as did the seeming emptiness of the room itself: three CNN moderators, two men and the cameras. I never thought I’d miss a debate audience, but the energy was gone from that room, and the brightly lit set could not make up for it.
And then there’s this: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that events of 50 people or more not be held for about two months,” Bloomberg Newsreported on Sunday. “For the next eight weeks, organizers should cancel or postpone in-person events of that size throughout the U.S.”
Primaries are scheduled to be held on Tuesday in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois and Florida. These contests were set to be decisive before the CDC’s recommendation — if Joe Biden wins them all, his delegate lead over Bernie Sanders would become all but insurmountable — and may be all the more so now. These four primaries could be the last of the season. Georgia has postponed its primary, which was slated for next Tuesday, and Louisiana’s April 4 primary has likewise been delayed.
It’s quite simple: If we are listening to the CDC’s recommendations, the remaining primaries will probably be put on hold at some point, either until this thing burns itself out, or altogether depending on the circumstances. The primaries this Tuesday may happen, or they may not, but no one should be surprised if they are the last ones for a long while.
“Election dates are very, very important. We don’t want to be getting into the habit of messing around with them,” Sanders toldCNN’s Anderson Cooper in a post-debate interview. “I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts, and what they are saying is … ‘We don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people.’ I’m thinking about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks registering people to enroll, that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.”
A cancelled primary election season would be the worst of all possible outcomes, and not just because Joe Biden would basically become the Democratic nominee by default. We do elections in this country, because if we don’t, we have lost all semblance of democracy. That all-important sentiment falls to ashes in the face of the coronavirus, which has the potential to lay waste to the nation’s older and immunocompromised population if not contained.
Authorities not named Donald Trump have been warning us this situation would bring sweeping changes to our lives, and they haven’t been wrong. A shortened 2020 Democratic nomination process may soon become part of that change, so the ability of either candidate to increase their nomination chances felt blunted by the same circumstances that led them to debate each other in that bright, empty room.
Joe Biden is fortunate that Bernie Sanders was feeling conciliatory under the circumstances, because Biden lied, lied and lied throughout the evening.
Sanders was strong throughout, opening the evening with a broadside against Wall Street and the wealthy, who were taken care of by the Federal Reserve in fine style on Friday. The Fed conjured $1.5 trillion in magic money and dumped it into the banking system so businesses can still borrow without breaking themselves financially. By the end of the weekend, the interest rate had been cut to basically zero.
“Bottom line from an economic point of view,” said Sanders, “what we have got to say to the American people, if you lose your job, you will be made whole. You’re not going to lose income. If Trump can put, or the fed can put a trillion and a half into the banking system, we can protect the wages of every worker in America.”
Biden, for his part, came into the evening looking to survive without damaging himself too badly. In this, he had help from an unlikely source: his opponent. While Sanders repeatedly sought to hold Biden’s feet to the fire on various aspects of the former vice president’s voting record, it became clear early on that Sanders was not out for blood.
“I know your heart is in the right place,” Sanders said to Biden on more than one occasion, a rhetorical fig leaf intended to convey the sense that Trump is the main enemy, and these two presidential candidates share many areas of common ground. “We talk about the Green New Deal and all of these things in general terms,” said Sanders toward the end of the first hour, “but details make a difference.”
Joe Biden is fortunate that Bernie Sanders was feeling conciliatory under the circumstances, and more fortunate the CNN moderators appeared unwilling to do their jobs, because Biden lied, lied and lied again throughout the evening. When tasked to defend his serially gruesome legislative record, Biden sailed off into the land of self-serving fantasy so often that #LyinBiden and #LyingJoe were top trends on Twitter all night long.
Biden has been lying about his stance on Social Security for months now, but found a whole new gear last night. He lied straight into the camera about statements he has made and votes he has cast, as if he’d forgotten that the internet exists and such brazen bullshit artistry doesn’t fly so well anymore.
Biden was similarly slippery on his support of the bankruptcy bill, on the Hyde Amendment and reproductive rights, on his vote for the Iraq War, on the Defense of Marriage Act, and on any and all areas where his record fails to meet the standard Sanders set simply by being in the room. One of the two candidates last night spent the last 30 years being right on the signal issues of the day, and it showed.
“A time to rethink America,” indeed.
“The fact is that the idea that I in fact supported the things that you suggested is not accurate,” was a typical Biden response to Sanders throughout the evening. The CNN moderators didn’t bother trying to call Biden on his loose relationship with the truth, but Sanders persistently did so.
Biden’s most newsworthy moment of the evening came when he flatly declared that he would select a woman to serve as his vice president. “I commit that I’ll pick a woman to be vice president,” said Biden. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow, I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”
This was, among other things, Joe Biden paying a debt to Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement before the South Carolina primary resurrected Biden’s moribund campaign. Clyburn has made it clear that he wants Biden to select a woman for a running mate, and preferably a Black woman. Biden’s announcement last night was a “Yes, sir” telegraphed to the House majority whip via live television broadcast.
For Sanders, this debate was perhaps his last, best opportunity to make the case for his vision for the presidency as clearly as possible. As usual, he did not disappoint:
In this moment of economic uncertainty, in addition to the coronavirus, it is time to ask how we get to where we are, not only our lack of preparation for the virus, but how we end up with an economy, with so many about people are hurting at a time of massive income and wealth inequality. It is time to ask the question of where the power is in America. Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process? Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires and not raise the minimum wage?
Why do we pump up the oil industry while a half a million people are homeless in America? This is the time to move aggressively, dealing with the coronavirus crisis, to deal with the economic fallout, but it’s also a time to rethink America, and create a country where we care about each other, rather than a nation of greed and corruption, which is what is taking place among the corporate elite.
“A time to rethink America,” indeed. A great many sacred cows — most especially capitalism and its deleterious effect on health care — are on their way to the coronavirus slaughterhouse. Whether or not we proceed with the remaining primaries, we will be other than what we are as a nation when we come out the far side of this. Bernie Sanders told us as much last night, just as he has for the full term of his public life. If and how we heed him, finally, will be up to us in the end.
Sophie Chao is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney in Australia.
To Indigenous Marind communities living in West Papua, Indonesia, the year 2015 was abu-abu—“gray” and “uncertain.” Forests set ablaze to clear land for oil palm and pulpwood concessions filled the sky with a suffocating haze. Vegetation was bulldozed and waterways were diverted to irrigate the plantations, leaving the landscape brown and desiccated. Hundreds of dead fish floated on stagnant ponds while other riverine critters choked on pesticides, chemicals, and sludge.
The widespread destruction was exacerbated by an extreme El Niño, contributing to the longest drought in two decades. In the villages of the Merauke district, where I conducted 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2013 and 2018, Marind people gathered every morning at dawn to recite incantations in the hope of summoning rain. None came.
In December 2015, representatives from an Indonesian oil palm company visited the village and offered to hold a rainmaking ritual. Most villagers assumed the proposal was a ruse. This corporation had repeatedly urged the villagers to cede their lands for an oil palm project, and the businesspeople were becoming increasingly desperate to start development or risk losing their permit.
Many community members said the ceremony would be co-opted and fake, and therefore doomed to fail. These businesspeople from Java were ignorant of Marind customs, myth, and ritual codes, so they would be incapable of manipulating the elements, organisms, and spirits whose collaboration is necessary for rituals to succeed.
Nevertheless, the company insisted on holding the ceremony—and, in doing so, may have permanently destroyed the community’s relationship with their rain-making tradition.
Only a handful of villagers attended the ritual, largely out of fear of reprisals from the company and the government if they did not comply. Those who did attend were struck by how closely it followed secret Marind traditions.
The corporate hosts wore elaborate bird-of-paradise headdresses, handwoven sago-frond skirts, and ornaments fashioned from the feathers and bones of cassowaries and boars. They brought the necessary food offerings—betel nut, sugarcane stalks, sago, and bananas. Although their pronunciation was flawed, the officiants read handwritten Marind spells with great solemnity. The dances, chants, and sacrifice of a fattened male pig took place just as Marind etiquette required.
As the ceremony unfolded, Pius,* an elder renowned for his extensive knowledge of Marind myth and ritual, suddenly grabbed my shoulder. He pointed with astonishment at the horizon, where thick clusters of dark clouds were gathering. Thunder reverberated between the ritual drumbeats and the dancers’ chanting and stamping. At the apogee of the final rain dance, the clouds burst above the village, releasing a heavy downfall that lasted more than two weeks.
In the aftermath, the villagers offered several explanations for this unexpected outcome. Some suggested the company had checked the forecast and timed the event to coincide with predicted rainfall. Others suspected fellow villagers of divulging traditional spells to the company in exchange for money and alcohol. Some said it was coincidence or luck.
For the vast majority of my interlocutors, however, the success of the ritual confirmed widespread rumors that foreign corporations are actually powerful and lethal sorcerers. And given corporations’ abilities to transform natural environments and human societies across the world, it’s a perspective worth considering.
According to Marind, sorcerers are people (mostly men) who collude with evil forces lurking in the forests in order to further their personal interests and material gains. Sorcerers tend to be highly individualistic power-seekers who use their supernatural abilities in clandestine ways to inflict suffering upon vulnerable people. These characterizations of sorcerers echo the beliefs of people across Melanesia.
As Viktor, a village elder, explained, foreign oil palm corporations wield this kind of diabolical power to wreak havoc on Indigenous peoples and their lands. They obliterate the forest, undermine Marind people’s ancestral relations to kindred forest organisms, and pursue a seemingly insatiable hunger for resources, profit, and power.
Marcelina, a Marind mother of three, said companies are always greedy for more land, just like sorcerers are said to be perpetually hungry for the flesh and blood of their victims. Geronimo, a young Marind man, spoke of corporations draining the flesh and fluids of Marind and their plant and animal kin by transforming diverse forests into homogeneous plantations and diverting waterways for irrigation.
Like sorcerers who lure their victims by appearing as normal humans, corporations are also profoundly deceptive, according to many Marind community members with whom I have worked over the last seven years. They entice villagers with promises of jobs, money, and better futures that rarely materialize. They cause clans previously bound by shared pasts and kinship to fight over compensation and land rights.
Corporate sorcerers, Elder Petrarchus explained, are also magical in the way they replicate themselves and exist in several places at once. Their plantations proliferate across space under dozens of different names and logos. Their powers are spread over the many levels and individuals who make up corporate entities.
Just as sorcerers operate in mysterious ways and cannot be easily identified, corporations govern their concessions from a distance—Jayapura, Jakarta, Singapore. Their authority is everywhere, even as their agents remain elusive.
There is something magical about the power of multinational corporations and their tentacle-like supply chains.
Since corporate sorcery originates from foreign places, its techniques, instruments, and remedies are unknown to Marind. As Serafina, a mother of four from Merauke, put it: “Sorcery is like oil palm. We do not know where it comes from or how to stop it from spreading. In both cases, we cannot escape the destruction and suffering.”
From the perspective of Marind community members, corporate sorcerers’ supernatural powers are heightened by their association with other threats. Corporate interests are protected by the Indonesian military, whose deadly operations are often described as sorcery by Papuan peoples. These businesses also attract a growing influx of non-Papuan migrants, who are said by Marind to harness new and foreign spells, rituals, concoctions, and objects in order to appropriate land, obtain jobs, and enrich themselves at the expense of local Papuan communities.
Modern capitalism’s utilitarian focus on profit may seem far removed from sorcery. Capitalism, as sociologist Max Weber argued, is driven by an extractive ethos that strips the world of its supernatural dimensions.
Yet there is something uncannily magical about the power of multinational corporations and their tentacle-like supply chains. Some mega-companies are so widespread they seem to have achieved omnipresence. Their success stories are infused with mythology and spirituality. Like a powerful, destructive sorcerer, capitalism is arguably the primary force behind ecological degradation and climate change.
Thus, Marind villagers’ characterization of corporations as sorcerers invites people to take seriously the idea that modern capitalism is a kind of magic. It is a powerful force that can sow conflict between communities, profoundly alter landscapes, and even conjure rain, hurricanes, and drought through global warming.
Of greatest concern to many of my companions is the fact that corporations’ “supernatural powers” seem far greater than those of Marind sorcerers. When the corporate rain-making ceremony appeared to succeed, it sent a message to the villagers that their own failed rituals were impotent. Moreover, it emphasized the community’s powerlessness in the face of broader issues—their loss of land, resources, and autonomy.
The Indonesian government denies West Papuans their right to political and cultural self-determination. Politicians promote agribusiness projects that are routinely implemented without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous landowners, in violation of several international human rights laws that Indonesia has either signed or ratified. And these ventures contribute to the growing marginalization of Indigenous Papuans in some regions of the province where settlers now represent more than 60 percent of the population.
Several weeks after the co-opted ritual, the Khalaoyam community decided they would no longer perform or participate in rainmaking ceremonies. “Rather than let the companies manipulate our Indigenous rituals, it’s better that we stop practicing them altogether,” explained Pius.
The costs of abandoning the rainmaking ritual have been high. Social relations across clans that were once sustained through this collective ceremony have weakened. Many Marind told me that elders were no longer teaching rainmaking—or other ritual spells and dances—to the youth. This knowledge is therefore likely to be lost within the next generation.
Most worryingly, the success of the corporate ritual did play a part in convincing some community members to surrender their lands. When I last visited in June 2019, I found widespread disagreement among villagers over whether they should abolish other Marind rituals that corporations might manipulate.
The co-optation was not an isolated incident. In several Papuan villages, corporations have held co-opted pig sacrifice ceremonies and ritual healings, expecting villagers to reciprocate by ceding their lands.
Rituals, as anthropologists have demonstrated, can play a critical role in affirming and sustaining the social order and in providing psychosocial relief to their participants. But rituals that succeed in the “wrong hands” can be deeply problematic.
Corporations’ exploitative use of spiritual traditions represents the rise of a new order ever more deeply shaped by greed and opportunism. This order is far from just economic in its form and impact. Rather, the destructive effects of capitalist “sorcery” ripple across multiple realms—the human, the elemental, the natural, and perhaps even the supernatural.
* All names except the author’s have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise. Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief
What does capitalism actually look like?
There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.
They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’
I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’
It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?
This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’
There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.
Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.
The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?
Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.
This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.
The world was supposed to have ended in 2012, as foretold by a Mayan prophecy that, in the end, only prophesied that the Mayans would need to buy a new calendar. As the prediction went, our solar system would align with the black hole at the center of the galaxy. The magnetic poles would sweep and switch and falter, leaving the atmosphere to be stripped away by a devastating solar wind; the enigmatic shadow planet Nibiru would collide into ours and turn solid ground into a spray of magma drifting through space.
It didn’t happen. But the prophecies will come back, before long. Isn’t every generation convinced it’ll be the last? People seem to enjoy imagining that they’ll live to see the curtains close on history, but it’s more than just enjoyment; a sense of finality seems to be built into our experience of the whole strange, senseless show that surrounds us. Either you die in the world, another speck to be mourned and then forgotten, or the world dies around you. Unknown planets or rising sea levels, whatever helps you imagine an ending.
Before the Mayan apocalypse, it was the year 2000 that was supposed to kill us all. Aside from the Y2K computer bug that failed to destroy all our soaring dial-up technology, mass-media preachers like Ed Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins confidently expected the final judgement of God to arrive in time for the new year’s celebrations. In turn they were drawing on a legacy of bimillennial fascination that includes medieval Catholic theologians, Marian apparitions, invented Nostradamuses, the Kabbalistic calculations of Isaac Newton, and cultists scattered across the centuries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have separately predicted that the world would end in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994, and 1997. Various preachers in Britain and America spent most of the 19th century convincing their small bands of followers that the world was shortly to cease existence, extrapolating their figures from the dimensions of Noah’s Ark or the tent of the Tabernacle, watching the skies for comets, waiting for the ocean to boil, reading the newspapers to see when the Antichrist would reveal himself. And it never happened, not even once.
Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent and the god of wind and learning. Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
But aren’t the oceans boiling? As the air fills with carbon dioxide, the seas are turning to acid mire, a soup of plastic particles and dead coral, where the fish are all dying and only the tentacled things survive. Revelation, chapter eight: “A great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died.” Doesn’t Donald Trump, a leering Antichrist in bronzer and self-regard, glower from the front page of every paper? And as warships surround a North Korea bristling with missiles, could the sky not soon be full of dazzling, falling stars, and then empty forever? Isn’t the end of the world really, actually, genuinely nigh? Aren’t we watching it happen, broadcast from our TV screens, right now?
For its critics, this sense of a looming end is an expression of the same spirit that made all those bloated celebrity prophets predict the Second Coming around the year 2000. Panicked jeremiads about climate change are just another form of religious nonsense — so, for some, is Marxism, with its deterministic charts of universal history. The philosopher Tom Whyman, for instance, wrote earlier this year that “we’ve successfully secularized the End Times.” It’s all a kind of wishful thinking, he argues; everyone wants to think that the end of the world is imminent, because it means that all the messy contingencies of life will finally become settled, and this desire is given form and propulsion by a still-dominant Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of linear time. Once we expected to hear trumpets and angels; now it’s just the wandering honk of a puffed-up president announcing to the world that he’s pushing the button. But it’s the same thing.
Isn’t the end of the world really, actually, genuinely nigh? Whyman considers the end of everything to be a kind of universal blankness, an abstract negation, a “Great Nothing” that blankets all existence without distinction. I disagree. When people imagine that the world is about to end, it’s their particular world that’s doomed, and the nature of that end will always in some way reflect what’s being destroyed. People who live in the desert would not live in fear of a global flood. And the End Times aren’t a unique product of Christianity; some kind of eschatology is present nearly everywhere. Nearly. The pre-Islamic Turkic peoples of Central Asia, for instance, don’t seem to have had any myths about the destruction of the world, and why would they? They lived on an open steppe far from the ocean, where everything is flat and endless. Why would it ever end? Societies that believe in the Apocalypse tend to be those in which the seeds of the apocalypse that’s really happening are already planted. Cultures that have big cities, forms of writing, a discourse of history, and centralized power. Cultures like the old eastern Mediterranean that gave us the Biblical prophets and the Book of Revelation. Or cultures like the Aztecs.
Chalchiuhtlicue symbolized the purity and preciousness of spring, river, and lake water that was used to irrigate the fields. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Aztec apocalypse is nothing like the Christian one. It comes out of an unimaginably different history and society to the world of Greece and Rome. But it’s a lot like ours. The collision with Nibiru or devastating magnetic pole shift might have a distinctly monotheistic tang, but it’s possible that the Aztecs might see in our worries over anthropogenic climate change, economic collapse, and senseless nuclear war something strangely familiar. Instead of considering apocalypses through their literary and conceptual lineages, we could think about them instead in terms of what kind of society gave birth to them. How much do modern Westerners really have in common with prophets of the Old and New Testaments like Ezekiel or John of Patmos? Might we be more like Itzcoatl or Huitzilihuitl, even if we’re less likely to know who they are?Our capitalist modernity isn’t a Mediterranean modernity, but a Mesoamerican one. The Aztecs, those strange and heartless people with their stepped pyramids and their vast urban civilization that never came out of the Stone Age or invented the wheel, are our contemporaries.
Original Aztec sources are patchy — most of their beautiful codices were destroyed during the Spanish conquests in the early 16th century — and tend to contradict each other, but what makes the Aztec apocalypse so different to that of any other mythology, and so similar to the one we face now, is that they believed it had already happened.
This world is not the first. There were four that came before it and were destroyed in turn, all in the usual fashion — usual, that is, for end-of-the-world stories. Each was made by and contested over by the two gods, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, as a series of staging-grounds for their constant battles, two cosmic children bickering over a toy. In the first, Tezcatlipoca turned himself into the sun, and a jealous Quetzalcoatl knocked him out of the sky with his club; in revenge, Tezcatlipoca set jaguars loose to wipe out all its people. Together the gods built a new race of humans, but they stopped worshipping their creators, so Tezcatlipoca turned them all into monkeys, and Quetzalcoatl, who had loved them for all their sins, destroyed them in a fit of spite with a hurricane. Tezcatlipoca connived the gods Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue into destroying the next two with fire and with floods. The fifth one, ours, will be destroyed by earthquakes. But in every other respect it’s entirely different from the ones that came before.
Urn depicting Tlaloc, the rain god. DEA / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images
After the creation and destruction of four worlds, the universe had exhausted itself. We live in the shadow of those real words; their echo, their chalk outline. In each of the four previous worlds, humanity was newly created by the gods. Present-day humans were not: we are the living dead. After the destruction of the fourth world, it lay in darkness for fifty years, until Quetzalcoatl journeyed into Mictlan, the Aztec hell, and reanimated the bones of the dead. In the four previous worlds, the sun was a living god. In ours, it’s a dead one. To build a new sun for this worn-out earth required a blood sacrifice: The gods gathered in the eternal darkness and built a fire, and their weakest deity, Nanahuatzin, a crippled god covered in sores, leapt into the center of the flames, and the sun was born.
But it was a weak sun, and it wouldn’t move. All the other gods, one after another, immolated themselves in the fire to bring the dawn, but it’s still not enough. The sun needs more sacrifices; it needs ours. This is why the Aztec priests slaughtered people by the hundreds, cutting out their hearts and throwing their corpses down the temple steps. This blood and murder was the only thing that kept the sun rising each morning; if they stopped even for a day, it would go black and wither to nothing in the sky, and without its light the earth would harden and crack and fall apart. And some day, this will happen: it’s earthquakes that will destroy us all, and when it crumbles there will be nothing left.
The fourth world was the last; we’re living in something else. A half-world, a mockery, a reality sustained only through death and suffering. The first four worlds were created by the gods and destroyed according to their wills or because of their squabbles, just like the four Yugas of Hinduism, or the creation of the Abrahamic God, whose Judgement Day will come whenever He sees fit. Our world is being kept alive only through human activity; it’s a world into which we have been abandoned. The Aztecs were stone-age existentialists, trembling before their misbegotten freedom. This is a theology for the anthropocene — our present era, in which biological and geological processes are subordinated to human activity, in which the earth that preceded us for four billion years is finally, devastatingly in our hands, to choke with toxic emissions or sear with nuclear bombs. But modern society isn’t treading new ground here: the Aztecs came first, five hundred years ago. And their response was to kill.
Most everyone knows about the Aztec sun-sacrifices, the mass daily executions carried out by the priests, but ritual human slaughter was everywhere in their society. Sometimes children were drowned, sometimes women were killed as they danced, sometimes people were burned alive, or shot with arrows, or flayed, or eaten. Hundreds of thousands of people died every year. At the same time, these were the same people whose emperors were all poets, whose young people went out dancing every night, and whose cities were vast gardens filled with flowers, butterflies, and hummingbirds. This might be the reason Aztec human sacrifice is still so horrifying — we’re much more likely to forgive mass killings if we can say for certain why they happened. The Romans killed thousands in their circuses, and in the 21st century we still watch death — real or feigned — for entertainment; it’s extreme but not so different. When the Spanish came to Mexico, they were horrified by the skulls piled up by the temples — but then they killed everyone, and we understand wars of profit and extermination too. But like any mirror, the Aztecs seem to show us everything backwards.
The Aztecs were stone-age existentialists, trembling before their misbegotten freedom.
Still, you can feel traces today. In the neoliberal economic doctrine that’s still dominant across most of the world, something strangely similar is happening. All the welfare institutions that ameliorate capitalism’s tendencies to extreme wealth and extreme poverty have to be destroyed, for the good of the economy. People die from this — in Britain, up to 30,000 people may have died in one year as a result of cuts to health and social care, and that’s in a prosperous Western country. In the United States, a faltering band-aid mechanism like Obamacare has to be wrenched off, with the excuse that it’s being replaced with market pricings, which are natural and proper and, in their own way, fair. But it’s all for nothing. The economics behind neoliberalism are nonsense, but the prophets — these days, drab old thinkers like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman — have warned us that unless they’re followed, we’ll open up the road to serfdom. Ask a liberal economist why millions have to suffer, forced to live in drudgery under late capitalism’s dimming sun, and something horrifying will happen. A weak, indulgent, condescending smile will leak across their face, and they’ll say: that’s just how the market works. An echo of the Aztec priest, dagger held high, kindly telling his victim that his heart has to be pulled out from his chest, because that’s just how the sun works.
But neoliberalism really does work, it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. It might not be any good for the population at large, but it has facilitated a massive upward redistribution of wealth; the poor are scrubbed clean of everything, and the rich drink it up. Class power creates both the excess of cruelty and the mythic ideology to justify it. Marxist writers like Eric Wolf have tried to find something similar operating among the Aztecs: Human sacrifice cemented the rule of the aristocratic elites — they were believed to literally gain their powers through eating the sacrificial victims — while keeping the underclasses in line and the conquered peoples in terror. But all contemporaneous societies were class-based and repressive; it doesn’t begin to explain the prescient nihilism of their theology. Something else might.
The Aztecs built an extraordinarily sophisticated state. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, whose ruins still poke haphazardly through Mexico City, might have been the largest city outside China when Europeans first made contact; it was bigger than Paris and Naples combined, and five times bigger than London. Stretching across the Mexican highlands, their empire had, in 150 years, conquered or achieved political dominance over very nearly their entire known world, bounded by impassable mountains to the west and stifling jungle to the east. Without any major enemies left to fight, they found new ways of securing captives for sacrifice: the “flower wars” were a permanent, ritual war against neighboring city-states, in which the armies would meet at an agreed place and fight to capture as many enemy soldiers as possible.
The Roman Empire could never defeat their eternal enemy in Persia, and the dynastic Egyptians were periodically overwhelmed by Semitic tribes to the north, but until the day the Spanish arrived the Aztec monarchs were presumptive kings of absolutely everything under the sun. The only really comparable situation is the one we live under now — the unlimited empire of liberal capitalism, a scurrying hive of private interests held together under an American military power without horizon. We have our own flower wars. The United States and Russia are fighting each other in Syria — never directly, but through their proxies, so that only Syrians suffer, just as they did in Afghanistan, and Latin America, and Vietnam, and Korea. Wars, like Reagan’s attack on Granada or Trump’s on a Syrian airbase, are fought for public consumption. There is a pathology of the end of the world: dominance, ritualization, reification, and massacre.
Tezcatlipoca, the supreme god, and the enemy of Quetzalcoatl. Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
The Aztecs were not capitalists, but their economy has some spooky correspondences with ours. While they had a centralized state, there was also an emerging free market in sacrifices, and a significant degree of social mobility: every Aztec subject was trained for war, and you could rise through society by bringing in captives for slaughter. The Oxford historian Alan Knight describes it as “a gigantic ‘potlatch state,’ a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.” The potlatch is a custom practiced by indigenous peoples further up in the Pacific Northwest, in which indigenous Americans ceremonially exchange and then spectacularly destroyed vast quantities of goods — blankets, canoes, skins, but most of all food — in a show of wealth and plenitude. In the sophisticated class society of the Aztecs, the grand triumphant waste was in human lives.
We are, after all, assembled from the bones of four dead universes. We were dead to begin with. Perched on the end of history, the Aztecs beheld a dead reality in which life becomes lifeless, to be circulated and exchanged. Four-and-a-half centuries later, Marx saw the same processes in capitalism. He describes it in Wage Labor and Capital: “The putting of labour-power into action — i.e., work — is the active expression of the labourer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person […] He does not count the labour itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life.” (Emphasis mine.) Workers are cut off from their own labour and from themselves by a production process in which they are not ends but means, part of a giant machinery that exists to satisfy the demands not of human life but of “dead labor,” capital. From his 1844 Manuscripts: “It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.” His labour-power becomes a commodity; something to be bought and sold in quantifiable amounts, something inert. The worker under capitalism, like the captive walking up the temple steps, is consecrated to death.
We are, after all, assembled from the bones of four dead universes.
The Aztec world ended. When the Spanish came they found an empire of 25 million people; by the time they left only one million remained. Its people were killed with swords, guns, fire, famine, disease, and work. The beautiful garden-city of Tenochtitlan was torn down, a European fort built in its place. Sacrifices were no longer offered to the sun, and somehow it still kept rising every day. You can laugh at their credulity — they really thought the sun would stop rising, and look, everything’s still here! But the end of the Aztec world was dispersed throughout time, until it became isomorphic with the world itself.
Their disaster was not waiting for us in the future, a monumental bookend to history, like the Judgement Day of the people who destroyed them — they lived within it, in the ruins of a real world that died with the gods. This is the cosmology of the great German philosopher Walter Benjamin: to apprehend reality we should make “no reflections on the future of bourgeois society;” rather than a series of events leading towards an uncertain end, his Angel of History stands to face the past and sees only “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”
We exist in that rubble. The Aztec Empire conquered its world, strip-mined its future, and turned human populations into fungible objects. Contemporary society too has nowhere else to go: capital has saturated the earth, and outer space is a void. Our world, with the monstrous totality of its stability and order, is relentlessly producing its own destruction. In fantasies of black holes and the wrath of God; in the actuality of an atmosphere flooded with carbon dioxide and a biosphere denuded of all life. We missed the apocalypse while we were waiting for it to take place. Baudrillard writes: “Everything has already become nuclear, faraway, vaporized. The explosion has already occurred.” Capitalism built a corpse-world. Its sun keeps rising every morning, whatever we do, but it’s growing hotter in the sky; poisoning the seas, frizzling farmlands to desert, carrying out Tezcatlipoca’s last act of revenge.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, colleges and universities have faced increased pressure to identify essential disciplines, and cut the rest. In 2009, Washington State University announced it would eliminate the department of theatre and dance, the department of community and rural sociology, and the German major – the same year that the University of Louisiana at Lafayette ended its philosophy major. In 2012, Emory University in Atlanta did away with the visual arts department and its journalism programme. The cutbacks aren’t restricted to the humanities: in 2011, the state of Texas announced it would eliminate nearly half of its public undergraduate physics programmes. Even when there’s no downsizing, faculty salaries have been frozen and departmental budgets have shrunk.
But despite the funding crunch, it’s a bull market for academic economists. According to a 2015 sociological study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the median salary of economics teachers in 2012 increased to $103,000 – nearly $30,000 more than sociologists. For the top 10 per cent of economists, that figure jumps to $160,000, higher than the next most lucrative academic discipline – engineering. These figures, stress the study’s authors, do not include other sources of income such as consulting fees for banks and hedge funds, which, as many learned from the documentary Inside Job (2010), are often substantial. (Ben Bernanke, a former academic economist and ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve, earns $200,000-$400,000 for a single appearance.)
Unlike engineers and chemists, economists cannot point to concrete objects – cell phones, plastic – to justify the high valuation of their discipline. Nor, in the case of financial economics and macroeconomics, can they point to the predictive power of their theories. Hedge funds employ cutting-edge economists who command princely fees, but routinely underperform index funds. Eight years ago, Warren Buffet made a 10-year, $1 million bet that a portfolio of hedge funds would lose to the S&P 500, and it looks like he’s going to collect. In 1998, a fund that boasted two Nobel Laureates as advisors collapsed, nearly causing a global financial crisis.
The failure of the field to predict the 2008 crisis has also been well-documented. In 2003, for example, only five years before the Great Recession, the Nobel Laureate Robert E Lucas Jr told the American Economic Association that ‘macroeconomics […] has succeeded: its central problem of depression prevention has been solved’. Short-term predictions fair little better – in April 2014, for instance, a survey of 67 economists yielded 100 per cent consensus: interest rates would rise over the next six months. Instead, they fell. A lot.
Nonetheless, surveys indicate that economists see their discipline as ‘the most scientific of the social sciences’. What is the basis of this collective faith, shared by universities, presidents and billionaires? Shouldn’t successful and powerful people be the first to spot the exaggerated worth of a discipline, and the least likely to pay for it?
In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.
As an extreme example, take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. To understand why titans of finance would consult Adams about the market, it is essential to recall that astrology used to be a technical discipline, requiring reams of astronomical data and mastery of specialised mathematical formulas. ‘An astrologer’ is, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition of ‘mathematician’. For centuries, mapping stars was the job of mathematicians, a job motivated and funded by the widespread belief that star-maps were good guides to earthly affairs. The best astrology required the best astronomy, and the best astronomy was done by mathematicians – exactly the kind of person whose authority might appeal to bankers and financiers.
In fact, when Adams was arrested in 1914 for violating a New York law against astrology, it was mathematics that eventually exonerated her. During the trial, her lawyer Clark L Jordan emphasised mathematics in order to distinguish his client’s practice from superstition, calling astrology ‘a mathematical or exact science’. Adams herself demonstrated this ‘scientific’ method by reading the astrological chart of the judge’s son. The judge was impressed: the plaintiff, he observed, went through a ‘mathematical process to get at her conclusions… I am satisfied that the element of fraud… is absent here.’
Romer compares debates among economists to those between 16th-century advocates of heliocentrism and geocentrism
The enchanting force of mathematics blinded the judge – and Adams’s prestigious clients – to the fact that astrology relies upon a highly unscientific premise, that the position of stars predicts personality traits and human affairs such as the economy. It is this enchanting force that explains the enduring popularity of financial astrology, even today. The historian Caley Horan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described to me how computing technology made financial astrology explode in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘Within the world of finance, there’s always a superstitious, quasi-spiritual trend to find meaning in markets,’ said Horan. ‘Technical analysts at big banks, they’re trying to find patterns in past market behaviour, so it’s not a leap for them to go to astrology.’ In 2000, USA Today quoted Robin Griffiths, the chief technical analyst at HSBC, the world’s third largest bank, saying that ‘most astrology stuff doesn’t check out, but some of it does’.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t with worshipping models of the stars, but rather with uncritical worship of the language used to model them, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in economics. The economist Paul Romer at New York University has recently begun calling attention to an issue he dubs ‘mathiness’ – first in the paper ‘Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth’ (2015) and then in a series of blog posts. Romer believes that macroeconomics, plagued by mathiness, is failing to progress as a true science should, and compares debates among economists to those between 16th-century advocates of heliocentrism and geocentrism. Mathematics, he acknowledges, can help economists to clarify their thinking and reasoning. But the ubiquity of mathematical theory in economics also has serious downsides: it creates a high barrier to entry for those who want to participate in the professional dialogue, and makes checking someone’s work excessively laborious. Worst of all, it imbues economic theory with unearned empirical authority.
‘I’ve come to the position that there should be a stronger bias against the use of math,’ Romer explained to me. ‘If somebody came and said: “Look, I have this Earth-changing insight about economics, but the only way I can express it is by making use of the quirks of the Latin language”, we’d say go to hell, unless they could convince us it was really essential. The burden of proof is on them.’
Right now, however, there is widespread bias in favour of using mathematics. The success of math-heavy disciplines such as physics and chemistry has granted mathematical formulas with decisive authoritative force. Lord Kelvin, the 19th-century mathematical physicist, expressed this quantitative obsession:
When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it… in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
The trouble with Kelvin’s statement is that measurement and mathematics do not guarantee the status of science – they guarantee only the semblance of science. When the presumptions or conclusions of a scientific theory are absurd or simply false, the theory ought to be questioned and, eventually, rejected. The discipline of economics, however, is presently so blinkered by the talismanic authority of mathematics that theories go overvalued and unchecked.
Romer is not the first to elaborate the mathiness critique. In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics(1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’
After the Great Recession, the failure of economic science to protect our economy was once again impossible to ignore. In 2009, the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tried to explain it in The New York Times with a version of the mathiness diagnosis. ‘As I see it,’ he wrote, ‘the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ Krugman named economists’ ‘desire… to show off their mathematical prowess’ as the ‘central cause of the profession’s failure’.
The mathiness critique isn’t limited to macroeconomics. In 2014, the Stanford financial economist Paul Pfleiderer published the paper‘Chameleons: The Misuse of Theoretical Models in Finance and Economics’, which helped to inspire Romer’s understanding of mathiness. Pfleiderer called attention to the prevalence of ‘chameleons’ – economic models ‘with dubious connections to the real world’ that substitute ‘mathematical elegance’ for empirical accuracy. Like Romer, Pfleiderer wants economists to be transparent about this sleight of hand. ‘Modelling,’ he told me, ‘is now elevated to the point where things have validity just because you can come up with a model.’
The notion that an entire culture – not just a few eccentric financiers – could be bewitched by empty, extravagant theories might seem absurd. How could all those people, all that math, be mistaken? This was my own feeling as I began investigating mathiness and the shaky foundations of modern economic science. Yet, as a scholar of Chinese religion, it struck me that I’d seen this kind of mistake before, in ancient Chinese attitudes towards the astral sciences. Back then, governments invested incredible amounts of money in mathematical models of the stars. To evaluate those models, government officials had to rely on a small cadre of experts who actually understood the mathematics – experts riven by ideological differences, who couldn’t even agree on how to test their models. And, of course, despite collective faith that these models would improve the fate of the Chinese people, they did not.
Astral Science in Early Imperial China, a forthcoming book by the historian Daniel P Morgan, shows that in ancient China, as in the Western world, the most valuable type of mathematics was devoted to the realm of divinity – to the sky, in their case (and to the market, in ours). Just as astrology and mathematics were once synonymous in the West, the Chinese spoke of li, the science of calendrics, which early dictionaries also glossed as ‘calculation’, ‘numbers’ and ‘order’. Li models, like macroeconomic theories, were considered essential to good governance. In the classic Book of Documents, the legendary sage king Yao transfers the throne to his successor with mention of a single duty: ‘Yao said: “Oh thou, Shun! The li numbers of heaven rest in thy person.”’
China’s oldest mathematical text invokes astronomy and divine kingship in its very title – The Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon of the Zhou. The title’s inclusion of ‘Zhou’ recalls the mythic Eden of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE), implying that paradise on Earth can be realised through proper calculation. The book’s introduction to the Pythagorean theorem asserts that ‘the methods used by Yu the Great in governing the world were derived from these numbers’. It was an unquestioned article of faith: the mathematical patterns that govern the stars also govern the world. Faith in a divine, invisible hand, made visible by mathematics. No wonder that a newly discovered text fragment from 200 BCE extolls the virtues of mathematics over the humanities. In it, a student asks his teacher whether he should spend more time learning speech or numbers. His teacher replies: ‘If my good sir cannot fathom both at once, then abandon speech and fathom numbers, [for] numbers can speak, [but] speech cannot number.’
Modern governments, universities and businesses underwrite the production of economic theory with huge amounts of capital. The same was true for li production in ancient China. The emperor – the ‘Son of Heaven’ – spent astronomical sums refining mathematical models of the stars. Take the armillary sphere, such as the two-metre cage of graduated bronze rings in Nanjing, made to represent the celestial sphere and used to visualise data in three-dimensions. As Morgan emphasises, the sphere was literally made of money. Bronze being the basis of the currency, governments were smelting cash by the metric ton to pour it into li. A divine, mathematical world-engine, built of cash, sanctifying the powers that be.
The enormous investment in li depended on a huge assumption: that good government, successful rituals and agricultural productivity all depended upon the accuracy of li. But there were, in fact, no practical advantages to the continued refinement of li models. The calendar rounded off decimal points such that the difference between two models, hotly contested in theory, didn’t matter to the final product. The work of selecting auspicious days for imperial ceremonies thus benefited only in appearance from mathematical rigour. And of course the comets, plagues and earthquakes that these ceremonies promised to avert kept on coming. Farmers, for their part, went about business as usual. Occasional governmental efforts to scientifically micromanage farm life in different climes using li ended in famine and mass migration.
Like many economic models today, li models were less important to practical affairs than their creators (and consumers) thought them to be. And, like today, only a few people could understand them. In 101 BCE, Emperor Wudi tasked high-level bureaucrats – including the Great Director of the Stars – with creating a new li that would glorify the beginning of his path to immortality. The bureaucrats refused the task because ‘they couldn’t do the math’, and recommended the emperor outsource it to experts.
The equivalent in economic theory might be to grant a model high points for success in predicting short-term markets, while failing to deduct for missing the Great Recession
The debates of these ancient li experts bear a striking resemblance to those of present-day economists. In 223 CE, a petition was submitted to the emperor asking him to approve tests of a new li model developed by the assistant director of the astronomical office, a man named Han Yi.
At the time of the petition, Han Yi’s model, and its competitor, the so-called Supernal Icon, had already been subjected to three years of ‘reference’, ‘comparison’ and ‘exchange’. Still, no one could agree which one was better. Nor, for that matter, was there any agreement on how they should be tested.
In the end, a live trial involving the prediction of eclipses and heliacal risings was used to settle the debate. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see this trial was seriously flawed. The helical rising (first visibility) of planets depends on non-mathematical factors such as eyesight and atmospheric conditions. That’s not to mention the scoring of the trial, which was modelled on archery competitions. Archers scored points for proximity to the bullseye, with no consideration for overall accuracy. The equivalent in economic theory might be to grant a model high points for success in predicting short-term markets, while failing to deduct for missing the Great Recession.
None of this is to say that li models were useless or inherently unscientific. For the most part, li experts were genuine mathematical virtuosos who valued the integrity of their discipline. Despite being based on inaccurate assumptions – that the Earth was at the centre of the cosmos – their models really did work to predict celestial motions. Imperfect though the live trial might have been, it indicates that superior predictive power was a theory’s most important virtue. All of this is consistent with real science, and Chinese astronomy progressed as a science, until it reached the limits imposed by its assumptions.
However, there was no science to the belief that accurate li would improve the outcome of rituals, agriculture or government policy. No science to the Hall of Light, a temple for the emperor built on the model of a magic square. There, by numeric ritual gesture, the Son of Heaven was thought to channel the invisible order of heaven for the prosperity of man. This was quasi-theology, the belief that heavenly patterns – mathematical patterns – could be used to model every event in the natural world, in politics, even the body. Macro- and microcosm were scaled reflections of one another, yin and yang in a unifying, salvific mathematical vision. The expensive gadgets, the personnel, the bureaucracy, the debates, the competition – all of this testified to the divinely authoritative power of mathematics. The result, then as now, was overvaluation of mathematical models based on unscientific exaggerations of their utility.
In ancient China it would have been unfair to blame li experts for the pseudoscientific exploitation of their theories. These men had no way to evaluate the scientific merits of assumptions and theories – ‘science’, in a formalised, post-Enlightenment sense, didn’t really exist. But today it is possible to distinguish, albeit roughly, science from pseudoscience, astronomy from astrology. Hypothetical theories, whether those of economists or conspiracists, aren’t inherently pseudoscientific. Conspiracy theories can be diverting – even instructive – flights of fancy. They become pseudoscience only when promoted from fiction to fact without sufficient evidence.
Romer believes that fellow economists know the truth about their discipline, but don’t want to admit it. ‘If you get people to lower their shield, they’ll tell you it’s a big game they’re playing,’ he told me. ‘They’ll say: “Paul, you may be right, but this makes us look really bad, and it’s going to make it hard for us to recruit young people.”’
Demanding more honesty seems reasonable, but it presumes that economists understand the tenuous relationship between mathematical models and scientific legitimacy. In fact, many assume the connection is obvious – just as in ancient China, the connection between li and the world was taken for granted. When reflecting in 1999 on what makes economics more scientific than the other social sciences, the Harvard economist Richard B Freeman explained that economics ‘attracts stronger students than [political science or sociology], and our courses are more mathematically demanding’. In Lives of the Laureates (2004), Robert E Lucas Jr writes rhapsodically about the importance of mathematics: ‘Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.’ Lucas’s veneration of mathematics leads him to adopt a method that can only be described as a subversion of empirical science:
The construction of theoretical models is our way to bring order to the way we think about the world, but the process necessarily involves ignoring some evidence or alternative theories – setting them aside. That can be hard to do – facts are facts – and sometimes my unconscious mind carries out the abstraction for me: I simply fail to see some of the data or some alternative theory.
Even for those who agree with Romer, conflict of interest still poses a problem. Why would skeptical astronomers question the emperor’s faith in their models? In a phone conversation, Daniel Hausman, a philosopher of economics at the University of Wisconsin, put it bluntly: ‘If you reject the power of theory, you demote economists from their thrones. They don’t want to become like sociologists.’
George F DeMartino, an economist and an ethicist at the University of Denver, frames the issue in economic terms. ‘The interest of the profession is in pursuing its analysis in a language that’s inaccessible to laypeople and even some economists,’ he explained to me. ‘What we’ve done is monopolise this kind of expertise, and we of all people know how that gives us power.’
Every economist I interviewed agreed that conflicts of interest were highly problematic for the scientific integrity of their field – but only tenured ones were willing to go on the record. ‘In economics and finance, if I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it’s favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,’ Pfleiderer said to me. ‘I’ve written articles that wouldn’t curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure.’
When mathematical theory is the ultimate arbiter of truth, it becomes difficult to see the difference between science and pseudoscience
Then there’s the additional problem of sunk-cost bias. If you’ve invested in an armillary sphere, it’s painful to admit that it doesn’t perform as advertised. When confronted with their profession’s lack of predictive accuracy, some economists find it difficult to admit the truth. Easier, instead, to double down, like the economist John H Cochrane at the University of Chicago. The problem isn’t too much mathematics, he writes in response to Krugman’s 2009 post-Great-Recession mea culpa for the field, but rather ‘that we don’t have enough math’. Astrology doesn’t work, sure, but only because the armillary sphere isn’t big enough and the equations aren’t good enough.
If overhauling economics depended solely on economists, then mathiness, conflict of interest and sunk-cost bias could easily prove insurmountable. Fortunately, non-experts also participate in the market for economic theory. If people remain enchanted by PhDs and Nobel Prizes awarded for the production of complicated mathematical theories, those theories will remain valuable. If they become disenchanted, the value will drop.
Economists who rationalise their discipline’s value can be convincing, especially with prestige and mathiness on their side. But there’s no reason to keep believing them. The pejorative verb ‘rationalise’ itself warns of mathiness, reminding us that we often deceive each other by making prior convictions, biases and ideological positions look ‘rational’, a word that confuses truth with mathematical reasoning. To be rational is, simply, to think in ratios, like the ratios that govern the geometry of the stars. Yet when mathematical theory is the ultimate arbiter of truth, it becomes difficult to see the difference between science and pseudoscience. The result is people like the judge in Evangeline Adams’s trial, or the Son of Heaven in ancient China, who trust the mathematical exactitude of theories without considering their performance – that is, who confuse math with science, rationality with reality.
There is no longer any excuse for making the same mistake with economic theory. For more than a century, the public has been warned, and the way forward is clear. It’s time to stop wasting our money and recognise the high priests for what they really are: gifted social scientists who excel at producing mathematical explanations of economies, but who fail, like astrologers before them, at prophecy.
Pesquisa correlaciona a extinção de espécies com a origem dos produtos do comércio global
Os orangotangos de Bornéu estão ameaçados pela produção de óleo de palma. JEFTA IMAGES / BARCROFT
5 JAN 2017 – 00:53 CET
Os humanos começam a admitir que somos como um meteorito que vai provocar a nova megaextinção de espécies no planetaTerra. Mas ainda nos falta muita informação sobre o tamanho desse meteorito coletivo e o alcance da devastação que juntos causaremos. Sabemos, por exemplo, que a exploração maciça dos recursos naturais é um dos grandes fatores associados à devastação da biodiversidade, mas são necessários mais dados para conectar esse fenômeno com nosso consumo desmesurado.
Um estudo pioneiro, divulgado nesta quarta-feira, mostra a grande responsabilidade do comércio global na extinção maciça de espécies no mundo, traçando uma clara correlação entre a cesta de compras dos países mais consumidores e as selvagens pressões que massacram os tesouros naturais. O cafezinho que alguém toma nos EUA, por exemplo, está ligado ao desmatamentoda América Central – onde esse café é cultivado –, e esse é o habitat do acuado macaco-aranha, o mais ameaçado do planeta.
“Pelo menos um terço das ameaças à biodiversidade em todo o mundo estão vinculadas à produção para o comércio internacional”, dizem os autores do estudo publicado na Nature Ecology & Evolution. Em seu trabalho, eles mapearam locais do planeta onde há quase 7.000 espécies ameaçadas, estabelecendo sua conexão com a cadeia de consumo nos EUA, China e Japão. Desse modo, pode-se ver facilmente como os animais sob risco em determinados pontos do planeta sofrem com a demanda de bens por parte dos grandes consumidores.
Por exemplo, o lince e dúzias de outras espécies sofrem na península Ibérica pela pressão da produção agrícola que abastece os mercados europeus e norte-americanos. “É digno de menção o importante rastro dos EUA na biodiversidade do sul da Espanha e Portugal, ligado aos impactos sobre uma série de espécies ameaçadas de peixes e aves, já que esses países raramente são percebidos como pontos de ameaça”, afirmam os autores no estudo.
No Brasil, a principal ameaça está no sul, no planalto brasileiro, devido à agropecuária extensiva, e não na Amazônia
“O que este trabalho nos mostra é que os humanos estão assaltando o planeta”, resume David Nogués-Bravo, especialista em macroecologia da Universidade de Copenhague. Nogués-Bravo, que não participou do estudo, diz que os impactos humanos sobre a natureza podem ser representados como um redemoinho que engole a diversidade de seres vivos sobre a Terra. “Esse turbilhão é constituído por três nós: poder, comida e dinheiro. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos do planeta é quase ilimitada, e é o que está provocando a sexta extinção maciça na história da Terra”, denúncia o ecologista.
Para ele, tanto o enfoque como os resultados são muito pertinentes, porque põem em perspectiva as perdas de biodiversidade, principalmente em países tropicais em vias de desenvolvimento, e os fluxos de demanda que se originam nos países mais ricos e industrializados.
“O planeta inteiro se tornou uma fazenda, tudo está a serviço de fornecer cada vez mais bens”, critica Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretário-geral da organização conservacionista WWF na Espanha. “O maior vetor de destruição da biodiversidade é a produção de alimentos numa escala brutal”, aponta. Os autores do estudo relatam, por exemplo, sua surpresa ao comprovar que o principal foco de ameaça aos tesouros naturais do Brasil não está na Amazônia. “Apesar da grande atenção dedicada à selva amazônica, o rastro norte-americano no Brasil é maior no sul, no planalto brasileiro, onde há práticas agropecuárias extensivas”, ressalta o trabalho.
“Os humanos estão assaltando o planeta. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos no planeta é quase ilimitada”, resume Nogués-Bravo
“E o rastro ecológico não para de crescer”, acrescenta Del Olmo, “mas reduzir esse rastro não é fácil; não podemos fomentar um consumo responsável se depois vamos jogar fora 25% do que se produz”. Como alterar a influência negativa destes fluxos? “Com este enfoque, do rastro de cima para baixo, examinamos todas as espécies ameaçadas e a atividade econômica em conjunto, razão pela qual pode ser difícil estabelecer vínculos claros entre consumo, comércio e impacto”, admitiu ao EL PAÍS um dos autores do estudo, Keiichiro Kanemoto, da Universidade de Shinshu.
“Precisamos ver de onde importamos e onde estão as espécies ameaçadas. Nosso mapa pode ajudar as empresas a fazerem uma cuidadosa seleção dos seus insumos e assim aliviar os impactos sobre a biodiversidade”, diz Kanemoto. Segundo o pesquisador, se as empresas oferecerem informações em seus produtos sobre as ameaças a espécies nas cadeias de suprimento, os consumidores poderão escolher em seu cotidiano produtos favoráveis à biodiversidade.
Os morangos que afogam o lince
“Esperamos que as empresas comparem nossos mapas e seus lugares de aquisição e então reconsiderem suas cadeias de suprimento, e queremos trabalhar com elas para começar a tomar medidas reais”, afirma Kanemoto. Neste sentido, Del Olmo diz que o trabalho do WWF há bastante tempo vem se voltando para esse foco: fazer com que todos os participantes da cadeia conheçam o impacto sobre a biodiversidade, para que a indústria, os fornecedores e os consumidores evitem os bens que mais causam danos na sua origem. Em outras palavras, que todos estejam conscientes de que o café coloca em risco o macaco-arranha, assim como o óleo de palma (dendê) ameaça o orangotango na Indonésia.
O estudo de Kanemoto e seus colegas ressalta como é inesperada a aparição da Espanha como uma região com grandes problemas de biodiversidade por culpa do consumo fora das suas fronteiras. Apontam especificamente o lince, que reina no Parque Nacional e Natural de Doñana, no sul do país, e que chegou a ser o felino mais ameaçado da Terra, entre outros motivos pela perda de hábitat. “Do ponto de vista da biodiversidade, a Espanha é o Bornéu da Europa. Nas grandes espécies a briga está acontecendo, mas a biodiversidade pequena – anfíbios, aves e peixes – está desaparecendo a uma velocidade brutal”, lamenta Del Olmo.
O diretor do WWF na Espanha cita como exemplo os morangos: a água que dava de beber à marisma de Doñana é atualmente usada nos milhares de hectares de cultivo de morangos. Essa área responde por 60% do cultivo da fruta na Espanha, e metade da água usada vem de poços ilegais, que secam o entorno. “O uso brutal da água e do território, o impacto da agricultura para exportar produtos a todo o mundo, deixa os aquíferos secos. Não notamos, mas o impacto é impressionante”, explica Del Olmo. E acrescenta: “Por isso dizemos às grandes redes varejistas: não comprem de quem usa poços ilegais e está destruindo a biodiversidade. Premiem quem faz direito”.
IMF economists have published a remarkable paper admitting that the ideology was oversold
‘You hear it when the Bank of England’s Mark Carney sounds the alarm about ‘a low-growth, low-inflation, low-interest-rate equilibrium’. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/AFP/Getty Images
Tuesday 31 May 2016 06.59 BST
What does it look like when an ideology dies? As with most things, fiction can be the best guide. In Red Plenty, his magnificent novel-cum-history of the Soviet Union, Francis Spufford charts how the communist dream of building a better, fairer society fell apart.
Even while they censored their citizens’ very thoughts, the communists dreamed big. Spufford’s hero is Leonid Kantorovich, the only Soviet ever to win a Nobel prize for economics. Rattling along on the Moscow metro, he fantasises about what plenty will bring to his impoverished fellow commuters: “The women’s clothes all turning to quilted silk, the military uniforms melting into tailored grey and silver: and faces, faces the length of the car, relaxing, losing the worry lines and the hungry looks and all the assorted toothmarks of necessity.”
But reality makes swift work of such sandcastles. The numbers are increasingly disobedient. The beautiful plans can only be realised through cheating, and the draughtsmen know it better than any dissidents. This is one of Spufford’s crucial insights: that long before any public protests, the insiders led the way in murmuring their disquiet. Whisper by whisper, memo by memo, the regime is steadily undermined from within. Its final toppling lies decades beyond the novel’s close, yet can already be spotted.
When Red Plenty was published in 2010, it was clear the ideology underpinning contemporary capitalism was failing, but not that it was dying. Yet a similar process as that described in the novel appears to be happening now, in our crisis-hit capitalism. And it is the very technocrats in charge of the system who are slowly, reluctantly admitting that it is bust.
You hear it when the Bank of England’s Mark Carney sounds the alarm about “a low-growth, low-inflation, low-interest-rate equilibrium”. Or when the Bank of International Settlements, the central bank’s central bank, warns that “the global economy seems unable to return to sustainable and balanced growth”. And you saw it most clearly last Thursday from the IMF.
What makes the fund’s intervention so remarkable is not what is being said – but who is saying it and just how bluntly. In the IMF’s flagship publication, three of its top economists have written an essay titled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”.
The very headline delivers a jolt. For so long mainstream economists and policymakers have denied the very existence of such a thing as neoliberalism, dismissing it as an insult invented by gap-toothed malcontents who understand neither economics nor capitalism. Now here comes the IMF, describing how a “neoliberal agenda” has spread across the globe in the past 30 years. What they mean is that more and more states have remade their social and political institutions into pale copies of the market. Two British examples, suggests Will Davies – author of the Limits of Neoliberalism – would be the NHS and universities “where classrooms are being transformed into supermarkets”. In this way, the public sector is replaced by private companies, and democracy is supplanted by mere competition.
The results, the IMF researchers concede, have been terrible. Neoliberalism hasn’t delivered economic growth – it has only made a few people a lot better off. It causes epic crashes that leave behind human wreckage and cost billions to clean up, a finding with which most residents of food bank Britain would agree. And while George Osborne might justify austerity as “fixing the roof while the sun is shining”, the fund team defines it as “curbing the size of the state … another aspect of the neoliberal agenda”. And, they say, its costs “could be large – much larger than the benefit”.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde with George Osborne. ‘Since 2008, a big gap has opened up between what the IMF thinks and what it does.’ Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA
Two things need to be borne in mind here. First, this study comes from the IMF’s research division – not from those staffers who fly into bankrupt countries, haggle over loan terms with cash-strapped governments and administer the fiscal waterboarding. Since 2008, a big gap has opened up between what the IMF thinks and what it does. Second, while the researchers go much further than fund watchers might have believed, they leave in some all-important get-out clauses. The authors even defend privatisation as leading to “more efficient provision of services” and less government spending – to which the only response must be to offer them a train ride across to Hinkley Point C.
Even so, this is a remarkable breach of the neoliberal consensus by the IMF. Inequality and the uselessness of much modern finance: such topics have become regular chew toys for economists and politicians, who prefer to treat them as aberrations from the norm. At last a major institution is going after not only the symptoms but the cause – and it is naming that cause as political. No wonder the study’s lead author says that this research wouldn’t even have been published by the fund five years ago.
From the 1980s the policymaking elite has waved away the notion that they were acting ideologically – merely doing “what works”. But you can only get away with that claim if what you’re doing is actually working. Since the crash, central bankers, politicians and TV correspondents have tried to reassure the public that this wheeze or those billions would do the trick and put the economy right again. They have riffled through every page in the textbook and beyond – bank bailouts, spending cuts, wage freezes, pumping billions into financial markets – and still growth remains anaemic.
And the longer the slump goes on, the more the public tumbles to the fact that not only has growth been feebler, but ordinary workers have enjoyed much less of its benefits. Last year the rich countries’ thinktank, the OECD, made a remarkable concession. It acknowledged that the share of UK economic growth enjoyed by workers is now at its lowest since the second world war. Even more remarkably, it said the same or worse applied to workers across the capitalist west.
Red Plenty ends with Nikita Khrushchev pacing outside his dacha, to where he has been forcibly retired. “Paradise,” he exclaims, “is a place where people want to end up, not a place they run from. What kind of socialism is that? What kind of shit is that, when you have to keep people in chains? What kind of social order? What kind of paradise?”
Economists don’t talk like novelists, more’s the pity, but what you’re witnessing amid all the graphs and technical language is the start of the long death of an ideology.
After all, that’s what we learned from the bankruptcy filings of two other major U.S. coalcompanies, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. The companies’ lists of creditors accompanying their chapter 11 bankruptcy filings both cited known climate science deniers. So far, the bankruptcy cases have not revealed the details of these financial relationships. But there is now no doubt the coal companies contracted with these groups and individuals to either make a donation or pay for services.
Recent bankruptcy filings have revealed that Chris Horner, who regularly derides climate science on Fox News Channel, has financial ties to the coal industry.
This new evidence is important at a time when coal and oil and gas companies are under increased scrutiny about their ongoing climate science disinformation campaigns. ExxonMobil, for example, currently faces state and possibly federal investigations into whether the discrepancies between what the company knew about climate science and what it told their shareholders and the public amounted to fraud.
Of course, there’s no shortage of historical evidence of the coal industry’s track record of deceiving the public about global warming. In 1991, for example, coal trade associations formed a short-lived front group called the Information Council on the Environment that ran a national public relations campaign downplaying the known risks of climate change. All through the 1990s, coal trade groups also were members of the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of companies and business groups that disputed the findings of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and, later on, helped scuttle the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty. And, more recently, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity paid a lobbying firm to send forged letters to members of Congress from actual nonprofit groups, including the NAACP and the American Association of University Women, espousing fabricated opposition to a 2009 climate change bill.
But such coal company connections have been harder to pin down in the current era of so-called dark money. That’s what makes the latest disclosures so noteworthy: They indicate that coal industry disinformation campaigns have continued even as the scientific evidence that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change has only become stronger.
Revealing Creditor Lists
The creditor list for Alpha Natural Resources—which filed for bankruptcy last August—indicates that the company has been especially active in supporting the denier network. As first reported by The Intercept, Alpha—the fourth largest U.S. coal company—has financial ties with a half dozen denier organizations, some which have direct links to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries. The Koch-affiliated groups include Americans for Prosperity, the Institute for Energy Research and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a de facto Koch bank that disburses donations from anonymous, wealthy conservatives to groups that advocate rolling back public health, environmental and workplace protections.
Other Alpha creditors include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which questions the legitimacy of climate models; the Heartland Institute, which is probably best known for its billboard likening climate scientists to the serial killer Ted Kaczynski; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which convenes conferences for its state legislator members featuring speakers who distort climate science and disparage renewable energy. One of the speakers at a summer 2014 ALEC conference, for example, was Heartland Institute President Joe Bast, whose slide presentation falsely claimed: “There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change” and “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change … is not a credible source of science or economics.”
The Alpha creditor list also includes at least two individuals with links to denier groups. Particularly noteworthy is Chris Horner, an attorney who is closely associated with a number of nonprofit denier groups, including ALEC, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Heartland Institute, the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute (E&E Legal), formerly the American Tradition Institute, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, another Alpha creditor.
Arch Coal, the second largest U.S. coal company, listed ALEC and E&E Legal in its list of creditors when it filed for chapter 11 protection in January. Just last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company donated $10,000 to E&E Legal in 2014. E&E Legal’s executive director, Craig Richardson, told the Journal the contribution was for “general support.”
Chris Horner’s Coal Ties Disclosed
The exposure of Horner’s financial ties to coal companies is significant because he is a regular guest on Fox News Channel, which identifies him by his affiliation with CEI or E&E Legal but not by his connection to the coal industry.
Despite his lack of scientific expertise, Horner routinely critiques scientific findings, has called for spurious investigations of climate scientists affiliated with the IPCC and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and has harassed scientists by filing intrusive open records requests with the universities where they work. As legal counsel for the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic—which work in tandem—Horner has targeted a number of leading climate scientists, including James Hansenand Katharine Hayhoe. Perhaps his most notorious lawsuit was against the University of Virginia to obtain emails, draft research papers, handwritten notes and other documents related to the work of Michael Mann, lead author of the famous “hockey stick” study demonstrating the link between increased fossil fuel use and rising global temperatures. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the university and Mann, affirming the school’s right to protect the privacy of its researchers from overly broad open records requests.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Alpha paid Horner $18,600 before it declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic—an Alpha creditor—paid him $110,000 in 2014, $115,865 in 2013 and $60,449 in 2012, according to the clinic’s tax filings.
Besides Alpha and Arch Coal, Horner has ties to other coal companies. Last summer, he was a featured speaker at a private $7,500-a-person golf and fly-fishing retreat sponsored by Alpha, Arch Coal and four other coal companies: Alliance Resource Partners, Consol Energy, Drummond and United Coal. After the event—the 2015 annual Coal & Investment Leadership Forum—attendees received an email from the coal company CEOs praising Horner, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonpartisan political watchdog group that first reported the connection between Arch Coal and E&E Legal. “As the ‘war on coal’ continues,” the email stated, “I trust that the commitment we have made to support Chris Horner’s work will eventually create a greater awareness of the illegal tactics being employed to pass laws that are intended to destroy our industry.”
Given the recent spate of bankruptcies, the companies’ commitment to Horner likely will create a greater awareness of something quite different: that the coal industry—along with the likes of ExxonMobil and Koch Industries—is still funding denier groups to spread disinformation about climate science and delay government action. It is time we held these companies accountable.
A JPMorgan Chase bank branch in Manhattan. Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The nation’s top bank regulators have added an unexpected voice to the growing chorus of critics worried that the biggest American banks, nearly eight years after the financial crisis, are still too big to fail.
That suggests that if there were another crisis today, the government would need to prop up the largest banks if it wanted to avoid financial chaos.
The announcement coincides with a presidential campaign that at times has been dominated by a debate over what danger the big banks still pose to the nation’s economic security. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has called for the biggest banks to be broken up, a stand that his opponent, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has criticized.
But Mr. Sanders’ position has drawn sympathy from some on the other side of the political spectrum, including the new president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Neel Kashkari, who was a Treasury official during the financial crisis.
In long letters sent to the banks this week, the two regulatory agencies pointed to the dangers created by the global reach and complexity of the largest banks, which are bigger now than they were before the 2008 crisis.
The current arrangement could “pose serious adverse effects to the financial stability of the United States,” the regulators said in their letter to JPMorgan.
The regulators this week did not come close to calling for a breakup, yet they did in effect provide backing for Mr. Sanders’s premise that not enough has been done to safeguard the financial system.
“The goal to end too big to fail and protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts remains just that: only a goal,” Thomas M. Hoenig, the vice chairman of the F.D.I.C., said in a statement.
The regulators were responding to the so-called living wills that banks must submit to regulators on a regular basis to explain how the banks plan to enter bankruptcy in an orderly fashion in case of a crisis. The living wills are a requirement of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, intended to help make large financial institutions less of a threat to the wider economy.
The Fed and the F.D.I.C., which jointly oversee the largest banks, agreed that the plans put forward by five of the big banks, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, State Street and Bank of New York Mellon, were “not credible or would not facilitate an orderly resolution under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.”
Only one of the biggest banks, Citigroup, was given a passing grade by both agencies, though it too was told that its plans needed improvements. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley received passing grades from only one of the two agencies.
Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman who was one of the architects of the Dodd-Frank law, said on Wednesday that the rejection of the living wills indicated that the regulators believed they still have more to do to tackle the too-big-to-fail issue. But he added that the regulators were showing resolve.
“It sends a message,” Mr. Frank said in an interview. “It signals that they are serious.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Frank has criticized the financial overhaul proposals by Mr. Sanders. Mr. Frank contends that some of the plans to break up the banks are simplistic because they take a one-size-fits-all approach. In contrast, he said, measures like the living wills allow regulators to press for banks to shrink, based on specific conditions at those firms.
The five banks that received rejections have until Oct. 1 to fix their plans.
After those adjustments, if the Fed and the F.D.I.C. are still dissatisfied with the living wills, they may impose restrictions on the banks’ activities or require the banks to raise their capital levels, which in practice means using less borrowed money to finance their business.
And if, after two years, the regulators still find the plans deficient, they may require the banks to sell assets and businesses, with the aim of making them less complex and simpler to unwind in a bankruptcy.
“Obviously we were disappointed,” Marianne Lake, chief financial officer of JPMorgan, said on Wednesday morning.
The results are a particular blow for JPMorgan because it often boasts about the strength of its operations and its ability to weather any crisis. Just last week, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive, bragged in his annual letterthat the bank “had enough loss-absorbing resources to bear all the losses,” under the Fed’s annual stress-test situations, of the 31 largest banks in the country.
But the Fed and F.D.I.C. said on Wednesday that JPMorgan appeared to be unprepared for a crisis in a number of areas. The regulators said, for instance, that the bank did not have adequate plans to move money from its operations overseas if something went wrong in the markets.
The letter also said that JPMorgan did not have a good plan to wind down its outstanding derivative contracts if other banks stopped trading with it.
Ms. Lake said “there’s going to be significant work to meet the expectations of regulators.” But she also expressed confidence that the bank could do so without significantly changing how it does business.
Investors appeared to agree that the verdicts from regulators did not endanger the banks’ current business models. Shares of all of the big banks rose on Wednesday.
The agencies criticized Wells Fargo’s governance and legal structure, and faulted it for “material errors,” which, the regulators said, raised questions about whether the bank has a “robust process to ensure quality control and accuracy.”
In a statement, Wells Fargo said it was disappointed and added, “We understand the importance of these findings, and we will address them as we update our plan.”
The banking industry has complained that the process of submitting living wills is complex and hard to complete and it has suggested changes.
“A useful process reform might be to do living wills every two or three years, instead of annually,” said Tony Fratto, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a public relations firm that works with the banks. “The time required for banks to produce them and regulators to react to them is clearly too tight.”
But Martin J. Gruenberg, the chairman of the F.D.I.C., said on Wednesday that regulators were “committed to carrying out the statutory mandate that systemically important financial institutions demonstrate a clear path to an orderly failure under bankruptcy at no cost to taxpayers.”
“Today’s action is a significant step toward achieving that goal,” he added.
Homo sapiens have only been on the planet for the equivalent of a few seconds in geologic time but have managed to overwhelm and foul up all of earth’s natural processes and interdependencies, leaving a distinct layer in the sedimentary record. There is nothing modern humans do that is truly sustainable. Here are a few glaring examples:
While the resource intensity of GDP may be falling (less resources needed to produce 1$ worth of goods/services), the absolute decoupling of resource use, emissions, pollution, etc from GDP growth is the only thing that matters and that is not happening. If the world’s population continues to grow as projected and current lifestyles do not change, global resource consumption will increase anywhere from 2 to 5 times by 2050. It defies logic that a continually growing economy would be able to reduce its resource intensity down to near-zero to achieve a sustainable ecological footprint.
According to recent research, even if we converted 100% of farmland to reforestation projects it would only lower temperatures 0.45C by the end of the century. Converting half of global farmland to reforestation would result in just a 0.25C drop. Other recent studies have come to the same conclusion:
No amount of reafforestation or growing of new trees will ultimately off-set continuing CO2 emissions due to environmental constraints on plant growth and the large amounts of remaining fossil fuel reserves,” Mackey says. “Unfortunately there is no option but to cut fossil fuel emissions deeply as about a third of the CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 2 to 20 millennia.
Relying on machines for answers to the existential problems of a species run amok with planet-destroying tools and weaponry is rather ironic and tragic. We’re locked-up inside a complexity trap of our own making. The human propensity for tool-building coupled with our discovery of fossil fuels has created a set of living arrangements in which we are now enslaved to those machines and tools. The globalized capitalist economy externalizes its destruction and atrocities, keeping the masses in a state of ignorance and denial. Our corporate overlords are not conscientious citizens, but mindless organizations whose sole purpose is to grow profits no matter the external damage done to society and the environment. Between the economic oil hitmen who ensure that profits flow smoothly and GOP politicians who openly espouse their science illiteracy, a hospitable climate for future humans seems remote. Hopeful delusions have given way to the stark reality of our predicament as scholars like Noam Chomsky who originally started his career fighting for a modicum of social justice have now set the bar at just the chance of human survival. Despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and activists, the wealthy countries most able to do something won’t “get it” until famine, disease, and war come to their country. All is being left for the almighty ‘free market’ to sort out at the same time that climate change, a conflict multiplier, ramps up.
The sixth mass extinction gathers steam and climate inertia works to catch up to the catastrophic ecological collapse already baked-in. All the while, modern man engages in the spectacle of tribal politics(building walls, exuding military strength, recapturing past glories of their nation) and presidential candidates discuss the size of their penis.
For those who come to understand modern man’s predicament, it can either be the ultimate mind fuck or an epiphany that helps a person appreciate the fragility of life, the urgency of living in the here and now, and the grand cosmic joke of a global, hi-tech civilization that arose from the burning of ancient fossil remains only to have those fumes become a deadly curse, extinguishing any trace of our lofty accomplishments…
The fossil record, Plotnick points out, is much more durable than any human record.
“As humanity has evolved, our methods of recording information have become ever more ephemeral,” he said. “Clay tablets last longer than books. And who today can read an 8-inch floppy?” he shrugged. “If we put everything on electronic media, will those records exist in a million years? The fossils will.”
When global leaders converge on Paris on Nov. 30 for the 2015 United Nations climate change conference, they should create guidelines and incentives for developing nations to cooperate with one another on lower-carbon energy projects, according to a new report. Failure to do so could contribute to an unchecked expansion of coal energy in developing counties, which has already accelerated in recent years with the help of Chinese firms going global.
When global leaders converge on Paris on Nov. 30 for the 2015 United Nations climate change conference, their goal will be to deliver an agreement that, for the first time, seeks to safeguard the Earth’s climate by having all nations that are significant sources of carbon dioxide rein in their emissions.
A threat to that plan might be the unchecked growth of coal-intensive energy in the world’s developing nations — a dangerous trend recently accelerated by the expansion of Chinese firms seeking business internationally, according to researchers from Princeton University, Tongji University in Shanghai and the University of California-Irvine.
The Paris conference is the 21st annual meeting to revisit and strengthen the international environmental treaty known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Created at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, commonly known as the “Earth Summit,” the treaty sets goals and procedures for signatory nations to contain and reduce carbon emissions.
However, the researchers write in the journal Nature Climate Change that any agreement reached in Paris also should be expanded to provide guidelines and incentives — already under discussion for industrialized countries — for developing nations to cooperate with one another on lower-carbon energy projects. Failure to do this, the authors write, could allow further “dirty” energy cooperation between developing nations and complicate the United Nations’ goal to keep the global average temperature within 2 degrees Celsius of what it was around 1750 at the dawn of the Industrial Age.
“After years of effort to construct a truly global climate agreement, negotiators are on course to accept a system with incoherent rules for developed and developing countries in terms of investing in low-carbon energy outside their borders. We think that may be harmful in the long run,” said lead author Phil Hannam, a doctoral candidate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The paper, which includes the first tally of Chinese involvement in power plants around the world, includes co-authors Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton; Zhenliang Liao, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Tongji University; and Steven Davis, an assistant professor of earth system science at UC-Irvine.
Carbon emissions continue to rise from energy production as developing nations such as India, Brazil and South Africa fuel their rapid industrialization, the researchers report. At the same time, developing nations such as China have the capital and technology to support other burgeoning economies. But the lack of international attention — and UN incentives — for developing nations to support each other’s energy needs in a low-carbon way has helped keep coal power a popular choice, according to the authors.
Chinese firms — which often have financial or policy backing from China’s state banks — have poured coal-power equipment into other Asian countries, partly as a result of China’s slowing domestic power-market growth. The situation could get worse as China pledges to reduce domestic carbon emissions, according to the paper. The researchers found that of the total power capacities in Asian countries other than China that have involvement from Chinese firms, 68 percent in operation, 77 percent under construction and 76 percent in planning burn coal. This level of involvement in coal exceeds the global trend, Hannam said.
“While China has tightened its belt on coal power domestically, that’s pushing Chinese firms to help build coal plants in other countries, so much so that China’s firms are disproportionately focused in coal-intensive energy abroad relative to other nations,” Hannam said. “Instead, if the UNFCCC integrated low-carbon cooperation between developing countries in the climate agreement, China could lead the way for countries to make pledges for low-carbon investment globally, just as they pledge domestic emissions cuts.”
The loopholes of ‘climate finance’
“Climate finance,” which Hannam and his co-authors focus on, is an important tool for guiding clean-energy development internationally. In an effort to keep global emissions low, a nation’s government — usually in concert with private money — will support low-carbon development in other nations. Richer industrialized nations with a long history of emissions have committed to mobilizing climate finance to the tune of US$100 billion per year by 2020. Some of this funding will flow through the Green Climate Fund established in 2010 to support low-carbon investment in the developing world.
Developing nations — generally with China at the helm — have entered into numerous parallel arrangements to support energy-sector growth in other developing nations. China has established the South-South Cooperation Fund for supporting low-carbon investment.
Several other energy-financing agreements, however, are not only outside the UN’s purview, they often benefit from vastly more funding than the Green Climate Fund or the South-South fund and have no explicit low-carbon directive, the authors reported.
The New Development Bank headquartered in Shanghai and formed by China, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa to support infrastructure projects in developing countries boasts a starting capital of $100 billion. Some $50 billion in capital is already behind the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and another $40 billion supports China’s Silk Road Fund — both entities are intended to accelerate development in China’s less prosperous neighbors.
Efforts to encourage countries to support low-carbon development is complicated by the fact that there are no universally accepted standards for climate finance, Hannam said. Even the Green Climate Fund may permit financing for coal power.
“This highlights the need for both developed and developing countries to agree to common definitions of what qualifies as climate finance,” Hannam said. “Then the UNFCCC can look across the multiple emerging institutions and provide incentives for all power-sector finance — regardless of country of origin — to shift from coal to lower-carbon sources.”
The issues the authors discuss have already been broached in diplomatic circles, said Oppenheimer, who will be attending the Paris conference in part to promote the ideas laid out in the perspective piece. The United States recently persuaded China to reconsider its carbon-intensive power investments abroad, he said. While American support is crucial, climate finance is a complicated international balancing act that is influenced by many nations’ pursuit of economic gain and influence, Oppenheimer said.
“If the United States stays focused and makes this a priority within its international climate approach, then there’s a fair chance other governments will likewise support such an effort,” Oppenheimer said. “However, there is clearly more to international energy finance than just the United States and China. Japan, for instance, also finances coal power internationally and has a lot at stake politically in China’s Asia-focused institutions. It’s not simple.”
Gilbert Metcalf, a professor of economics at Tufts University and former deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy at the U.S. Department of Treasury, agreed that developing nations also must be brought into the fold. The norm has been for industrialized nations to foot the bill for low-carbon investment in poorer nations. The recent initiatives by China and other developing nations have somewhat upset that dynamic, but countries with small economies might still hesitate to commit themselves to investment standards long applied only to rich countries, said Metcalf, who was not involved in the research but is familiar with it.
Nonetheless, Metcalf said, the paper in Nature Climate Change is significant for taking a proactive approach to dealing with the climate-finance issue, as well as for detailing the energy-sector investments for an emerging financial force such as China.
“Providing some systematic measurement of climate finance is extremely valuable, especially with regard to climate finance from China and other developing countries. As China’s recent announcement to provide climate finance outside of the Green Climate Fund indicates, developing country finance will be an important part of the climate finance architecture,” he said.
“The massive external coal investment highlighted in [this paper] makes clear that South-South investment is not necessarily green investment,” he said. “It also makes clear that incentives built into the Paris agreement — or post-Paris negotiations — to green South-South investment will be extremely valuable to support global efforts to decarbonize.”
Phillip M. Hannam, Zhenliang Liao, Steven J. Davis, Michael Oppenheimer. Developing country finance in a post-2020 global climate agreement. Nature Climate Change, 2015; 5 (11): 983 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2731
Londres – 1º de outubro de 2015 – Quase um terço de todos os locais pertencentes à lista de Patrimônio Mundial Natural está ameaçado pela exploração de petróleo, gás e mineração. A informação foi divulgada no novo relatório “Protegendo um Excepcional Valor Natural”, produzido pelo WWF, Aviva Investors and Investec Asset Management, e que ressalta ainda o risco para os investidores que trabalham ou possuem a intenção de trabalhar com empresas que atuam com extração nesses lugares ou próximos a eles.
Patrimônios Mundiais Naturais (ou World Heritage Site, em inglês) são lugares de enorme valor natural, como o Grand Canyon, a Grande Barreira de Corais e a Reserva Selous Game, na Tanzânia. Cobrindo menos de 1% do planeta, eles contêm um enorme valor natural, como paisagens singulares e alguns dos animais mais raros da Terra, como gorilas da montanha, elefantes africanos, leopardos da neve, baleias e tartarugas marinhas.
De acordo com o relatório, os pontos de Patrimônio Mundial Natural estão em risco mais elevado do que jamais se pensou até então.
As ameaças estão relacionadas às operações em atividade ou à entrada de empresas para concessão de exploração de minérios, petróleo ou gás, e podem causar danos irreparáveis aos locais à biodiversidade, além de prejudicar as comunidades que tiram dali sua subsistência. No mundo todo, a maior ameaça está na África, onde o risco atinge 61% desses locais.
No relatório, os investidores estão sendo alertados dos riscos que correm ao apoiarem essas empresas – tanto riscos financeiros quanto de reputação. Em resumo, neste caso, há muito risco envolvido para um retorno que não é o suficiente.
O documento convida potenciais financiadores e apoiadores a:
• Buscar informações se as empresas em que estão investindo, ou considerando investir, possuem concessões ou operações dentro de lugares considerados Patrimônios Mundiais Naturais;
• Abordar diretamente companhias que trabalham nesses locais ou próximos a eles e as encorajar a mudar seus planos;
• Considerar retirar o investimento nessas companhias se não forem tomadas medidas para sair desses lugares, e ainda divulgar o fim do apoio e as razões para isso.
O desenvolvimento alternativo e sustentável dos Patrimônios Naturais Mundiais é uma proposta muito melhor para resguardar tanto o futuro dos recursos naturais quanto o das comunidades locais, nacionais e globais. A preservação desses locais e de seus ecossistemas pode fornecer, a longo prazo, benefícios significativos, visto que:
• 93% dos Patrimônios Mundiais Naturais promovem o turismo e a recreação;
• 91% deles geram empregos;
• 84% deles contribuem para a educação.
O WWF convoca investidores a usar as evidências desse relatório para abordar as companhias de extração e encorajá-las a adotar compromissos significativos de “não atuação” e “não impacto” nos Patrimônios Mundiais Naturais, além de divulgar de forma proativa as operações em atividade (existentes, ou em vias de existir), dentro ou nas proximidades de Patrimônios Mundiais Naturais.
De acordo com o diretor-executivo do WWF do Reino Unido, David Nussbaum: “nós estamos indo aos confins da Terra em busca de mais recursos – incluindo minérios, petróleo e gás, que estão cada vez mais caros e difíceis de serem extraídos. Com isso, alguns dos lugares mais preciosos do mundo estão ameaçados por atividades industriais destrutivas que põem em perigo os valores pelos quais eles foram agraciados com o maior nível de reconhecimento do planeta”, comenta.
“Proteger esses locais únicos não é somente importante do ponto de vista ambiental, é crucial para o sustento e o futuro da população que depende deles. Os investidores têm uma oportunidade única assim como uma responsabilidade de administrar seu capital e desenhar nosso futuro”, completa Nussbaum.
Last year, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything laid bare the capitalist economic system’s dependence on environmental devastation. We can’t fight climate change until we properly understand capitalism’s culpability, she argued. And with her characteristic brand of activist-oriented problem solving, Klein suggested we could seize this moment of climate crisis to revamp our addled global economy. A documentary of the same name, directed by Klein’s husband Avi Lewis, was conceived as a parallel project to Klein’s book and had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. It trumpets the same battle cry: that fighting global warming effectively means overturning capitalism. As politicians keep bickering over absurdly modest measures like cap-and-trade programs and scientists continue to announce startling figures of shrinking glaciers, Lewis and Klein’s message feels as urgent as ever.
Klein is really good at making radical arguments like this one terrifically accessible. This Changes Everything is the third book in Klein’s anti-globalization trilogy, following 1999’s No Logo, which criticized brand-oriented consumer culture, and 2007’s The Shock Doctrine, which chronicled how corporations take advantage of disasters to implement free-market policies designed to enrich a small elite. The film This Changes Everything marks the second time that Klein and Lewis have collaborated on a documentary. Eleven years ago, the pair made The Take, a movie that followed a group of autoworkers in Argentina who took over their factory and turned it into a cooperative. Lewis and Klein’s new film is similar in its aim to promote grassroots anti-capitalist action.
“A book can’t help you from feeling isolated and alone. A film, I think, can,” said Klein when I caught up with her and Lewis in Toronto to talk about the documentary. This Friday, it will be released in select theaters in New York, and will roll out in Los Angeles and Canada soon afterward. In the film, Klein’s thesis—that the climate crisis is inextricably tied to our rotten economic system—is woven together with portraits of activists fighting against mining and energy projects everywhere from Canada to Greece to South India. Like the book, the film succeeds in making a rigorous argument intelligible to a wide audience. By mixing essayistic filmmaking with vérité documentary techniques that showcase the stories of regular people turned activists, This Changes Everything also communicates an emotional urgency perhaps best suited to the cinematic medium. The documentary connects the past and the present, historicizing the activist battle against new coal plants and oil wells.
Klein traces the ideological infrastructure our current petrochemical economy is founded on back to the Enlightenment period. “It’s a moment in history where you have the Scientific Revolution and you also have the colonial project overlapping temporarily. The idea of infinite growth begins and there’s the birth of the machine,” she said. “These are all happening in the very same century.” She thinks drawing attention to when and where these concepts came from is intrinsic to developing alternatives to them. “Calling it human nature erases that it comes from a place. There are other ideas and other ways of relating to the world.”
From the indigenous tribes affected by Tar Sands development in Alberta to the South Indian villagers protesting a proposed coal plant, the documentary shows communities that practice non-capitalist ways of relating to nature. They’re all suspicious of the narrow post-Enlightenment idea of progress that fossil-fuel development promises. They don’t see the industrial extraction of resources as a necessary pit-stop on the way to an advanced society, but are rather see polluting resources like water which sustain human life as backward.
Klein uses these communities as examples of alternative ways of relating to the environment. She refutes the idea that we are doomed because it’s human nature to live in an environmentally destructive manner. A tendency to generalize “human impact” is embedded in terms like the anthropocene, Klein noted, which is the scientific designation for our era—it refers to the epoch in which human activity from industrial farming to resource extraction has irreversibly changed the planet. Basically, you can read our impact in the rocks of Earth itself. “It being ‘the age of man’ diagnoses the problem as being something essential in humans and glosses over the fact it’s not all humans,” Klein said, noting an essay on the subject by Andreas Malm from Jacobin magazine. “[Malm] makes the argument that it’s only a very small subset of humans that came up with the idea of burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale, and it’s still a minority of humans who do so.” For example, the average American consumes 500 times more energy than the average person living in a country like Ethiopia or Afghanistan. And even within the U.S., there are inequalities.
Environmental issues are inextricable from issues of economic and racial justice. “Being in New York the week after Sandy, there were powerful and disturbing flashbacks to being in New Orleans a week after Katrina happened,” said Lewis. For them, they said, the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this year connected the racial justice movement and the climate movement for many. “I think that because Black Lives Matter has united that conversation in the U.S., and then having the Katrina anniversary, for a lot of people it was a bit of an ‘oh yeah’ moment,” Klein said. “If you have a system in which black lives are treated as if they don’t matter, when you layer climate change on top of that then you see the issue on the mass scale.”
Environmental issues are inextricable from issues of economic and racial justice.
While Lewis and Klein’s documentary doesn’t focus on Hurricane Katrina or the intersection of American racial justice and climate change in particular, it does outline how the current economic system values some lives more than others. Klein’s narration returns over and over again to the idea of “sacrifice zones”: A resource economy depends on certain areas being disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing—these places and the people in them are seen as worth sacrificing for some nebulous concept of the greater good. Populations in sacrifice zones have often been disproportionately poor and people of color, but in the film, we see that as the zones keep expanding middle-class white people from Montana to Greece are realizing they’re new targets of exploitation.
The emotional core of the film comes from individuals battling against being seen as disposable. Though as filmmakers Lewis and Klein unpack troubling realities, their film is cautiously optimistic, and focuses on the power and potential of these grassroots movements. We need a new system, in their view.
While the film concentrates its attention on citizen-driven actions, Klein also spearheaded the policy-focused Leap Manifesto, which was just released in mid-September in advance of the Canadian election, which takes place on October 19. “It’s basically a roadmap for Canada to get off fossil fuels,” explained Klein. Its signatories include public figures like environmentalist David Suzuki and folk-rock icon Neil Young.
Though Lewis and Klein are hopeful, they’re also realistic. Talking to them about the most recent price shocks—which happened since they wrapped shooting, and which have caused the price of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to fall to historic lows—Lewis notes that “it is not affecting oil company profits as much as you might think it is.” He continued. “There are projects that have been suspended, but there’s thousands of barrels of new capacity that’s going ahead in Alberta each day. It’s not expanding as fast as they want it to, but it’s still expanding.”
Still, Klein explained the price shock is an opportunity. “Here is a pause in the frenetic energy. That kind of money makes it really hard to think. It’s hard to think with oil at $100 a barrel,” she said. “But now we have a moment where we can look in the mirror, and ask is this the best way to run the economy?” Her answer? No.
Da Redação | 28/09/2015, 09h39 – ATUALIZADO EM 28/09/2015, 17h07
Blairo Maggi, autor da PEC: “não há garantia explícita de participação dos índios nos resultados da implantação de hidrelétricas em suas terras”. Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado
Proposta que altera a Constituição Federal para assegurar aos indígenas participação nos resultados do aproveitamento de recursos hídricos em suas terras (PEC 76/2011) está na pauta da reunião de quarta-feira (30) da Comissão de Constituição, Justiça e Cidadania (CCJ).
Hoje já são reconhecidos aos índios os direitos de posse permanente das terras que ocupam e de usufruto exclusivo das riquezas do solo, dos rios e dos lagos nelas existentes. Quanto à participação na exploração dos recursos, a Constituição garante apenas o direito a resultados obtidos com as riquezas minerais.
O autor da PEC, senador Blairo Maggi (PR-MT), explica que, no caso da implantação de hidrelétricas em terras indígenas, por exemplo, “não há garantia explícita da participação dos índios nos resultados de tal exploração”.
Ele acrescenta que essa lacuna tem gerado divergências na interpretação da norma constitucional e insegurança jurídica para as comunidades. Para o parlamentar, se a Constituição concede aos índios usufruto exclusivo das riquezas dos rios e dos lagos existentes em suas terras, é justo que haja compensação caso sejam privados do livre acesso a essas águas.
O relator, senador Valdir Raupp (PMDB-RO), apoia a proposta e questiona: “se as comunidades têm direito à participação no resultado da lavra mineral, por que também não teriam esse direito em relação ao aproveitamento dos recursos hídricos? Ambas as atividades podem impactar fortemente as comunidades”, observa.
A PEC 76/2011 prevê, para o aproveitamento dos recursos hídricos, a mesma exigência constitucional já estabelecida para exploração de riquezas minerais em terras indígenas, ou seja, autorização do Congresso Nacional, ouvidas as comunidades afetadas.
Após análise na CCJ, a PEC segue para dois turnos de votação em Plenário.
A pauta da reunião inclui outros 33 projetos, entre eles, proposta de emenda à Constituição (PEC 62/2015), da senadora Gleisi Hoffmann (PT-PR), que acaba com a vinculação automática entre vencimentos mensais recebidos por agentes públicos, como parlamentares e ministros dos tribunais superiores. O fim do chamado “efeito cascata” no reajuste dessas remunerações recebeu relatório favorável do senador Randolfe Rodrigues (PSOL-AP).
Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions.
By Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer
Sep 16, 2015
Exxon’s Richard Werthamer (right) and Edward Garvey (left) are aboard the company’s Esso Atlantic tanker working on a project to measure the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. The project ran from 1979 to 1982. (Credit: Richard Werthamer)
“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.
It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.
A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.
“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.
His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. “Present thinking,” he wrote in the 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.
Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.
This untold chapter in Exxon’s history, when one of the world’s largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN’s reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon’s innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon’s internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.
Of particular significance was a project launched in August 1979, when the company outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments. The project’s mission was to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.
In 1980, Exxon assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate’s sensitivity to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air. Working with university scientists and the U.S. Department of Energy, Exxon strove to be on the cutting edge of inquiry into what was then called the greenhouse effect.
Exxon’s early determination to understand rising carbon dioxide levels grew out of a corporate culture of farsightedness, former employees said. They described a company that continuously examined risks to its bottom line, including environmental factors. In the 1970s, Exxon modeled its research division after Bell Labs, staffing it with highly accomplished scientists and engineers.
In written responses to questions about the history of its research, ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that “from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue.”
“At all times,” he said, “the opinions and conclusions of our scientists and researchers on this topic have been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads. The risk of climate change is real and warrants action.”
At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission.
One manager at Exxon Research, Harold N. Weinberg, shared his “grandiose thoughts” about Exxon’s potential role in climate research in a March 1978 internal company memorandum that read: “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind.”
His sentiment was echoed by Henry Shaw, the scientist leading the company’s nascent carbon dioxide research effort.
“Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation,” Shaw wrote to his boss Edward E. David, the executive director of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1978. “This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management.”
Irreversible and Catastrophic
Exxon budgeted more than $1 million over three years for the tanker project to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. It was a small fraction of Exxon Research’s annual $300 million budget, but the question the scientists tackled was one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science: how quickly could the deep oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? If Exxon could pinpoint the answer, it would know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.
Exxon also hired scientists and mathematicians to develop better climate models and publish research results in peer-reviewed journals. By 1982, the company’s own scientists, collaborating with outside researchers, created rigorous climate models – computer programs that simulate the workings of the climate to assess the impact of emissions on global temperatures. They confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that warming could be even worse than Black had warned five years earlier.
Between 1979 and 1982, Exxon researchers sampled carbon dioxide levels aboard the company’s Esso Atlantic tanker (shown here).
Exxon’s research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked “not to be distributed externally,” it contained information that “has been given wide circulation to Exxon management.” In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
Unless that happened, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer said, citing independent experts. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Like others in the scientific community, Exxon researchers acknowledged the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of climate science, especially in the area of forecasting models. But they saw those uncertainties as questions they wanted to address, not an excuse to dismiss what was increasingly understood.
“Models are controversial,” Roger Cohen, head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories, and his colleague, Richard Werthamer, senior technology advisor at Exxon Corporation, wrote in a May 1980 status report on Exxon’s climate modeling program. “Therefore, there are research opportunities for us.”
When Exxon’s researchers confirmed information the company might find troubling, they did not sweep it under the rug.
“Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged,” Cohen wrote in September 1982, reporting on Exxon’s own analysis of climate models. It was that a doubling of the carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere would produce average global warming of 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C (equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus 1.7 degrees F).
“There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate,” he wrote, “including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
He warned that publication of the company’s conclusions might attract media attention because of the “connection between Exxon’s major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2.”
Nevertheless, he recommended publication.
Our “ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature,” Cohen wrote. “Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”
Exxon followed his advice. Between 1983 and 1984, its researchers published their results in at least three peer-reviewed papers in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph.
David, the head of Exxon Research, told a global warming conference financed by Exxon in October 1982 that “few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation.” The only question, he said, was how fast this would happen.
But the challenge did not daunt him. “I’m generally upbeat about the chances of coming through this most adventurous of all human experiments with the ecosystem,” David said.
Exxon considered itself unique among corporations for its carbon dioxide and climate research. The company boasted in a January 1981 report, “Scoping Study on CO2,” that no other company appeared to be conducting similar in-house research into carbon dioxide, and it swiftly gained a reputation among outsiders for genuine expertise.
“We are very pleased with Exxon’s research intentions related to the CO2 question. This represents very responsible action, which we hope will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector,” said David Slade, manager of the federal government’s carbon dioxide research program at the Energy Department, in a May 1979 letter to Shaw. “This is truly a national and international service.”
In the early 1980s Exxon researchers often repeated that unbiased science would give it legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.
Still, corporate executives remained cautious about what they told Exxon’s shareholders about global warming and the role petroleum played in causing it, a review of federal filings shows. The company did not elaborate on the carbon problem in annual reports filed with securities regulators during the height of its CO2 research.
Nor did it mention in those filings that concern over CO2 was beginning to influence business decisions it was facing.
Throughout the 1980s, the company was worried about developing an enormous gas field off the coast of Indonesia because of the vast amount of CO2 the unusual reservoir would release.
Exxon was also concerned about reports that synthetic oil made from coal, tar sands and oil shales could significantly boost CO2 emissions. The company was banking on synfuels to meet growing demand for energy in the future, in a world it believed was running out of conventional oil.
In the mid-1980s, after an unexpected oil glut caused prices to collapse, Exxon cut its staff deeply to save money, including many working on climate. But the climate change problem remained, and it was becoming a more prominent part of the political landscape.
“Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” declared the headline of a June 1988 New York Times article describing the Congressional testimony of NASA’s James Hansen, a leading climate expert. Hansen’s statements compelled Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) to declare during the hearing that “Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend.”
With alarm bells suddenly ringing, Exxon started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.
Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world’s largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
As the international community moved in 1997 to take a first step in curbing emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon’s chairman and CEO Lee Raymond argued to stop it.
“Let’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond,” Raymond said in his speech before the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing in October 1997.
“We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time,” he said. “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
Over the years, several Exxon scientists who had confirmed the climate consensus during its early research, including Cohen and David, took Raymond’s side, publishing views that ran contrary to the scientific mainstream.
Paying the Price
Exxon’s about-face on climate change earned the scorn of the scientific establishment it had once courted.
In 2006, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s science academy, sent a harsh letter to Exxon accusing it of being “inaccurate and misleading” on the question of climate uncertainty. Bob Ward, the Academy’s senior manager for policy communication, demanded that Exxon stop giving money to dozens of organizations he said were actively distorting the science.
In 2008, under mounting pressure from activist shareholders, the company announced it would end support for some prominent groups such as those Ward had identified.
Still, the millions of dollars Exxon had spent since the 1990s on climate change deniers had long surpassed what it had once invested in its path-breaking climate science aboard the Esso Atlantic.
“They spent so much money and they were the only company that did this kind of research as far as I know,” Edward Garvey, who was a key researcher on Exxon’s oil tanker project, said in a recent interview with InsideClimate News and Frontline. “That was an opportunity not just to get a place at the table, but to lead, in many respects, some of the discussion. And the fact that they chose not to do that into the future is a sad point.”
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who has been a frequent target of climate deniers, said that inaction, just like actions, have consequences. When he recently spoke to InsideClimate News, he was unaware of this chapter in Exxon’s history.
“All it would’ve taken is for one prominent fossil fuel CEO to know this was about more than just shareholder profits, and a question about our legacy,” he said. “But now because of the cost of inaction—what I call the ‘procrastination penalty’—we face a far more uphill battle.”
Part II, coming on September 17, will further examine Exxon’s early climate research.
ICN staff members Zahra Hirji, Paul Horn, Naveena Sadasivam, Sabrina Shankman and Alexander Wood also contributed to this report.
Releasing animals into the wild is in vogue—with unwelcome consequences
Sep 12th 2015 | SHANGHAI
The Huangpu: hardly loach heaven
EVERY Saturday morning hundreds of devotees gather by Shanghai’s Huangpu river to liberate fish. Over three hours some 2,000 loach are tipped into the murky waters to the sound of chants.
This is fang sheng, or “animal release”, an East Asian Buddhist ritual in which captive creatures are freed. The point is to demonstrate compassion and earn merit. The practice is ancient, though along with everything else, it was condemned as so much superstition under Mao Zedong. Today fang sheng is making a comeback, especially among the young and well-off. Officials estimate around 200m fish, snakes, turtles, birds and even ants are released each year—though no one really has a clue.
Fang sheng associations can rake in around 1m yuan ($157,000) in annual donations. For some monks it has become a racket. The greatest price, however, is paid by the animals themselves and the ecosystems from which they come and into which they go.
A vast and mainly illegal wildlife trade caters to the demand for animals. Figures are hard to come by, but one paper estimated that in Hong Kong two markets sold over 630,000 birds a year, most destined for fang sheng. Many animals—perhaps half of all the birds—die during capture or transit from stress, disease or mishandling.
Nor does using reared or exotic species help. They create havoc in local ecosystems. Zhou Zhuocheng, chairman of China’s main body on aquatic ecology, cites the case of the mosquito fish from North America, a popular fish for fang sheng. It feeds on the eggs of the native Japanese rice fish, causing the latter to disappear completely in some areas. To add to the grimness, many animals, once released, are hoovered up and sold again to fresh devotees. Animals that do not survive the trauma are often sold as food.
Wang Tianbao, a 26-year-old programmer and evangelical Buddhist, admits that paying for animals that have only recently been released is “a waste of money”. Yet still he is prepared to spend oodles on fang sheng, through whose associations he can disseminate Buddhist information and reach new followers. He says he first practised fang sheng as a student, releasing two turtles that cost him 98 yuan, his food budget for three weeks. Today he spends 5,000-7,000 yuan, or about 5% of his annual salary. There may just be better ways to earn merit.
A miner at a coal processing facility near Gilbert, W.Va. This year the number of coal miners in the United States dropped more than 10 percent, to just over 80,000 workers.Credit Robert Galbraith/Reuters
In April 2005, President George W. Bush hailed “clean coal” as a key to “greater energy independence,” pledging $2 billion in research funds that promised a new golden age for America’s most abundant energy resource.
But a decade later, the United States coal industry is reeling as never before in its history, the victim of new environmental regulations, intensifying attacks by activists, collapsing coal prices, and — above all — the rise of cheap alternative fuels, especially natural gas.
This week President Obama slammed the industry with tougher-than-expected rules from the Environmental Protection Agency limiting power plant carbon emissions, which will accelerate an already huge shift from coal to natural gas and other alternatives.
“Clean coal” remains an expensive and thus far impractical pipe dream. Coal is the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions by far and the leading culprit in global warming. Coal advocates like Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator and Republican majority leader, have accused the president of an out-and-out “war on coal.”
But it’s collapsing prices and heavy debt loads that are driving the industry into bankruptcy. Alpha Natural Resources, the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer after it doubled down on coal four years ago in acquiring Massey Coal for $7.1 billion, filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday. It follows Walter Energy, which filed last month; Patriot Coal, which sought court protection in May; and numerous smaller mining companies.
The demise of the two biggest surviving publicly traded coal companies — Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the nation’s two largest producers — may just be a matter of time, based on their recent stock performance. Peabody shares, which traded at more than $16 less than a year ago, hit 99 cents this week, and Arch shares have fallen to $1 from more than $33, making them among the biggest losers this year in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.
“This has been a storm gathering for a very long time,” said Jeff Goodell, author of the 2006 book “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.” “When I wrote my book, coal looked indomitable. But below the surface you could see all these issues coming at them. You can only hold off the larger forces of progress and science for so long. The bottom line is that it’s a 19th-century fuel very badly suited for the 21st century. There’s no way you can wash or scrub coal to make that essential fact go away.”
Market forces have accomplished in just a few years what environmentalists and social advocates have struggled for decades to achieve. Coal prices have plunged about 70 percent in the last four years. This year the number of underground and surface coal miners in the United States dropped more than 10 percent, to just over 80,000 workers. There are now more than twice as many workers in the fast-growing solar power industry than there are coal miners.
Mountaintop removal, the poster child for environmental destruction, has all but ground to a halt as coal companies continue to close mines, lay off workers and slash capital spending on expensive new mining operations. Meantime, natural gas production has soared and electric utilities have built up gas-fired generation to replace aging coal-fired power plants.
“It’s kind of the ultimate irony that market forces, and not the administration or environmentalists, have displaced coal,” said Jorge Beristain, head of Americas metals and mining equity research for Deutsche Bank. “It’s human ingenuity that found a cheaper, cleaner way to skin the cat, which is by producing natural gas from fracking. They’re both fossil fuels, of course, but burning natural gas puts out a lot less carbon than coal.”
Burning coal produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as does natural gas, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
Anthony Young, a mining analyst at the Macquarie Group, agreed. “There have been a lot of protests and animosity towards the coal industry, but lo and behold, it was the natural gas industry that has stopped many of the worst mining practices,” he said. “There are concerns about fracking, but it’s way better than cutting down mountains.”
Environmentalists are starting to notice that financial arguments may prove more effective than moral or social ones at persuading major investors to shun coal. Stanford University, which announced last May that it would divest itself of direct investments in coal producers, looks at least as much like a shrewd investor as an environmental steward, given the subsequent plunge in coal prices and coal company stock prices, and other big investors have taken notice.
In June, Norway’s government pension fund — considered the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with $890 billion in assets, much of it generated from oil revenue — said it would divest itself of coal holdings. A spokeswoman for the fund said this was a financial decision, not a political one, with the goal of “building financial wealth for future generations.”
“I think you’re seeing a generational shift where the activists are getting more market-savvy,” said Mr. Beristain of Deutsche Bank. “They’re targeting Wall Street and the analysts. It’s becoming part of the environmental agenda to kneecap the coal sector at the source of its cash.”
Carbon Tracker, a London-based think tank, is among those trying to use financial data to affect climate change. “We try to stay out of the political discussion,” said Luke Sussams, a senior researcher and co-author of “The US Coal Crash,” a report arguing that coal faces a long-term, and not just cyclical, decline. “We look at it purely from a risk versus return perspective,” he said. “Our stance is: It’s a bad investment.”
Environmentalists still have their work cut out for them. The coal industry may be in dire straits, but it’s not going to vanish overnight. In 2013 the United States produced 985 million tons of coal, although it was the first time in 20 years that production fell below one billion tons. The United States consumed 924 million tons, 93 percent of it accounted for by the electric power industry, according to government statistics. In 2011, the United States consumed 1.1 billion tons.
“It’s premature to say the industry is dead,” said Mr. Young, the Macquarie analyst. He estimated the industry needs to shrink by about 25 percent to meet current demand, and more if electric utilities accelerate the shift to natural gas. But as coal companies “go through bankruptcy, their assets aren’t going to shut down. Mismanagement will be addressed, and their balance sheets will be restructured, but viable assets will re-emerge and be profitable.”
But it seems safe to say that the coal industry will never wield the enormous economic and political clout that it had even 10 years ago. “In the aftermath of the Bush-Cheney administration, there was this resurgence of the idea that coal was the American rock,” Mr. Goodell said. “America’s industrial strength was built on burning coal. No politician wanted to mess with coal.”
But with the shrinking of the industry, coal interests “are losing their clout, and they’re not going to get it back,” Mr. Goodell said. “It’s becoming clear where the future is going. The politically smart thing is to jump on the renewables bandwagon.”
Correction: August 10, 2015
The Common Sense column on Friday, about the declining fortunes of the coal industry, misstated the number of years ago that the coal company Alpha Natural Resources acquired a rival, Massey Energy. It was four years ago, not two.