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The 'dark matter' of American politics

There is an invisible "dark matter" in American politics influencing the issues debated in every election but which few voters or politicians perceive. To understand this analogy you will need to recall that dark matter was postulated by scientists decades ago to explain the movements of large objects such as galaxies. Such movements could not be explained by the gravitational effects of the known, visible matter in the universe. Instead, scientists reasoned, those movements must also be influenced by gravity from unseen matter which they dubbed "dark matter."

The "dark matter" of American politics is the physical world--the climate, the air, the water, the minerals, the energy resources--upon which all of our political, social, cultural and economic life depend. The state of our physical world exerts a kind of hidden gravitational pull on the important issues of the day. And yet, to listen to the rhetoric of the most recent election campaign, you would conclude that the ecological underpinnings of our civilization are in such good condition that they require virtually no attention.

The vast majority of candidates of both major parties have barely mentioned global warming. (There are, of course, notable exceptions such as California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Despite a seven-year drought in the West, discussion of the link between that drought and global warming is completely lacking even though all the scientific evidence points to more and longer droughts as the world warms.

The future of water supplies remains a local concern and the drought in the West has barely registered as a national issue except in those areas seeking federal drought aid. Most puzzling of all, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina has virtually dropped off the political radar. When it is discussed, the discussion turns to the incompetence of the federal and state response, but not to global warming which may be responsible for the increasing number of intense storms entering the Gulf of Mexico.

With regard to energy, there is talk of energy security and the need to reduce oil imports. Enthusiasm is greatest for the development of biofuels; but that's primarily because the manufacture of such fuels provides an opportunity for heavy government subsidies to politically well-connected biofuels processors; their army of lobbyists can and do reward politicians with huge campaign contributions. Without the subsidies most of the industry would disappear.

The most prominent issue of the American campaign, of course, was the war in Iraq. While most Americans know the obvious--Iraq has lots of oil and America needs lots of oil--the debate has centered around democracy, terrorism and the human and financial costs of the conflict. Very little has been said about the fact that oil is central to economic growth and that there is no ready substitute for it. And, virtually nothing has been said about the possibility of a peak in world oil production, an event which is likely to happen within the next decade or two. (Some say it already has.) From the political rhetoric you wouldn't know that the reason Iraq has been the central issue of the campaign is precisely because of its large role in the oil markets.

In addition, soil erosion and fertility, the depletion of major fisheries, the destruction of forests, and the skyrocketing prices of raw materials such as copper, nickel and steel are all nonstarters for political candidates. It's as if the basics of civilization--stable climate, fresh water, fertile soil, minerals, and energy supplies--were afterthoughts or at most a problem of location as in the case of oil.

And yet, major issues in American politics flow directly from our ecological predicament. Perhaps most obvious is the increasing vulnerability of the American way of life to the vicissitudes of Middle Eastern oil politics and conflict. This vulnerability has its roots in the peaking of domestic oil supplies way back in 1970. The stagnation of incomes since then has to do in part with the enormous amount of American wealth which has been sent overseas to supply the economy with the energy it needs.

Heavy military expenditures, increasing public and private debt, and threats to our democratic institutions are all related to the stressed condition of the biosphere. A detailed list of the symptoms that result from that stress--the stress of living beyond the earth's carrying capacity--is provided in the latest edition of Limits to Growth. That list reads like a summary of the causes of American political disputes over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms have been cast in ideological terms instead of ecological terms. This has led people to believe that addressing the symptoms is merely a question of electing the right politicians rather than reworking our way of life. The list of symptoms bears repeating:

1. Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species).

2. Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources.

3. Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone.

4. Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution.

5. Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure.

6. Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions.

7. Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts.

8. Debts a rising percentage of annual real output.

9. Eroding goals for health and environment.

10. Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources [that is, resources] or sinks [for pollution].

11. Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford.

12. Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base.

13. Growing chaos in natural systems, with "natural" disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system.

The authors of Limits to Growth go on to say:

A period of overshoot* does not necessarily lead to collapse. It does require fast and determined action, however, if collapse is to be avoided. The resource base must be protected quickly, and the drains on it sharply reduced. Excessive pollution levels must be lowered, and emission rates reduced back to levels below what is sustainable. It may not be necessary to reduce population or capital or living standards. What must go down quickly are material and energy throughputs. In other words, the ecological footprint of humanity must be lowered.

So, what has been keeping American voters from understanding the ecological predicament which all humans now face? One might want to blame in part the suppression of research on global warming by the current administration. Or one could finger active propaganda efforts by global warming deniers such as ExxonMobil. Those efforts seem to have had some effect on the American public; 59 percent believe that human activity has no effect on climate.

Some blame must go to the environmental movement itself for having defined environmental concerns as either 1) remote and narrowly focused on certain strips of wilderness or endangered species or 2) mere adjuncts to better living in an industrial society as was the case for campaigns for clean water and clean air. But perhaps the most effective piece of propaganda affecting Americans' views on the sustainability of their way of life has been the continued availability and low prices of the basic resources they use. The marketplace has been inaccurately signaling that there is nothing to worry about. Resource economist Douglas Reynolds calls it the illusion of decreasing scarcity.

To complement the public's experience, there is the convenient market ideology of the cornucopian economists who espouse virtually no limits to economic growth. Cornucopian ideas find resonance in American culture because the experience of European colonists and their descendents in the New World--especially in what is now the United States--was that resources are basically limitless. Anyone willing to do the work to extract them could make a good livelihood. Critical to this mindset is the fact that the United States was the world's preeminent oil power and its largest oil exporter well into the 20th century.

The question then is, What would it take for the true ecological picture to break through into American political discourse? Only emergencies such as the two oil crises of the 1970s have so far been able to focus the public's and the politicians' minds on critical ecological issues. Many people believe that we are heading for just such a crisis when world oil production begins to decline in the next decade or two. Some believe the decline has already begun and that its full effects are only a few months or at most a year or two away.

The only rational response given American political realities is to try to educate as many Americans as possible about the true context in which we now live and the limited range of responses available to us given our ecological predicament. When the crisis comes, if the number of people who understand our true predicament is sufficient, they may be able to spread the word far enough to move political, economic and social decisions in the right direction. If not, then the "dark matter" of American politics will remain hidden and the country may face a series of economic and environmental reversals born of faulty understanding and false hopes.

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*The condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.

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