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Dan Fischer

Living As If Another World Were Possible: Goodbye, David Graeber!

By Daniel Fischer - New Politics, September 9, 2020

Having grown up hearing his father recount experiences in Anarchist-run Barcelona as a Lincoln Brigade volunteer, David Graeber, a renowned anthropologist and organizer, lived according to a lifelong belief that a far fairer world was possible. His father and his mother, a garment worker who was briefly the lead singer in the union-produced Broadway musical Pins and Needles, were Jewish working-class bookworms who filled their shelves with books about radical possibilities. Graeber, born in 1961, recalled:

“There were a lot of books around the house when I was growing up, but almost no books of critique. I mean I’m sure my parents had Capital, at least volume one, but very few books about how awful the world was. They had lots of science fiction, lots of history, and lots of anthropology. I think their attitude was ‘I spent my nine to five working, experiencing how this system sucks for myself; I don’t need to read about that; I want to read about what other ways of existing might be like.’”

This is interesting, because as a public intellectual (who taught at Yale and London School of Economics), Graeber was probably most well known for his social critiques. Heavily influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, Graeber viewed neoliberalism as primarily a political project masquerading as an economic one, and he exposed the system’s convoluted methods of keeping people demoralized, resentful, and hopeless about building a better world. These instruments of hopelessness included debt (Debt: The First 5,000 Years), corporate bureaucracy (The Utopia of Rules) and pointless work (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Graeber aptly described that last book as “an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization.” It argued that most of our working hours are not producing anything useful, and that the workweek could easily be reduced to fifteen or even twelve hours if it weren’t for capitalists’ drive to keep us perpetually busy. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger,” he wrote, “Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.”

To me, however, Graeber’s more inspiring works focused on discovering and building alternatives. He had a keen eye for spotting utopia in seemingly unlikely places. During field work in highland Madagascar in 1989 to 1991, he found that the IMF-weakened state performed only nominal functions, and communities actually governed themselves with consensus decision-making on most matters. His study of the Iroquois League’s Constitution challenged notions that democracy, feminism, and anarchism are of exclusively European origin. And in contrast to the mass media’s dismissal of “incoherent” U.S. protesters, Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography and The Democracy Project explained how the horizontal structure of the alter-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements prefigured the world they sought to build. Over the last few years, Graeber championed the direct democracy experiments in Northen Syria (Rojava). And, with co-author David Wengrow, he dismantled the widespread assumption that early civilizations were uniformly hierarchal. To the contrary, “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace.”

You can read in other obituaries how much of an intellectual giant he was. Within his field, Maurice Bloch called him “the best anthropologist of his generation” and his advisor Marshall Sahlins called him “the most creative student I ever had.” When Yale decided to end his contract in 2004, it was clearly due to his involvement in radical direct action, not the quality of his scholarship and teaching.

Going Slowly to 100% Renewables … by 2025?

By Dan Fischer - Peace News, April 5, 2020

It has been 55 years since the social ecologist Murray Bookchin argued that “wind, water, and solar power” (hereafter, WWS) could “amply meet the needs of a decentralized society” and eventually replace all fossil, nuclear, and bioenergy sources. The alternative, he warned, would be a future of “radioactive wastes,” “lethal air pollution,” “rising atmospheric temperatures,” “more destructive storm patterns,” and “rising sea levels.” Having declined to tear down its smokestacks, society has entered Bookchin’s dreaded scenario and, according to today’s scientists, accelerates toward “hothouse Earth,” “doomsday,” and even an “annihilation of all life.”

The urgency for reaching 100% WWS can’t be overstated. Leading climate scientists report that “tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2°C of warming,” and today’s level is already at 1.2° and rapidly climbing. Moreover, society has pushed Earth past four other “planetary boundaries.” While all energy sources have an impact, small-scale WWS sources are by far the cleanest option available, and they also doesn’t involve nuclear power’s existential weapons proliferation risks.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that many Green New Deal supporters call for 100% WWS by 2030 or sooner. Activists in the United States and the United Kingdom are calling for zero emissions nationally by 2025, a stringent deadline that requires a very rapid phase-out of fossil and bioenergies and that necessarily excludes the lengthy construction of new nuclear power facilities and large-scale hydroelectric dams. The journalist Hazel Healy has even written about achieving zero emissions worldwide by 2025. To be sure, these targets are mind-bogglingly ambitious compared to, say, Joe Biden’s mid-century target. But if anything, 2025 is already pushing our luck from a climate and ecological perspective.

Wondering about the potential for rapidly reaching 100% renewable energy, I reached out to two of the most optimistic and two of the most pessimistic scholars on the technologies. Based on these conversations, I offer the following suggestion. Achieving 100% WWS within five to ten years, if it can be done at all, would likely require slowing down the industrialized world. It would mean abandoning what Michelle Boulous Walker calls today’s “culture of haste” and “relentless demand to decide, respond and act.” Instead of a frantic construction of hydrogen-powered airplanes and concrete-intensive high-speed rail, it would mean making most production local and most travel leisurely-paced. It would mean switching from full-time jobs to part-time crafts and hobbies, from patenting technology to sharing it, and from GDP to something like the Indigenous Environmental Network’s proposed “Index for Living Well.” While it’s common to read of “roadmaps” to WWS, we would probably get to the destination sooner with maps of biking trails and bus routes.

Answering Annihilation: Some Notes on Earth’s Execution

By Dan Fischer - Dragonfly Collective, July 17, 2017

Half of all wild animals on Earth have been wiped out. You may have missed the news. It came from a scientific study mentioned on page 5 of last Wednesday’s New York Times. You had to flip past the usual stories of Trump regime scandals, four jewelry advertisements, and an ode to a slain officer from the New York Police Department.

“’Biological Annihilation’ Said to Be Underway.” The article took up only as much space as a Sootheby’s ad on the same page announcing jewelry sales in New York City.

While “biological annihilation” sounds like an evil plot thought up by a Bond villain, the term actually comes from a peer-reviewed study in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo use it to describe the ongoing destruction of local populations within different species.

Due to the pressures of habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change, species are going extinct at 100 times the rate they normally would. The PNAS study shows that populations within species are disappearing much, much faster.

Governor Malloy, Singin’ in the Methane

By Dan Fischer - Capitalism vs. the Climate, March 29, 2016

Fracked-gas pipeline projects and power plants receive stamp after stamp of approval from governor Dannel “Methane” Malloy. With such a friend of fracking in power, gas companies are in paradise. Welcome to CH4 Connecticut!

CH4—that’s scientific shorthand for methane, the climate-cooking main component of natural gas. It’s made of one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen. Malloy has known the substance is deadly since at least 2010, when he travelled across the state campaigning to be governor. That February, a gas plant exploded in Middletown, killing six workers and injuring dozens. “As towering plumes of dark smoke poured into a dazzling blue sky, scores of ambulances, fire engines, police cars and helicopters streamed to the scene on the west bank of the Connecticut River,” the New York Times reported.

For some, that deadly explosion may have been a wake-up call, but drowsy Dannel hit the snooze button. Once elected, Malloy went ahead with his plan to vastly expand gas infrastructure, despite these projects being backyard bombs and greenhouse-gas grenades. In 2013, Malloy signed into law the Comprehensive Energy Strategy, committing the state government to “expanding natural gas across Connecticut,” in the executive summary’s words. In 2015, Malloy signed Senate Bill 1078, making ratepayers pay subsidies to corporations expanding gas pipelines.

Paul Krugman’s Sorry Salvation

By Dan Fischer - CounterPunch, March 8, 2016

Paul Krugman has been writing about “salvation”. When it comes to global warming, the normally hard-headed economist puts aside his skepticism and awaits the fall of solar panels from heaven. Or rather, from Democratic politicians and polluting industries that dominate their climate policies. In a 2014 piece “Salvation Gets Cheap,” Krugman contended that thanks to price drops in renewable energy, small policy changes could put salvation “within fairly easy reach.” In last month’s “Planet on the Ballot,” Krugman argued that electing Hillary Clinton president would mean “salvation is clearly within our grasp”.

“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be.” The progressive pundit offers countless feel-good predictions along these lines. A deeper look at Krugman’s words, however, reveals a disturbing indifference to the loss of millions of lives, livelihoods, and homes. Currently, an estimated 400,000 people die each year from climate change, 98 percent of them in the Global South, according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, a study commissioned by twenty governments. Krugman looks away, instead seeing salvation in pathways that increase global warming far above today’s already genocidal amount.

While he mocks conservative climate change deniers, Krugman himself is in denial about the necessary solutions. A fast-paced transition, while technologically possible, is not compatible with economic growth. This presents a problem for Krugman, who has spent his career defending a capitalist economic system requiring infinite growth. “All that stands in the way of saving the planet,”the Nobel prize winner declares in “Salvation Gets Cheap,” “is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests.” Unfortunately, his own columns offer a vivid illustration. Krugman’s liberal climate denialism has five basic steps.

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