Thinking on Chris Hedges, Revolution, and Climate Change

I was watching a lecture by Chris Hedges entitled Corporate Totalitarianism: The End Game. In it, Hedges engages with the subject with both frankness and humor, both of which I appreciate. Hedges has, for a long time, spoken quite well on the problem facing us. What he, and most any social or political critic has been awfully short on, is how to address the predicaments we are in.

He rightly points out that the prison systems rely on slave labor to operate and that, were prisoners retaining even a minimum wage salary, it and the industries this work supports would collapse. He rightly points out that our democracy doesn’t function, which by this point is almost “No shit?” passe. He could have cut a huge chunk of his lecture out by just saying “There is no top-down approach coming because the top is going to watch the bottom burn and drown.” It is the same damned song regardless of political party that has been pursued for the entire length of time that I have been alive. This is a point I am grateful that Hedges hammers on throughout his lecture and in the Q&A. The politicians are not coming to save us.

Something a lot of folks watching this lecture are probably going to miss is a very key point I felt was buried in the lecture among all the socio-political commentary. It is something I hammer on a lot in my writing and that folks from the Post-Carbor Institute, JMG, and others have been hitting on the head for some time. Namely, that the oil and natural gas markets are operating on what amounts to gambling to keep money in the system and keep production somewhat commensurate with needed supply. Except the field outputs are down. The Bakkan Oil Shale is being run by large companies with lots of land that they lease to small, risk-taking companies whose primary income is venture capital. The main way most of the large fossil fuel companies here stay afloat has nothing to do with well productivity, but land leasing. When that glut runs out the ability to generate income will also dry up, not because the gas will all be gone, but because the cost to extract and produce it in useable forms will eclipse the revenue from selling it.

In other words, the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is going to go down and bring a good chunk of the energy market with it. The whole system is facing this all at once alongside climate change. We would be lucky, and I use that term loosely, if the whole damned facade of the energy industry fell away before that 12 year mark for 1.5F increase in global temperature hits, because the damned near complete demand destruction we saw in 2008 when oil hit almost $150 a barrel of crude was one of the most effective acts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that we made in this country. It was hell for any of us who were low-income, as I was fired in 2007 not long before the financial chickens of the crash came home to roost. When a gallon of gas hit $4 and was threatening to hit $5 the ripple effect was enormous. So trust me when I say such a thing will not be a picnic nor even desireable for the average person, but it may be something that could save us from our own consumption of fossil fuels.

Hedges’ point in the lecture about going to Scranton, PA where the city is insolvent is happening in every State and damned near every city I can think of in my own State. Hell, the DIA in Detroit almost sold off its collection to pay debts. His point that capitalism eats itself and its own until collapse is what we are in the middle of right now. The economic system is simply unsustainable. I appreciate he hooks this into his point in the lecture where he talks about the money system, especially in regards to how personal and student debt cannot keep churning out new debtors if the means to pay off interest and principle are subject to these interruptions. As he says, 1/3 of the employed people of America make less than $12 an hour and have no health insurance provided by employers. Keep in mind that Obamacare takes another chunk out of that, either directly through one of the health care plans, or with the year end penalty for not choosing a provider. There is a growing swathe of Americans who bought into the lie that a college education would help us become solid middle-class members. Instead, it has indebted us, some of us through our whole lives. Those, like myself, who went into public service with the promise that if we gave 10 years of our lives that our debt would be forgiven are now coming out the other side, having served that obligation, and our debt forgiveness being rejected. With the costs of living tracking to increase with energy costs there’s not going to be a way to pay off the debt, let alone stave it off much longer.

If we are to make any progress anywhere it is in getting that point across. It doesn’t matter if you are a conservative, liberal, leftist, rightist, any of it. The economic system is unsustainable. The energy infrastructure that allows for the modern American way of life is unsustainable. If you don’t get that then there is no conversation to be had. Without energy being available, on which money depends so it can work, the whole house of cards collapses. If folks disagree with basic reality, that we cannot expect infinite growth on a finite planet, then there is no more conversation to be had. The person can be on the same exact part of the political spectrum that I am on and if they deny the basic nature of where we are then speaking with them is completely without merit.

If, as I feel, Hedges is speaking well and pointing out fundamental problems in regards to our political and economic systems why do I feel such a disconnect from him? For the same reason I imagine most folks do. Though he has covered war and conflict as a journalist and lived alongside folks in those horrible situations I get the distinct feeling that his life, given he was educated at Harvard and has taught in prestigious universities, is a world apart from my own.

Hedges is right in saying that we were conned by Bill Clinton and his pushing through NAFTA, stating it would make us countless of middle-class jobs. I can look out into the neighborhoods where the auto industry was king and clearly see this lie on display, as can anyone who has seen similar scenes in coal and natural gas country. He is right to talk about the collapse of societies and bring his experience of what that looks like into this lecture. He got to watch Yugoslavia’s disintegration up close from the sounds of it. He’s right that we could well be facing the same damn thing here for the same kinds of reasons.

Hedges speaks of democracy as though we could possibly save it at this stage in America. His proposal to save America from totalitarianism is “sustained mass acts of political disobedience”. To me this is completely and hopelessly naive. He uses Standing Rock as an example, and I think it is a poor one in the way he uses it. Standing Rock was a powerful example of civil, sustained disobedience because, at its core, there was and continues to be a series of communities, the Standing Rock Reservation peoples, with real spiritual and physical stakes in the care of Standing Rock and in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline. So long as there is abstraction there is inaction, and for far too many people Standing Rock is and remains abstract. Mni Wiconi for too many people is a slogan, something to put on their Facebook wall and to think about every now and again. If Mni Wiconi is merely words then its impact and its meaning is truly missing. The peoples of Standing Rock, and those who joined them long-term in their work, had real skin in the game and something to lose: sacred lands and sacred water their people were tied to in sacred right relationship.

I was at Occupy Wall Street protests near me not long after OWS started to come together across the nation. I attended rallies and I found them complete and utter wastes of time. Hedges states we need to not be restrained by the tyranny of the practical. I got to see what that looked like with OWS rallies local to me. The decision making process, if ever it could be called such a thing, was long, drawn out, tedious, needlessly time consuming and without any sense of order, duty, or use to the communities in which they were arranged. They actively repelled anyone older than maybe folks in their mid-30s. Even for those in their age group, many OWS folks pushed us out because we could see nothing was going to get done. There was no interest in folks with years of experience in organizing, non-profit work, none of it. The OWS in my area died about as quickly as it appeared.

Not a few moments after this statement regarding the tyranny of the practical Hedges calls for revolution, for ‘the overthrow of the corporate state’. Without practicalities addressed this will never happen, not for all the faith one has. Countless Marxists and Communists since Marx wrote Das Capital have been eagerly awaiting the Worker’s Revolution. So many millenarian, apocalyptic, and radical sects who have had faith in and waited for the coming of saviors and the awakening of ‘the people’ have been waiting for the exact same thing. Whether secular or religious, both groups who have had abiding faith in their salvific movements have ignored that revolutions that seek to succeed must pay attention to the practicalities of things so that not only is the revolution succesful, but that any of its gain can stick.

For anyone that has studied the abdication of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, to call that anything like a nonviolent movement is foolish at best and obfuscating history at worst. It also ignores that deep, ravaging pain that the Bolsheviks and later Communist regimes would exact on those people they would be in charge of or conquer. These are not revolutions to look at as examples. Rather, I would see such be avoided.

The Founding Fathers understood that the practical and idealistic had to walk hand-in-hand. They understood the notion very well, organizing on levels that I think anyone thinking of such revolutions would do well to pay attention to. They did not merely speak pretty words. Their necks were, on signing the Declaration of Independence, very-much on the line. Hedges’ assertion that we can have a revolution with non-violence, especially in this country where corporate interests are entrenched with violence, where the State stands as it had with the Pinkerton agency in coal’s heyday times with TransCanada and Enbridge Energy today, and come through to victory, is foolish at best and at worst dangerous for his would-be revolutionaries.

The corporate people who hosed down the Standing Rock protesters in sub-zero temperature were committing violence. That pipeline is still getting its building permits worked on. The company, TransCanada, has not stopped to see that its aims are realized. Non-violent protest stalled the progress of the pipeline, but has it stopped it? No. For all the attention the pipeline garnered, all the protest, needed as it was, for all the symbol it was and how good a victory it felt when it was temporarily stopped, folks need to get that it, and countless B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s like it are not done. They are not stopped -yet. These B/l/a/c/k S/n/a/k/e/s still need killing. Thankfully, the Standing Rock people of the Dakotas, the Anishinaabek Line 5 Protesters here in Michigan, and so many others are standing up again and again with folks in and across their communities. Not everyone standing up, proverbially here, will be doing so before a pipeline; not everyone can. There are plenty for folks to do who are unable to be a physical presence, and the best place where people can go to and learn how best they can contribute is to talk to those who live on the land and waters being threatened.

Another source of disconnect I feel with Hedges is that he is still living a very comfortable upper middle class life. Unlike many peak oil folks there is nothing I can point to that comes through in the lectures I have seen or interviews he has given that give me an impression of him like those I have seen of Richard Heinburg, James Kunstler, or JMG who live their values through living as sustainably as possible on the land each lives. He is not showing the future, showing where he has put up solar panels, started community gardens, or grown his own food. For all that he speaks well, he has not shown, even in general, how he seeks to enable future generations to live well in a post-petroleum climate change future. It is one thing to approach a crowd with a good speech. It is another to approach a crowd with a vision of the future where a good life is possible, even if it is not the life we have been sold by countless companies and TV shows. We need more than speeches. We need living leaders whose lives show us how we may live better on and with the planet and one another.

Now is time to do everything we can to live well with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Now is the time to organize our communities; the politicians will not save us, and the States are not going to make the coming crises easier to face. Now is the time to learn the skills we can, to pass on what we know, to do everything in our power so the next generation can face what is coming with every possible advantage on their side. We must do the work before us however we can do it. It is not enough to merely write and speak on what we need to do. Each of us concerned with our Holy Powers, our communities, and the Earth we live on will, wherever possible whenever possible, be living examples.

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  1. Anima Monday
    March 3, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Chris Hedges was not born privileged. He attended those elite schools on scholarships and this fellow students never let him forget that. He may not be living directly off the land but he is using the skills and talents he has to try to make the world a better place. He could be teaching at an ivy league school but chose instead to work in prisons! Everyone needs to be in the fight offering what they have to give. He is one of very voices in media speaking truth to power. I think that is just as valuable as one person going off grid.

    • March 3, 2019 at 12:18 pm

      Fair enough! I did not know his background.

      Rather than going totally off grid, all of the folks I mentioned in my post are rather tied into their communities in different ways, quite a different approach.

      My point is that very seldom do people walk their talk, and especially in the ‘green movement’ and environmentalist movements a lot of energy is wasted getting people to conferences and such with very little work put in by any of the speakers or attendees to live the values they are espousing others live by. Hedges may put in the work here of speaking truth to power, but my central point remains and is still a salient critique, especially since his talk could be summed up as I did earlier in the post. We have enough people talking and not enough people doing. So while what he does may have value, I don’t value Hedges’s speeches the same as I do people living their values as I have with folks in the peak oil, permaculture, and similarly-minded communities. All of the folks I pointed out have made plenty of lectures and speeches in many of the same venues that Hedges has while making effective change in the communities they are embedded in. If Hedges spoke more to doing that work I may have a different opinion of him, but having seen more than a few of his lectures I have not seen it or heard him speak to this.

      • Anima Monday
        March 3, 2019 at 1:13 pm

        I totally agree that there is too much talk by everyone and not enough action.

    • Keith McCormic
      March 4, 2019 at 3:58 am

      I have to disagree a bit. He might not have been born to wealth, but he was born privileged enough to see those scholarships as an option and to successfully pursue them. He was also privileged enough to be born into a society where “nonviolent revolution” is even a concept. Unless he’s blinded by his privilege, it’s not a bad thing, but it is there.

  2. March 3, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    I used to teach undergrad college English courses and Hedges’ “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” was required reading for my students. I wish more people would engage in the level of discourse Hedges rightfully highlights. We ignore his ideas at our collective peril.

  3. Keen
    March 12, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    A tangential question, but have you read any of Gail Tverberg’s blog, Sarenth? She paints a very meticulously researched picture of how energy and economy are one in the same.

    • March 12, 2019 at 7:14 pm

      No, I don’t think so.

      • Keen
        March 12, 2019 at 8:08 pm

        Her posts are too long for me to skim much, but here’s a good one: https://ourfiniteworld.com/2018/11/28/low-oil-prices-an-indication-of-major-problems-ahead/

        She covers a lot of ground that more mainstream climate folks like Hedges don’t really talk about (or know about, because ecology people aren’t often economics people also it seems), and brings up many uncomfortable points, or things that go against common green logic. She doesn’t phrase things in political terms either, usually sticking to the numbers, but in reading her info it’s not difficult to extrapolate the state of global democracy and innovation. Like you say, revolutions whether peaceful or violent, won’t save us. Direct action and building local community is the only hope we have of passing anything onto the next generation.

      • March 13, 2019 at 12:16 pm

        I appreciate the link. ^_^ I will read it soon.

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