Welcome to American pollutocracy

Cement factory air pollution

Newly elected Presidents do not obtain formal power for over two months, but it feels like they gain control immediately. Their major appointments and legislative recommendations reveal looming ideological priorities far more than bombastic campaign rhetoric. For many of us, discouragement eroded hope when the Obama administration announced before the inauguration that private insurance companies would profit from any changes in the heath care provision. The “single payer” plan was abruptly “taken off the table” without public discussion. When Obama next appointed Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers to influential positions, it was equally clear that Wall Street remained in control of the political economy. On the other hand, Obama placed thoughtful scientists to oversee environmental issues.

While many of Obama’s appointments and subsequent actions confirmed that the Democratic Party’s commitment to gradualism was becoming so gradual that it would morph into the staunch defender of the status quo, Donald Trump’s selections reveal a reckless contempt not just for competent government and the reality principle, but also for humanity’s habitat. Despair arises when one perceives that future Secretary-of-State Rex Tillerson, recent CEO of Exxon Mobil, may be the Trump administration’s most reasonable environmental analyst. His company, which relentlessly fought the theory of climate change, has finally conceded that global warming exists. According to Tillerson, it is a “low priority problem.”  Exxon recently tweeted its support for the Paris agreement proposing feeble efforts to reduce pollutants.

Many other Trump nominees, such as Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, Myron Ebell, and Ryan Zinke, are blindly hostile to environmental science and concerns, determined to permit extraction of as much wealth as possible from the planet at lowest possible cost to themselves. All other risks and externalities—worker safety, citizen health, excessive consumption of resources, and climate change—will fade from policy analysis.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs remains well represented, and the military-industrial complex has sufficient ex-generals in positions of civilian power. Billionaires populate important Cabinet posts. Another wave of despondency arises when it appears that the most restrained foreign policy actor is General James Mattis, whose nickname is “Mad Dog.”  At least Tillerson and Mattis are serious people who thrived within important organizations. The military foresees the costs of climate change and resource depletion. Most other appointments are wealthy hustlers or clowns chosen from a political-cultural system that is becoming another corporate-sponsored circus.

Trump’s willingness to increase carbon pollutants is not surprising. He mocked climate change, absurdly claiming it was a Chinese plot. Supporting the carbon-based energy industry will probably garner support from the Koch Brothers, who previously did not like him because he was not one of their puppets. There is a good chance a Trump offspring will soon be the proud owner of an oil patch.

Sadly, these developments are nothing new. Simply recall Dick Cheney’s service to Halliburton, a beneficiary of energy deregulation and the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair, England’s slippery equivalent of Bill Clinton, and Bush family confidant James Baker make millions working for the Carlyle Group, a mysterious financial organization that facilitates the flow of oil and money. The Bushes have enduring contacts with the House of Saud. Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, obtained a seat on the Board of Directors of a private Ukrainian energy company (revealing that self-interest is one of the motivations for the Democratic leadership’s animosity towards the Russians).

American exceptionalism has created a new form of government: Oligarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy blend into a filthy pollutocracy. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer presciently reduced unrestrained egoism’s perspective to a chilling maxim: “May the world perish, provided I am safe.”

So how should environmentalists prioritize resistance to the frenzied degradation of our planet?  The awful truth is that neither party has been serious about environmental challenges. The difficulties appear almost insoluble; eight billion people are entangled in a web of desperate need and insatiable greed. Worldwide, a vast amount of pollution will be created no matter what Americans do over the short-term.

But there will be another election in less than two years, and Trump seems incredibly mercurial and unprincipled, sensitive to swings in public opinion. Thus, most regulatory changes can be readjusted if the populace decides their grandchildren’s future is more important than energy-inefficient transportation, plastic shopping bags, excessive corporate profits, and so forth.

The sale and leasing of public lands is another matter. The Department of Interior will probably cause the most irreparable damage. Once private actors gain title, they have extractive power that lasts for decades or even lifetimes. Thus, the demonstrators at Standing Rock have chosen the proper battleground: oil profits versus land and local people. Once the remaining commons is privatized, becoming another plaything for the opulent, there is far less we can do for ourselves, much less future generations.