May The Farce Be With You – Kenny Ausubel
Bioneers Co-Founder Kenny Ausubel presented the following talk at Bioneers 2023.
In February 2023, BP hit the ground backpedaling, reducing its plans to decrease oil and gas production. You may recall that in 2000, with much fanfare, BP had loudly rebranded the company from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum.” Scratch that.
BP’s CEO made the announcement himself. His name is Richard Looney.
May the farce be with you.
You’d think that ruling elites would have the common sense to preserve the only planet we’ve got in order to generate sustainable exploitation. But no, it turns out they’re looneys – drunken baby gods strung out on short-term profits.
Perhaps the signature reveal – the Rosebud of this corporate psychosis – came most recently from the tabloid tyrant himself, Rupert Murdoch, featuring a heroic dose of looney.
After Dominion Voting Systems sued Foxcorp for knowingly spreading demonstrable lies and hallucinatory conspiracy theories about the security of its machines, it turns out the primary source behind the allegations of a stolen election was a Minnesota artist.
She described getting her information from “time travel in a semi-conscious state” and talking to the wind, among other channels.
Nevertheless, the Fox audience only wanted to hear about election fraud, and Fox panicked as big chunks of viewers started migrating to even more sulfurous right-wing networks. In his deposition, the reptilian Murdoch crystallized the predicament: “It’s not about red or blue. It’s about green.”
There you have it: Profit-ganda.
Then again, in a perverse way, Rupert was right. It is about the green. The green fertility and climatic stability of Mother Earth are the value proposition from which all other wealth flows, even narrowly defined. Building natural capital is the basis of true wealth creation – not looting the joint.
In truth, these are the poisonous fruits of a psychopathic tree. It has a history and a lineage. To navigate our way out of the jam, we need to understand how we got here. In the words of the iconic climate scientist James Hansen: “We cannot fix the climate until we first fix democracy.”
Indeed, these two existential crises are intimately related. As Thom Hartmann outlines in his superlative book, The Hidden History of Oligarchy, whereas monopoly is the concentration of economic power, oligarchy is the concentration of political power by the wealthy.
One way oligarchy starts to erode democracy is when the wealthy buy influence with elected officials. Since the 1970s, the courts began redefining money as free speech. One dollar, one vote. Do the math.
Couple that with monkeywrenching the administrative state, corrupting and delegitimizing government. Meanwhile, focus on controlling the courts and the law.
All the while, cut taxes on the wealthy, blame big government for the deficits, and slash social programs – also known as “starve the beast.”
Alongside all this comes perhaps the biggest prize: Capture the media and the narrative. Buttress the battle of the story with an army of think tanks, academic channels, and astro-turf nonprofits.
There have been several waves of oligarchy in US history, but the current version began in earnest with the infamous Powell Memo in 1971. It was a clarion call for big business to roll back all the gains of the New Deal and regain its political power.
By the mid-60s, the public view of big business was at a nadir. As a corporate lawyer and friend of big tobacco, Lewis F. Powell titled his memo, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” Powell saw the battle in part as a culture war. Business needed to rebrand as the Statue of Liberty of free enterprise, conflating unfettered capitalism with individual liberty and democracy.
Powell sent his “eyes-only” strategic memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, which became the tip of the oligarchic spear.
His memo rapidly spawned standard talking points in conservative political circles, and in 1972 President Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court. There Powell helped unleash a laser-focused conservative legal movement. It included the creation of the Federalist Society, today’s Green Room for right-wing corporate justices.
A relentless and sophisticated PR campaign saturated the national bloodstream with free market propaganda. By the late ‘90s, the neoliberal oligarchs had successfully backed winning majorities of politicians to pass two thirds of their policy agendas. They had captured the Republican Party, along with many Democrats.
The secret sauce on the propaganda platter is the worship of the omniscience of the “invisible hand of the market.” It decries government intervention, which will only mess with Creation itself.
These market fundamentalists entirely reject the concept of a “public good,” – instead, society is an amoral dog-eat-dog aggregation of private self-interests.
The myth of the free market is less ideology than theology. Personally, I prefer the tooth fairy. But if there’s an invisible hand of the market, it’s alternately picking our pockets and polarizing us. Its origins are steeped in white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, misogyny and othering, whose economic and power disparities are baked into the secret sauce.
A more faithful theological characterization would be, “Let us prey”—on the weak, the vulnerable and the public.
As Quinn Slobodian wrote in her book The Globalists, neoliberalism “… was a world where the global economy was safely protected from the demands of redistributive equality and social justice. It was focused on designing institutions not to liberate markets, but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy. It was less a discipline of economics than of statecraft and law.”
In the face of that earlier oligarchic crash called the Great Depression, FDR sought to save capitalism from the capitalists. He called for an Economic Bill of Rights. He said this: “…True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Among other things, Roosevelt called for the rights to:
- A useful and remunerative job
- A decent home
- Adequate medical care
- A good education
- Adequate protection from the economic impacts of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment
- And the right of small businesses to operate without “unfair competition and domination by monopolies.”
Today in this age of the precariat, when a majority of American families can’t afford an unexpected $400 emergency, we need an Economic Bill of Rights. It’s foundational to having a democracy.
The GOP – the Grand Old Plutocracy – knows it’s a minority party with wildly unpopular policies. It has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight Presidential elections.
To get power, it relies on voter suppression, gerrymandering, court-packing, political mischief, and relentless propaganda. It has devolved into a neo-fascist movement. They’d rather burn it to the ground than lose. This ain’t no foolin’ around.
To start taking down oligarchy, Hartmann emphasizes a few steps.
Get money out of politics, and create free and fair elections that stimulate voter turnout.
Break up monopolies. Four to 10 giant companies now dominate virtually every sector, suffocating the economy, screwing workers and stifling innovation. Free the markets.
Tax corporations and the wealthy. As the saying goes, money is like manure. When you pile it up, it stinks. When you spread it around, it does a lot of good.
Reclaim the courts, restructure the Supreme Court and restrict its judicial review. Congress has the Constitutional authority to do that under the Exceptions clause of the Constitution. It can entirely remove certain jurisdictions from the Supreme Court’s purview – for example climate action and bodily autonomy.
We’re on a collision course between the state of nature and the nature of the state.
The climate emergency demands entirely new forms of democratic governance calibrated to biospheric realities and to social justice in order to realize the promise of a multi-cultural, gender-equitable republic.
It’s also time to look toward a new and improved Constitution.
What we have least is what we need most: time. Windows of opportunity are finite and fleeting. This may be our last chance to get it right.
The overriding question becomes, as Vicki Robin puts it, “What if things go right?” There are two broad areas to focus on.
The first is that human problems have human solutions. We have an embarrassment of viable solutions already on the table or in play. They’ll go a long way toward solving a host of human crises related to equity and democracy.
The ground truth is that decisive majorities of Americans support progressive policies, from taxing corporations and the rich, to climate action, living wage jobs, abortion rights, Medicare for all, gun safety, environmental protections and on and on. Among young people, the majorities rise to a whopping two thirds to three quarters. Powerful Next Gen leadership is emergent.
So what does it look like when things go right?
Through a people-powered ballot initiative in 2018 that began with a single voter’s Facebook post, Michigan instituted independent redistricting and un-gerrymandered the state. A fair election in 2022, that included abortion rights on the ballot, delivered majorities in the house, senate and Governor’s mansion to Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
They immediately repealed the so-called right-to-work law that has decimated unions. They repealed a 1931 abortion ban.
They’ve gone on to expand background checks for gun purchases, and embed civil rights protections in state law for LGBTQ people. The election revealed a new working class that’s ethnically and culturally diverse, blowing up the false dichotomy between economic and culture war issues.
Another example is the Child Tax Credit contained in the Inflation Reduction Act. At the stroke of a pen, it cut child poverty in half, to the lowest on record. We can do this.
Anti-trust actions are experiencing a resurgence. Big Tech is under mounting pressures. These are not inevitable tyrannies. The EU’s landmark actions provide a regulatory template that can be imported quickly into the US.
Another example comes from Florida’s conservative Orange County, the nation’s 30th largest. In 2022, it became the biggest municipality to adopt a “rights of nature” law. Voters recognized the rights of rivers, waterways and streams, along with a right to clean water for the residents.
This “Right to Clean Water Initiative” passed with an unheard of 89% vote. Some homes displayed a “Right to Clean Water Initiative” sign in the window and a Trump sign on the lawn. The Rights of Nature movement is now the fastest growing environmental movement in history, with Indigenous Peoples at the forefront of leadership.
This is the moment to stand for the land – to protect and save every last inch and to begin the process of regeneration and Earth repair.
Janine Benyus, author of the landmark book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and founder of the Biomimicry Institute, has laid out what she calls “Life’s Principles.” Here are a few that need to become our guideposts.
Nature runs on current sunlight. Nature banks on diversity. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature builds from the bottom up. Nature recycles everything. Nature builds resilience through diversity, decentralization, and redundancy.
Life optimizes rather than maximizes—it designs for the good of the whole system. In short, life creates conditions conducive to life.
Where human problems have human solutions, the climate emergency presents a predicament for which there are no simple answers.
Yet there are principles and practices we can apply with the clear goals of carbon drawdown and building resilience.
The first principle is that nature has a profound and mysterious capacity for healing and for self-repair. The solutions in nature surpass our conception of what’s even possible. After all, nature has 3.8 billion years of evolutionary R&D under her belt, and has done everything we want to do without shredding the biosphere or extinguishing the future.
For about $2 billion, we could do the lion’s share of basic research to launch biomimicry as a sector. It will unleash endless nature-based solutions for our worst crises. $2B dollars isn’t even a rounding error in a federal budget.
Renewables are already cost-competitive in most of the world. One thing that may be going right is that, between the massive layoffs by the fossil fuel industry and Big Tech, as well as general disgust with the industries, tens of thousands of workers have been fleeing to work on renewables, clean tech and climate solutions. We’re entering a next leapfrog technological revolution.
We also know that regenerative agriculture is a fundamental building block of carbon sequestration, resilience and food security.
It’s already begun to go mainstream and could get much bigger much faster with appropriate funding and policy shifts.
The list goes on and on, but there are a lot of things that could go right, if we bend the arc of the moral universe.
Yet still, as we all know, we’re whistling past the graveyard. It’s already too late to avoid radical disruption, destruction, dislocation and suffering. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we’ve unleashed forces worlds beyond anyone’s control. Buckle up for global weirding.
We’ve entered a time when PTSD means Permanent Traumatic Stress Disorder. Everybody’s feeling it. The scholar and activist Joanna Macy sees it this way:
“We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”
As we confront the sorrows of our time, there’s authentic hope in nature’s solutions, and in each other. It’s times like these when the nobility of the human soul swells to meet the moment.
It’s Now O’clock. What if things go right?
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
Thank you, and may the farce be with you.