Noam Chomsky: “It’s institutional structures that block change.”

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-20...

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-2011 Photo Credit: Josh Lopez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If yesterday’s post of Lawrence Lessig‘s TED talk on corruption gives you reason for optimism, you may want to check that after you read this from perennial thorn in the side of the powers that be Noam Chomsky, who writes of a peculiar distinction between the most “advanced” societies in the world today and those  least touched by technological “progress” as far as the threat of climate change goes:

So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.  Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something.  Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets.  It’s not because the population doesn’t want it.  Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming.  It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.

This seems to be a pretty important point, but it’s very difficult to know how seriously it’s being taken: The United States government does not have the species’ or the world’s best interests at heart. And it’s not just the Republicans, who are an easy target for American liberals,  that we have to blame. The fact is the Republicans are pretty much brain-dead and useless at this point. But are the Democrats really all that much better on this issue in particular?

The Keystone XL pipeline is being touted by members of both parties,  as well as the oil industry and labor unions, as a jobs creator and road to independence from foreign oil sources (though it originates in Canada, which, despite possible confusion in the US, is not the US). The president is playing a strange game, encouraging oil companies to believe he’ll make everything all right for Keystone eventually while refusing to state explicitly whether he supports it or not. His actions (for example, okaying construction of the southern leg of the pipeline in Texas and Oklahoma) would seem to suggest the oil companies have reason to be encouraged; it sure looks like his reticence on the subject is a means of avoiding accusations of yet another betrayal to “progressive” interests. This Huffington Post story from just prior to Obama’s Second Inauguration lays out the issues surrounding Keystone that the president is evidently doing his best to resolve out of the public eye:

If the pipeline is approved, “the administration would be actively supporting and encouraging the growth of an industry which has demonstrably serious effects on climate,” 18 top climate scientists wrote in a letter to Obama this week.

Obama also faces a choice over whether to promote a boom in oil and natural gas production that has hampered growth of nontraditional energy sources such as wind and solar.

The emergence of cheap, plentiful natural gas in particular poses a dilemma for Obama, who supports gas development as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels that trigger global warming.

Incidentally, the idea that natural gas is a hedge against global warming is, so to speak, a pipe dream.

Given just this small slice of climate change politics in the US, is there any doubt that the nation’s leaders, in both parties, are utterly lacking the will to signal their awareness that  fossil fuels are dangerous to the global–or even the national!–environment? If you are a Democratic member of Congress, unless you come from a hotbed of environmental activism, you are making the same calculations the president is making. You’re worrying about the unions that get out the vote for you and how they’ll respond to your “killing a jobs creator” in their backyards. You’re worried about the hundreds of thousands of drivers in your constituency who can’t wait for an infrastructure of electric charging stations to help them get their minds off gas prices that have never been higher. You are virtually certain to try to sneak a vote against solving climate change past some of your angriest, most alert and active constituents.  There is no downside for you besides having to take some heat (in more ways than one, actually) from a loud but politically isolated corner.

Congress will not deal with climate change because its members constitutionally cannot deal with anything that is not right in front of their noses. And what’s right in front of their noses is the money and votes they need to remain members of this impotent  institution.

Maybe now is a good time to take another look at that TED talk from yesterday.



2 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky: “It’s institutional structures that block change.”

  1. What i’ve never understood about this subject is the fact the oil is being moved to Texas for refining, then to be sold overseas. It’s not even for US consumption.

  2. Yep, I see what you mean about the links. The blogger Common Sense puts her links as (Source) after whatever quotation/piece of info. Might work for you as an identifier?

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