Obama and the return of the real


by Jonathan Schell

The inauguration of Barack Obama, whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant, is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic – “all men are created equal” – which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as they resonate around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of colour to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.

But what of the hour, the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year’s crisis is attended by, or embedded in, at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?

A third crisis – less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted – is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage and much else. Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life upon which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.

At a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely to be the result of a colossal accident – a world-historic pileup on the global thruway. Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one’s own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: The “masters of the universe” are the authors of their own (and everyone’s) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire’s self-inflicted wound – a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it – and potentially ourselves – obsolete through over-success. The economic activity of humanity – the “throughput” of productivity, to use James Gustave Speth’s term for the sheer quantity of natural stuff processed by the economy and dumped back into the ecosphere – was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems. The environmentalists’ word “sustainability” applies more broadly. The collateralized debt obligations, the oil use, the spread of WMDs, the military pretensions of empire, all are “unsustainable” and crashing at once. Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching.

All the crises (but especially those that are endangering the ecosphere) involve theft by the living from their posterity. It’s often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn, devour their children. We are committing a slow motion, cross-generational equivalent of this offence. My generation, the baby boomers – ominously nicknamed “the boomers” – has been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards. Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for newspaper headlines. The question has been what harm are we doing to generations yet unborn? But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out of our children’s paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious “security” will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines. A “new era of responsibility” must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true that all the crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by which the larger adjustment is being set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the sustainable world.

All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions. One group of nations, led by the United States, lays claim to the lion’s share of the world’s wealth, to an exclusive right to possess nuclear weapons, to a disproportionate right to pollute the environment and even to a dominant position in world councils, while everyone else is expected to accept second-class status. But since solutions to all the crises must be global to succeed, and global agreement can only be based on equity, the path to success is cut off.

Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is “bubble.” A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses and people are hurt. Disillusion and tangible harm go together; as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious, but the war and the dying are actual. The “safety” provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The “limits on growth” were denied, but the oil reserves didn’t get the message. The “uncertainty” about global warming – cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy companies – is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.

A new stance toward reality

One day, someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money or war-hungry decision makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system, but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered, but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports.

A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance toward reality began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the “reality-based community,” which, the adviser said, believed that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” But that was no longer true, for “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $152.5 billion in federal bailout funds, then-chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in happier days: “This is never going to get any better than it is today. We’re so big, we’re never going to swim against the tide. We are the tide.” In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.

Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth and power, not to speak of superpower, die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after. For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a whole. The falsehoods that led to war, the fact-averse ideology that inspired the bid for empire, the investments based on fictitious ratings and the denial of the evidence of global warming – none of these grew in a vacuum. They were supported or tolerated or insufficiently discredited by the media and other organizations that inform and constitute the mainstream. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming, it is true, were increasingly accepted by the public, but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite for measures, like a gas tax, to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas devouring, pseudo-military Hummer, an imperial auto if there ever was one. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as reflected in election results. They linger still as troops shift, with Obama’s blessing, from the unpopular Iraq quagmire to the better accepted Afghanistan quagmire.

In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama’s centrist cabinet choices seem to promise. But they know – Obama, who denounced the “dead zone that politics had become,” told them in the campaign – that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now charged with addressing.

“Reality” has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other side is the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream choices, he is called “pragmatic.” And it may well be so in political terms, as the poll results attest. But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that Obama’s move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called “the left” or his “base,” but that by adjusting to a centre that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will lose his effectiveness as president.

Jonathan Schell is the author of numerous books, including The Fate of the Earth and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.