Terror Against the Biosphere
by Moti Nissani

In November 23, 2005 1948, Henry A. Wallace, a former vice-president under Roosevelt, felt that the United States was at a crossroads, and that it could become “the worst hated nation of all history.” It took a while for Wallace’s prediction to come true, in part owing to the brilliance of the American propaganda system, in part owing to the fact that, inside their own country, ordinary white Americans had been comparatively prosperous, tolerant, literate, and free. But now the cross-national advantages are fading, making it harder to sell America to the world. The propaganda system is likewise besotted by another handicap: An unabashed expansionist foreign policy that is chillingly reminiscent of the long-lived Roman Empire and the shorter-lived Third Reich. Neo-colonialism is on the rise, U.S. military centurions and garrisons dot the globe, and elected officials are routinely and forcibly replaced by quislings.

We must bear in mind, however, that there is nothing new about the ongoing brutalities against the world’s people and against the citizens of the empire itself. Arguably, America’s ruling class has so far wreaked less havoc on the people of Baghdad than Genghis Khan, less agonies on Cuba than Columbus, less anguish on Latin America than Spain, less woes on its own people than Athenian or Syracusean oligarchs inflicted on theirs. And, unsettling as such brutalities are, they do not pose a threat to human survival. One can subsist under them and hope that Albert Einstein was right, that the USA is going mad, that it “is no longer receptive to reasonable suggestions,” and that its development follows “the events in Germany since the time of Emperor William II: through many victories to final disaster.” In other words, one can endure the crimes of empire and still hope that one day decency, rationality, and brotherhood triumph. Even in flattened Fallujah, in beleaguered Santiago de Cuba, in terrified Port-au-Prince, in oligarchic Riyadh, in gloomy Gaza, one can still dream of being free at last -- if not, perhaps, oneself, then one’s fellow countrymen and the human family as a whole.  

The most unforgivable act of terror, in my view, is the one that robs us of that dream. And yet, the USA is doing just that. When it comes to the global environment, the USA recklessly imperils the physical and biological foundations of life itself. It is precisely this recklessness which may turn this former bastion of liberty into the most hated country in history. The war against the biosphere is carried out on a very broad front, including over-population, nuclear and biological weaponry, nuclear power, depletion of the ozone layer, and massive species extinctions. Here, I can only exemplify this onslaught by highlighting the ramifications and underpinnings of just one environmental crime: the greenhouse effect (=global warming).  

Virtually alone among nations, the United States -- by far the worst polluter on the face of this green and smoggy planet—refuses to acknowledge the existence of a greenhouse threat -- let alone address it. The world burns, the barons steal, and America plays its public relations fiddle.    

Every day we are bombarded by yet another decontextualized news item.  Carbon dioxide levels in the global atmosphere are steadily and measurably rising, as do the levels of other greenhouse gases. Every decade is warmer than the preceding one. Winters are shorter and warmer; summers longer and hotter. Extraordinarily violent storms devastate the Philippines, Japan, and the Caribbean. Some areas of the world are overwhelmed by unprecedented draughts and wildfires while others are deluged. Ice sheets are melting and sea levels are rising. North-African stink bugs colonize the British isles. 

 Although such facts are subject to a wide margin of error, they are embraced by the world’s independent scholars. Genuine scientific controversies (as opposed to “controversies” concocted by Wall Street and its serfs in Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues) only concern the future. We scientists cannot reliably forecast future trends of such complex entities as the world’s climate (or for that matter, the world’s economy). Instead, we must resort to experiments, computer models, probabilities, extrapolations, and projections. Our crystal ball -- and the scientific crystal ball, despite its flaws, is the best we have -- shows sea levels rising, with some low-lying cities joining Atlantis. Species continue to vanish, faster than they do now.  Tropical diseases move north and migrating birds stay put. Human tragedies and deaths multiply, on a scale that trivializes the collapse of the World Trade Center and the suffering of the Guatemalan people.   

Our crystal ball is not lacking in doomsday scenarios either. One such scenario involves methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and which is abundant in the topsoil of the frozen north. Global warming may release some of that methane into the atmosphere. This in turn may raise temperatures, especially in the Arctic. Warmer temperatures would then bring about more thawing and release of methane and still higher temperatures, possibly culminating in a chain reaction too scary to contemplate.  A decade ago, such scenarios prompted Prof. George Woodwell to say that “the continued habitability of the earth is clearly in question."  

Apologists for the United States of America plead poverty, alleging that even if we grant the reality of global warming, the USA cannot afford to do anything about it.  But this is a barefaced lie, and not only because the USA is willing to spend any amounts of money to own Iraq and abolish, at home, any residues of a progressive tax system, and not only because assured long-term survival justifies any cost. It is a falsehood for a more straightforward reason. In 1992, in one of those rare flashes of corporate media candor, Newsweek wrote:  

During the early Bush Administration, estimates batted around for greenhouse reductions ran from $100 billion to a mind-bending $3.6 trillion. Such calculations contained an astonishing omission. The way to control carbon emissions is to make energy use more efficient. The big numbers took into account the capital costs of new conservation technology, but not the value of the fuel saved. Factor in the energy savings, the analysts Amory and Hunter Lovins showed in a landmark 1991 study, and . . . it becomes possible to imagine cutting greenhouse gases at a profit. . . . Currently the [Bush] White House is pushing its National Energy Strategy [which fails to see] that resource conservation, pollution control, lower energy prices and a hedge against global warming might be achieved simultaneously by a comprehensive commitment to improved fuel efficiency. . . . [Moreover, seen in light of population growth and worldwide improved standards of living] significant improvements in energy efficiency are imperative whether the thermometer is going up, down or sideways.

Newsweek’s views are supported by numerous studies, including studies by the most respected, conservative, and staid scientific bodies of the land, e.g., a 1992 report by the United States National Academy of Sciences, or a truly massive 1997 study by the United States’ own Department of Energy. The exact annual savings from greenhouse policies are anyone’s guess, but I am personally inclined to accept the estimate that they exceed $220 billion a year for the USA alone. 

To convince ourselves that mitigating the greenhouse problem will cost less than nothing, let us imagine that the world’s automakers were required to produce cars yielding 80 miles per gallon instead of, say, 25. The technology for making such cars has been available for at least 20 years, and, with mass production, such cars could eventually be produced for roughly the same cost as contemporary gas guzzlers.  With the more efficient vehicles, the average American could save, let us say, $600 a year on gasoline alone. Extend similar conservation measures to insulation, lighting, industrial plants, electric motors, and so on, and implement them from the Redwood Forest to the New York Island, and you tap untold riches. In addition, by conserving fossil fuels, Americans could pocket some of the billions they spend now on such human-caused scourges as asthma and cancer. Thus, common sense, history, economics, and ecology, all converge in just one direction: the world can save untold billions by meaningfully combating the greenhouse threat.   

We are left with the questions: What’s going on here? Why is the USA putting the world at risk? Why is it needlessly jeopardizing the health and well-being of its citizens? Why is it stealing them blind? Why is it needlessly playing Russian Roulette with the future of our species? Are American policy makers insane? Vicious? Morons? 

They are certainly short on principles, vision, and common decency, but this by itself cannot, in my view, account for environmental terrorism. The larger answer is that, at the moment, American politicians are the hired help of big business, spending most of their working hours soliciting favors of all kinds, including bribes (a.k.a. “campaign contributions”). In turn, their corporate masters expect them to plunder the biosphere and the world’s people and to convince ordinary Americans that fair is foul and foul is fair, and that, in President Cleveland’s words, “the business of America is business.” This the bribed politicians and their media allies gladly do, deploying such shameful propaganda tools and euphemisms as “tax cuts” (a net transfer of wealth from the poorest 80% of the population to the richest 1%), “war on terror” (whose real goal is to make ordinary people forget whose real enemies are, duping them into voting against their convictions and interests), and Jesus of Nazareth himself (who, it so happened, championed pacifism and social justice).   

American politicians, in other words, are victims of a thoroughly corrupt political system. But they are not the only ones. American
Croesuses, perched on their golden pyres, are pawns of this system too. By and large, these moguls have little time for history (Ford: “history is bunk”), little taste for literature, zero compassion for their fellow passengers to the grave. They are victims of a viciously competitive system which sanctimoniously “discounts” the future and is obsessively focused on the next quarterly report. The people who run Exxon and GM must sell ever more oil and SUVs to safeguard their career. In the absence of meaningful regulation, the rules of the game force them to oppose energy conservation, torpedo meaningful international agreements, undermine the future of their own hearts, lungs, spouses, and grandchildren, and wreak havoc on the national debt. If they wake up, and if they act on the basis of their newly-acquired humanitarian insights, they lose their jobs, power, prestige, and Porsches. There are no villains in this cosmic tragedy, merely a bloated leviathan that is, conceivably, dragging the earth and its creatures to the brink.    

“History,” said Kurt Vonnegut, “read it and weep.” If America’s crimes against nature are not checked, there will be a lot more weeping, and hating, and gnashing of teeth, before the 21st century is over.   

Moti Nissani teaches at Wayne State University. Some of his scholarly publications can be accessed at:

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