Unsuccessfully Seeking Solutions in the Public Sphere

Brest van Kempen, Carel | July 14, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

We Americans are good at a lot of things, but there’s nothing we’re better at than selling a castoff truckload of broken toilets to the masses. And that skill can really get in the way of more important work we’re good at, like solving real-world problems.

When it comes to environmental issues, public discourse is dominated by voices spinning competing sales pitches that misdirect attention from problems rather than focusing on their solutions. From one corner the pharaohs of industry implore us to consume, while in the opposing corner corporatized conservation groups just want to make sure we donate again this year.

Carel Brest van Kempen Phototrope, 2013, acrylic on panel, 20”x16″© Carel Brest van Kempen, Included in the traveling museum exhibition Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

One voice is nominally pro-environmental and the other not so much, but little of what either says bears much on the subject at hand. One can still detect meaningful dialogs in this domain, but they’re largely drowned out by the spiels of hucksters, and getting a clear idea of what’s really happening and what can be done often requires reading between the lines and turning to sources outside of the public sphere altogether.

Take the “global warming” discussion. One side warns that curbing global warming will interfere with economic growth, while the other assures us that “green technology” can keep that graph tilted upwards. No mention, though, of the fact that it’s that malignant economic inflation that forms the core of the problem.

Our debt-based economy requires constant growth. To start a business, Jack takes out a loan, helping pay the expenses of a money-lender. To produce these loans, the money-lenders need more debtors each month than they had the month before. It’s not so much an economic system as it is a gigantic Amway, and like any explosive trend in nature, we may not know quite when levels will return to Earth, only that they surely will. The phrases American Dream and Ponzi scheme rhyme in more ways than one.

Fortunately, visionary economists like Herman Daly and others noticed this problem and have spent the past few decades working on theoretical “steady-state” economic systems. It’s rarely discussed, but among the assortment of possible global warming remedies, it’s one of the most important, because a planned landing by an educated pilot is always preferable to a surprise nosedive into a parking lot.

The public discussion on climate change can be pretty well summed up with the question “Do we continue life as usual using fossil fuels or do we switch to solar?” which misses the point altogether and so can’t yield a useful answer. Obviously, we must curb our burning of hydrocarbons, and much of that should involve diversifying our power portfolio, including more solar, but cutting our energy needs is a crucial part of the solution.

Carel Brest van Kempen Only While Supplies Last, 2016, acrylic on panel, 20″x16″ © Carel Brest van Kempen, Included in the traveling museum exhibition Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

Another good reason to reduce our petroleum consumption is to save some for future generations. Like any commodity, its overconsumption has its drawbacks, but it’s still great stuff. Not only is it concentrated energy, but you can make all sorts of plastics with it, as well as synthetic ammonia fertilizers. Somehow it’s hard to imagine transporting 100+ people across an ocean in a few hours using a battery-powered airplane covered with solar cells, or smelting steel with a great big magnifying glass. It will always be useful.

The heading of “global warming” misdirects attention in other ways. It’s just a single manifestation of a much bigger problem: we’re changing the composition of the only atmosphere we’ve got. Focusing on warming temperatures, some policy-makers are actually suggesting geo-engineering schemes like adding chemicals to the oceans or atmosphere. It’s like your doctor saying, “It’s not the mercury poisoning that’s a problem, it’s that you’re shaking all over…we’ll prescribe you some barbiturates and in the meantime don’t worry about eating those tainted fish.”

We’re all familiar with the corporate voice, its narrative of kindergarten capitalism where all the needs of society come from rich people making more money, and that it’s not monopolies, but taxing and regulating corporations that impede the benefits of market forces. Folks who care about the environment have learned to meet this voice with skepticism, but the public environmental voice isn’t much help either. In a time of crisis, it wastes our time and concern with a lot of non-issues[1].

But the worst element of the public environmental voice is its refusal to invoke a sense of personal responsibility, and without a doubt conservation of the natural world is the responsibility of us all.

Carel Brest van Kempen Sprawl, 2009, acrylic on illustration board, 18″x24″ © Carel Brest van Kempen Included in the traveling museum exhibition Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

It might help elicit donations to point accusing fingers at other groups, at hunters or ranchers, big business or miners, and it fills those of us who don’t belong to those groups with a bit of unholy warmth. But very few of us have any control over the behavior of shark fisherman in the South Atlantic or petroleum executives in Irving, Texas. What we can control is our own behavior, our own lifestyles. We can ask ourselves, “What can I give up to make the Earth a better home for future generations?”

And when we make those decisions and those sacrifices, we can carry them into that public sphere and exchange them, gain new ideas from one another. We can take over the public discourse from the carnival barkers and return it to the hands of its rightful owners: the concerned citizens with enough imagination to picture possible future worlds we don’t want to inhabit as well as ones we do, and the problem solvers who can draw paths away from the former and towards the latter.

[1] Such as anti-GMO hysteria. Most of the dangers cited by anti-GMO propaganda apply only to a single trait: “Roundup-ready” crops with a high tolerance for the herbicide Glyphosate. I’m all for losing Roundup-ready crops too, but they’d be no safer had they been the product of random mutation…it’s not the technology that’s the problem, but the product. Genomic manipulation is just a tool–a tool with great promise for reducing agriculture’s imprint on the natural world. Let’s hang on to that tool and use our energy and good intentions to rail instead against monoculture, the demise of the small farm, and a system where the nation’s food production is controlled by a tiny cabal of powerful corporations.


The works by Carel Brest van Kempen featured above are included in the traveling museum exhibition Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C. Further writings and information about Carel Brest van Kempen can be found through the Traditional Fine Arts Organization.

 With over 25 years as an artist, naturalist and author, Carel Brest van Kempen’s mission has always been to deepen awareness of the natural world and how it functions. His work has been exhibited worldwide in group shows in The Smithsonian, The American Museum of Natural History, The British Museum, The National Museum of Taiwan and many others, and his solo exhibition, curated by David J; Wagner, PhD, has been touring the U.S. since 2003.

He was named a “Most Honored Artist of Utah” and a “Master Signature Member” of the Society of Animal Artists. Among the awards his art has garnered are the Arts for the Parks Wildlife Award, the Artists for Conservation Medal of Excellence, and 8 Awards of Excellence from the Society of Animal Artists. He has illustrated over a dozen books and authored the popular coffee-table book, Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding (Eagle Mountain Publishing).


This post is part of the MAHB’s Arts Community space –an open space for MAHB members to share, discuss, and connect with artwork processes and products pushing for change. Please visit the MAHB Arts Community to share and reflect on how art can promote critical changes in behavior and systems and contact Erika with any questions or suggestions you have regarding the new space.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org.

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/unsuccessfully-seeking-solutions/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • johnmerryman

    The basic flaw in this debt based monetary system is that we use it as a medium of exchange and a store of value.
    Money is a contract. Necessarily any value has to correspond to a debt. Yet because we experience it as quantified hope, we presume to treat it as a commodity. Since everyone, rich and poor alike, want as much as possible, there is enormous political pressure to “manufacture” as much money as possible. Which is done by the central banks buying, mostly government, debt. Which both enables and encourages governments to overspend as much as possible.
    A medium of exchange and a store of value are entirely different creatures. A medium is dynamic, while a store is static. For instance, in the body, the medium is blood and the store is fat. Clogged arteries, poor circulation and high blood pressure are somewhat analogous to a bloated financial sector, poor circulation of value in the economy and quantitive easing to compensate.
    As a medium, money functions as a public utility, much like a road system. We own what is in our possession in much the same way we own the section of road we are traveling on. It is not our picture on it, we are not individually responsible for its value and we certainly do not possess the copyrights. Yet we do perceive it and frankly, are encouraged to perceive it, as personal property, as that encourages us to value and thus desire it more. Which both serves those managing it and encourages a more interconnected economy.
    Just as finance is the circulation mechanism of the economy, government is the central nervous system of society. There was a time though, when government was privately managed as well. Otherwise known as monarchy. The argument has that “mob rule” could never work, so society had to accept the costs of a monarchial system, in order to have a stable society. We are now reaching the point where the costs of a private monetary system are starting to outweigh the benefits.
    There was a time, especially in the United States, where money was issued by the banks themselves and they were responsible for maintaining its value. This responsibility was made a public function, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, while banks garnered the rewards from the system. While many view this as an abdication of the government to the banks, it will eventually be viewed as the first step to a fully public banking system, as either rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, or the system becomes increasingly unstable. So the choice will be to either go back to banks being responsible for issuing their own money, or move forward to a public banking system.
    Now many would find this unacceptable in the current political climate, given fears of ever larger government, but in many ways, the opposite would be true.
    Keep in mind that the government effectively creates money by deficit spending. Think how much government bonds are the basis of so much private wealth, as well as what the Fed buys to issue the money. Consequently the government does not actually budget. The legislature puts together these enormous bills, adds enough goodies to get enough votes and then the president can only pass or veto them. It is like bribing a child with candy bars to eat an apple.
    To budget is to prioritize one’s needs and spend according to ability. So they could break these bills into all their various “line items,” have every legislator assign a percentage value to each item, put them back together in order of preference and then the president would draw the line at what would be funded. To use Truman’s words, “The buck stops here.”
    This would work far better than the old “line item veto,” proposal, as it would sustain the power of the legislature over the actual priorities of spending, while giving the president discretion over and responsibility for levels of debt.
    Now this would completely blow up the system as it actually works, but then it is collapsing already.
    We all try to save money for the same general reasons, from raising children to retirement and a financial system allows us to focus our personal efforts onto our personal needs and while that is highly desirable, it also creates a more fragmented and atomized culture and society, as we become less directly dependent on those around us, but more dependent on this financial circulation system.
    So if the government, in order to maintain a viable medium of exchange, just as the body does not store excess blood, were to threaten to tax excess money out of the system and not just borrow it out to spend willynilly, then people would have to quickly find ways to save for those future needs within the social structure itself. Since individual needs cannot be fully known, but over the larger community, averaged out, this would mean storing wealth as stronger communities and healthier environments. What is known as the Commons.
    Democracy works by pushing power down to the level it is most effective, so we have local, state and national governments all serving the levels at which they work best and so a public banking system would also be composed of local, regional and national functions. With wealth generated in a community being used to support that community’s public infrastructure.
    Just as a house has family and personal areas, so too does society have private functions and public functions and the monetary system is the very definition of a public function.

    • Richard Sexton
      • johnmerryman

        Richard,

        That does describe the history of finance very succinctly. I do think the real problem for us right now is the idea that money is a form of commodity. For instance, bitcoin, the most seemingly high tech form of money, is treated as a commodity, to be manufactured;

        http://www.afr.com/technology/lisa-kangding-story-20160706-gpzx7e

        “Bitcoin is “mined” by supercomputers, which solve difficult mathematical formulas to generate the currency. Investors buy these machines by the thousands and store them in warehouses where there is cheap electricity and a relatively cool climate.

        It turns out the area around Kangding, populated by tall mountains that are scattered with under-used hydro power plants, is an ideal place to mine the digital coins.

        “Everyone says this is a virtual currency but in many ways it’s a traditional manufacturing business,” says Xu, who visits the area regularly. “You buy heavy equipment, you burn electricity and you are rewarded with Bitcoin.”

        The same is essentially assumed by the last several hundred years of a gold based currency, from the conquistadors, to the gold rush; That it is something to be mined, stolen, or both. The idea implicit in what you link, that it is a social contract, is completely foreign to the modern sense of money.
        Even the modern monetary theorists, who argue a sovereign state can never go bankrupt, because they can always issue money, are assuming it can be just plucked from the ether, overlook the fact that it is still a public debt.

        There are quite a few other fallacies built into our culture, such as equating ideals with absolutes, which runs through everything from monotheism to mathematical platonism(actually monotheism is a form of platonism), but this treatment of money as a commodity has created a bubble of social instability that is about to blow up and should be addressed. Personally I don’t have much of a voice in the public sphere and don’t like wasting effort when I wouldn’t be heard, so I just try to add to conversations going in the general direction.