In a recent column, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shows himself to be as good a spokesman for the world's elites (with whom he often communes) as anyone on Earth. He asks one simple question about Republican presidential candidate and billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump: How?
Friedman's column-length answer is a catalogue of Trump's puzzling views about NATO and ISIS, his poor command of the major issues, his contradictory statements and his strange embrace of tax avoidance.
What's missing, of course, is the centerpiece of Trump's appeal: his criticism of major trade deals which have devastated entire industries in the United States and destroyed the middle-class jobs that go with them. To the defenders of globalism--and Friedman is one of globalism's fiercest defenders--Trump's criticism is nothing short of heresy.
But the billionaire's bluster embodies the anger that people affected by those deals feel every day. Not a few of them have previously been consistent Democratic voters. Of course, there are plenty of Republicans who are voting for Trump because he is the party's candidate. And, there are plenty of evangelicals and so-called "values voters" supporting him (despite his profligate ways) because his party has traditionally opposed abortion, supported prayer in schools, and fought same-sex marriage.
But disaffected, downwardly mobile American workers are the ones keeping the race very close, a race that few thought would ever be close just a few weeks ago. So strong is the fear of globalism and all that it represents among a certain class of Trump supporters that they readily dismiss mainstream media critiques of his fitness for office and his understanding of policy. Those supporters want to protect what little they have left. And, some want to go back to retrieve what they and their communities--often small and rural ones--have lost to the globalist onslaught in the last two decades. In this desire they are not being irrational.
Now here's the dirty secret about the top four U.S. presidential candidates who regularly appear in national polls. None of them actually rejects globalism. (I'll come back to this later.) At this point I'm finally obliged to say what I mean by the amorphous term "globalism." A friend recently put it into historical perspective and included the resource angle that regular readers must have already suspected I would mention.
With the discovery and then exploitation of fossil fuels on an ever growing scale, societies everywhere were faced with figuring out how to govern a world with ever increasing energy surpluses. Those surpluses made so many new things possible and in doing so led to rapid social and technological change.
We tried laissez-faire capitalism, communism, fascism, democratic socialism and finally globalism which I'll define as the management of worldwide economic activity and growth by large multi-national corporations which have no particular allegiance to any one country or people. Our belief has been that this arrangement is the most rational and efficient. Therefore, trade deals which bring down barriers both to international trade and to the movement of capital and technology across borders are believed to encourage global economic growth. That growth supposedly will ultimately lift the world's poor into the middle class and enrich everyone else while doing it.
Around the time that the fall of communism made possible the uniting of the world's economies into one great global system, we were also discovering that this system was doomed to failure for environmental reasons. Climate scientist James Hansen's testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1988 presaged the many "thousand-year floods" which are hitting the United States and other places around the world, and that is just one of the many emerging and dangerous consequences of climate change. And, climate change is just one of a thicket of interrelated threats including resource depletion, pollution and overuse of groundwater, ocean pollution, overfishing, soil degradation, and toxic pollutants in the air, water and soil.
Contrary to what the apologists for globalism suggest, scale actually matters. One million humans living as we do today would not likely undermine the habitability of the planet, for humans at least. When 7 billion live in this way, our combined effect has made us the dominant force on the planet so much so that we have created a new geologic age named after us: the Anthropocene.
It is now clear that globalism as an engine for an ever growing world economy will lead to catastrophic climate change and other untoward results that will destroy the underpinnings of modern society. In other words, globalism is a suicide pact.
The idea that we can expand globalism to any size we choose was discredited long before now. One version of this fantasy was that the Earth would be able to accommodate U.S.-style consumerism worldwide. But we know that if all residents of the planet consumed like Americans, we would need four Earths to sustain them. Therefore, the destination offered by globalism no longer features prosperity and stability for all, but a ruinous decline. And yet, our politics and our public discourse speak as if we can still go there.
Trump in his rejection of current trade treaties is saying that we need to go back to something else. He says he wants to "make America great again," which, of course, means America's greatness is somewhere in the past. As another friend quipped, implied in Trump's platform is the idea that we can get into a time machine and go back to a past that is more to our liking.
So, it's no surprise that Trump's critics are saying he is backward-looking. The future, those critics say, is an ever more connected global society. But, in such a discussion we are left with only two destinations: We can try to go back to a past which we cannot hope to reconstruct and which, even if we could, would send us in a direction which is considered the opposite of progress.
Or, we can go forward toward globalism's dream of a connected worldwide sphere of material prosperity (and the inevitable ruin this trajectory implies). In our broad public discourse there is no third non-globalism destination for which we have a description and a justification because any such attempt at describing that destination is labeled backward-looking, as merely going back to the past. And, who wants to be accused of that? The accusation tends to end the discussion.
In truth, Trump is not actually proposing a retrograde movement. He merely proposes to renegotiate America's trade deals. That means he embraces the globalist system whether he admits it or not. Hillary Clinton has now said she will oppose the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And, she has supposedly told one union leader she will reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. She, too, continues to embrace globalism, merely wishing to alter its terms.
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wants to lay the groundwork for "massive job growth across the entire country." He believes in reducing regulation to encourage that growth. And, he believes in free trade which is a codeword for embracing globalism.
Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, has a lot in her platform that working people should like. But her call for increased spending on renewable energy, drastic cuts in defense spending and broader protection of human rights probably won't go down well with many whites whose jobs depend on the old fossil-fuel-burning industrial economy, who think military spending is synonymous with security, and who perceive non-whites as competitors in the job market.
Like Trump, Stein would replace current trade deals with new ones that are "fair." Again, we have no explicit rejection of globalism as a system. We will somehow survive that system if only we embrace the "Green New Deal" plan which she proposes.
Bernie Sanders, Clinton's opponent in the Democratic primary, sounds a lot like Stein. He would mitigate the worst aspects of globalism without really challenging its legitimacy. But Sanders did something which Clinton by temperament could not or by choice would not do. Like Trump, Sanders embodied the anger of those injured by globalism.
This is why he consistently polled higher than Clinton in one-to-one matchups with Trump. (Compare Sanders' and Clinton's polling numbers.) Sanders was the candidate who not only displayed his anger at globalism, but also (unlike Trump) had a detailed plan for addressing it. That plan appealed to many Trump voters who could not register that appeal when asked about a Clinton-Trump matchup. But they could register their approval when asked about a Sanders-Trump contest, and they account for Sanders' runaway margins in polls which show him attracting voters who would otherwise support Trump in a contest with Clinton.
It would be political suicide for any serious candidate for the presidency of the United States to announce that economic growth as we know it is over and that we will have to organize our society based on other principles. Just what those principles might be has been articulated by such people as Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists. But then, Daly isn't running for anything.
Even though the idea of a steady-state economy may seem utterly foreign to us after 200 years of unprecedented economic growth, it has become a lived reality for many since even before the 2008 financial crash.
Critical to how we proceed is to understand what is actually slowing down economic growth. Climate change will certainly over time become a huge detriment to economic activity and, if unchecked, is likely to disrupt our modern technical society to such a degree (particularly when it comes to growing food) that it will not survive intact.
Many of the theories about slow growth revolve around financial and demographic constraints. What needs to become part of the discussion are energy limits (see here and here) and pollution limits, particularly on greenhouse gases.
We are now waiting for our politics to catch up to this reality. Donald Trump, the exit of Great Britain from the European Union, and threat of exit by movements in Italy, Greece and Spain, all point to the same problem. Globalism as a system has no future. The pain it has inflicted so far has been on the middle and lower classes. At some point, that pain will spread to the highest reaches of society. Will we have to wait for that in order to get definitive movement toward a third destination?
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse pondered our predicament. Elites in past societies that have collapsed insulated themselves from the consequences of environmental and resource constraints so that they perceived no need for drastic changes.
If Thomas Friedman's column represents the thinking of today's elites, then they are truly well-insulated. Even Friedman who is more broadly informed and nuanced in his thinking shows how he himself is insulated when he writes that "income gaps are actually narrowing, wages are rising and poverty is easing." A minor beneficial move in the statistics after so many years of moves in the opposite direction is hardly the stuff that matters to people who are hurting.
The elites and Friedman can't understand Trump's appeal because they don't have much contact with those who are suffering from globalism's many side-effects. Whether or not Trump actually understands those injured by globalism, he successfully embodies their rage. And, it is that rage which is propelling his campaign to the amazement of elites out of touch with America's middle and lower classes.
Unfortunately, the answer to globalism's dead end cannot be found in the current U.S. presidential campaign. But the loud cries of its victims are audible to all those who are willing to hear them. And those victims may end up deciding who will be America's next president.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.