Monday, January 13, 2014

Will Nature, Young People and Future Generations Forgive Us?

   By Jay - Ottawa

 Earth scientists have documented five mass extinctions.  In simple terms extinction works like this: A new world blooms, life flourishes for a while, a fatal problem develops and most of that epoch’s creatures are wiped out.  Forever.  Sometimes the die off is swift, sometimes slow but relentless.

 Despite a handful of extinctions, Earth hasn’t turned into a Moon or a Mars.  The vital spark has survived –– so far –– through a few small, base creatures who survive one epoch to reanimate another world full of life –– but always a new world that never quite replicates the flora and fauna of the previous epoch.  Humans should take note: after a mass extinction, millions of years go by in recovery before the Earth is inherited by different plant specimens and a different zoo of creatures.  For most vertebrates –– and that would include the complex, high maintenance human race –– there is no second chance of a comeback post extinction, anymore than there was for the dinosaurs.  If the number of a species is reduced to zero by a mass extinction, too bad.  One chance per species per epoch seems to be the rule.

 In geological circles the most profound mass extinction was the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, also known as “The Great Dying.”  It began a little over 250 million years ago and unwound very slowly over the course of 80,000 years.  By the time it bottomed out, 95% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate species were gone.1

The trigger for the Great Dying was not the impact of a big comet but rising global temperatures.  It took about ten million years after Permian for the Earth to recover its healthy equilibrium for the evolution of new life in abundance. 

Ancestors of the human race emerged around 1.8 million years ago in the Pleistocene Era of the Quaternary Period.  Around 200,000 years ago, evolution gave rise to homo sapiens and, today, we humans number 7 billion.  Since the Industrial Revolution, the human race has rapidly developed the means to speed up its own encounter with extinction –– either through the exchange of nuclear blasts in a war to end all wars or through the insatiable pursuit of abundance during times of peace.  Nuclear winter or global warming, take your pick.  Either calamity would set up another Great Dying, our own.

Earth scientists have begun sounding alarms in their journals.  Our immediate descendants, they say, are at risk of a lifetime of hardship followed by the extinction of our species.  Once the buildup to extinction approaches a tipping point, there will be too little time to take radical corrective action on a global scale.  Furthermore, the environment is so complex it is impossible to know at exactly what level of environmental stress runaway cascades will take over and bring us to the point of “game over.” 

What do we care about the past five extinction events?  Well, it seems “[w]e are currently in the midst of what most scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ extinction rate.”2  This time our human race and the other creatures of our garden world are on the line.  Nevertheless, denial statements abound.  A sampling:

“Climate change is a hoax.”

“The market place will make necessary adjustments in time.”

“It’s absurd to think the human race will be included along with                          the extinction off lesser creatures.”

“Fossil fuels are indispensable: they create jobs and support
 our standard of living.”

 “Maybe we should do something, but nothing too radical and abrupt."

  If you suppose people who dismiss climate change are misinformed and short sighted, you’re right.  It may come as no surprise to learn that political leaders are often beholden to special interests, not the long-term interests of the larger society.  Governments around the globe are presently doing tepid little things, or nothing, in response to alarms about environmental disaster.  In fact, most advanced countries are doing worse than nothing by implementing policies that are totally in agreement with climate change deniers.  It is time we hold our political class accountable to insure that government does not become the enemy of society.

 As NASA’s James Hansen reminds us, nations are aggressively facilitating activity that will intensify catastrophic climate change and hasten the next generation’s encounter with extinction scenarios:
 “Humans are now the main cause of changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus the drive for future climate change….   More than 170 nations have agreed on the need to limit fossil fuel emissions to avoid dangerous human-made climate change, as formalized in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.  However, the stark reality is that global emissions have accelerated and new efforts are underway to massively expand fossil fuel extraction by drilling to increasing ocean depths and into the Arctic, squeezing oil from tar sands and tar shale, hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas, developing exploitation of methane hydrates, and mining of coal via mountaintop removal….  The growth rate of fossil fuel emissions increased from 1.5%/year during 1980–2000 to 3%/year in 2000–2012, mainly because of increased coal use.”3

 Extreme global weather events are becoming more common and contributing to major problems.  Climate change  is severely stressing plant and animal life today.  Fresh water is more scarce today.  The health of the oceans is declining as they become more acid, anoxic and polluted and, because of rapid ice melt at the poles and higher elevations, the oceans are rising to levels endangering hundreds of millions of people living in coastal zones.  At this pace of environmental destruction, crop failures, displacement, famine and social chaos on a global scale could be upon us within decades.
 “Arctic sea ice end-of-summer minimum area, although variable from year to year, has plummeted by more than a third in the past few decades, at a faster rate than in most models, with the sea ice thickness declining a factor of four faster than simulated in … climate models.  The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets began to shed ice at a rate, now several hundred cubic kilometers per year, which is continuing to accelerate.  Mountain glaciers are receding rapidly all around the world with effects on seasonal freshwater availability of major rivers.
 The hot dry subtropical climate belts have expanded as the troposphere has warmed and the stratosphere cooled, contributing to increases in the area and intensity of drought and wildfires. The abundance of reef-building corals is decreasing at a rate of 0.5–2%/year, at least in part due to ocean warming and possibly ocean acidification caused by rising dissolved CO2. More than half of all wild species have shown significant changes in where they live and in the timing of major life events. Mega-heatwaves, such as those in Europe in 2003, the Moscow area in 2010, Texas and Oklahoma in 2011, Greenland in 2012, and Australia in 2013 have become more widespread with the increase demonstrably linked to global warming….  These growing climate impacts, many more rapid than anticipated and occurring while global warming is less than 1°C, imply that society should reassess what constitutes a ‘dangerous level’ of global warming.”4.
 Those of us who are old may not be stung too badly by climate change.  But a growing number of scientific papers indicate that young people –– the younger generation walking around now, our children and their children –– will be severely affected throughout their lives unless the massive contribution to global warming by the human race is reversed –– not slowed, not stopped, but reversed –– very soon.  Reversed before key indicators reach “tipping points,” which by definition are irreversible on the human timescale.  

To date, big corporations have not begun to reduce their contributions to plumes of CO2 and methane, which are being released into the already saturated atmosphere. “[C]arbon stays in the climate system for hundreds of thousands of years.  Thus fossil fuel carbon is the crucial human input that must be limited.”5

Dare we interrupt corporate CEOs busy in further saturating the environment with toxins and waste for the short-term benefit of their stockholders?  Dare we insist that political leaders work in the interests of society, and not so much in the interests of their backdoor paymasters in the corporate and financial world?  How much longer can we afford to stand on the sidelines waiting for someone else to take life-saving initiatives to protect the coming generation, not to mention the animal, plant and insect life on which we all depend?

 Now is the time to begin your “planet saving” lifestyle.  Plant fruit trees, recycle all you can, compost, install low wattage bulbs, use water twice: the water that washed your salad greens can then water your indoor plants; install rain barrels to catch rain water to water your garden; purchase local produce and avoid produce that requires shipping from other countries. 

It has been well documented that if all families around the world were to consume like a “frugal” American family, we would need the resources of three earths. If all the families of the world were to consume like a “typical” American family, we would need the resources six earths.6  Can there be any question that current levels of consumption in advanced economies are excessive and unsustainable?

Don‘t stand by waiting for Washington,  Peking or Paris to do the right thing.  It’s up to you to act with your neighbors.  Organizations near you are working responsibly to reverse suicidal corporate and government policies that are herding civilization down the path to extinction.  Get involved with an environmental effort,  like the anti-fracking movement,  and take responsible action to save what’s left of the Good Earth.  The human race is facing nothing less than an existential threat.  Intergenerational justice calls you to get involved now to save our young people, the children of their children and Nature itself.        


2 Dahr Jamail, “The Climate Change Score Card.”  Italics added.

3 Hansen J. et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of carbon emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature”

4 Hansen, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’”             

5 Hansen, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’”

6 The number of worlds needed to sustain consumption varies from source to source, depending on methodologies and timeframes.  A good place to begin comparing national footprints is here:


opit said...

Do you notice how much of this information relies on James Hansen and the IPCC ? Kindly note that, as the name states, it is an intergovernmental panel. That means it deals with policy desired to be promulgated internationally...and is a ( UN ) bureaucracy tasked with showing a connection between man's consumption of fossil fuel and global warming. Yet the models are innately unverifiable because they presume to prophesy, so there is great confusion and a 'range of possibilities' that does not conform to observed reality.
That by itself is not remarkable. A short timeline 'calculating' results of sparse readings on a short timeline of air temperatures on a water world subject to orbital variations and cycles, heated by its own nuclear furnace and cooled by evaporation into space has a complexity of unknown and unmeasured processes.
Such a view 'denies' only that 'science' has a verifiable handle on things. But the epithet is useful when alleging people believe only one thing or another.
That is false reporting which poisons the well to scientific methodology....contrast and compare. Contest ideas to see if they work. Anything else smacks of religion because there is no supporting argument.
Otherwise we would not see meteorologists needing to be smacked down and shut up.
Interesting thoughts. What is a 'global temperature ?' University of Guelph proposed that was an impossible calculation.
Species die off. As if mankinds' occupation of such a majority of the planetary surface and perverted unsustainable corporate 'agriculture' did not carry the seeds of its own destruction by reducing biodiversity.
One blog even acts as a site promoting concerns for ozone pollution as a stimulus for tree die off.
And there is the Nitrogen Cycle promoting dead zones in the oceans and lakes because of fertilizer stimulating algal growth.
I prefer to address things like lack of proper concern for drinking water preservation as risks to life.
The idea that adding more of a trace gas that stimulates plant growth to the air, combined with warming temperatures which should do the same, is a proposed existential threat borders on parody.

James F Traynor said...

Where the hell do you people come from?

Noodge said...

Don't worry about the earth. It has an eternity to rid itself of the noxious parasite that is the human race. It will eventually recover from whatever it is we do to it. Sadly, this recovery probably won't include mountain gorillas, tigers, polar bears,and countless thousands of other species. But there will be new species one day, and I imagine they will be quite beautiful.

And since humans are smart enough to build things capable of destroying the ecosystem, but are also too stupid to understand that humans can't exist independent of that ecosystem, we probably won't be around to see those new species.

For which I'm sure they'll be grateful.

Will said...

Another amazing guest post, Jay. (Footnotes! Damn, you're good.) The notion that we're already on our way to Mass Extinction Event #6 just makes my little heart smile. (Maybe the 6th time is the charm!) I'm also a big fan of Noodge's remarks here. (No comment yet on Opit's contribution; I'm waiting for my splitting headache to settle down.) They reminded me of this classic George Carlin video:

annenigma said...

Well, since Nature schedules these mass extinctions anyway, what's one more that is sped up by man? My take on human nature is that the rich will continue to poison the earth for profits while developing ways to colonize other planets where they will repeat the process. Trash Heap Earth will be for those of us who can't afford the ticket out of here. Hey, they'll need servants on those planets, so affordable tickets will be available for the rest of us eventually.

So save your money for a one-way ticket on Noah II and start collecting a few of Nature's gifts by the twos - while they're still around - to take along.

We are going back from whence we came. Not the oceans but stardust.

Good guest post Jay.

Jay - Ottawa said...

It’s not my place to respond to ‘opit’ –– so I’ll try not to. My piece along with his is for others to think about. If you link to the Hansen paper on some sites, you can read a long debate (now six months old) between climate deniers and their opposite number. No need to re-invent that wheel over and over.

Opit may be sincere. I clicked on his moniker and began –– hours and hours ago –– to view the blog roll on his site. He certainly stays abreast of the news: I’m still scrolling…. (Sardonicky listed there, too.)

Be aware that skepticism about Hansen comes from the Green side as well. In the paper referenced, and long before that in his publications and public talks (TED), Hansen is unapologetically for an expansion of nuclear power (the newer, smaller, safer plants, of course) as a preferred substitute to the world’s present reliance on fossil-based energy sources. Fossil fuels and their waste products, it is argued, have killed and incapacitated many more humans than nuclear power plants and their waste products. Sounds counterintuitive to me, at first. Is this THE FLAW!!! of an environmental hero or a truth to which Greens should at very least study further to learn how Hansen arrives at that surprising conclusion. So far as I know, he is not a stealth lobbyist for the nuclear industry.

Sorry to be so stuffy as to unfashionably flash footnotes, but I don’t know how to highlight a word or phrase (the way Karen does) that links to a source that ought to be credited. As for George Carlin, that’s another great clip. Seems like there are two kinds of people in the world, right? Those who tell you the truth and frown; and those who tell you the truth and smile. You may be in agreement, I suspect, that some foundation should send that vast library of humorous clips you have in your cellar to the same temperature-controlled Doomsday Vault in Norway that is now securing natural seed species for the next wave of thinking creatures to inherit the earth. Creatures who come after the Sixth Extinction should have both natural seeds and George Carlin to give them a good start in their world, not just to end it.

(I AM smiling!)

Zee said...

@Jay (and @All)--

I hope that you will take some solace from the fact that Mrs. Zee and I are already doing some of the things that you recommend to avoid the extinction of the human race.

I don't plant fruit trees, because (1) at my altitude, they provide a crop at best once in every five years, (2) they are water-intensive in our high-desert climate, and (3) require intensive fertilization and insect-intervention in my weathered-granite, so-called, “soil.” However, my front and back yards are xeriscaped, meaning that the few plants use very little water and provide just enough greenery that we can sit in our back yard on a summer evening and enjoy the view of the mountains over more than just gravel. We often water our one, lonely, indoor plant with water left over from our gym water bottles, if there's any left. We don't have any barrels to collect rain water as we get only 9.45” annually, with peaks of about 1.5-1.6” in July and August; it would be just too much physical risk to my injured back to get that little bit of water from the barrels to our xeric plants.

I ride my fuel-efficient motorcycle on every errand or short trip that I can in order to conserve fuel in our mass-transit-unfriendly urban setting—mostly because I enjoy it. And we do our best to conserve on electricity, setting our air-conditioning/heating high in the summer (78°F) and low (67°F) in the winter.

I'm not motivated enough to gather the data and do the calculation, but I'm not sure it's worth the “carbon-footprint-savings” to drive down to the South Valley from the Foothills, where I live, to buy local vegetables; still, occasionally we make the trip when we hear that summer squash and real tomatos are in.

And, now that we have our “no-sort” recycling bin, we recycle every scrap that we can. And yes, we are steadily replacing our incandescent light bulbs with more energy efficient ones, though the Hg is a pain.

So what else could/should we do? And will it matter anyway?

According to some scientists, we may have passed the “global warming tipping point” back in 2005, in which case our goose is already cooked.

More recent analyses suggest that we will approach the tipping point in 2020—a scant six years away—and find ourselves past the point of no return by 2047.

Could the world's fractious nations pull their socks up in time to halt global warming and save the planet in 33 years, assuming that the more recent prediction is true?

As if global warming weren't enough to worry about, we've recently learned that the magma pool beneath Yellowstone National Park is twice as large in volume than was previously thought, and that it could blow its top without any geophysical warning.

According to scientists, billions of humans might perish in that event and there is no preventive remedy for it at this time.

And, of course, there's always the possibility of a biggish, rogue asteroid winging our way without NASA noticing it, and ending the human race. Assuming that such an asteroid were detected early enough it might be possible to deflect its course, but I know of no real efforts to develop and prove such technology at this time.

The long and the short of it is that the human race could be—maybe already has been —overtaken by events with less than a moment's notice.

I've remarked before that 98% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct.

Why should we be special?

Zee said...


Thanks for the link to the George Carlin segment. I, too, am smiling.

Had I listened to Carlin before I made my initial comment, I could have saved myself a whole lot of time merely by writing

"Ditto what Carlin said!"

Truly, a man ahead of his time.

Zee said...


Actually, the Earth has only about 5 billion years or so of life left. Somewhere about that time, astronomers and astrophysicists believe our Sun will evolve into a red giant, expand, and engulf the Solar System.

Scroll down to the video "How the Sun Will Die (and What Happens to Earth)" to see our end as stardust.

One way or another, I expect humankind to have long since departed Earth by the time that happens.

annenigma said...


Thanks Yuk Yuk. I could have saved myself some typing too if I had seen that Carlin piece first. He was soooo great! My sentiments exactly, and a hearty good laugh.

Zee said...


As you remark in one of your subsequent comments,

"Hansen is unapologetically for an expansion of nuclear power (the newer, smaller, safer plants, of course) as a preferred substitute to the world’s present reliance on fossil-based energy sources."

You go on to intimate that this could be Hansen's Shakespearian "fatal flaw," and fret that he might be a shill for the nuclear power industry.

Well, there is a fine tradition of other Greens going over to the Dark Side, viz., daring to support nuclear energy when faced with the possible calamities associated with global warming.

Here's a random, quick, and uncritical sampling:

Among those “Eco-Judas's” who have turned traitor and become advocates for nuclear energy as a partial solution to anthropogenic global warming?

George Monbiot, Patrick Moore (a co-founder of GreenPeace), Stephen Tindale (a former director of GreenPeace), scientist James Lovelock (father of the Gaia theory), Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog,) and Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel), and I'm sure the list goes on.

Surely they are not all in thrall to the nuclear power industry?

Perhaps nuclear power is an idea whose time—once again—has come, albeit in a smaller and more “controllable” form.

@The Doktor--

Would you care to refresh our collective Sardonickista memory on thorium reactors?

Noodge said...

Zee: Five billion years counts as an eternity to me. After all, life has existed on earth for "only" about 3.5 billion years, and the earth has been circling the sun for about 4.6 billion years. We're less than halfway there.

Primates have been around for only about 60 million years, and humans as we know them have occupied the earth for only a couple hundred thousand.

So we could start all over again from scratch, life-wise, and still have plenty of time. The earth will shrug us off pretty easily.

Zee said...


You're right, of course. The Earth could "do life" all over again with time to spare before the Final Solar Conflagration.

However, my guess is that Earth will start over again--intelligent-life-wise--with a leg up.

Short of an asteroid shattering Earth into atmosphere-free, itty-bitty pieces that fly off into the infinite, some species will survive.

The cockroach, for instance, has been around since the Carboniferous Period, 354–295 million years ago.

Thus, it has survived at least three mass extinctions,

and, IMHO, could probably survive a nuclear holocaust, too.

So what follows us should be, well, interesting.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

A fine post @Jay - Ottawa, and some fine comments from the readers here.

But I want to bring up a somewhat contrarian view.

This is not a contrarian view about the enormity of the problem; as someone with a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, I'm well aware of what humanity and the other species of this planet are facing. The impact of humans has been enormously altering and destructive --- and will grow much worse. (And I'm old enough to be personally aware of some of the many adverse (as well as the occasional positive) changes that have occured. There are countless places that I remember well from years ago, natural or semi-natural then, but now highly developed with little regard for other species or even for the psychological connections to nature that are enormously beneficial to man.)

My contrarian view echoes that expressed by Alexander Cockburn in an old one-page piece in The Nation, (Dec. 17, 2007, for those of you with access) "The Dialectics of Revolution… Uh, Recycling". He contrasts the mood in a gathering two years prior (to his 2007 piece) with that on view at the "Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation", held in north London in July 1967.

From Cockburn's piece:

"What seemed to seize the crowds at the Battle of Ideas forty years later were not grand visionary sweeps, like those of
Marcuse --— history has sidelined these for the nonce —-- but deflations of what one may term rhetorical, politically correct 'mini-progressivism.'" ... . Cockburn describes the presentation from Julia Hailes, "'sustainability consultant' to companies such as Marks & Spencer and Shell [...]. Recycling, she chirped, made her feel good. [...] They [Hailes and others] didn’t carry the crowd. [...] Mind you, this wasn’t a mob of heehaw Limbaugh-type reactionaries, deriding all collective social efforts to improve the planet. In this and other sessions, their indignation stemmed from a sense that along the road from the grand visions of ’67 to the pious sustainability mantras and globe-survivalist waffle of our own phase, the vision of human liberation expressed by Marcuse had collapsed into variants of resource management and nannyism, with irksome rules and protocols, none of which had anything to do with onslaughts on capitalist ownership and control."

Like Cockburn, I'm concerned that we're ignoring the elephant in the room.

annenigma said...

Well there goes the EU, the last best hope for the environmental movement. They were doing so well too.

'Green Fade Out: Europe to Ditch Climate Protection Goals'

Noodge said...

This is off-topic, and I really am loathe to bring up a topic that has been cause for a great deal of contention around these pages, but I couldn't let Thomas Friedman's latest POS pass without saying something.

First of all, let me say that I am a strong supporter of Israel, their right to exist, and their right to occupy the lands they have held since 1966.

But Friedman's apologia for Sharon was too much, even for him.

Friedman tells us that the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, the invasion of Lebanon, and Intifadas one and two "seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power," and that this explained later unilateral move out of Gaza. Friedman tells us Sharon would have similarly moved out the West Bank had he not had a stroke.

Meh. Whatever.

There is simply no getting around the fact that Sharon ordered his troops to stand aside while his proxies perpetrated the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. And they stood aside even though they knew it was happening. That atrocity is on his head, and nothing he did later in life was ever even close to being enough to wash that blood from his hands.

Arik Sharon is dead. Maybe he came to see the error of his ways before he passed, but his errors were so great that he doesn't deserve a pass from us, even (especially) those of us who care deeply for Israel and its survival.

jf said...


Fred Drumlevitch said...


I agree. The Sabra/Shatila massacres were, and remain, indefensible. Doubly so, because of what Jews were themselves the victims of in the Holocaust. And also as a general principle I agree that actions (or inactions) of a sufficiently bad nature cannot be washed away by subsequent positive ones. However much a person, a newspaperman' apologia, or even a societal or religious philosophy may wish it, neither "Amazing Grace" nor fifteen "Hail Marys" nor any Jewish equivalent, nor any positive acts, can effect redemption for certain sins, whether of commission or omission.

Zee said...


I'll probably stick my foot in it in several ways by asking this question, but, as always, I'm curious.

What little I know about Alexander Cockburn and Herbert Marcuse I have gleaned from recently-read Wikipedia articles. I gather that Marcuse, in particular was a long-time, highly respected, Left-Wing social and political thinker on the grand scale—and I don't mean “grand scale” in any pejorative sense. He was a deep and serious thinker.

As nearly as I can tell, what Cockburn was bemoaning in his 2007 piece in The Nation was the absence of any “grand visionary” thinking à la Marcuse at a 2005 meeting of the Left, as compared to that exhibited at the 1967 meeting, “Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation.”

I know that theorists on the Left have identified the seventies as a period in which both the Democratic Party and the sixties “movement:”

“... fragmented into the "new social movements" which included feminist, black liberation, gay and lesbian, and peace and environmental groups, each fighting for their own interests (e.g., blacks saw the emerging environmental movement in the late 1960s as a bourgeois diversion from civil rights struggles, and environmentalists emphasized wilderness issues while ignoring problems of urban pollution). By the 1980s and 1990s, as the Balkanization process continued, the "new social movements" had become transformed into "identity politics," the very name suggesting a turn away from general social, political, and economic issues toward concerns with culture and personal identity.” --Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Politics and the Battle for the Future

I presume that this fragmentation—and corresponding reduction in breadth and depth—of Left-Wing thought at the 2005 meeting was what Cockburn was criticizing with the sarcastic title of his 2007 article, “The Dialectics of Revolution… Uh, Recycling?”

This brings me, the long way 'round, to finally asking my question: Is your “elephant in to room” the perception of an absence of any real, broadly-proliferated Left-Wing thought today?

Fred Drumlevitch said...


No, you're not "sticking [your] foot in it by asking [the] question" — and in any event, one shouldn't be embarrassed by asking a question. Though I'm probably not the best person to ask, my background, like yours, being in the sciences and it being only in recent years that I've started to do any significant reading in history, politics, and related areas. Marcuse is not someone I've yet read, and my acquaintance with his philosophy is currently only superficial.

But I think you've got a good handle on some of the issues.

Yes, "what Cockburn was bemoaning in his 2007 piece in The Nation was the absence of any 'grand visionary' thinking à la Marcuse at a 2005 meeting of the Left, as compared to that exhibited at the 1967 meeting, 'Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation'.” And the "fragmentation" and "identity politics" of the intervening decades that you raised are important parts of it. When focus — and therefore also strategy — are "Balkanized", unity and therefore effectiveness suffer. Divided, the various opposition groups may not have been fully conquered, but they often weren't very effective.

But I think Cockburn also meant several things a bit more overarching.

First of all is the issue of whether an individual, often voluntarily-based strategy can adequately address great problems. This is particularly true when individual, selfish interests conflict with societal/communal ones. This is "the tragedy of the commons" issue. When changes are voluntary and individually-based, will they even happen?

(On the other hand, when changes are compelled, specific governmental overreach as well as more general over-enablement of governmental power may occur.

And voluntary or compelled, there can be issues of how equitably-applied are the changes requested or demanded, or whether they make sense at all or might have unintended consequences. Ethanol addition to gasoline is an example. When it was first proposed, I expressed opposition, because I thought it immoral to divert foodstuffs from bellies to vehicles.

Actually, "voluntary" may be a mischaracterization, particularly under conditions of modern political propaganda, manipulation, and pressure. Consider this from the Wikipedia entry for the U.S. journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann: "Early on Lippmann said the 'bewildered herd,' his way of referring to the masses, must be governed by 'a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.' This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as 'elites,' were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the 'omnicompetent citizen'." More contemporarily, Sheldon Wolin examines the modern political manipulations of a populace that erroneously believes itself to be in control.

Voluntary or compelled, or a mixture of both, things can go horribly wrong. The historian Peter Fritzsche, in his "Life and Death in the Third Reich", documents how the rise and early actions of the Nazi regime had large amounts of genuine voluntary public support (as well as manipulation, and later, compelling, of that public).)

Secondly, I think Cockburn was referring to the tendency of modern political movements to target proximate problems or secondary causation rather than the ultimate ones. Environmental degradation, for example, is indeed a big problem. But if it's ultimately traceable (in large part) to unfettered capitalism, and the latter isn't addressed, will it ever be solved?

My "elephant in the room" reference was more about this second issue, but the fragmentation issue you raised is certainly important — and a good reason why those who don't like current conditions should listen to and support each other politically as much as possible.