No one exploits America’s weaknesses more than Madison Avenue and the corporations

Imagine Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition playing in the background. For purely experimental purposes, what famous paintings would you choose to depict the fate of American society since the Clinton-Bush administrations, a dissolution that has worsened considerably over the past ten or fifteen years? For isolation and solitude there is the work of Edward Hopper, perhaps even Christina’s World, Master Bedroom or Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea. It all depends on the state of mind and the interpretation. Perhaps you draw parallels between the current bloodshed in Europe with Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Disasters of War. Reflecting on centuries of domestic violence, sexism and gender-based wage disparities, some women might include Caravaggio’s depiction of Judith and Abra beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. The longer our country allows such inequality, the less women will resist the urge, as Raymond Chandler opened in his noir classic “Red Wind,” to “feel the edge of their carving knives and study the neck of their husbands”. But even if you live where the hot Santa Anas descend through mountain passes making “your nerves jump and your skin itch,” please rely only on artistic depictions and do not practice Caravaggio’s graphic images.

Four paintings immediately come to mind: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel, described in ekphrastic poems by William Carlos Williams and WH Auden, The Nightjars by Edward Hopper, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer and the triptych from Hieronymus Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights. Perhaps it’s their portrayals of gloom and impending doom that seem apt. Several times over the years I have been mesmerized by Nighthawks and the Gulf Stream at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. But the four works symbolize one aspect of America’s converging crises and impending perils, whether it’s climate change and COVID vaccine denials (still 30% of the population) or entrenched radicalism and the fads of firearms turning fractured and isolated loners into mass murderers. In the age of digital communication, they display the ironic estrangement of our times, juxtaposing our obsessions with “self,” our inability to recognize the obvious; our flight from moral imperatives. This is an exhibition where debauchery, violence and greed are prices considered too high to pay for the protection of the environment, biodiversity and lives ─ a nocturnal gallery of imaginary ambiguities, where the truth gets tangled in a barbed wire no man’s land of misinformation, false narratives and lies.

Like Bruegel’s plowman, shepherd, and fisherman, we do our work oblivious to the problems of others, engaged in self-deception; deny the fallout of how and what we decide. Take, for example, the recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa, Furman, South Carolina and Oxford, Michigan. Thirty-two percent of the population owns more than 400 million firearms. The Gun Violence Archive has tracked over 690 mass shootings in the United States (defined as 4 or more victims) in less than a decade; 225 so far this year. In the past two weeks, there have been 30 such killings, some in schools, convenience stores and hospitals. Last weekend alone, mass shootings took place in 10 different states. Far fewer gun kills, usually just one large-scale one, have forced New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries to enact laws and strict bans on guns, all of which have mitigated gun violence. Here we perpetuate the mass shootings by lighting candles and saying prayers to supernatural entities that either don’t exist or are indifferent to suffering. Forty percent of all guns in the world are owned by Americans, of whom 5% or more, according to psychologists, are sociopaths. When our citizens are polled, a large majority approves of mandatory background checks, the expansion of “red flags,” the limitation of gun clips and loaders, and a total ban on assault weapons. Politicians, meanwhile, are taking money from gun lobbyists and churning out the archaic 2nd Amendment. US gun advocacy groups spend more than 5 times as much money as gun control supporters to “influence” Congress and state legislatures. Result: the random killings continue. To put the situation in British terms, the country is bent.

From gun sales to fossil fuel sales, no one exploits America’s weaknesses more than Madison Avenue and corporations. In late April, Chevron and ExxonMobil reported record first-quarter 2022 profits, prompting calls to impose windfall taxes on US-based companies. Big Oil has undoubtedly used the war in Ukraine to drive up gasoline and fuel oil prices and push for unnecessary expansion in drilling and pipeline construction. America’s oil giants are not only guilty of manipulating production to limit price increases, but their decades-long role in expanding Russian oil and gas production helped sustain Putin’s invasion. Moreover, the global dependence on this oil continues to undermine unilateral boycotts, embargoes and sanctions against Moscow. The EU’s recent halt to most of its Russian oil and natural gas imports is exemplary; the overwhelming support of its citizens for the measure is even more so.

Compared to the same period last year, Chevron’s profits quadrupled in the first quarter of 2022, climbing $6.3 billion. Exxon’s treasure chest has more than doubled, a jump of $5.5 billion, even though the company recently ceased operations with Russia. After that PR move, Exxon then used some of its windfall to reward shareholders and Wall Street speculators, tripling its stock buyback program to $30 billion. In a nutshell, major U.S. oil producers fixed production costs while market prices soared due to increased post-pandemic demand, replenished oil inventories (resulting in less extraction and refinery) and the war in Europe. Big Oil’s profits are the result of rising prices at the pump and not, as some are fooled to believe, government restrictions on drilling and pipeline expansion to curb climate change. To combat these profits, progressive lawmakers have proposed a windfall tax assessed at 50% of the difference between current oil prices per barrel and the pre-pandemic average price from 2015 to 2019. Revenues from the tax will be paid to US consumers in the form of quarterly refunds. Also, I’d like to see the government take some of that money and drill oil in one or two of the existing leased spots that Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and other companies haven’t used. Then the feds could set up a few non-profit public option gas stations, just to show our citizens what a gallon of gas would cost without predatory profits and enriching CEOs and shareholders. If I were president, I would do it very well.

In my next column, I will share some of my thoughts on expanded responsibilities in a world that is much more interconnected than ever and how global economies are expanding the impacts of our actions like ripples in a pond. Evidence of such harm, often the result of intensive and complicated studies, sometimes takes years to catch up with our power to effect change. The threats to endangered snail stingers, posed by the Tellico (Little Tennessee River) Dam Project in 1973, were not fully appreciated when Tellico Reservoir was first considered. The reservoir would alter the habitat of the river to the point of killing the last known population of endangered fish (Percina tanasi). Congress, by taking a stand in the House and Senate against stopping the project, put the entire species at risk of extinction, thereby violating the Endangered Species Act (NEPA). Although the Supreme Court upheld snail stinger protection under NEPA, Congress narrowly passed a bill in 1979 that exempted the Tellico Dam from the onerous law that President Jimmy Carter finally signed. Fortunately, by the time the reservoir flooding began on November 29, 1979, large numbers of snails had been successfully “transplanted” into Tennessee’s Hiwassee River, where the species has so far avoided extinction. .

It’s time to escape those mythologized 15th century illusions dreamed up by Hieronymus Bosch of an unsustainable and short-sighted gluttony without awareness of the consequences. When knowledge eventually catches up with our power to hurt or destroy, moral obligations become clear and inescapable. This has been the case with anthropogenic climate change at least since the 1980s. The greenhouse effect was postulated 200 years ago by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. The many decades of very rigorous and comprehensive data collection and analysis that followed have converted the complexity of global warming into a single clarifying moral responsibility. We humans, as the primary agents of climate change, need to do something about it, and fast. Countless lives, human and non-human, depend on us, from desert tortoises and Joshua trees in the American Southwest to pikas on the Rocky Mountain “escalator to extinction”, driven by the rising temperatures to America’s highest peaks. People are constantly taking drugs because materialism, a byproduct of reckless capitalism and political incompetence, has created a toxic culture of stress and alienation that stands in our way. Socially and ecologically vulnerable, especially minorities and low-income groups, we are the allegorical figure of Winslow Homer at the mercy of the elements, adrift on stormy seas of hungry sharks and waterspouts.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, environmentalist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.

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