Most of this web site has been apolitical. Dialectics applies to
everything, so there is no need to use political examples of dialectical
processes. In fact, I have consciously avoided political examples because
they can be so controversial.
However, one of the strengths of dialectics is that it is an analytical tool
that helps clarify political forces and the need for alliances and
broad strategies. If our goal is to improve human conditions, we should use
every tool at our disposal. So let's see where an analysis of the contradictions facing
humanity leads us. As always, I welcome your comments at
Identifying a principal contradiction requires defining a goal. What should our
goals as a society be? Addressing basic human needs of health, jobs, housing,
and social services
(education, transportation, water, sanitation, etc.) are pretty obvious starters.
Meeting these needs takes, and will take, a lot of hard work, human ingenuity
and organization. For example, providing clean water is a huge issue all
around the world that involves scientists, engineers, technicians, construction
and maintenance workers, politicians, and the cooperation of all the citizenry
of a region. As another example, providing a nutritious food supply
is extremely complicated, involving nature's obstacles such as droughts and
freezes, human short-sightedness such as soil or aquifer depletion, and even
our instincts, which often tell us to eat foods that are not healthy--doughnuts anyone?
In addition the distribution of land and market economic forces often leave out the
poor. Without effective government action mass starvation is a serious
I think most people would agree that we human beings do have the ability to provide clean air, clean water, adequate food and shelter for everyone. The question is how to do it. There are difficult issues of overpopulation, urbanization, inadequate education, and poor public health and disease control, which have to be figured into the solutions. Unfortunately, the goal of meeting basic human needs has often been outweighed by powerful competing goals such as accumulating wealth and power by individuals.
To choose the principal contradiction facing society as a whole today, we have to select the main goal. Above all the goals already listed, I think that survival of the human race must be our number one goal. Given the objective of promoting human survival, I think the following three issues pose the most serious threats to the human race today.
1. Nuclear war - from the standpoint of survival, the
greatest immediate danger to the human race is nuclear annihilation. The end
of the cold war offerred an opportunity to dismantle nuclear weapons and abolish
them forever. Unfortunately, the U.S. has moved in the opposite direction by
abrogating the anti-ballistic missile treaty and aggressively pursuing the goal
of military supremacy through the star wars missile defense system. Such a
plan has only encouraged other countries to continue their nuclear weapons programs.
To me it is clear that nuclear war can only result in unthinkable human destruction,
without any winners. For more information on the nuclear threat contact the
Western States Legal Foundation or
Helen Caldicott's web site.
2. Global Warming/Greenhouse Effect -
In a very possible worst case scenario the
greenhouse effect could escalate in a runaway fashion and destroy all life on
earth. Short of that, there is the very high likelihood that global warming
will flood all major coastal cities within 100 years if combustion of fossil
fuels continues to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at its current rate.
How much do we need to cut carbon/CO2 discharges?
(note that 1 ton of carbon produces 3.67 tons
of CO2. Some reports refer to carbon and others to CO2, so be careful with the
According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center during the 150 years
from 1850 to 2000 CO2 in the atmosphere increased from 288 parts per million (ppm) to 369.5 ppm,
an increase of 81.5 ppm. Last year the world emitted 31.5 billion metric tons (one metric ton = 1000 kilograms = 2,205 pounds or
about 1.1 U.S. tons) of CO2 from fossil fuels and other non-biological activity
(breathing doesn't count).
The earth's ecosystem only absorbed 11 tons of that. The rest went
into the atmosphere and caused an increase in CO2 by about 2.5 ppm,
raising the level in the atmosphere to nearly 390 ppm.
How do we get the CO2 levels low enough so they do not threaten catastrophic climate change? The turning point where the polar ice caps will melt is
not certain, but James Hansen, the leading climate scientist at NASA, feels that 350
ppm is the safest goal. See 350.org
for more information
Stopping the build-up of CO2 means it is imperative that we reduce the world's carbon
discharge at least down to 11.0 billion tons-i.e. reducing from 31.5 billion tons to 11, a reduction
of 65%. However, that still won't be enough. For one thing this will not reduce the
currently too high CO2 levels. For another, the rate that earth absorbs CO2 depends
on the total CO2 discharged-i.e. with a lower discharge, the rate of absorption would be
less so the earth's natural "sinks"--oceans and forests--would still not absorb all the CO2.
So we need to go below 11 billion tons to bring the CO2 content down. Joseph Romm,
in his excellent book Hell and High Water, Harper Collins,
NY,2007, estimates that 8 billion tons of CO2-2.2 billion
tons of carbon--would be an appropriate goal. Also, we should increase our reforestation
efforts (or perhaps plankton stimulus) to increase the ability of earth to absorb the CO2.
So the answer appears to be that the world needs to go from 31.5 billion
tons CO2 (8.6 billion tons of carbon) per year to 8 billion tons-a 75% decrease.
How do we get there?--Carbon Diet
This is the part that oil and coal companies don't want to hear. With 6.7 billion people on earth, and a need to go to 8 billion tons of CO2 per year, we can discharge 1.2
tons of CO2 per person per year (8/6.7). Unfortunately, the U.S. currently produces about 20 tons of CO2 per person per
year. This means that the U.S. would have to reduce its CO2 production by
(20-1.2)/20 = 94% to reach the goal. But this must be a world wide effort--China
currently emits about 5 tons per person and Europe is emittting around 10 tons
so the whole world has to mobilize for this effort to virtually eliminate
fossil fuels from our lives.
The good news is that this is doable.
Consider that there are three major sources of CO2 --
1. Electricity production--this must be converted to solar, wind,
hydro, geothermal and other non-fossil fuel sources. The November, 2009 issue of Scientific
American magazine has a detailed proposal for this conversion, which has generated some heated
responses and comments.
2. Transportation--autos and trucks need to be plug-in hybrids or extended range electrics such as
the Chevy Volt. With the electricity generated by renewable sources, this will not create any CO2
for all short trips (say less than 40 miles round
trip). Longer trips would need to use biofuels for the non-electric part of
the trip. Or perhaps the quick change batteries proposed by Better Place can be standardized. See
Better Place battery switching technolgy
3. Food--sorry McDonalds, but hamburger produces way too much CO2 to be sustainable. Maybe the U.S. could pay India for the privilege of eating beef. India, or any country that goes under the 1.2 metric tons per person per year limit, should get a subsidy from those who go over.
Of course all of this is very complicated politically, especially in the U.S. where the public and elected officials are still is under the sway of the oil and coal companies' propaganda ("drill, baby, drill")
Still it is a battle that must be won. The only alternative is geo-engineering by putting sulphur-dioxide into the atmosphere, or some other such tinkering with the climate. But this is fraught with unpredictable consequences that could be just as deadly as global
warming. So by far the simplest course is to stop using fossil fuels for energy and transportation.
In his book, Carbon Wars, Jeremy Leggett points out that mining the
4,000 billion tons of coal, oil, and natural gas left on earth (3/4 of it coal)
would be "flirting with ecological catastrophe" (page 59). So we simply have to
leave most of it in the ground or commit planetary
suicide. Fortunately solar power and wind are sustainable alternative sources
of energy. Therefore, there is no reason for humanity to continue relying on
fossil fuels except for the short-sightedness of the oil industry and
the politicians they control.
Only an international campaign to go to electric/plug-in hybrid
autos, massive new building codes requiring conservation of energy, and generation of
electricity by renewable means can save us--will we act in time???
With the political will, the technology exists to build electric and plug-in cars,
to conserve energy in building (and to build cities in a more dense, transit/pedestrian/bicycle
oriented way), and to generate electricity by wind and solar.
There are other possible ecological disasters such as
destruction of the ozone layer, bioengineered epidemics,
a "silent spring" caused by pesticides, etc., but I think
climate change is the most critical at this time. For more information on these environmental
issues contact the Earth Policy Institute. Also, check out the film,
with Al Gore An Inconvenient Truth for more about the threat of
3. Rich vs. poor - Today the average incomes in developed countries are 37 times higher
than in developing countries according to the World Bank. Forty years ago the figure was 15 times higher. This would not be so worrisome if the poorer countries, and the poor within the U.S. for that matter, were increasing their incomes.
Unfortunately the trends are not in that direction. The World Bank defines absolute
poverty as less than $1 per day (don't ask me why--that seems awfully low to me).
According to their data, such poverty fell from 29.5% of the developing world's
population to 27.3% from 1987 to 1998 (excluding China where statistics are uncertain).
Most of the decline came in East Asia; in Latin America the poverty rate increased from
15.3% to 15.6% in the same period, an increase from 64 million to 78 million people. But
the absolute poverty line is misleading--there are over 2.8 billion people in the world
today living on less than $2 per day, which means they are barely at subsistence. This
is nearly half of the world's 6 billion people. And the poorest of the poor often don't
even make it into these official statistics.
Now it could be argued that many people live happily outside of the global economy.
They don't need refrigerators, cars, television, and other consumer goods. This is
undoubtedly true, but once people see the advantages of hot and cold running water,
a warm dry bed to sleep in, a variety of food to eat, television, the internet, etc.
it is doubtful that they will choose to live without these luxuries and conveniences.
Within the United States, the census bureau estimates that about 12% of the population
lives below the poverty line, about 20% of children and 25% of people over 65.
Of course, poverty level income in the U.S--$18,104 for a family of four--is a
small fortune compared to the World Bank's $1 per day for most of the world.
Nonetheless, the glaring disparity of poverty amidst wealth, coupled with
historic racial injustice, makes poverty in the U.S. just as volatile an
issue as it is in the developing world. If you are homeless and hungry it is no
consolation that you live in the wealthiest country on earth.
If the poor get poorer, or even stay the same, and the rich continue to get richer, the situation will become even more unstable than it already is. Programs of income redistribution such as progressive income taxes and genuine international development aid are needed to prevent an explosion of anger both in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Which is the Principal Contradiction?
On all of the issues listed above --nuclear weapons, global warming, and rich vs. poor--
the U.S. government stands as the main obstacle to progress. As noted,
the U.S. has overturned the anti-ballistic missile treaty and refused to sign the
climate change protocols. In September, 2002, U.S. President Bush openly declared that
the U.S. feels it has the right to launch aggressive, pre-emptive strikes--a clear violation
of the U.N. Charter, and he did, in fact, attack Iraq without justification in 2003,
and continues to occupy the country illegally, even with a new president.
In addition some of the unconscionable actions of the U.S. include:
Experimenting with biological weapons
Refusing to grant inspections of its chemical weapons
Opposing the International Criminal Court (1998)
Refusing to ratify the Land Mine Treaty (1997)
Conducting covert operations against foreign heads of state
Blocking the small arms treaty
Denying habeas corpus to prisoners on Guantanamo and other secret prisons
Promoting trade agreements that favor multi-national corporations at the expense
of indigenous people
I feel that this contradiction is the principal one--the U.S. vs. the rest of
the world. The mass demonstrations around the world in the face of the U.S. attack on
Iraq began forging a united peace movement, building its strength against the
U.S. war machine. Until we, i.e. the people of the U.S. and the world, get the U.S.
government to change its policies, the other contradictions cannot be resolved. It is
possible that, like other imperial powers in history, the U.S. will overextend
its reach and come to a catastrophic demise. Given the U.S. nuclear arsenal,
however, this could be a disaster for the whole world. I hope that those of us
who are intent on resolving the contradictions facing the world today are able
to peacefully turn the U.S. around, at least to where it accepts its responsibilities
as one member of a community of nations.
The U.S., with its educated population, technological creativity, its diversity
as home to a cross section of nationalities, and its history of democratic
participation could play a very positive role in a world with a truly federated
government, one which controls nuclear weapons, protects the environment
and ensures that all humans have their basic needs met.
There are some positive trends in the world. Nearly all of Latin America has
elected leaders opposed to the U.S. domination of that region. On the issue of climate
change the entire world seems willing to take serious action, if the U.S. will join the
effort. Fortunately, with the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 election, the U.S. now
has a president who at least pays lip service to the issues of nuclear disarmament,
global warming, and worldwide poverty. This is a big change from the Bush administration
which identified "terrorism" and "evil" as the
principal contradiction in the world (or "main enemy" as they would say). Such
priorities were a boldface reflection of the U.S. goal of maintaining hegemony
internationally. Accordingly, the U.S. has built its star wars program and military
arsenal, while continuing arms sales around the world. And, although Obama is a breath of
fresh air compared to Bush, he has made no significant change in the neoliberal economic
policies which have led to the current worldwide economic depression. These policies have not
reduced poverty and the neoliberal policies oppose trade unions,
environmental controls, and other regulatory reforms necessary to improve the quality of
life around the world.
Therefore, the task remains to build a united movement for peace, for eliminating the use of fossil fuels,
and for creating social justice. The challenge is enormous, but so are the stakes. Failure to
resolve these contradictions could well prove suicidal for the human race.
2011 update--I just re-read the points above. While I do feel that they are all valid,
I'm increasingly feeling that the climate crisis is the main danger facing the world today.
And the main obstacle keeping us from solving the problem is the strength of the oil companies--they
dominate media, buy elected officials, and pay pseudo-scientists to deny that there is
a problem. I feel that it is the oil companies against the people of the world. The reason I
believe this is the principal contradiction is that our time is running out. The UK
Meteorological Office has warned that current global emissions would lead to a temperature
rise of 4° C by 2070, which is "all but certain to end civilization as we know it . . .
mountain snowpacks would be doomed . . . the tundra would thaw, and the Amazon would burn,
making runaway global warming all but inevitable" (from Mark Hertsgaard, Hot: Living
Through the Next 50 Years on Earth). A taste of what 4° C would mean for earth, is
given in the book Six Degrees Mark Lynas writes:
"China's agricultural production will crash. . . with crop yields nearly 40% less"
"The world's weather will go increasingly haywire with wilder storms mobilizing undreamt-of ferocity
as they strike ever larger areas."
"the heat waves. . .will be far hotter even that the extremes of 2003, which killed 15,000 people in
deserts will spread to Italy, Spain, Turkey or Greece in a 4° world
Because of this urgent situation, I've started a blog about solar power and electric cars,
which I believe are necessary if we even hope to stave of global disaster. Please see:
Solar Power & Electric Cars
How to Make a Difference
Dialectics teaches that there will not be a fundamental change in U.S. policy
unless the forces pushing for such a change become powerful enough to overcome
the forces supporting the current U.S. policy. Hopefully the many examples in
this web site show that a qualitative change can only come about when
quantitative changes--bit by bit--build up to a turning point. Doing
this will require a movement of many millions of people, conscious that
the government is headed in the wrong direction, and willing to push it
in the direction of peace, environmental sustainability, and social justice.
The election of Obama was a very positive step, but change requires more than electoral
politics--civil rights groups, peace groups, unions, women's groups,
gay/lesbian/transgender groups, disability rights groups, environmental groups,
senior's groups, supporters of public schools, advocates of national health care,
neighborhood activists, and many more have to build a movement capable of
changing the course of U.S. politics.
Change does require electoral politics as well, however. The Democratic Party,
while not at all pure in its efforts for disarmament, environmental controls,
and combating poverty, does promote more reasonable policies than the Republican
Party. The Democratic Party won a slim control of the U.S. Congress in 2006 but lost
the House of Representatives in 2010. It is important to wrest control of the Congress
from the right wing,to hold Democrats accountable to a
progressive platform, and to continue to work for the defeat
of reactionary Republicans and conservative Democrats alike. To see what a progressive
platform looks like, please check out Rebuild the Dream.
It is vital that an active citizenry push the Democratic Party to resolve the
contradictions facing humanity. One way to do this is to support the Democratic
Party's Progressive Caucus in Congress. Voices like Congresswoman
Barbara Lee stand against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. In California, the
California Democratic Council is a coalition of Democratic Clubs which strives
to be the "conscience of the Democratic Party." For more information see the
CDC Web Site.
Politicians cannot be expected to lead the movement for change. They will take
action when the movement is strong enough to force them. Otherwise they will
feel that they are out on a limb without enough support for qualitative change.
I don't support efforts at creating a third party in the U.S. at
this time. Such efforts, in the U.S. "winner take all" electoral system
generally lead to electing Republicans. The last time a third party
won national elections was on the eve of the U.S. Civil War when Lincoln won
with the fledgling Republican Party with less than 40% of the vote in 1860.
I feel it makes more sense to run progressive
candidates in the Democratic Primary; if they win, go all out for them in
November. If they don't, hold your nose and vote for the Democrat over the
Republican (in most cases).
Demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience,
media campaigns, and electoral work are all part of the process. The key is to
keep "your eye on the prize", i.e. to change U.S. policy with regard to nuclear war,
global warming, and poverty. All progressives need to unite in these efforts.
People all around the world can help bring this change about, because the U.S.
cannot survive as a complete outcast in the world. Those of us in the United States
have a special obligation to turn our government around since we are in the
best position to do this.
Dialectics doesn't provide a blueprint about how to make the necessary changes,
but it does show that change is possible, and inevitable. By building the forces
that can prevent nuclear war, stop global warming, and promote social justice
we can all build a better future. If these problems are solved, we can all move on
to new principal contradictions--there are no shortage of problems to solve. Wouldn't it
be great if the principal contradictions in the world were around questions of art,
music, or sports? Actually, in the case of the World Cup, some people may feel that
is the principal contradiction already! :-)
For more information on global politics, please check the following web sites: