The calamities are coming …

The future American class war:

Wealthy Seattle entrepreneur Nick Hanauer warns his “fellow zillionaires” that “the pitchforks are coming for us plutocrats.”

At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last. …

The thing about us businesspeople is that we love our customers rich and our employees poor. So for as long as there has been capitalism, capitalists have said the same thing about any effort to raise wages. We’ve had 75 years of complaints from big business—when the minimum wage was instituted, when women had to be paid equitable amounts, when child labor laws were created. Every time the capitalists said exactly the same thing in the same way: We’re all going to go bankrupt. I’ll have to close. I’ll have to lay everyone off. It hasn’t happened. In fact, the data show that when workers are better treated, business gets better. The naysayers are just wrong.

Most of you probably think that the $15 minimum wage in Seattle is an insane departure from rational policy that puts our economy at great risk. But in Seattle, our current minimum wage of $9.32 is already nearly 30 percent higher than the federal minimum wage. And has it ruined our economy yet? Well, trickle-downers, look at the data here: The two cities in the nation with the highest rate of job growth by small businesses are San Francisco and Seattle. Guess which cities have the highest minimum wage? San Francisco and Seattle. The fastest-growing big city in America? Seattle. Fifteen dollars isn’t a risky untried policy for us. It’s doubling down on the strategy that’s already allowing our city to kick your city’s ass.


The future world:

In The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibbon says it is no longer “if” but “when” climate change will ruin our world.

Human effects on the atmosphere and climate can actually be read more easily from the South Pole than almost anywhere on earth, and the results are truly horrifying. To put the facts simply, the massive ice sheets are starting to move with awful speed. On the narrow Antarctic Peninsula, which points up toward South America, and where most Antarctic tourists come, melt is proceeding as fast as or faster than anywhere on earth. It’s here that a big chunk of the Larsen B ice shelf broke off in 2002.

But the peninsula contains relatively small amounts of ice; most of the world’s freshwater is tied up in the giant ice sheets of East and West Antarctica. Scientists—innately conservative—had long considered that these giants were comparatively stable, at least over millennia: it’s no easy feat to melt a mile or two of ice, especially when the air temperature rarely if ever rises above freezing. However, as Walker hints toward the end of her account, researchers have grown increasingly concerned about the stability of the West Antarctic in particular.

Enormous glaciers spill out from the West Antarctic ice sheet into the Amundsen Sea in the South Pacific. It’s perhaps the most remote part of the most remote continent, and to make matters worse the most interesting part of it is underwater. So scientists have been sending “autonomous subs” beneath the waves to study the geology, and using satellites to study changes in the height of the ice. Their work wasn’t quite finished when Walker went to press with her book, but her account provides all the background you need to understand what may have been the most depressing announcement yet of the global warming era.

In mid-May of this year, a pair of papers were published in Science and Geophysical Research Letters that made clear that the great glaciers facing the Amundsen Sea were no longer effectively “buttressed.” It turns out that the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them. It is eating away at them from below and freeing them from the points where they were pinned to the ground. This water is warmer, because our oceans are steadily warming. This slow-motion collapse, which will occur over many decades, is “unstoppable” at this point, scientists say; it has “passed the point of no return.”

This means that as much as ten feet of sea-level rise is being added to previous predictions. We don’t know how quickly it will come, just that it will. And that won’t be all. A few days after the Antarctic announcement, other scientists found that much of Greenland’s ice sheet shows a similar underlying geology, with warm water able to melt it from underneath. Another study that week showed that soot from huge forest fires, which are more frequent as a result of global warming, is helping to melt the Greenland ice sheet, a remarkably vicious cycle.

In certain ways none of this really comes as news. A leading glaciologist, Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), has calculated that given the paleoclimatic record, our current atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are probably enough to produce an eventual sixty-nine feet of sea-level rise. But it’s one thing to know that the gun is cocked, and another to see the bullet actually traveling; the news from the Antarctic is a turning point. It doesn’t mean we should give up efforts to slow climate change: if anything, as scientists immediately pointed out, it means we should ramp them up enormously, because we can still affect the rate at which this change happens, and hence the level of chaos it produces. Coping over centuries will be easier than coping over decades.

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