Talking About Capitalism and Climate Change
By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
In a title not usually expected at a scientific conference, University of California San Diego geophysicist Dr. Brad Werner presented a paper entitled Is the Earth Fucked? at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in December 2012.
Dr. Werner explained that the title represented the expression of depression by scientists working in the field of the public’s inability to respond to what scientists are telling them about global warming.
Climatologists and other scientists are now speaking out about climate change becoming a clear and present danger to human civilization. Most of them are more comfortable gathering data and working in their labs than doing political advocacy, but the situation calls for them to risk losing tenure and even arrest in order to tell the rest of us about the situation we are now facing.
Werner explained that civil resistance and disobedience is the best hope for changing attitudes about climate change because all other variables are “too embedded in the dominant economic system.” Increasing economic activity, raising GDP is the sine qua non for western style capitalistic systems exemplified by the US. No politician is going to campaign on lowering GDP.
Yet that is precisely what we need to do in order to emit fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere at least until such time as renewables can take over from fossil fuels. This means leaving the coal, oil and gas in the ground and not developing those natural resources. Of course the most powerful corporations on the planet are pledged to do exactly the opposite.
Many scientists simply see economic progress as incompatible with keeping the planet’s rise in temperature below two degrees centigrade, a commitment made by most UN member states. Werner says that, if we continue with business as usual, the resultant “progress” as measured by GDP growth will simply chew up the planet resulting in catastrophic environmental damage.
Resistance, Werner argues, especially by activist/scientists behaving in an unexpected way might be able to force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. He says that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
David Suzuki in an article in EcoWatch states: “Pitting the natural environment against the human-invented economy and placing higher value on the latter is foolish. Why can’t our leaders comprehend that?” Are short term gains with economic rewards going mainly into the pockets of the rich really worth the long term suffering of the rest of earth’s denizens? Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper recently answered that question in the affirmative: “No matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”
Suzuki’s response: “But in failing to act on global warming, many leaders are putting jobs and economic prosperity at risk, according to recent studies. It’s suicidal, both economically and literally, to focus on the fossil fuel industry’s limited, short-term economic benefits at the expense of long-term prosperity, human health and the natural systems, plants and animals that make our well-being and survival possible. Those who refuse to take climate change seriously are subjecting us to enormous economic risks and foregoing the numerous benefits that solutions would bring.”
Actually my criticism of those who say that capitalism is the problem goes much deeper. I’d say that selfish individualism is the problem, another word for which is solipsism – extreme selfishness and egocentrism. Solipsism is a philosophy that says my individual mind is the only one that exists, the only one that counts.
We have not been able to solve that dilemma in 10,000 years of human society. War is still prevalent today. It is the major unsolved human dilemma. Why hasn’t competition among states or ethnic groups been transcended by a cooperative ethic that realizes that more is to be gained from cooperation and peaceful pursuits than by pursuing individualistic ends in a mad rush to win at all costs?
Is Cooperation among a Factionalized Planet Even Possible?
That dilemma not being solved, why would anyone come to believe that the climate crisis, which would require cooperation among all the world’s political factions and entities, could be solved? If Palestinians and Israelis can’t agree on what outsiders might call a perfectly reasonable solution, one which would allow both groups to live in harmony and peace with each other, why would anyone believe that the climate crisis would bring peoples all over the world together in one agreed upon campaign to solve this problem although we know what would have to happen to solve or at least mitigate it? As with war, solutions are known; it’s the failure of the human race to implement them that is the problem.
There was much idealism involved in the establishment of communism in the Soviet Union in 1917. Marx and Lenin were idealists of the first order. Yet there was no agreement or mutual idealism of all the people involved. Instead coercion was used to make people conform to what was supposed to be a universally understood standard that would provide peace, harmony and prosperity for everyone.
I submit that human individuality and greed overcame the ideal of a noble cooperative movement. Leaders were corrupt. Peasants wanted to work for themselves, not for the state or for the collective good. Again human selfishness and competitiveness triumphed over cooperation and working for a common goal. The world threw up its hands and said, “OK, give human greed and competitiveness its due. It seems to have provided more prosperity than has cooperating for a noble, common ideal.”
So why would everyone now come together and join hands to aspire to a new communitarian ideal, that of saving the planet from global warming? Homo Sapiens is just not built that way.
It’s a noble experiment – putting billions of individuals on a planet to see whether they can overcome their selfishness and greed in order to form something approaching a utopia. We have all the tools to do it, just like we have all the tools to forestall global warming, just as Israel and Palestine have all the tools and the knowledge to set up a peaceful coexisting society. It’s just that selfish goals triumph over social and communitarian goals.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
Naomi Klein has written a profound and highly readable book by that title. In it she says that, if we just change our entire belief system to the opposite values of what are prevalent in the US and, therefore, the world today, we can save the planet from changing to an environment hostile to human life. Our entire civilization has been predicated on those goals and beliefs. To wit: man shall have dominion over nature goes back to the Bible thousands of years ago. The belief in progress goes back to the Enlightenment.
The American spirit is predicated on technological progress and achievement. Children and students are encouraged to be high achievers. Individual achievement is one of the problems Naomi Klein correctly identifies. Going back to wind and water power has antediluvian connotations.
Americans want to go forward not backward. How many want to go back to the horse and buggy days? But horses didn’t pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide like cars do. The rusticity of millers with water wheels is looked back upon with sentiment, but grist mills only survive today as curious historical oddities fit for restaurants and playhouses.
Capitalism is just the outward manifestation of the individualistic and selfish urge to create a better life for oneself without worrying too much about what happens to the rest of the human race. The ethos of cooperation would have to replace the ethos of competition. And what does this say about freedom? Can free people cooperate or does cooperation imply a diminution of freedom?
Although people might agree that selfishness should be limited to some extent, will they ever agree that their freedom should formally be limited for the greater good? Will people ever agree that the utilitarian ideal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number should prevail when that would mean limiting the freedom and happiness of those who somehow weren’t included in the greater number?
In short the human race has never developed the capacity to act as individuals in such a way as to benefit the entire human race much less the planet. There is no religion or philosophy that even can point the way much less anything approaching a formulation of principles that would stand up to scrutiny that could be mutually agreed upon. Climate change deniers find it easier to deny reality than to have their worldview shattered by it.
The “greed is good” crowd really doesn’t care what happens to the planet after they’re dead. They subscribe to the ethic “the one who dies with the most toys wins”. They know the worst effects of climate change won’t happen until after they’re dead. The Ayn Rand inspired Wall Street crowd doesn’t care about what happens to the “losers” whether they happen to be the poor living now or the poor living after they have no use for the planet any longer. Their ethic is really fascistic except that instead of exterminating their competitors, they just want to take all the money in a winner take all Monopoly game, and that includes the money of the unborn.
Does the Bible Encourage Climate Change Deniers?
Even the Bible contains verses that encourage beliefs that are antithetical to those necessary to combat global warming. According to the New International Version God said “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” So what’s all the fuss about the seas rising? After the floods that forced Noah into the ark, God said there wouldn’t be any more. But there’s more: in Genesis 1:28 (King James version) God says “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Subduing the earth, as opposed to living in harmony with it, is a sentiment not likely to promote a mentality of saving the earth. Having dominion over all the fish, birds and animals is the opposite of the sentiment required to not harvest elephant and rhino tusks for their ivory and supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Killing off sea life to extinction can be done with impunity by those convinced that man is commanded to have dominion over the fish of the sea.
Naomi’s wisdom again:
And for many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge goes deeper still, threatening not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth. Are we masters, here to subdue and dominate, or are we one species among many, at the mercy of powers more complex and unpredictable than even our most powerful computers can model? As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts it, climate science is for many conservatives “an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over nature.” For these conservatives, he notes, “such a thought [that man does not have a right to subdue nature] is not merely mistaken. It is intolerable and deeply offensive. Those preaching this doctrine have to be resisted and indeed denounced.”
So what will change prevalent attitudes among the world’s people who in advanced industrial nations want to preserve their way of life including GHG spewing Nascar races, drag and monster races, Blue Angels precision flying extravaganzas and the glorification of the internal combustion engine? What will change a war glorifying humanity into a cooperative bunch of tree huggers? Naomi Klein puts her faith in indigenous peoples and others who don’t want the land despoiled in their front and back yards. Those who don’t want fracking in their neighborhoods, drinking water that catches on fire and train wrecks that spill oil into pristine streams.
The ethos of domination and fierce competition is the ethos of capitalism and also the ethos of war. If humanity hasn’t solved the problem of war dating back to 10,000 years of civilization and before that probably back to hundreds of thousands of years of prehistory, how are we going to solve the problem of global cooperation necessary to combat global warming? Even Jane Goodall has shown that homo sapiens’ ancestors, the Great Apes, indulge in war and ganging up to vanquish their competitors or merely for a good bite to eat.
The reality of a science based approach to global warming threatens to upend conservatives’ dominance-based worldview which provides neo-liberals with the tools to write off the catastrophes that will be visited on huge swaths of humanity while they profit from solutions that will keep the wealthier parts of the world from succumbing to the more negative effects of climate change and even from increased war over resources. Defense contractors in particular are already figuring out how to profit from the wars that will inevitably result when climate change reduces the food supply.
The economic model which entails the extracting of resources from the earth while doing nothing to replenish the earth is called “extractivism.” It is a dominance-based relationship to the earth, just the opposite of stewardship, which involves not only the taking but also the taking care that regeneration and future life continue so that all future generations may have access to the same abundance that nature has provided in the past. Extractivists are the real “takers” while stewards of the environment, those who want to ensure a future lifestyle for our descendants similar to or better than our own, are the real “makers,” just the opposite of what conservatives have tried to convince us of.
The Rich Will Live and the Poor Would Die
So sang Joan Baez:
If living were a thing that money could buy
Then the rich would live and the poor would die
All my trials, Lord, soon be over
While advocates of taking action to combat climate change project a worldview of we’re all in this together which takes in not only one nation but the whole world, conservatives, neo-liberals and free marketers offer a different solution: private party efforts to protect just their own private interests. For example, many large corporations have their own generators to keep their lights on during mass blackouts. If needed during Superstorm Sandy, Goldman Sachs was prepared to do exactly that. Also insurance companies in the US have begun dispatching teams of firefighters to their high end customers in California and Colorado when their mansions are threatened by wildfires. This is a “concierge” service pioneered by insurance giant AIG. Poorer people are subject to insurance company scams that deny them payments for their losses.
Naomi Klein states:
For a long time, environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor. It was supposed to bring us together. Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further into a society of haves and have-nots, divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather, at least for now, and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.
Clearly, at some point California’s resources for firefighting will overwhelm the state’s budgetary ability to deal with them. The Federal government as well, will have to terminate its support of weather disasters as disaster declarations outstrip Congress’ appropriation of funds to deal with them. At that point only private money will protect private interests from the worst effects of extreme weather related disasters. All the rest of us will be left to fend for ourselves. Case in point: After Hurricane Superstorm Sandy devastated large parts of New York and New Jersey, the Koch-backed organization, Americans for Prosperity, launched a campaign to block Federal aid going to those states. A spokesman for the organization told those states that they would just need to “suck it up.”
The costs of coping with an increasing number of climate related disasters are truly astronomical. In the US each major disaster seems to cost upwards of a billion dollars. Superstorm Sandy is estimated at $65 billion. And that happened just one year after Hurricane Irene caused $10 billion in damage, and that was just one disaster in a year that saw 14 billion dollar disasters in the US alone. That’s over one a month. My prediction is that when we see on the order of one billion dollar disaster a week, if not sooner, the US will get serious about climate change. In 2011 alone across the entire earth there were extreme weather damages of at least $380 billion.
Part 4 can be found here.
Frank Thomas’ bio:
A graduate of Bowdoin and Dartmouth colleges, I was an independent management consultant and entrepreneur working with Dutch international shipbuilding and offshore oil/gas contracting firms for many years. In recent years, I have been a trainer for such firms as ING, DSM, Siemens, the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice in The Hague and have been a teacher/lecturer at The Hague University and NTI University in Leiden. Training and lecture subjects covered have included: finance, legal writing, commercial law, report writing and presentations, advanced English writing and conversation.
I’m an independent-minded Mainer, a liberal-conservative. Over some time, I have come to loath the mind numbing indoctrination inherent in the “ideological-pure-money-talks” game poisoning our national dialogue and directions on extremely serious structural problems. Such times of striking change call for a fusion of the “brightest and best” ideas/reforms for prudently balancing legitimate public interests, social concern for the common man’s welfare with a thriving market-innovative capitalism.