The very long New York Times piece on climate change politics in the 1980s by Nathaniel Rich has attracted a lot of critical commentary—justifiably. To say that the failure to achieve a political response was due to human nature, a genetic defect that prevents our species from planning ahead, is just lazy and wrong. Were the scientists, environmentalists and other activists that did want to take action a bunch of mutants? Haven’t humans acted with foresight (and also failed to act) since time immemorial? “Human nature” explains everything and nothing; it’s what you invoke when you don’t want to do the digging a real explanation would require.
I wish the left had a solid response to this immobilizing mushiness, but instead it mostly offers its own version of counter-mush. A case in point is Naomi Klein. I’ve already written at length about her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, but I don’t want to let her latest piece at The Intercept pass without notice.
Klein rightly excoriates Rich, but then goes on to make this argument:
Capitalism, not human nature, is responsible for climate inaction.
Capitalism is an ideology that worships profit and “endless growth”.
Its purest form is neoliberalism.
The late 1980s was the high water mark of neoliberalism, so climate activism was suppressed.
We must reject capitalism by adopting the earth-centered philosophy of indigenous peoples.
Politically, this means embracing a caring economy of green jobs, meeting human needs and rejecting “extractivism”.
If this were just Klein’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint we could shrug and move on, but since it reflects what may be the main current in left thinking about the climate crisis, it matters that it turns what ought to be well focused and clear into a thick, gummy soup.
No, capitalism is not an ideology. What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital. Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital. There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy. (One way we can tell that existing policies are largely toothless is that their enactment had imperceptible effects on asset prices.)
Yes, the 1980s was the zenith of the modern neoliberal project, but there are currents within neoliberalism that support climate action. One doesn’t have to be a fan of this school of thought to recognize that it’s not monolithic on environmental matters—or on racism, criminal justice, public health and other questions.
It was the Clinton administration’s obsession with a balanced budget in the nineties that prevented a robust response to climate change. SERI had just been christened the National Renewable Energy Lab by George Bush. Climate warrior Al Gore was Vice President. And for eight years there was never a visionary proposal put before Congress regarding Climate Change and renewable energy. You can say that they couldn’t have gotten it through a hostile congress. Fair enough. But they never tried. The mantra from them was, we need to balance the budget, then all things are possible. Well they did accomplish this miracle and what did it enable? George Bush II’s tax cuts.
If capitalism is a system that allows people with money and assets to use them as they wish, then capitalism is, indeed, the culprit. Action on climate change (reducing carbon, and methane, by the way) was avoided by wealthy and, therefore, powerful interests in order to protect their money and assets.
“It was the Clinton administration’s obsession with a balanced budget in the nineties that prevented a robust response to climate change.”
The original tax increase proposal in 1993 would have provided for more tax revenues to pursue a progressive agenda including a BTU tax which would have been an excellent move. Alas we were sold out by about of Blue Dog Democrats.
Klein is right in this sense: economic growth = greater climate destruction. Look at the current weather headlines–deadly climate change is no longer decades away, but right at our doorstep. “Mushy” measures like “green” automobiles (a total oxymoron) and increased solar and wind power are going to do no more than delay the ultimate catastrophe by a few years. Fossil fuels are still the only viable way we have of powering the modern middle class lifestyle so many in America will never agree to forgo, and that so many around world aspire to achieving.
Unless you are willing to give up your car, your house, your electronic gadgets and most your modern conveniences, you are part of the problem, and blaming Trump and his denialist minions just makes you a hypocrite.
“The original tax increase proposal in 1993 would have provided for more tax revenues to pursue a progressive agenda including a BTU tax which would have been an excellent move. Alas we were sold out by about of Blue Dog Democrats”.
So from 1993 until 1999 in the midst of the best economy in a generation, you simply give up because you didn’t get something passing in ’93? OK.
We need to see a larger context then neoliberalism in this issue. And it is the end of “cheap oil” or “Plato oil production with increasing prices” environment.
Which might well be within a decade or two. At least for the next year, the USA production is stalled. By the time it picks back up, supply will not meet demand so the prices might increase while the total production staying on the same level or slightly decreasing.
Among possible effects we can mention the following:
1. Another round of lowering the standard of living for the US population, increasing social tensions.
2. Making transcontinental transportation, especially by air, too expensive and favoring local production. Essentially what Trump is trying to achieve.
3. Part of human influence on climate will dissipate. For example, it will end the mass transportation of goods by air and might cut private auto transportation, especially in the USA (actually for the latter you might need just around $10 per gallon of gas or so). So the the carbon footprint of humanity might improve.
4. Permanent stagnation of economy will cut into population growth. Without cheap hydrocarbons, current agriculture needs to change drastically and to sustain, say, 8 billion people on the planet might be more difficult.
5. Will stimulate the transition to electric cars for private transportation and to the reduction of the size of the cars in the USA to European levels.
6. Will affect military (especially military aviation) and might fasten dissolution of Global US-led neoliberal empire — the process started by Trump.
7. Might provoke more wars for resources (of which Iraq and Libya wars are already “accomplished” events) which might deteriorate to the level of exchange of nuclear strikes between major powers leading to WWIII. The latter might end a large part of human civilization ( In worst case, Europe, the USA, Russia, China and Japan)
You didn’t list what I consider the most likely option: redoubling coal extraction and building sythgas plants. Dirty as anything, but kinda not the point given dirty doesn’t enter into the decision chains for capital investment to support existing stock.
I mean, it’s more likely that we are going to sacrifice children and grandchildren than agriculture or cars or airplanes. Isn’t that the current choice?
Welcome to Angry Bear. First time comments go to moderation to weed out spammers and advertising.