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.