Capitalism vs. the Climate
1. Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere
After years of recycling, carbon offsetting and light bulb changing, it is obvious that individual action will never be an adequate response to the climate crisis. Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action. One of the key areas in which this collective action must take place is big-ticket investments designed to reduce our emissions on a mass scale. That means subways, streetcars and light-rail systems that are not only everywhere but affordable to everyone; energy-efficient affordable housing along those transit lines; smart electrical grids carrying renewable energy; and a massive research effort to ensure that we are using the best methods possible.
The private sector is ill suited to providing most of these services because they require large up-front investments and, if they are to be genuinely accessible to all, some very well may not be profitable. They are, however, decidedly in the public interest, which is why they should come from the public sector.
Traditionally, battles to protect the public sphere are cast as conflicts between irresponsible leftists who want to spend without limit and practical realists who understand that we are living beyond our economic means. But the gravity of the climate crisis cries out for a radically new conception of realism, as well as a very different understanding of limits. Government budget deficits are not nearly as dangerous as the deficits we have created in vital and complex natural systems. Changing our culture to respect those limits will require all of our collective muscle—to get ourselves off fossil fuels and to shore up communal infrastructure for the coming storms.
2. Remembering How to Plan
In addition to reversing the thirty-year privatization trend, a serious response to the climate threat involves recovering an art that has been relentlessly vilified during these decades of market fundamentalism: planning. Lots and lots of planning. And not just at the national and international levels. Every community in the world needs a plan for how it is going to transition away from fossil fuels, what the Transition Town movement calls an “energy descent action plan.” In the cities and towns that have taken this responsibility seriously, the process has opened rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about how to reorganize their communities to lower emissions and build in resilience for tough times ahead.
Climate change demands other forms of planning as well—particularly for workers whose jobs will become obsolete as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels. A few “green jobs” trainings aren’t enough. These workers need to know that real jobs will be waiting for them on the other side. That means bringing back the idea of planning our economies based on collective priorities rather than corporate profitability—giving laid-off employees of car plants and coal mines the tools and resources to create jobs, for example, with Cleveland’s worker-run green co-ops serving as a model.
Agriculture, too, will have to see a revival in planning if we are to address the triple crisis of soil erosion, extreme weather and dependence on fossil fuel inputs. Wes Jackson, the visionary founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been calling for “a fifty-year farm bill.” That’s the length of time he and his collaborators Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann estimate it will take to conduct the research and put the infrastructure in place to replace many soil-depleting annual grain crops, grown in monocultures, with perennial crops, grown in polycultures. Since perennials don’t need to be replanted every year, their long roots do a much better job of storing scarce water, holding soil in place and sequestering carbon. Polycultures are also less vulnerable to pests and to being wiped out by extreme weather. Another bonus: this type of farming is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture, which means that farming can once again be a substantial source of employment.
Outside the Heartland conference and like-minded gatherings, the return of planning is nothing to fear. We are not talking about a return to authoritarian socialism, after all, but a turn toward real democracy. The thirty-odd-year experiment in deregulated, Wild West economics is failing the vast majority of people around the world. These systemic failures are precisely why so many are in open revolt against their elites, demanding living wages and an end to corruption. Climate change doesn’t conflict with demands for a new kind of economy. Rather, it adds to them an existential imperative.
3. Reining in Corporations
A key piece of the planning we must undertake involves the rapid re-regulation of the corporate sector. Much can be done with incentives: subsidies for renewable energy and responsible land stewardship, for instance. But we are also going to have to get back into the habit of barring outright dangerous and destructive behavior. That means getting in the way of corporations on multiple fronts, from imposing strict caps on the amount of carbon corporations can emit, to banning new coal-fired power plants, to cracking down on industrial feedlots, to shutting down dirty-energy extraction projects like the Alberta tar sands (starting with pipelines like Keystone XL that lock in expansion plans).
Only a very small sector of the population sees any restriction on corporate or consumer choice as leading down Hayek’s road to serfdom—and, not coincidentally, it is precisely this sector of the population that is at the forefront of climate change denial.
4. Relocalizing Production
If strictly regulating corporations to respond to climate change sounds somewhat radical it’s because, since the beginning of the 1980s, it has been an article of faith that the role of government is to get out of the way of the corporate sector—and nowhere more so than in the realm of international trade. The devastating impacts of free trade on manufacturing, local business and farming are well known. But perhaps the atmosphere has taken the hardest hit of all. The cargo ships, jumbo jets and heavy trucks that haul raw resources and finished products across the globe devour fossil fuels and spew greenhouse gases. And the cheap goods being produced—made to be replaced, almost never fixed—are consuming a huge range of other nonrenewable resources while producing far more waste than can be safely absorbed.
This model is so wasteful, in fact, that it cancels out the modest gains that have been made in reducing emissions many times over. For instance, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study of the emissions from industrialized countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol. It found that while they had stabilized, that was partly because international trade had allowed these countries to move their dirty production to places like China. The researchers concluded that the rise in emissions from goods produced in developing countries but consumed in industrialized ones was six times greater than the emissions savings of industrialized countries.
In an economy organized to respect natural limits, the use of energy-intensive long-haul transport would need to be rationed—reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally or where local production is more carbon-intensive. (For example, growing food in greenhouses in cold parts of the United States is often more energy-intensive than growing it in the South and shipping it by light rail.)
Climate change does not demand an end to trade. But it does demand an end to the reckless form of “free trade” that governs every bilateral trade agreement as well as the World Trade Organization. This is more good news —for unemployed workers, for farmers unable to compete with cheap imports, for communities that have seen their manufacturers move offshore and their local businesses replaced with big boxes. But the challenge this poses to the capitalist project should not be underestimated: it represents the reversal of the thirty-year trend of removing every possible limit on corporate power.
5. Ending the Cult of Shopping
The past three decades of free trade, deregulation and privatization were not only the result of greedy people wanting greater corporate profits. They were also a response to the “stagflation” of the 1970s, which created intense pressure to find new avenues for rapid economic growth. The threat was real: within our current economic model, a drop in production is by definition a crisis—a recession or, if deep enough, a depression, with all the desperation and hardship that these words imply.
This growth imperative is why conventional economists reliably approach the climate crisis by asking the question, How can we reduce emissions while maintaining robust GDP growth? The usual answer is “decoupling”—the idea that renewable energy and greater efficiencies will allow us to sever economic growth from its environmental impact. And “green growth” advocates like Thomas Friedman tell us that the process of developing new green technologies and installing green infrastructure can provide a huge economic boost, sending GDP soaring and generating the wealth needed to “make America healthier, richer, more innovative, more productive, and more secure.”
But here is where things get complicated. There is a growing body of economic research on the conflict between economic growth and sound climate policy, led by ecological economist Herman Daly at the University of Maryland, as well as Peter Victor at York University, Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey and environmental law and policy expert Gus Speth. All raise serious questions about the feasibility of industrialized countries meeting the deep emissions cuts demanded by science (at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050) while continuing to grow their economies at even today’s sluggish rates. As Victor and Jackson argue, greater efficiencies simply cannot keep up with the pace of growth, in part because greater efficiency is almost always accompanied by more consumption, reducing or even canceling out the gains (often called the “Jevons Paradox”). And so long as the savings resulting from greater energy and material efficiencies are simply plowed back into further exponential expansion of the economy, reduction in total emissions will be thwarted. As Jackson argues in Prosperity Without Growth, “Those who promote decoupling as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence—and at the basic arithmetic of growth.”
The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies but by reducing the amount of material stuff we produce and consume. Yet that idea is anathema to the large corporations that dominate the global economy, which are controlled by footloose investors who demand ever greater profits year after year. We are therefore caught in the untenable bind of, as Jackson puts it, “trash the system or crash the planet.”
The way out is to embrace a managed transition to another economic paradigm, using all the tools of planning discussed above. Growth would be reserved for parts of the world still pulling themselves out of poverty. Meanwhile, in the industrialized world, those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impacts (such as the caregiving professions). A great many jobs could be created this way. But the role of the corporate sector, with its structural demand for increased sales and profits, would have to contract.
So when the Heartlanders react to evidence of human-induced climate change as if capitalism itself were coming under threat, it’s not because they are paranoid. It’s because they are paying attention.