Global Warming and Modern Capitalism | The Nation


Global Warming and Modern Capitalism

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Instead of merely pursuing GDP growth, we need policies that address social needs directly--that strengthen families and communities and address the breakdown of social connectedness and the erosion of social capital; that guarantee good, well-paying jobs (and green-collar ones); that provide for universal healthcare and alleviate the devastating effects of mental illness; that provide a good education for all; that ensure care and companionship for the chronically ill and incapacitated; that recognize responsibilities to the half of humanity who live in poverty. There are many things that need to grow, and policy should concentrate there. Such measures, wise in their own right, should be seen as environmental measures too: central parts of the alternative to the destructive path we are on.

About the Author

James Gustave Speth
James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is the author of The Bridge at the...

Americans are struggling with the combined impacts of higher food and fuel prices, crumbling financial assets, tighter credit and layoffs. These problems are not the result of a slowdown in GDP growth, and they will not be cured by more growth. Each is the result of government failing to intervene in the marketplace--in financial markets, in housing markets, in labor markets and elsewhere. As with climate change, we are on the receiving end of misguided policies that have led to deep structural maladies.

High prices are a problem not because they are high but because people don't have the money, and alternatives (e.g., truly fuel-efficient vehicles) are not readily available. In a gutsy article in July, Time noted that $4 gas was curbing sprawl, reducing pollution and traffic deaths, increasing fuel efficiency, and stimulating public transport, bike sales and walking. Honest prices would be higher prices for many things, but that does not mean Exxon should pocket the difference or that equity issues should remain unaddressed.

Conventional wisdom on the clash of economy and environment is that we can have it both ways, thanks to new technology. We do indeed need a revolution in the technologies of energy, transportation, construction, agriculture and more. But the rate of technological change required to deal with environmental challenges in the face of rapid economic growth is extremely high and rarely achieved. If pollution is cut in half but output doubles, there is no net gain. Housing, appliances and transportation can become more energy-efficient, but the improvements will be overwhelmed if there are more cars, larger houses and new appliances--and there are. There's a limit to how fast and far new technology can take us.

Parallel to transcending our growth fetish, we must move beyond our consumerism and hyperventilating lifestyles. In the modern environmental era, there has been too little focus on consumption. This is slowly changing, but most mainstream environmentalists have not wanted to suggest that the positions they advocate would require serious personal changes. This reluctance to challenge consumption has been a big mistake, given the mounting environmental and social costs of American "affluenza," extravagance and wastefulness.

The good news is that more and more people sense that there's a great misdirection of life's energy. In a survey 83 percent of Americans say society is not focused on the right priorities, 81 percent say America is too focused on shopping and spending, 88 percent say American society is too materialistic, 74 percent believe excessive materialism is causing harm to the environment. If these numbers are correct, there's a powerful base to build on.

Psychological studies show that materialism is toxic to happiness and that more income and more possessions do not lead to a lasting sense of well-being or satisfaction with life. What make people happy are warm personal relationships and giving rather than getting. Many people are trying to fight back against consumerism and commercialization. They say, Confront consumption. Practice sufficiency. Create social environments where overconsumption is viewed as silly, wasteful, ostentatious. Create commercial-free zones. Buy local. Eat slow food. Simplify your life. Downshift.

These prescriptions for change in the fundamental arrangements of capitalism are difficult, to put it mildly. What circumstances might make deep change plausible? A mounting sense of imminent crisis, wise leadership, the articulation of a new American narrative or story, as Bill Moyers has urged--all these would help. Most of all, we need a new politics and new social movement powerful enough to drive change.

Environmentalists must join social progressives to address the crisis of inequality unraveling our social fabric and undermining democracy. It is a crisis of soaring executive pay, huge incomes and increasingly concentrated wealth for a small minority while poverty rates approach a thirty-year high, wages stagnate despite rising productivity, social mobility and opportunity decline, the number of people without health insurance soars, job insecurity increases, safety nets shrink and Americans have the longest working day of all the rich countries. In an America with such vast social insecurity, where half the families just get by, economic arguments, even misleading ones, trump environmental ones.

Environmentalists must also join those seeking to reform politics and strengthen democracy. America's gaping social and economic inequality poses a grave threat to democracy. We are seeing the emergence of a vicious circle: income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the economic disparities. Corporations have been the principal economic actors for a long time; now they are the principal political actors as well. Neither environment nor society fares well under corporatocracy. Environmentalists need to embrace public financing of elections, lobbying regulation, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting and other reforms as a core of their agenda. Today's politics will never deliver environmental sustainability.

My point of departure was the momentous environmental challenge we face. But today's environmental reality is linked powerfully with other realities, including growing social inequality and neglect and the erosion of democratic governance and popular control. So my conclusion is that we as citizens must mobilize our spiritual and political resources for transformative change on all three fronts. Our best hope for change is a fusion of those concerned about environmental sustainability, social justice and political democracy into one progressive force.

One area where fusion is beginning is the conversation between environmental and social justice activists on solutions, including green-collar ones, to the climate change threat. That's encouraging, but it's a small part of what's needed. Mostly, everyone is still in his or her silo. A sustained dialogue is urgently needed among the three communities, to build a common agenda for action and a shared commitment to build a new social movement for change in America. We are all communities of a shared fate. We will rise or fall together.

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