Thursday, February 02, 2006

Capitalism or a habitable planet

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Robert Newman: It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both
There is no meaningful response to climate change without massive social change. A cap on this and a quota on the other won't do it. Tinker at the edges as we may, we cannot sustain earth's life-support systems within the present economic system.

Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.


If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming - and all of us still are - there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never will again be consumption like we have known. The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that they never went away. You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.

Denial again.

Hat tip: Energy Bulletin


jj mollo said...

The areas of denial are different, but the denial exists on both sides. Just as it is astonishingly thick-headed to ignore the symptoms of oncoming environmental calamity, it is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that Capitalism can be replaced or subverted. Anyone who has seen attempts at rent-control or price-control, or suppression of smuggling should know that market Capitalism can only be denied by the most extreme measures available to the State. The demise of the Soviet Union should have been enough to convince us of that. It certainly convinced the PRC. Environmental progress, by the way, had been less than adequate in both of those places.

Capitalism can, however, be harnessed. ... Can anyone in Econ 101 tell me how to reduce consumption of a given consumer good? Anyone? Yes, that's right, class. Increase the price! And how do you do that? Well, you can 1) eliminate production, in which case new production will move to a location you cannot control, or you can 2) eliminate import, in which case smugglers will subvert your borders and corrupt your officials, or you can 3) offer substitutes, in which case you will go bankrupt like the Brazilians with ethanol, or you can 4) tax the piss out of it.

What is the trouble with taxing an undesirable good? People will tell you that it is damaging to the economy, which is like saying that a locomotive headed toward the cliff can't slow down because it would interfere with the Schedule. People will tell you that taxes are not popular, which is precisely the point. Getting people to change requires an occasional prod. People will tell you that it's immoral to benefit from the sale of a product that should be illegal. People will tell you that it puts limits on our individual liberties (as if the drug laws didn't). People will tell you anything but the truth.

The simple truth is that they don't want to tax it. There are profits to be made, and, here's the rub, Capitalism doesn't want you to do anything that would interfere with the selfish money-making might of the market, even if it steals from the future and dumps unsavory substances into the water supply. Trade groups influence the government in selfish ways. The lobbyist who fails to promote a selfish point of view will be fired. Politics is the pursuit of economics by different means. Subterfuge and disinformation rule the day. Harry and Louise are always victorious. Yes, we need to do things in a certain way, but we discover that we don’t have the will, or the strength, or the access to information, or the political capital.

So then is it hopeless?

The main problem is the lack of power, not too much power. I believe that our main goal should be to put honest, civic-minded, competent, knowledgeable, intelligent, persuasive people in positions of authority, give them our trust, and support them. Things would be different. But where do you find people like that? and how do you persuade them to do these nasty jobs? and how could they possibly survive in the political world? and how do you keep people from sand-bagging everything they do? and how could they prevail against the temptations which subvert our current representatives?

I think there are ways to do all this. They don’t involve discarding Capitalism or the Rule-of-Law.

2/2/2006 3:45 PM

Steve said...

That's very well put, JJ. Thanks for the contribution to my blog.

My problem is that while there doesn't seem to be a better alternative to what we've got, and I agree with you that there are ways, I still see little reason for hope. No reason for hope, frankly. I think the man is right about the invisible hand, let alone the visible hands of corruption, ignorance and so forth.

The sort of fundamental change to a mutually coercive morality that Hardin called for so long ago is still in order. But then, it has been for decades.

But what do I know other than that I'm glad there are intelligent people out there with more uplifting points of view than I'm able to manage. I hope they're right. What, though, gives you hope that the ways that exist will come about?

Buckley has a good column this week: Ignoring the Rich.

I'm in trouble. Suppertime has started. Cheers!

jj mollo said...

I have great admiration for Bill Buckley, especially compared with the fiscally lunatic Bush administration. I am not a believer in tax cuts for the rich. I would certainly prefer sensible reorganization of the tax structure, but I would like to see substantial vice taxes imposed, a carbon tax certainly, and tax on land. I have talked about it somewhere in my archives. I'll try to find it for you. The wealth gap is certainly not shrinking! Tax cuts for the rich are why they support the Republican Party.

One of the biggest obstacles to productivity is the inefficient use of land. The wealth of the rich is often tied up in land. They often manipulate land prices. Land speculators in general make a fortune by bottling up prime lots through various connivances, forcing developers to scheme themselves, and also to beg and pay through the nose. The simple way to stop that is to tax under-utilized land. Fewer parking lots downtown, but more businesses would be the result.