If capitalism doesn’t end climate change, climate change will end capitalism

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell as Marie Antoinette. Photo Illustration by Marge Collins.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell as Marie Antoinette. Photo Illustration by Marge Collins.

Flocks of environmentalists and economists will alight in Vancouver this evening for a weekend of striving toward a more sensible capitalism.

The De-Growth conference hopes to achieve a “viable economic, social and ecological system” that’s kinder to both workers and to the earth, but these are no Molotov-hurling Bolsheviks. They’re just looking for sustainable capitalism.

That means shrinking the economies of the developed world. Which will be hard to do. In a political campaign, that’s not a platform to stand on, it’s a plank to walk.

And I wonder whether we have the power to engineer the economy quite that radically. It may only have the power to engineer us.

A favorite bloody example is that messiness in 18th Century Europe, when aristocrats were losing their heads. It might have seemed as if people were ecstatic with notions of liberté, egalité, fraternité, but those also just happened to be values the economy needed to expel the last vestiges of feudalism and get the capitalist orgy underway.

You can’t have the fishmonger’s son growing up believing he’s destined to become a fishmonger, as he did under feudalism, not when there are jobs opening in new factories, in whole new industries. Whose destiny would it be to operate the steam engine? The nuclear power plant? The silicon chipmaker?

And so democracy became all the rage, along with its values–the liberty to work in a factory instead of a fishmarket, the equality to be replaced by another worker the day you depart, the fraternity to take your lumps until 5 and show up again at 8.

The economic system fueled the ideas, according to this venerable argument, not the other way around.

You see what I’m getting at, don’t you–just as feudalism proved too inflexible for industrialization, capitalism appears too inflexible for sustainability. And sustainability increasingly appears necessary for survival. Democracy and capitalism get along famously well, as America has demonstrated, and nothing can stop them.

Except the planet.

It’s the developed democracies of the New World, those built from scratch on capitalism, that are having the most difficulty adapting to climate change.

You know what’s been happening in the United States: we’re going nowhere. Canada has said it’ll do whatever the U.S. does, perhaps confident that the U.S. will never do anything. Yesterday, Australia reneged on its promise to reduce emissions a measly 5 percent, putting off any action until at least 2012.

Totalitarian China and socialist Europe have been making more significant strides, but China in particular is careful not to make any sudden moves that might disrupt its young romance with capitalism.

The United States has only seriously considered a capitalist solution to climate change–a carbon market–and even that monied enterprise appears impossible without huge payoffs to coal, oil, agriculture–all the dirty practices that got us into this mess.

But we can best see America’s stalemate by examining our capitalists:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute produced a documentary on climate change last year, “The Truth About Global Warming,” which argued that there’s no need to worry about climate change because people adapt to higher temperatures.

Their evidence? Temperatures have risen in U.S. cities in the last 35 years, but heat-related deaths have declined. The video quotes Patrick J. Michaels of the capitalist CATO Institute saying, “The more frequent heat waves are, the fewer people die. That’s because they adapt.”

They sure do. They adapt by turning on their air conditioners. Heat-related deaths have declined in U.S. cities since the early 1970s largely because more people have air conditioners, and secondarily because cities do a better job of rescuing people who don’t.

How do we know that? From a study conducted in 2003 at the University of Virginia by none other than Patrick J. Michaels of the CATO Institute.

Offered a dark cloud, capitalists can’t help but mine the silver from the lining.

As it gets warmer, people will buy more air conditioners! As they turn on more air conditioners, they will use more power, consume more fossil fuels, emit more greenhouse gases. As they emit more greenhouse gases, it will get warmer. As it gets warmer, people will buy more air conditioners!

It’s a win, win, win for industry…. Until the ice caps melt, the sea levels rise, the rivers dry up, farms and cities wither. But even those dark clouds have silver linings. Markets will flourish for imported water, fresh food, higher ground, as the demand for each increases.

This is just how capitalism works. It capitalizes. But we may be verging upon the moment of history when we see that it’s a finite system: not a loop but a long, dusty road to a dead end. You can make a lot of money extracting carbon from the ground and putting it into the air… until atmospheric carbon begins to threaten our survival.

The people who are trying to solve this problem are not just trying to save polar bears, they’re trying to save human beings, and by embracing carbon markets they’re trying to save capitalism. (For this they’re called socialists.) From the UN to the White House to Vancouver, people are trying to shift the forces of capitalism away from finite fossil fuels, before its too late, and unleash them on renewable energy.

I think they might fail. But I also think it’s worth a try. It’s might be our only shot.

I have more faith that the sold-out politicians in Congress can do it than the idealistic activists and academic economists presently gathering in Vancouver, precisely because those politicians are invested in capitalism. If anyone can make progress profitable, it’s the big whigs who lunch with the fat cats.

But it might be the case that no one can do it, that the economic system steers us and we only think we steer it. If so, neither can we get rid of it.

The protestors at the Copenhagen Climate Talks found themselves in an awkward position: they wanted to solve climate change, but they were bodily assaulting the only global effort to accomplish that. Their message was incoherent, their behavior reinforced the incoherence, but one prevalent theme I could discern was anti-capitalist.

In the beginning, there was Naomi Klein: “Finally we’re seeing the movement and it’s focused on these false solutions, these market based solutions–the insanity, after what we’ve just witnessed, of handing over the most pressing, challenging, horrifying crisis to the very same people that created that crisis, that gambled away people’s jobs and homes and pensions.”

At the rally, with 40,000 demonstrators gathered in the city center, there was Vandama Shiva: “The time is past for big capital to make more money. The earth must make the change. The earth must make the rules.”

Klein was in the clouds, I thought at the time, but Shiva was on to something. We might have a moment to use capitalism, the very engine of our social organization, to forestall more undesirable consequences. But if capitalism fails to adapt–and it’s failing so far–change will come whether we like it or not via the earth.

When change comes, it will bring corresponding political ideas, and we’ll embrace the emerging ideology. We’ll believe we thought of it ourselves. We’ll do its dirty work by lopping the heads off of air conditioner salesmen (in all their various forms).

But we will no more control the future in that moment than Robespierre’s Reign of Terror controlled industrialization. We’ll be the steered, not the steering.

In Vancouver this weekend, ecological economist Dave Batker will ask the question, “What’s the economy for, anyway?” And like many smart people who pose questions, he’ll have an answer:

“Using Gifford Pinchot’s idea that the economy’s purpose is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run,’ Batker compares the performance of the U.S. economy with that of other industrial countries in terms of providing a high quality of life, fairness and ecological sustainability, concluding that when you do the numbers, we come out near the bottom in nearly every category.”

Tell us something we don’t know. Like, how do we turn this supertanker around?

Treehuggers and eggheads aren’t going to shrink the world economy from the Vancouver Library. Likewise, no raggle taggle mass of protesters is going to overthrow capitalism by rallying in Copenhagen, especially when they identify themselves largely through commodity preferences–hemp clothes, folk music, natural toothpaste. No army will do it either, if the massive red armies of the Soviet Union and China failed.

But the earth can do it. The earth can do it by creating conditions warm enough to disrupt markets. And look: she’s on the march.

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