Climate Change v Capitalism: The Feast is Almost Over | The Guardian

Climate change v capitalism: the feast is almost over

Our guest editor, Antony Hegarty, was inspired by Jerry Mander’s 1991 book In the Absence of the Sacred. Here Jerry writes about the incompatibility of tackling climate change and prioritising economic growth

  • Jerry Mander
  • 15 October 2010

‘Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives’ … delegates wave flags at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, on 20 April 2010. Photograph: Dado Galdieri/AP

Six weeks from now, in Cancun, Mexico, the world’s nations will gather under the auspices of the United Nations (the UNFCCC) to again discuss how to alleviate climate change. They’ll try to pick up the broken pieces from last December in Copenhagen, where we witnessed tortured dances by government leaders trying to avoid the realities of our time, and the profound conundrums we face as a society. They accomplished nothing, and may reprise that performance in Cancun.

Take the case of President Obama. He generally signals a serious desire to address climate issues, but, like the leaders of all the developed industrial nations, has been caught in a terrible dilemma. He tries to argue for lower emissions limits, both globally and in the US. But he is simultaneously desperate to revive rapid economic growth and stimulate a sluggish industrial economy hampered by rising costs of energy, rapidly diminishing resources and venal bankers.

So, while Obama talked climate change in Copenhagen, he pushed for accelerated growth and consumption, emphasising such climate-deadly industries as private automobile production, new road construction, nuclear power generation, and continued coal extraction (including horrendous "mountain top removal") while extolling an entirely theoretical "clean coal". He was also for expanding manufacture of heavy industrial equipment, and for more export-oriented industrial agriculture, as well as "new housing starts", increased oil drilling in deepwater zones – such as BP’s – and for deadly tar sands development, all in hopes of growth, profit and jobs.

Watching his performance from a distance, we really don’t know if he understands the contradictions in this pattern, how one goal cancels the other, or if he has simply made a "safer" political choice. If so, it’s safer only in the very short run, as the entire economic system, and possibly industrial-consumer society itself, face intrinsic systemic problems, which may not be solvable. Trying to save an old economic model that is near collapse, he may sacrifice the opportunity to mitigate climate change and save the world.

Does Obama know this? If so, wouldn’t it be "safer" politically to tell the truth about it? Some enlightened political leadership would be really helpful right now. But for the moment, the main point is this: in a choice between addressing the stresses of the planet and addressing the stresses of corporate capitalism, President Obama chooses the latter, while undermining the former.

Let’s be fair. Obama is not alone. The leaders of nearly all governments of the world – and their opposition leaders – exhibited similar internal conflict and timidity in Copenhagen. Even those with true desire to cut carbon felt that their priority was to also stimulate economic growth for their own industries, at all costs. Without growth, big businesses die, and so do national economies, and jobs. The whole system is threatened. That’s really all anyone talks about now.

Whether it’s the political left or right, Obama, or Cameron, or Sarkozy, or Putin, or Wen, or Harper or Miliband or Gingrich or Palin, or any political candidate for any office, they’re all talking about the necessity to stimulate growth. The media does, too, whether it’s the Guardian or the Murdoch press, the Financial Times or the New York Times. They all agree on the one thing: growth, growth, growth. That’s the lifeblood of the system. Everyone is hunting the magic elixir to revive rapid growth. How to build and sell more cars? How to increase industrial production, from computers to heavy equipment to industrial agriculture? How to increase exports?

But there’s a missing link in the discussion, ignored by nearly everyone in the mainstream debate: nature. They speak about our economy as if it were a separate entity, its own ever-expanding universe, unconnected to any realities outside itself, not embodied within a larger system from which, actually, it emerged and can’t escape. Nature cannot be left out of the discussion. It may be the most important detail of the entire conversation. Leaving it out of consideration is, well, suicidal. Here’s the point: never-ending growth on a small planet with finite resources is a profound impossibility. It’s an absurdity. A fantasy. It’s time to wake up.

The missing link

Look around you. The clothes you are wearing, the chair you are sitting in, the implements on the stove, the stove, the floor and walls of your room, its carpet, the lights and the switches, the electrical lines in the walls, your mobile phone, the road outside, the car you drive and all its tyres, wires, metals, glass, fabrics, batteries; airplanes, skyscrapers, tanks, missiles, computers … were all once minerals and metals dug up from the earth, then shipped around the world, transformed, assembled, shipped again to a store near you, and sold. Or else they were living beings: trees, plants, animals, fibres, corals that had their own independent existence. Even "synthetics" began as natural elements. Is your shirt made of polyester? Polyester is plastic. Plastic is oil. Oil used to be dinosaurs, trees, plants. All of it is nature. The entire material economy began as part of the earth, buried in the ground, or it grew from it, or it was alive before we transformed it. But it’s disappearing fast.

The whole situation is something new for capitalism, a shock. For two centuries it’s been like a closely guarded secret that the entire economic system we live in, and assumed was forever, is actually part of another larger system, but with only so many resources and dump sites. But the secret is out. We are eating up the materials that sustain us, and the feast is almost over.

During the great heydays of capitalism – the last two centuries of spectacular development and growth – we lived in what the great ecological economist Herman Daly called a "full world" of resources. We thought they were unlimited, some kind of permanent gift to the human race from God, so we could display our stewardship, or something. But it’s not a "full world" any more. Somebody should tell our leaders.

In addition to those climate impacts, we now face rapidly diminishing supplies of cheap oil and other fossil fuels. They call it "peak oil". This is catastrophic for our system. Cheap fossil fuels were the primary engine that grew our society over the last two centuries. That’s soon over, and there is no combination of sustainable alternative replacements capable of maintaining industrial society at nearly its present level.

Perhaps ultimately even more important is the global scarcity offresh water. The World Bank already predicts the next world war will be over water. Healthy topsoils are also seriously diminished, as are agricultural lands, converted to other uses, and global food supplies, which are ever more expensive. So are forests and their hundreds of crucial byproducts, as well as biodiversity of every kind, life in the oceans, coral reefs, and key minerals, including coltan (for your mobile phone), lithium, phosphorous, lead, zinc, tin, copper, gold, and hundreds of others. Following two centuries of voracious exploitation of every mineral, metal and biological resource, we will soon be facing what Daly calls an "empty world".

Watch for the big announcement: THE PARTY IS OVER. Without ever-expanding resources, ever-expanding production and consumption, our economic growth model becomes a relic, instantly obsolete. But so far, no one in leadership roles (with one or two exceptions, as we will see) is admitting to that. If they know it, they’re too scared to say so.

Deal killers

No individual or group of countries was to blame for the failures of Copenhagen last year. A lot of people accused China of dragging its feet, seeking advantage. Others blamed the G77 poorest countries for demanding partial compensation for prior resource thefts from colonial days, and for having suffered most of the pollution fallout from the over-consuming rich. Many blamed the richest countries for hanging on to their deadly indulgences and ill-gotten favours. I shared that view. Yet the true deal-killer was ultimately the commitment of nearly all countries to exponential growth everywhere, while simultaneously faking their commitment to emissions cuts. That was the impossible burden of Copenhagen, and the real dead end, and we just might see it all replayed in Cancun next month.

Nowhere among the assembled nations (with the lonely exceptions of Bolivia and Ecuador) has there been national emphasis on "conservation" – that is, advocating less production and less consumption of energy and materials, less global export shipping, "powering down". Less globalisation and more localisation. More emphasis on regional self-sufficiency, especially in food and energy production and the need for a democratic post-capitalist model, free of a growth imperative, that could live within the carrying capacity of the planet and its atmosphere, while seeking greater equity. Such moves would require economic transformations that few corporate powers, bankers, heads of state can accept.

So, we are left with a profound dilemma: do we serve the short-term interests of profits and growth? Or do we face reality and serve long-term planetary survival? How to solve one problem without exacerbating the other? So far, the decisions have favoured the corporate side, as usual. But circumstances may change that.

The rights of nature

Six months after Copenhagen, in April 2010, President Evo Morales of Bolivia convened a meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, gathering some 30,000 of the protesters whose viewpoints had been ignored at the UN climate summit. Morales found significant support from other South American countries, many of whom are part of the G77, in attempting to redefine strategies to deal with climate change. One of those countries, Ecuador, had for several years been arguing in favour of such concepts as "the inherent rights of nature", which was recently added to Ecuador’s national constitution amid great fanfare. It also promoted an idea by which poor countries would leave their oil resources in the ground, in exchange for compensation from rich countries. The rich countries declined; they would rather have the oil.

Meanwhile, Morales, the only head of state from an indigenous heritage, made his position clear, first in Copenhagen, and then in Cochabamba: "We have a stark choice between capitalism and survival," he said. "The countries of the world have failed in their obligations … Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives."

Morales proposed three ideas: 1) nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation, under a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights, with enforcement powers; 2) poor countries should receive compensation for crises they face but had little part in creating, as per the G77 position; and 3) there should be a continuing "world referendum on climate change", open to all people. Further meetings are ongoing.

Morales also denounced systemic dependency on economic growth and overconsumption as being inherently harmful to the earth, and he advocated for the economic practices of indigenous peoples. He pointed out that more than 50% of surviving global biodiversity, including forests, is found on indigenous lands. This is not accidental, he argued, but consistent with most indigenous peoples’ worldviews over millennia, accepting non-hierarchical, non-exploitative relationships with nature.

Morales’s comments received little coverage in mainstream media, except for one lengthy interview on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, on the Pacifica Network in the US. During the discussion, Goodman asked about lithium mining activities in Bolivia. (Lithium is a crucial ingredient for modern batteries, and Bolivia has the world’s largest reserves.) Those mines, run by Japanese multinational corporations, were subject to protests by indigenous groups during the Cochabamba summit. Morales admitted that he himself is not entirely free from the same conundrums that face other leaders. Bolivia, among the poorest, most exploited nations, desperately needs export cash, Morales said, though he bemoans that need. He committed to studying long-term effects from these mines, and how "to regenerate healthy lands". He also said Bolivia will now demand at least 60% ownership in all such mining operations.

The interview offered few hints as to how Bolivia might balance industrial extraction with protections for nature. Does Morales have new economic structures in mind? How would he provide jobs? Would Bolivia become a mixed economy, accepting corporate participation when desirable, but within a state-controlled framework, like China? Or does he really advocate an eventual return to indigenous economic models? If so, does that imply no modern economic development on any meaningful scale? Beginning to answer such questions was the stated mandate of the Cochabamba process. We’ll see how it proceeds and if it can influence Cancun, or other meetings.

But the conclusion is clear. From here on, no one gets off easy. Everyone’s in the same boat, caught in the same systemic conflict. The conundrums apply as much to Morales as to Cameron and Obama. Growth is over, and they need a real, clear vision of a way forward. That’s true for all of us. Surely it’s time to agree that the first step is to start drawing curtains on an obsolete, out-of-date system that could kill us all, and to shape a new one. Which brings us to the good news.

Steady state

Already there are many hundreds of groups, from every continent, at work defining the ingredients of an alternative economic system, one that can live within the carrying capacity of the planet. I don’t have room to describe their work here, and it varies depending on political orientation. But, a few points.

The universal quest is to define systems that that can deliver economic sufficiency and equity, permanently, while remaining within the carrying capacities of the planet. Most accept that systemic economic growth will soon be over, though growth is encouraged in specific timely activities – for example, certain renewable energy forms, local agriculture practice, sustainable building and the arts. Other ingredients of a new economy that some groups advocate include:

• Adoption of an international "oil depletion protocol" for an orderly, equitable decline of fossil-fuel use and a transition to less total energy use; a commonly used term for this is "powering down" – that is, aiming at minimum energy for sufficiency and equity.

• Universal emphasis on conservation and efficiency in all activities.

• Introduction of "steady state" (no-growth) economic models. Extensive research on global, regional and local carrying capacities.

• Emphasis on localisation not globalisation (thus reducing negative impacts of global transport). Local production for local consumption, especially in crucial areas such as food, housing and energy. Restrictions on the conversion of food-growing lands. Emphasis on the revitalisation of sustainable local agriculture systems. On national levels, revival of the "import substitution" model; an emphasis on local production for essential needs, rather than trade. Greater regulation and less movement of capital across borders.

• Less long-distance shipping, not more.

• Development of local participatory democracies. Various kinds have been proposed. Many favour the concept of "subsidiarity". Political power moves to the lowest practical level. (Climate change requires international agreement; economic and political rule-making should be local.)

• Ban privatisation of the "natural commons" – water, forests, genetic structures, medicinal plants, and so on – as well as such public commons as education, health, security, and (some say) media.

• Legal confirmation for the inherent rights of nature, with a coda and enforcement standards. Universal application of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Return of indigenous lands expropriated for mining and oil development.

• End legal "personhood" for corporations; introduction of "site here to sell here" policies; establishment of local boards of directors including significant labour and environmental representation, among other local stakeholders. Encouragement of community-owned and worker-owned enterprises.

• Introduction of new standards of economic measurement. Elimination of GDP as a measurement of societal success, substituting alternative measurements for human wellbeing and the wellbeing of the natural world. These include such community values as health, education and happiness, rather than wealth accumulation, and full protections for global biodiversity.

• Advocating for standards of "sufficiency" rather than wealth accumulation.

• Development of a formal process for the transfer of green technology, and some degree of surplus wealth, from wealthy countries to poor ones, given a planetary framework of reduced economic possibilities. Return of traditional agricultural lands, expropriated during colonial days and during more recent neoliberal globalisation.

That is the tiniest sample of what thousands of people are now discussing in various forums, including Cochabamba, World Social Forums and many others. For more information, I suggest internet searches of some of the following: Post Carbon Institute, Transition Towns movement, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, New Economics Institute, Global Footprint Network, Ecosocialist International Network, New Economy Working Group, ETC Group, The Story of Stuff,, left or green biocentrism, Dark Mountain Project, Indigenous Environmental Network, Tebtebba foundation, Food and Water Watch, Navdanya, Third World Network, International Center for Technology Assessment, Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, Rainforest Action Network, Institute for Policy Studies, International Forum on Globalization. These will doubtless lead to dozens of others.

• Jerry Mander is the founder of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. His books include Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, In the Absence of the Sacred, and The Case Against the Global Economy (with Edward Goldsmith) and Alternatives to Globalization (with John Cavanagh)

~ by Cory Morningstar on October 16, 2010.

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