Eco-Capitalist Schizophrenia: Alaska

May 16, 2018 at 10:44 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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So today an article in the New York Times illustrates perfectly  the argument Richard Smith makes in Green Capitalism, the book I reviewed in my last blog post. In that article, Brad Plumer explains that while it’s been almost exclusively blue states––California, New York, etc.––that are taking the lead on policies to reverse climate change, one deep-red state, Alaska, is being forced to join the efforts.

Why?

Because the effects of climate change in Alaska are simply “impossible to ignore” even in a state that went for Trump by 51%. Among the problems confronting Alaska are the melting of the solid permafrost that holds up roads, buildings and pipelines, “destabilizing the infrastructure”; many coastal and towns and cities being forced to relocate because of melting sea ice and fierce waves eroding shores;  the increasing size of wildfires  endangering homes and roads; indigenous communities that rely on walrus hunting seeing their catches plummet as sea ice disappears, and ocean acidification endangering state fisheries.

As a result of all this, Alaska, under the leadership of its Republican governor, has formed a task force to propose specific policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Sounds good, right? So what’s the problem? As Plumer notes, while doing this, the state has to grapple with certain “deep contradictions”: 85 percent of the state budget is funded by revenues from the production of oil, which is for the most part exported to the rest of the US. The governor and lieutenant governor both strongly supported  the recent decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. So even as Alaska has cut its per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005, you may be quite sure any state measures proposed won’t include ending the exportation of Alaskan oil, since such oil basically funds the government.

The draft state proposal on climate change calls for Alaska to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal by 2025, and suggests a carbon tax as a way to get there, But the oil and gas industries absolutely oppose a carbon tax. A representative says such a tax only makes sense if it is “global.” Good luck with that.

As Green Capitalism makes clear, no industry is going to agree to any local or regional tax, because it will decrease profits; competition from industries in areas without such a tax will run the local industry out of business.  And as the industries go out of business, citizens who are losing jobs will vote the politicians who instituted the tax out of office.

So in a certain sense, Smith agrees with the analysis of the oil and gas industry. It’s his solution to the problem that’s radically different: to save the planet––and ourselves––we have to end the profit-fixated system and take action now. Waiting for a fantasy global tax to be enacted just won’t cut it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Green Capitalism

May 7, 2018 at 11:37 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 2 Comments
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The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the May issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the United States Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965.

 

Green Capitalism: The God that Failed. By Richard Smith. (UK: The World Economics Association, 2016). 172 pp. $20.98 https://www.worleconomicsassociation.org/library/green-capitalism-the-god-that-failed/

Richard Smith is an eco-socialist scholar who has worked as a sailboat-rigger and carpenter as well as a university lecturer. Green Capitalism is a collection of his articles published previously in journals. Smith spoke once at a course I was taking; he was impressive. He also has amazing hair:

In Green Capitalism, Smith argues that capitalism is the root of the environmental crisis that we are confronting because capitalism is fundamentally committed to growth, whereas the planet is fundamentally finite. If the economy keeps growing, as capitalism says it must, we will exhaust the planet.

The book’s first chapter traces the problem back to the origins of capitalist thinking at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, production was aimed at use; people made and grew what they needed, for the most part. But beginning in the 18thcentury, economists began speaking enthusiastically about the “invisible hand” that was guiding the market, the profit motive, that determined what owners would manufacture, what price to charge, what to pay workers, etc. Well-being, the common good, was no longer part of the equation. But the economists assured us that the “invisible hand” would take care of everything.

In chapter 2, Smith discusses contemporary economists who argue that “steady-state” capitalism—a capitalism that does not grow—will solve the environmental crisis. Smith shows, however, that “grow or die” is the law of capitalist survival. Without growth, for example, there’s no increase in jobs. Politicians who support changes that are crucial to planetary survival, like shutting down the coal industry or massively cutting back the production of consumer goods, get defeated in the next election; so they’re never going to support such a thing.  “Steady-state capitalism” is a fairy tale.

Chapter 3 is a critique of the thinking of “green capitalists” such as Paul Hawken and Francis Cairncross(GHG) who argue that green technology like buying electric cars, eating organic food, or passing carbon taxes is going to solve the climate crisis. The problem is that massive parts of the economy can’t be “greened” because so many of our commodities are made from fossil fuels or otherwise harm the environment. Sixty percent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) given off by automobiles are given off during the manufacturing and disposal processes, and at present, a great deal of the electricity used by electric cars is generated by coal or methane gas. The fibers in our clothes, the fertilizers in our fields, our phones, computers and televisions, all are predicated on a non-green economy. We have to change the system.

The fourth chapter expands Smith’s discussion of the jobs versus the environment conundrum introduced in chapter 2. Smith lays out the sobering links between China’s recent 8 percent economic growth and massive resource extraction there, but he does not overlook recent obscene US resource over-exploitation as well: surging home size, sales of SUVs and light trucks, flat-screen TVs and air-conditioning. Ultimately, to achieve the 90 percent GHG emissions essential to saving the planet, we have to shut down all the fossil-fuel related industries, not just reform energy production. This is so because 75 percent of GHG emissions come from industry, transportation, agriculture, and deforestation. The solution is to shift the economy from production of non-essential commodities to “caring industries”––local agriculture, universal health care, education, environmental remediation, restoring existing housing, reforestation.

Finally, in chapter 6, Smith consolidates his previous arguments into “Six Theses for Saving the Humans”:

  1. Capitalism is driving our ecological crisis.
  2. The solutions to the crisis are obvious but capitalism blinds us to them.
  3. The essential alternative is to shift to an economy that is planned globally, regionally and locally.
  4. This means people have to come together at all levels and vote on the needed changes.
  5. Such a democracy can work only if it is based on social and economic equality—food, health care, housing, education. There is already enough wealth in the world to do this
  6. These are crazy, utopian, unachievable ideas. But what is the alternative?

The trouble with Green Capitalism is that it says the same thing, over and over: capitalism is the problem. But this is also its greatest strength: by the end, we really get it: capitalism, the only economic system the Chinese communists, never mind liberal Westerners like us, live by, guarantees the destruction of the humans and most of the rest of God’s creation.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

 

The Collusion of Almost Everybody

February 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Catholicism, Climate Change | 7 Comments
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We’ve heard the word “collusion” a lot in recent months. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia? Did members of the FBI collude with the Clinton campaign? Etc., etc.

In his 2016 book, The Environmentalism of the Rich,* Peter Dauvergne details the ways in which mainstream environmental organizations have colluded, so to speak, with environment-destroying corporations. Here’s my review of that book, which appeared in the Grail’s monthly publication, Gumbo, in January:

 

At first glance, the title of Peter Dauvergne’s book could be off-putting. “Environmentalism” can sound pretty broad, or abstract, while “of the rich” surely doesn’t have much to do with people like us, right?

Actually, the title notwithstanding, Dauvergne’s book has a whole lot to do with people like us: concerned about the degradation of the natural world—God’s creation—but also necessarily up to our necks in the consumer society that is the 21st century United States—driving cars, flying in airplanes, eating processed food, buying cell phones, etc., etc., etc.

The “environmentalism of the rich,” as Dauvergne understands it, is a way of thinking and acting that has come to dominate the mainstream environmental movement in recent years. It focuses on “eco-consumerism”—favoring corporate products that are “green”—and making small life-style changes like composting, recycling, and taking shorter showers, even as overall consumption skyrockets around the world. And thanks to crack-downs since 9/11, state security agencies have suppressed many of the world’s direct action environmental movements that previously succeeded at confronting corporate and government harm and galvanizing the attention of the public.

Especially stunning in Dauvergne’s delineation of this shift from radical environmentalism to the environmentalism of the rich is his documentation of the rise of partnerships between retail corporations and mainstream environmental groups. Consider, for example, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). Already in the 1960s WWF was lobbying for stronger environmental laws, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to save endangered animals and highlighting the threats that economic development posed to wildlife. It went on to sponsor conservation projects around the world.

But in the 1990s the WWF began advocating “eco-labelling”—working with corporations like Cargill, McDonald’s and Walmart to certify various products and activities as “green.” In 2006, it began partnering with Coca-Cola to promote freshwater conservation in exchange for a $20 million donation. In 2011 Coke and the WWF launched a campaign to raise funds to conserve polar bear habitats; consumers could donate to WWF using “Coke Reward Points”; these projects are now in 50 countries. Coke revenues in 2014 were $46 billion. And it takes 150-300 liters of water to produce a half-liter of a sweetened beverage, in a world where billions of people live without adequate fresh water and obesity is sky-rocketing.

And it’s not only the WWF: The Nature Conservancy partners with Dow Chemical and Cargill; Conservation International works with Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Disney, Exxon-Mobil, McDonald’s, and Nestlé, to name only a few; while the Environmental Defense Fund also partners with McDonald’s. All of these partnerships help to fund the huge numbers of staff people needed to run environmental organizations around the world. Even Greenpeace, a group that has engaged in radical environmental protests over the years, now also engages in eco-consumer campaigns, thus helping to legitimize “the very political and corporate processes that are causing the overall rate of unsustainable consumption to escalate.”

Please do not get the impression that Dauvergne dismisses the contributions of mainstream environmental groups. Some of the best parts of the book are his stories of the achievements of those groups—protecting wilderness and animals, alerting the public to environmental dangers, and so forth. Yet ultimately, he is forced to admit, as are we, that despite these contributions, the situation of the planet is getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s going to take a lot more than the environmentalism of the rich to change it.

But that’s not all. Just after the review came out, I heard a discussion on the radio about another book–God forbid I could find the scrap of paper on which I wrote the title–about the relationships between food banks across the country and food chains like Walmart. Such mega-markets donate to the food banks and then claim they support the hungry. But something like 17% of Walmart employees are on food stamps because they’re paid to so little. Collusion ?

Then I was watching a Big East basketball game with my esteemed companion (I learned to love basketball in the Catholic schools in Philly when I was growing up.) It was a game between two Catholic universities–Marquette and maybe Xavier. During a time-out, an ad for Marquette described it as a university rooted in the Catholic faith. Quite inspiring. Then it was followed by a Jeep ad. And the game was airing on Fox, a network whose news coverage is widely recognized for its profound commitment to Catholic social teaching.

And then there’s my husband and me, with our money in Chase bank.  I mean, a Catholic university can’t be expected to pass on commercials that support its sports team that in turn supports its bottom line just because cars are a major source of the green-house gasses that are destroying the planet, can they? And should the Big East (all Catholic schools, I believe) stop using Fox, when it gives them the best deal, just because Fox commentators are racist nationalists? For that matter, should Keith and I be using some credit union when the Chase branch is walking distance and, conveniently, has more ATMs that any other bank out here in Brooklyn?

Let me conclude with a paraphrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All have colluded and fallen short of the glory of God.” The question is, how are we going to stop?

*Peter Dauvergne , Environmentalism of the Rich (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018).152 pp.  Paper. $16.95.

 

 

 

 

 

My Ambivalent Christmas

December 24, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Christmas, Climate Change | 6 Comments
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I have to confess, I am having a hard time with Christmas this year. Part of it, of course, is the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of billionaires, generals, climate change deniers and anti-labor activists to the cabinet. Not much to carol about in all this.

I am also sobered because last fall, in the perfect preparation for the Trump election, I took a course title, “Marxism, Science, and the Anthropocene,” offered by the Marist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons on Atlantic Avenue. (Anthropocene is a term used to indicate that human activity has radically altered the earth’s geological reality.)

Now to say that I had not previously thought of myself as a Marxist is to grossly understate the case, growing up as I did as a working-class American Catholic in the 1950s. Communist executions of Catholics priests and bishops in China and eastern Europe didn’t much incline us in that direction.

But the Marxism course changed all that. As a result of reading and discussing Andreas Malm, John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Jason Moore, Donna Haraway and others, I came away convinced that capitalism is the cause of climate change and the Anthropocene. The problem is the essential place of growth, especially the growth of profit, and thus infrastructure, in the capitalist system when the earth is fundamentally and irrevocably finite. The unfettered ecstasy generated by growing GDP and a rising stock market illustrates the problem pretty well.

As a result of having my imagination reconstructed around the incompatibility of capitalism and God’s creation, I have found the  consumer obscenity of the Christmas season pretty hard to swallow. Why in the name of Jesus (literally) do we buy all this stuff? Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, in which I live, even had buttons handed out to every member of the diocese half way through Advent. He requested that we all wear the buttons in the weeks remaining until Christmas. Here’s the checklist on the button:

(X) Shop

(X) Cook

(X) Go to Church

Kind of like George Bush urging us all to go shopping after 9/11.

I am trying to focus on the fact that Mary and Joseph were homeless people and that the beauty of God’s creation was a central part of the celebration of Christmas throughout Christian history. Green grow the holly and all that.

But I am also getting ready for 2017. As Mark Hertsgaard argues in the January 2—9 issue of The Nation, we’ve got to take to the streets to prevent the incoming administration, the billionaires and the fossil fuel moguls, from destroying this undeniably limited creation that the infant Jesus came to save.

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