On September 21, well over 300,000 people demonstrated in New York City against global warming and there were many other demonstrations in cities around the world. The New York march was attended by many luminaries such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio. The following day there was an even more militant march called “Flood Wall Street” where demonstrators were pepper sprayed by police and 104 people were arrested including a super hero named Captain Planet and a polar bear who was angry about the loss of Arctic ice cover. There were many other demonstrations around the world that didn’t get the publicity of the New York actions but represented a massive movement to stop carbon emissions associated with climate change. Millions of people are both angry and frightened about human induced climate change.
On September 23 the United Nations held a summit on climate change. This one was attended by 120 heads of state, a new non-governmental organization representing 500 corporations, big city mayors, and individual corporate CEOs, some of whom pledged to stop contributing to the destruction of rain forests (which absorb the global warming agent, carbon dioxide). These included both Apple and Walmart. Also, actor Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the Summit. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was leading the charge this time. But he and others made it clear that this was not intended as a “decision making meeting.” It was merely a tune up for a meeting 15 months from now in Paris called “The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
UN meetings of this sort have been going on regularly for over 20 years. In 1997 the summit in Kyoto Japan resulted in the “Kyoto Protocols,” an international treaty that placed limits on the carbon dioxide emissions of industrialized nations and some others as well. The significance of the treaty reflected the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for the warming of the planet and carbon levels are at or near the point where warming and further carbon dioxide build up become self sustaining and irreversible. The U.S., the number two carbon dioxide emitter in the world (36%), refused to ratify the treaty because many politicians felt it left China and India (number 1 and number 3 polluters) off the hook. But the fact is, as author Naomi Klein points out in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, carbon dioxide emissions since the Kyoto protocols have increased by 6%. This is the largest increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the 1990s carbon dioxide emissions increased by 1% a year. In the 2000s the rate has increased to 3.4% a year. In 2013 global carbon dioxide emissions were 61% higher than they were in 1990.
UN climate summits, even when accompanied by massive demonstrations like those last September, will not stop the onslaught of climate change as long as the present global political/economic system remains in tact. In my book New World Disorder I argue that capitalism by its very nature tends to degrade the environment. When that degradation threatens the system, public protest can and has caused the government that protects the system as a whole to step in with environmental regulations. These regulations can slow or in some cases stop the degradation process. But the capitalist system needs growth in consumption levels and energy use in order to reproduce itself. There is, I contend, a contradiction between the need to halt climate change and the needs of the capitalist system.
Furthermore, my book argues that capitalism also has an inherent tendency toward crisis, which historically has been resolved by radical reorganization of the system. The last such reorganization was developed in response to a crisis that began in the late 1960s and was fully in place by the 1980s. The first President Bush called it the New World Order. Others refer to it as globalization or neo liberalism. It moved production from industrialized nations to nations around the world, creating many more sites of energy usage and higher levels of per capita consumption. This “solution” to the 1960s crisis has increased the pace of environmental degradation through a higher level of global production and consumption and higher levels of green house gas emissions that have accelerated climate change. And we are now at a point where the growth of pollution and carbon-inducing industrial practices and global consumption levels have overrun the capacity of nature, technology and governmental regulation to clean up the mess.
The remainder of this essay is a summary of my argument that capitalism in general and the specific form of capitalism we presently live under will continue to contribute to environmental degradation in the form of climate change. And without systemic change, this will be true no matter how many demonstrations and UN summits occur.
There are many measures of environmental quality, and nearly all of them suggest that the earth is warming, resources are depleted, and pollution and waste accumulation is on the rise in many parts of the world. The Earth Quality Institute publishes data on twelve separate indicators of practices that put stress on the environment as well as indicators of environmental quality. Measures of environmental stress include the amount of carbon emissions, polar ice melt, global temperatures, grain harvest yields, and fish catches. They also measure trends in fresh water supply (levels of lakes, rivers, and water tables) relative to the draw on these sources. The Institute also keeps track of the use of alternative energy sources—wind power, solar power and bicycle production—and includes population levels and the rate of economic growth in various parts of the world.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impacts the temperature of the planet. Carbon Dioxide is a natural part of our air and absolutely necessary for survival as it keeps the planet warm enough for human survival. But energy consumption adds to the relative amount of carbon dioxide in the air (measured in parts per million, or ppm) to the extent that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. Many fear that further global warming could melt the Earth’s ice caps, releasing methane gasses that would accelerate the warming of the planet. Most climate and earth scientists seem to agree that the maximum carbon dioxide composition of the air, without further warming effects, is 350 ppm. (350 ppm is a measure of the Earth’s carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the natural ability of the Earth’s ecosystem to sustain itself.) Up until about 200 years ago the level had been stable at 275 ppm. It began to rise with the advent of industrialism and capitalism, due to increasing the use of fossil fuels for energy. We are now at 392 ppm and that number is growing at a rate of 2 ppm per year! (See www.350.org or environmentalist William McKibben’s book, Eaarth.) All of these data suggest to me an acceleration of environmental degradation that is outstripping measures taken to offset it.
I am not a trained environmental scientist, but I do have concerns about the consequences of our lack of stewardship when it comes to nature. My interest and concerns were peaked by my work with Chicago workers who were displaced by factory closings in the 1980s and 1990s, and my subsequent activism around the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), that I felt were likely to contribute to more displacement. In questioning the wisdom, and eventually opposing both NAFTA and WTO, I worked closely with organizations and individuals from the U.S. and a number of different nations. We focused our attention on labor rights and the environmental consequences of what came to be known as “free trade,” or the Washington Consensus. We tracked a number of firms that had left Chicago and moved operations to Mexico. These firms were subjecting workers to dreadful working conditions, low pay and were simply dumping toxic waste in the nearest ditch. Such abuses were widespread. As a result, the citizen coalitions around NAFTA and WTO began to demand, among other things, that firms operating under the rules of trade agreements like NAFTA and WTO should be subject to some standards of both labor rights and environmental regulations. Governments, including the U.S. Government, and industry groups like The Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Business Roundtable, fiercely resisted these demands.
Our demands for environmental and economic justice were labeled “protectionist.” It was charged that environmental and labor standards were simply a guise for keeping firms from leaving the U.S. Such protectionism, the argument went, would lead to “inefficiency” and would prevent workers in Mexico, Vietnam, Korea, China and other places from getting jobs that would raise their standard of living. These agreements were a vital part of the strategy of the New World Order. And the point of that strategy was to increase the share of profits that went to corporate owners by reducing production costs, including wages and the cost of preventing further environmental degradation. Our demands thus attacked the heart of the New World Order. I concluded that labor and environmental standards contradicted the whole point of the trade agreements.
In making our case for the need to impose standards on the newly mobile firms, fellow economists were no help at all. In, fact a group of well-known economists published a full-page ad in the New York Times supporting NAFTA and WTO and denouncing opponents and advocates of labor and environmental standards. That got my attention. These economists were influenced by the branch of economics called “environmental economics,” and their approach has influenced the profession as a whole. Economists have been highly supportive of the entire New World Order project. The field of economics generally, including environmental economics, bases much of its analysis on a hierarchy of concerns. At the top of the heap is efficient production. Efficiency, in this context, means the lowest possible cost of each item produced. The next step down the ladder is consumption: how to get people in the economy to buy the stuff that is efficiently produced. The third rung down the ladder is the condition of the people; last and certainly least is nature.
In fact, to most mainstream economists, the function of the three bottom rungs of their ladder of concerns is to serve an economy based on efficient production. A healthy economy is one in which output grows. Growth in total output, measured as gross domestic product (GDP), is considered a key indicator of whether economic policy is working properly. Analytically, most economists consider the economy to be an “open system” operating outside of nature. Such an analysis begins with the notion of a circular flow of economic activity. Businesses produce stuff and pay workers wages and salaries. These incomes flow to households and other businesses that buy stuff from the businesses, passing the income back. The vicious circle continues indefinitely, getting larger and larger (economic growth). Theoretically there are no limits to how much an economy can grow. The only things that can limit growth, in this view, are excessive regulation, taxes paid to government and not enough income for people to buy the stuff produced. Government policy is directed at these stumbling blocks. Environmental regulation is secondary to economic growth.
While debating those who supported the trade agreements, it often struck me that scattering production around the world accomplishes two things. First, production becomes more “efficient” by lowering the costs of labor and environmental regulation. Secondly, by making factory workers out of those subsisting on family farms in countries such as Mexico, India and China, the system as a whole can increase consumption levels. The U.S. has the highest levels of per capita consumption in the world. A goal of the New World Order strategy to save capitalism is to bring other nations’ levels of per capita consumption up to that of the U.S. And many economists seem to feel that this would be just fine. Environmental economists believe in encouraging growth with minimum regulations using environmental friendly technologies. But, I discovered, there is an alternative view.
A number of economists, biologists, physicists and other scientists concerned with environmental degradation have developed a very different way of examining the relationship of the environment to the economy. They call it ecological economics. (See the work of Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics.) These economists begin their analysis by observing that the economy is surrounded and contained by the ecosystem in which we use solar-based energy to create things we need to live on—food, housing, clothes, etc. The process of living and consuming creates pollution and waste that can be absorbed by the ecosystem and rendered harmless. Oxygen in lakes and rivers, for example, can break down many organic pollutants. Garbage can be composted and turned into soil. But there is a limit to how much the ecosystem can absorb in a given period of time. Ecological economists make it clear this limit is the earth’s “carrying capacity.” If pollution and waste are discharged at a rate that exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity, environmental degradation in the form of polluted air and water, acid rain, global warming etc. can occur. Herman Daly has cited three factors that can lessen (or accelerate) such degradation. They are population, consumption per person, and technologies that can reduce the degrading impacts of the growth of population and per capita consumption.
Ecological economists make it clear that there are limits to economic growth. This puts them at odds with those who practice environmental economics. The latter seek to lessen negative environmental consequences using both technologies like solar and wind power, smoke stack scrubbers and institutionalized market incentives such as carbon emission trading. The mainstream approach of environmental economics seeks to enable the economy to grow without inhibiting population growth, per capita consumption, and without regulations that cannot be justified by a cost benefit analysis that assumes efficient production.
I find the approach of ecological economics persuasive. The idea that there are ecological limits on economic growth seems to be born out by the science we have at our disposal. Most scientists agree, for example, that putting carbon dioxide into the air more quickly than the sun can clean it up has negative consequences for our climate. Certain mining processes deplete resources faster than they can be naturally replaced, and they generate pollutants that poison streams and water tables. Industrial fishing can deplete fishing stocks faster than natural growth can occur. Large-scale farming can and has depleted soil productivity and led to soil erosion. Putting sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air by burning coal and running gas-guzzling cars and trucks has created acid rain that is harmful to forests, many plants and fish. But capitalism requires every firm to produce on an expanded basis and at the lowest possible cost. Economic growth requires expanded consumption for each person in society. So there is a contradiction between the health of the environment and the capitalist system.
Historically the worst impacts of that contradiction have been improved or lessened by various government regulations. But the New World Order strategy to save capitalism has heightened the contradiction. Changes in manufacturing technology, transportation technology, mobile financial capital, and the creation of a “free trade” regime combined to break up the manufacturing process and scatter it around the world. Because production was no longer concentrated in industrial nations like the U.S., the task of regulation became international.
The industrial and financial elites and their governments successfully resisted efforts to place any meaningful environmental restrictions on the movement of industrial development. In fact, a number of trade agreements contained clauses that gave firms the right to sue nations that enacted regulations that raised production costs. As a result, there have been a number of successful suits against nations with environmental regulations that reduced company profits. These have been litigated in international tribunals that are outside of the reach of any nation state.
The New World Order logic has run head-on into the warnings of environmentalists and the adherents to ecological economic research. The result has been political wrangling in a number of nations over whether global warming is natural or man made, whether we can prove the droughts, storms and melting polar ice caps are due to specific environmental practices or are natural. There is a push to squeeze more oil out of sand and shale, engage in environmentally risky drilling (fracking), and use so-called “clean coal,” etc. Meanwhile, per capita consumption in nations like China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Brazil are rising and industrial nations continue to resist significant limits on carbon emissions. Global warming, polluted water and air and bulging land fills are evidence that the limits of economic growth in this New World Order have been surpassed.
October 6, 2014