Al Gore has done it again. His latest essay in Rolling Stone celebrates some progress in transitioning to renewable energy, applauds positive steps by the Obama administration on climate change, and gives a wide-ranging analysis of the state of the climate crisis in general.
This important essay deserves the widest possible readership, another clarion call for further transformation of global energy systems. Gore ably details many examples from around the world, both of the environmental problems we face and of the positive steps that are beginning to make a difference.
While Gore acknowledges the failures of market economies to adequately address climate change, he continues his short-sighted advocacy of regulated capitalism and “green” entrepreneurs as the solution. Along similar lines is a recent Time Magazine article on “The Green Revolution.” But the congratulations of those who want to limit environmental struggle to changing investment strategies, technological improvements and limited market regulation are premature, to say the least.
Gore has the honesty to admit “Our civilization is confronting this existential challenge at a moment in our historical development when our dominant global ideology – democratic capitalism – has been failing us in important respects.” Unlike the climate change deniers and “free market” fundamentalists, he recognizes that the unregulated market bears great responsibility for “failing to measure and include the categories of ‘value’ that are most relevant to the solutions we need in order to respond to this threatening crisis (clean air and water, safe food, a benign climate balance, public goods like education and a greener infrastructure, etc.).”
But he does not ask why the market works this way. He does not recognize that the aim of many capitalists to pollute without paying the costs is a feature of the system, not a bug – the system was designed that way.
Yet we should welcome Gore’s determined advocacy of serious reforms such as a carbon tax and other measures that address the existential crisis facing the people of the world.
While socialists and communists rightly criticize the idea that capitalism is a solution, we too have to welcome the progress being made by some capitalist countries and companies on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. This is because, while capitalism is a major cause of the environmental problems we face, humanity needs environmental change to start happening now – we can’t wait for socialism.
Gore and others argue for a transformation to “green” capitalism, a regulated, technologically-oriented capitalism that they think will help us overcome the climate crisis. Their positive outlook is achieved, in part, by limiting the discussion to one or another aspect of the general crisis in the relationship between nature and humanity. Climate change is likely the most serious example, but it is only one aspect of this crisis. It is most important because, in addition to the direct threats to humanity from global warming, it also makes all the other challenges worse.
The environmental challenges we face are not just due to the ways we produce the energy used in industry, transportation, and the heating and cooling of buildings. They include deforestation along with escalating forest fires around the globe; soil degradation causing decreasing agricultural yields at the very time humanity needs more food; the spread of persistent organic pollutants (“pops“) around the entire globe, affecting human, animal, and plant reproductive systems; ocean acidification and the collapse of many fisheries from increased warming and acidification as well as from massive over-fishing; rising sea levels threatening the very existence of some Pacific island nations as well as causing salt-water intrusion into drinking water supplies, already happening in some areas of Florida; and many more interlinked problems.
Gore notes, “[H]ow did the Republican-dominated House of Representatives respond to these grim warnings? By passing legislation seeking to prohibit the Department of Defense from taking any action to prepare for the effects of climate disruption.”
These problems as a whole are due to a serious imbalance between humans and the natural environment on which we depend. And this imbalance is mainly caused by the capitalist system of production, geared to ever-increasing production of commodities, ever expanding GDP, ever-skyrocketing profits – all incompatible with the finite world on which human quality of life depends.
We should welcome progress in transforming the energy marketplace in ways that favor renewable energy production, and welcome progress towards an international treaty to set mandatory targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction. At the same time, unless we fundamentally transform the political economy, we will be stuck on a treadmill that continues to reproduce the imbalance with nature, a threat to the quality of life of all humanity.
Photo: Al Gore speaks about sustainability at Sapphire NOW business technology conference in 2010. Wikipedia