Why is it so hard for capitalism to go green?

This past Earth Day at the United Nations, leaders from around the world signed what is being called a “landmark agreement” to address the climate crisis. Without a doubt, it is a positive step forward and can help create the political momentum to address what is arguably the defining issue of this century. But as Coral Davenport noted in the New York Times when the accord was hammered out in Paris in December, “The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming.”

Scientists say the greenhouse emission targets that the parties agree to will only count for about half of what is needed to stop atmospheric temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). That’s the point where many studies say the world becomes locked into a future of rising sea levels, drought, flooding, more destructive weather patterns, and shortages of food and water.

Put simply, even if the carbon emission reduction goals laid out by the accord are met, we are still well on our way to a tipping point for global temperatures where human action will become ineffective. We should take special note as well of the non-binding character of the accord and the fact that rather than being shaped by what’s going on in the rest of the world, it had everything to do with politics here in the U.S.

As Davenport described, “[The agreement’s] hybrid legal structure was explicitly designed in response to the political reality in the United States. A deal that would have assigned legal requirements…would have been dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, where many members question the established science of human-caused climate change, and still more wish to thwart Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda.”

So in many respects, removing the main obstacle to addressing the global climate crisis rests squarely with us and, in no small degree, depends on the outcome of the upcoming presidential and Congressional elections. Though it might sound overly dramatic, with the window for action quickly closing to only a few decades, or perhaps even years, a GOP victory in November could effectively be “game over” for life as we know it.

A new relationship to nature: capitalism and the environment

As decisive as the November elections will be to our long term efforts to prevent catastrophe, we must look deeper to fully understand our inability to address this unfolding crisis. It requires a look at our carbon-based economy and the economic theories that underpin it.

Classical economic theory arose with the emergence of capitalism, with its new forms of ownership and operating principles. It reflected the interests of its leading classes as they pushed feudalism to the side. Private property, as ordained by law and not “divine right” as under feudalism, became central to economic activity, and with it emerged a new relationship of humanity to the natural world.

No longer could the ordinary citizen rely on a direct relationship to nature and the land for subsistence and development. The new economic system forced increasingly greater numbers of people to rely exclusively on wage-labor for survival. Access to and exploitation of the natural world now became the privilege of a few.

As mercantile capitalism developed into industrial capitalism with its reliance on carbon-based power and increasingly industrialized agricultural methods, the social impact of pollution and the exhaustion of natural resources was not a consideration. As Friedrich Engels noted in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man:

“In relation to nature…[capitalism] is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly opposite in character.”

Nature, in classical economic theory, was considered a “gift.” So for much of capitalism’s development, the accounting of its impact on the environment and ecology was not considered. These “free gifts” of nature were seemingly unlimited, and capitalism’s impact on the environment and ecology, though not inconsequential, was for the time being ignorable.

Economic policy and the environment

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that mainstream economic theory began to address the environmental impact of capitalist production and think about how capitalism could “go green.” The emergence of the modern environmental movement and the publication of books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson focused public awareness on growing levels of pollution, health problems associated with the use of pesticides in agriculture, and the massive amounts of industrial waste and garbage produced by the economy.

At the time, New Deal/Keynesian economic policies were prominent and the government’s role in addressing social needs and problems was an established and accepted part of political and economic life. The Clean Air Act and other regulations seeking to ameliorate the most apparent impacts of economic activity on the environment and people met with some notable success. At least in the U.S., the water and air became cleaner and exposure to toxins was reduced. Carbon emissions though – the driving force behind climate change – continued unabated and even intensified. According to David Ray Griffin in his book Unprecedented, from its 275 ppm (parts per million) atmospheric base-line before the industrial revolution, carbon “has been rising at an ever-increasing rate. Between 1958 and 1968, it rose from 316 to 324. In each of the following decades, it rose more than the previous decade. By 1978, it had risen to 336. By 1988, to 352. By 1998, to 367.”

In the 1970s though, the dominant capitalist economies again began to experience problems of slow-growth, declining profits, and instability. The profound global character of late 20th century capitalism made Keynesian responses to economic crisis insufficient. As economist Michael Yates described, “the greater interconnection among national economies, through trade in goods and services as well as various kinds of money flows, greatly reduces the expansionary effects of such a program.” Soon the legitimacy of government action was seriously challenged. Neoliberal economic thought, which came to prominence in addressing the crisis, sought to restore profits and economic growth by resurrecting the orthodoxy of the free market.

It was now argued that government policies aimed at problems like climate change should be replaced with private sector and market measures. Mainstream economic theory viewed carbon emissions and their environmental impact as “externalities,” that is, unintended side-effects from economic activity.

The problem with this view, as described by environmental economist J.E. De Steiguer, lay in “the common property nature” that it ascribed to environmental resources: “Since the oceans and the atmosphere belonged to everyone, hence to no one, they were freely exploitable.” As with any other property held in common, these economic theories predicted market failure and thus a reduction of social well-being. The logical solution then, was to “define” the rights of this common property through privatization. Only market mechanisms could account for these “externalities” of common property mismanagement.

These market-driven approaches are still the main way governments and international bodies seek to address climate change. As the Climate Conference of the International Transport Workers’ Federation concluded in 2010, “Important policy and financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund…acknowledge climate change, but…continue to promote neoliberal, trade-led globalization that has seen emissions levels accelerate in recent years.”

In fact, emissions have spiked as the consequences of the 30-plus years of neoliberal economic policies and global economic restructuring come to fruition. By the time of the 2008 economic crisis, carbon emissions reached 368 ppm, up from 1978’s measurement of 336. Only six years later, they were already at almost 400. And now, atmospheric concentrations are over 400 on a daily basis.

Confronting carbon and capitalism

It is undeniable that the recent Paris Accord is a recognition of the world’s need to address climate change, but will it be a tipping point for action? For years, perhaps decades, we have heard that the “green economy” was right around the corner. As fossil fuels became more and more expensive, market mechanisms like “cap and trade,” carbon taxes, and incentives for implementing energy efficiencies would transition us to a “carbonless economy.”

But “extreme energy,” such as fracking and other methods of extraction, has made cheap carbon-based energy available for the foreseeable future. The current glut of such energy on the market provides little to no economic incentive for a transition. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the growth of renewables as a source of total world consumption to reach only 15% by 2040.

With the climate crisis demanding radical reductions in CO2 emissions now, however, such market-driven measures offer little to get us toward that end. Clearly more than market mechanisms are needed. A consensus to dismantle the carbon-based energy industry is required.

As Sean Sweeney, director of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy has argued: “A low carbon and truly sustainable political economy will not be ‘incentivized’ into existence. Regulatory and market-based approaches – including carbon markets and taxes – have failed because they do not confront the power of the corporations and their control over energy resources, infrastructure, and markets.”

Perhaps just as profound an obstacle to action as the worshiping at the alter of markets is the faith in the gods of growth – the idea that a green economy will be a “growth” economy. The proposals of even the greenest New Dealers – the Keynesians who correctly premised their policies on the real flaws and limitations of economic markets – presume a growth economy even if it is a “green” one. But even in this age of global economic stagnation of slow growth and sagging demand, energy consumption has increased and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The contradiction between environmental sustainability and economic growth is so stark that some economists have begun to argue for a “no-growth” economy. Tim Jackson, for instance, says in Prosperity Without Growth that it is “entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies.”

The “green with growth” model becomes questionable when looked at globally as well. Rich countries like the U.S. account for 60 percent of annual emissions right now and 80 percent historically. Not to diminish the real advances toward clean energy in places like Germany and Scandinavia, but these “clean” economies are possible in no small part due to the “outsourcing” of carbon to countries like China and India. As these developing economies orient themselves towards domestic consumption, their carbon footprint will only increase.

If solving the climate crisis requires a no-growth economy, then contemporary economic theory must address some basic questions about the rights of ownership, property, and wealth. Today, 85 billionaires have more wealth than the bottom half of the earth’s population. As the majority of humanity faces a deprivation that promises to only intensify under the challenges of climate change, the logic of an economy that has the private appropriation of socially-produced wealth as its central principal seems deeply flawed.

False profits

A truly green economy would require us to, as Tim Jackson says, “revisit and reframe the concepts of productivity, profitability, asset ownership, and control over the distribution of surpluses.” In the first place, it would require an accounting of the cost to nature and future generations.

For example, a 2013 report by TruCost, commissioned by the United Nations, concluded that no major industry would be profitable (not even close) if the cost of their environmental impact was included. As much investment in energy production is premised on future assets, mainstream economics, by omitting the true cost of capitalist-oriented production to the environment, distorts capitalism’s long-term profitability. If the transition to a “green” economy requires an accounting of the costs to the natural world (how could it not?), then how can capitalism, famously described by economist K. William Kapp as “an economy of unpaid costs,” make that transition voluntarily?

Chances are good that it won’t.

And that is why the Paris Accord, though deeply flawed, is important. The agreement won’t take effect until 55 countries representing 55 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions present their formal ratification documents at the UN. That will take the determined effort of millions of people wanting to save the planet for themselves and future generations to pressure their national governments to take action.

What happens here in the United States over the next six months is of crucial importance. Just as momentum is beginning to build globally, a victory for GOP climate-change deniers in November will put on the brakes at a time when we should be stepping on the gas.


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