Tag Archives: capitalism

Capitalism vs. the Climate, God vs. Progressivism

8 Feb

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read recently,  “Capitalism vs. the Climate” not only points out some of the potential changes we’d have to make to avert and/or adapt to climate change, but also explains the reason that this “inconvenient truth” is being fought so adamantly by many conservatives, especially of late.

It boils down to this: perhaps climate change theory itself is not necessarily false, but acknowledging its existence would consequently recognize the steps we would have to take and changes we’d have to make to combat it — and most of these steps are anathema to conservatives, contradicting strongly held underlying beliefs and totally upending the status quo:

The [climate change] deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

But when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the Marriott Hotel may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

So in a way, Chris Horner was right when he told his fellow Heartlanders that climate change isn’t “the issue.” In fact, it isn’t an issue at all. Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.

Here is where the Heartlanders have good reason to be afraid: arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades … For hard-right ideologues like those gathered at the Heartland conference, the results are nothing short of intellectually cataclysmic.

Or a bit more simply (in this case in particular regarding the absence of any climate change talk in the 2012 presidential campaigns):

Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the issue for ideological reasons. “They believe that addressing climate change will require government action, or even worse, intergovernmental action.” [The World]

This fear has become seemingly extreme; many fear that making even the least offensive change in one’s lifestyle to cope with global warming — or especially being “forced” to make such a change, as in the plan to phase-out incandescent light bulbs in favor of objectively more efficient alternatives — is a drastic over-reach of government control, and that being “denied their right to put any lightbulb in any socket in America is just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Another group of activists has recently begun wailing about a 20-year old, non-binding UN resolution called Agenda 21, which promotes sustainable development, by “…[branding] government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.”

I think this parallels perfectly with many liberals’ fear of the social changes espoused by Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman. In their case, the issue is not nature’s threat to us, but God’s.  We’ve screwed up our social structure and are living in ways that “pollute” Christian values in a supposedly “Christian nation”. And instead of rising ocean levels, we may have an angry God to deal with. So they must fight against those pollutants: gays, abortion, sex, whatever. But liberals view this as an equally threatening drastic over-reach of religious intrusion… “just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Implementing all the ideals that people like Rick Santorum and the Catholic Church preach hold dear would require severe and drastic societal changes. (Well, I suppose I meant people like Santorum and institutions like the Church. Unless the Church is technically a corporation, since they’re people anyway)

I think the greatest difference between the practical implications of both sides has to do with this duality:  climate change would presumably affect us all. We wouldn’t have the option to escape its impacts, and they may well be devastating. While religious and social principles surely have a great impact on wider society, people have much greater choice about being following their own personal beliefs. You have the choice to live as piously as you may be inclined, regardless of what others do. Though it may be the most extreme example, the Amish have managed to exemplify this. You have the responsibility to be “in the world but not of the world”, for which you are accountable only to yourself and to God.

Additionally, while there are hundreds of religions espousing diverging theologies, there is far less diversity in interpreting data related to climate change; either humans have a hand in global warming or we don’t, though to what degree could be arguable. There are, of course, numerous ideas about what exactly we would have to do to deal with climate change or a sinful nation; deciding exactly what measures to take to address the issues we face is always a divisive issue.

And this is not to even mention the idea of separation of church and state. Of course, the exact meaning and implications of that idea could be argued. And conversely, there is the more abstract idea of absolute freedom in matters such as consumer choice that could be argued in the case of restrictive environmental regulations.

Urbanist I am, I of course would support the implementation the “climate agenda” that Klein spells out: Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere, Remembering How to Plan, Reining in Corporations, Relocalizing Production, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich and Filthy. As Joseph Bast said, combating climate change really is kind of the “perfect thing, the reason why we should do everything [I] wanted to do anyway”, namely revitalizing our towns, cities, and greater public realm in general, and working towards greater social equity. And I would venture to say that many of the goals of such action may well be right in line with religious ideals as well.

And even if you’re not totally convinced about anthropogenic climate change, better safe than sorry, right? Better to force yourself to adapt in advance than to have to deal with the surprise of whatever disaster might occur. I would argue that any short-term impacts to growth and the economy would, in the long-term, be worth it (and perhaps an ever-growing consumer economy, or the jeopardization of our long-term environmental health for short-term profit,  isn’t all that great anyway, topics I may cover at a later date).

Unfortunately, people fear change, and unless our pocketbooks really start getting squeezed — or, in this case, our coastal cities are sunk below rising sea waters, or we witness the Lord’s glorious return from heaven on a chariot of fire — I fear what will happen if the changes needed to combat issues perceived by either side come too late.