Sunday, August 24, 2008

Letter to the editor

I write letters and responses to various editors and columnists fairly regularly, sometimes several times a week. Usually I write online, and my most common addressees are the Guardian's and the New York Times' various environmental columnists.

This is, I think, in substitute for the lack of any real time to research and write. Unity College is what Pirsig called a "teaching college" and it has all the problems of Pirsig's teaching college. (Zen, etc, Bantam edition, P 129. But before any parents reading pull their froshkids out, this is how we keep the tuition so low!).

Still, I intend to apply for a sabbatical this year to write a fairly technical book about geopolitics and macroeconomics in light of climate change and oil depletion. I'll get my chance.

In the meantime, for any of you interested in macroeconomics (a key sustainability topic), here's a recent column by Monbiot of the Guardian, and my response:

Climate change is not anarchy's football

In seeking to put politics ahead of action, Ewa Jasiewicz is engaging in magical thinking of the most desperate kind

If you want a glimpse of how the movement against climate change could crumble faster than a summer snowflake, read Ewa Jasiewicz's article, published yesterday on Comment is free. It is a fine example of the identity politics that plagued direct action movements during the 1990s, and from which the new generation of activists has so far been mercifully free.

Jasiewicz rightly celebrates the leaderless, autonomous model of organising that has made this movement so effective. The two climate camps I have attended – this year and last – were among the most inspiring events I've ever witnessed. I am awed by the people who organised them, who managed to create, under extraordinary pressure, safe, functioning, delightful spaces in which we could debate the issues and plan the actions which thrust Heathrow and Kingsnorth into the public eye. Climate camp is a tribute to the anarchist politics that Jasiewicz supports.

But in seeking to extrapolate from this experience to a wider social plan, she makes two grave errors. The first is to confuse ends and means. She claims to want to stop global warming, but she makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions. It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia, and to use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.

Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim. Everyone in this movement knows that there is very little time: the window of opportunity in which we can prevent two degrees of warming is closing fast. We have to use all the resources we can lay hands on, and these must include both governments and corporations. Or perhaps she intends to build the installations required to turn the energy economy around – wind farms, wave machines, solar thermal plants in the Sahara, new grid connections and public transport systems – herself?

Her article is a terrifying example of the ability some people have to put politics first and facts second when confronting the greatest challenge humanity now faces. The facts are as follows. Runaway climate change is bearing down on us fast. We require a massive political and economic response to prevent it. Governments and corporations, whether we like it or not, currently control both money and power. Unless we manage to mobilise them, we stand a snowball's chance in climate hell of stopping the collapse of the biosphere. Jasiewicz would ignore all these inconvenient truths because they conflict with her politics.

"Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power", she asserts, "will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the 'solution', we need a revolution." So before we are allowed to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we must first overthrow all governments and corporations and replace them with autonomous communities of happy campers. All this must take place within a couple of months, as there is so little time in which we could prevent two degrees of warming. This is magical thinking of the most desperate kind. If I were an executive of E.ON or Exxon, I would be delighted by this political posturing, as it provides a marvellous distraction from our real aims.

To support her argument, Jasiewicz misrepresents what I said at climate camp. She claims that I "confessed not knowing where to turn next to solve the issues of how to generate the changes necessary to shift our sources of energy, production and consumption". I confessed nothing of the kind. In my book Heat, I spell out what is required to bring about a 90% cut in emissions by 2030. Instead I confessed that I don't know how to solve the problem of capitalism without resorting to totalitarianism.

The issue is that capitalism involves lending money at interest. If you lend at 5%, then one of two things must happen. Either the money supply must increase by 5%, or the velocity of circulation must increase by 5%. In either case, if this growth is not met by a concomitant increase in the supply of goods and services, it becomes inflationary and the system collapses. But a perpetual increase in the supply of goods and services will eventually destroy the biosphere. So how do we stall this process? Even when usurers were put to death and condemned to perpetual damnation, the practice couldn't be stamped out. Only the communist states managed it, through the extreme use of the state control Jasiewicz professes to hate. I don't yet have an answer to this conundrum. Does she?

Yes, let us fight both corporate power and the undemocratic tendencies of the state. Yes, let us try to crack the problem of capitalism and then fight for a different system. But let us not confuse this task with the immediate need to stop two degrees of warming, or allow it to interfere with the carbon cuts that have to begin now.

Jasiewicz's second grave error is to imagine that society could be turned into a giant climate camp. Anarchism is a great means of organising a self-elected community of like-minded people. It is a disastrous means of organising a planet. Most anarchists envisage their system as the means by which the oppressed can free themselves from persecution. But if everyone is to be free from the coercive power of the state, this must apply to the oppressors as well as the oppressed. The richest and most powerful communities on earth – be they geographical communities or communities of interest – will be as unrestrained by external forces as the poorest and weakest. As a friend of mine put it, "when the anarchist utopia arrives, the first thing that will happen is that every Daily Mail reader in the country will pick up a gun and go and kill the nearest hippy".

This is why, though both sides furiously deny it, the outcome of both market fundamentalism and anarchism, if applied universally, is identical. The anarchists' associate with the oppressed, the market fundamentalists with the oppressors. But by eliminating the state, both remove such restraints as prevent the strong from crushing the weak. Ours is not a choice between government and no government. It is a choice between government and the mafia.

Over the past year I have been working with groups of climate protesters who have changed my view of what could be achieved. Most of them are under 30, and they bring to this issue a clear-headedness and pragmatism that I have never encountered in direct action movements before. They are prepared to take extraordinary risks to try to defend the biosphere from the corporations, governments and social trends which threaten to make it uninhabitable. They do so for one reason only: that they love the world and fear for its future. It would be a tragedy if, through the efforts of people like Jasiewicz, they were to be diverted from this urgent task into the identity politics that have wrecked so many movements.

And my response:

George, your handy summary of the dynamic inherent in the macroeconomic circular flow system is accurate but truncated. (Although probably helpful to explaining your objections to a lay audience.) A fuller understanding may lead to the missing answers you seek.

(But don't expect green radicals to give up on their various utopias/dystopias anytime soon, or even properly listen. It was while I was a radical, years ago, that I realized that I didn't live in a coercive state, because no-one had actually tried to coerce me out of direct action. An EF! organizer in the early 1990s, I was expecting to be surveiled, arrested, tossed in jail. None of this actually happened. That and a wise mentor and a few economics classes were enough to get me back into the system trying to fix it instead of being outside the system yelling at it.)

Back to theory:

Yes, ceteris paribus, any increase in interest (or, to use the technical term, rent) due to capital requires a concomitant increase in either the money supply or the value of goods and services. (From Marshall and Keynes, et al.) But that doesn't mean there can't be both privately held capital, and interest or rent, in a steady state economy. (From Daly). In ecological economic theory, there is sustainable product from capital, but ecological economists see capital as threefold: human, natural, and man-made capital. Generally a combination is required to produce goods, but trees and crops grow, and so there is sustainable product. There is no reason to suppose that capital rents based on natural accumulation, ie, the product of sustainable farming, fishing, sustainable industry, are not also sustainable.

Sustainability does not therefore require the abolition of private ownership.

Example and reductio: My small farm, managed sustainably, does produce value intrinsically and annually, without running down any of its kinds of capital, except perhaps the human capital embodied in its proprietor, who is not getting any younger.

Arguments that one whole kind of capital, or two, or all three, must totally be publicly (or anarchically) held and the rents publicly (or anarchically) distributed are thus specious, also easily subject to reductio ad absurdum, and by definition, totalitarian.

So, for example, the totalitarian Marxist argument that all capital belonged to the workers through the worker's state fell down when it tried to abstract the kulaks into that state. Peasant farmers with proprietorship turned out to be more productive than collectives, and it wasn't until perestroika that the USSR began to overcome massive periodic food system failures by re-empowering private farms.

Some green radicals, as you say, naively seem to want to insist that all of both man-made capital and natural capital somehow too belong by right to the collective. This notion, enacted by some new and totalitarian green law, would produce much the same effect as collectivization did in the Soviet Union. I think in most cases, Green radicals are young, and have studied too much ecology and not enough economics, and if they thought it through, they'd change their minds.

The opposite example is also instructive. Right-totalitarians here in the US argue that private property is the only rightful system. They would privatize National Parks, rivers, the air, anything that could be, they say, should be owned. Their minds are not easily changed. Luckily, Americans are not that extreme in their current infatuation with conservative politics to enact their program.

Instead, we should recognize that we can healthily allow simultaneous, multiple and overlapping systems of ownership, including some publicly held, some commons or cooperative systems, some private, and some combinations, and that there can be sustainable capital rents from these endowments, distributed also by a healthy variety of means. In other words, open pluralistic societies with corporations, partnerships, proprietary businesses and farms, coops, commons, public property, and charities.

What is the real sustainability problem is not the rent due to capital, but the growth of man-made capital at the expense of natural and human capital. We are exploiting natural capital at unsustainable rates to produce man-made capital, and the product of our natural capital endowment is beginning to decrease as a result. The way to stop this is to either reduce population, or to tax and/or outlaw unsustainable exploitation, or, preferably, do both.

The trick will be to do it in time, before the different kind of anarchy that results from unsustainable practices, particularly from climate change, spreads much further. Climate change, in combination with other ecological degradation, has already reducing carrying capacity in many African and South Asian countries, creating anarchic dystopias where the state has little power (Somalia), or the state is oppressive (Sudan).

A good start would be for all of us to commit to one-child families

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