Monday, March 9, 2015

Eine Klein Nachtmusik

Naomi Klein's new polemic, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is being serialized in the Guardian. I'm fascinated by this, not so much because I agree with Klein, but because the Guardian is allowing comments, and these particular comments constitute a wealth of qualitative data related to current public perceptions of the climate problem. They include interesting passages from Americans, Europeans, and of course the Guardian's British compatriots.

Consider the second installment here, which currently has around 750 comments. Many of them are in reaction to Klein's indictment of market fundamentalism, an indictment I tend to agree with, although I disagree with the remedy she proposes, which is essentially to deeply revise the pro-capitalist polity that underlies the fundamentalist approach.

Others, reminiscent of language I've heard from our local chapters of Occupy and Earth First! and other more home-grown radicals, are more supportive of her program, which so far in the serialization is implied to be some level of re-collectivization of the economy.

Good luck with that, in today's political climate!

But what I find most interesting is how Klein has managed to stimulate the debate. You have to give her credit.

Klein is not an economist of any stripe, not even a competent political economist, and I doubt she would claim to be such. But she has managed to start a discussion we should have been having all along, which is, if climate change is so bad, what kind of polity will we need to fix it?

The answer, as I gave in my recent Fishbowl talk here at Unity College, is that we will eventually need an ecological economic polity.

But, as I also mention, we don't have time to get one.

Getting to a political system that provides fairly and legally for the very strong boundaries to economic activity needed to protect the world's great ecological systems and cycles will take decades, and huge amounts of science and political science education, that we just don't have time for right now. I want to get there, believe me, but we're nowhere near right now, and the conservative nature of the current electorate all over the democratic world will prevent us from getting anywhere near in time to manage the climate crisis using such a system. Instead we'll have to muddle through with the system we have. Which, unfortunately for Klein, means harnessing those capitalist markets she so thoroughly despises.

But the reason why we have to do this is also right in Klein's own essay. She describes clearly how the collapse of communism in the early 1990s led to global market integration and a vast increase in consumption all around the planet. She's critical of such things, and seems to want to go back to the more austere world of collectivist wartime rationing and "Victory gardens" my grandparents described.

Victory gardens are all well and good. My grandad, a WWI and WWII veteran taught me to grow them, and I grow a pretty good one every year. It's a fund hobby, and I recommend it. I even run a pig club, another wartime agricultural idea. But to go back to those days of collectivist austerity en masse would throw millions of people into poverty all around the world, resulting in a vast reaction against such a policy. It's a non-starter.

While harnessing the massive strength of those markets in an all-out capitalist drive to energy efficiency and renewable energy wouldn't be so recessionary. Indeed, it would likely enhance economic growth in the short term, because the decentralized nature of renewable energy and energy efficiency gains means that they are not so easily aggregated and concentrated as fossil energy profits are. The decentralized capitalism of renewable energy and energy efficiency is a threat to the centralized capitalism of the fossil elites, but it's a stealth threat, not an overt threat. And it can't be controlled through politics, at least not easily.

In the long term, even if we were to fix the climate crisis, another ecological crisis will come down the same road (likely one of these nine) and eventually, after another such crisis, or another, we will begin to realize we  need an honest-to-goodness ecological economics and a polity that supports such an economics.

But that will take a lot more time than we have.

Here's my Fishbowl, by the way. The slides are here, while the video is below.

Applying Realism to Climate Policy Presented by Prof. Mick Womersley Feb. 26th 2015 from Quimby Library Unity College on Vimeo.

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